California Coast Highway 1 Ventura to Santa Cruz (Updated 2013)


     A drive along the beautiful California coast will not only give you a sense of how large our state is, but will open your eyes to a part of California so magnificent yet so obscure. A coastline so remote, I would bet most Americans aren’t aware that it exists. We took the drive up Hwy 1 in 2010 as a family vacation. Let me tell you that I was absolutely floored when my 14 year old son told me that it was the best vacation he had ever been on. Surprisingly, when I look back, we really didn’t do a whole lot in the way of activities but the sights we took in and the time spent together will stay in our memories forever. We just completed this trip again in 2013 going up and then down the coast and we saw even more wildlife and new vistas.

Solvang (click to enlarge)

     We started our trip by spending the night off the 101 fwy in Ventura, California. This way we could hit the ground running because just about everything after Ventura is scenic. We started out around 8am driving up the 101. Its steep hills run right up from the roadway between Ventura and Santa Barbara. This is an area where the land is always on the move with mud and rock slides. It’s easy to see with the steep unprotected hills which appear to run right into the ocean. At Santa Barbara we decided to take a change of course and cut up through the hills on hwy 154 towards Lake Cachuma. If your lucky Santa Barbara will be socked in with fog as there is nothing like driving up into these hills and rising out of the fog to see the bright sunshine and the blanket of fog you left behind. Its like flying in an airplane and breaking through the clouds. The hills here are rolling and covered with grass and cattle ranches.  You will then pass Lake Cachuma with its blue water contrasting against the amber brush which surrounds it. Up ahead is the small town of  Santa Ynez. There we turned left on Mission Drive (hwy 246), which goes right through the famous danish town of Solvang. If you have ever been to Solvang, you know you can’t drive through without stopping. We stopped for an hour or so and walked through the danish shops and bakeries, and took several pictures of the dutch architecture. We purchased some pastries and a coffee for the road and we were back at it. Shortly after Solvang we rejoined the 101. Our detour complete, we headed north towards our jumping off point- San Luis Obispo. Knowing access to cheap gas was far and few between on the coast, we decided to fill up on $4 gas.

Morro Bay (click to enlarge)

      Soon after we left we were greeted by Morro Rock which dominates the landscape in and around Morro Bay. If you stop here there are kelp beds galore where sea lions can be seen darting in and out of the water. If you are lucky you may spot a sea otter cracking open shells on his belly as he eats.
     We kept heading north and the scenery just got better and better. Soon you come to the quaint town of Cambria with its little shops and small town charm. Cambria is just about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it feels like you’re a world away. Its a good place to catch your breath and take in the site of the coast. 6 miles north of Cambria and we come to San Simeon which is home to legendary Hearst Castle. The castle formally built by William Randolph Hearst is a marvel of architecture who’s design was inspired by European castles. There you can see antiquities that date back to 800 B.C.

Elephant Seals (click to enlarge)

     As you head past San Simeon, you will find numerous places to pull over and take in the wondrous coastline. This includes great places to see Elephant Seals, like the Piedras Blancs rookery located 7 miles north of San Simeon. Elephant seals beach themselves here to molt, or grow new skin before heading out thousands of miles into the open ocean. During these molting seasons it’s a great opportunity to take photos of these huge seals which can get as long as 16 feet and weigh up to 6500lbs.
     If you are lucky you may even see one of about 80 or so Zebras that roam the 70,000 acre Hearst cattle ranch which runs several miles north of Hearst Castle. These Zebras were left to roam among the cows when the Hearst Castle zoo was closed in 1937.

Hearst Zebra can be seen from the highway
California Condor

     Something you will want to see along the coast are the numerous waterfalls from creeks feeding the Pacific. One in particular is the McWay Falls. It spills out directly onto the beach, and is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. There are many trails inside the park and one leads to the McWay Falls. The area is covered in forest with streams and small waterfalls along the road. Farther north is Big Sur, where you can camp outdoors or in cabins among the redwood forests. There are many hiking trails in the area that lead from the waters’ edge all the way up to Cone Peak, which at 5,155 ft is the tallest coastal peak in the contiguous United States. 

Bixby Bridge

      After Big Sur the road gets windy as you make your way in around the rocky coast line. There is frequent road construction due to the nature of the terrain in this section so be ready for a slow go for 10 miles or so. Stop often to view the awesome beauty of the Pacific as there are picture spots at every turn. One of the best though is the famed Bixby Bridge. It curves from one cliff to the next connecting Big Sur to civilization farther north. There is a large turn out on the north side of the bridge and many trails going down so you can get a good look at the beach, bridge and mountains in the background. Be very careful on the trails though because its a couple hundred feet to the rocky beach below if you fall. The water in the sheltered cove below looks like something you would see in the Caribbean with clear greenish blue water surrounding off shore rocks washing up on a white sand beach. The views here are some of the best in California. 

Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach
     After Bixby Bridge, civilization comes back in view and you have just completed over a hundred miles through some of the most desolate parts of California. Now we come to the small town of Carmel where you can walk around the nice shops and eat a nice meal at one of Carmel’s many restaurants. Take the kids down to one of the beaches and check out the many tide pools. Next door to Carmel is Monterey, home of the famous 17 mile drive. It is proclaimed as the most scenic drive in the world. Here you can get closer than ever to rugged coastline going through Pacific Grove and the world famous Pebble Beach golf course. There witness the majestic rocky coast while walking along tide pools with the ocean mist in your face. You could spend a day here alone and you will not want to leave. Another attraction you won’t want to miss is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one of the largest aquariums in the world-  6th largest to be exact. Check out the aquariums largest exhibit dubbed “Open Sea” with a 90 foot viewing window holding back a million gallons of life sustaining sea water.

Sea Otter in Santa Cruz

     From Monterey Bay its a quick 30 minute trip up to Santa Cruz where you can find many things to do. There’s a boardwalk with amusement park rides,  a great beach to relax on, and kayak rentals for the adventurous. Santa Cruz is a great place to stay, as it is centrally located to many attractions including the Big Basin Redwoods, which are a short half hour drive away. Just over the hill is San Jose and the famous Winchester Mystery House. Natural Bridges State Park is located at the north end of Santa Cruz. Go to Lighthouse Point Park to get pictures of sea lions on the rocks. For more about the Santa Cruz area visit my post at Jdub’s Unforgettable Drive, California State Route 17 San Jose to Santa Cruz
     As always, thanks for reading and I hope you can go and make your own memories on California’s coast. 

     To see more pics visit my Sea Otter, Sea Lion, and California galleries. Thank You for visiting!!!

Sea Lions at Lighthouse Point Park, Santa Cruz