Highway 1

This doesn’t have much to do with Kauai, but someone asked about California Highway 1 and I had written this for a friend a while ago. In a way, the California coast is similar to Kauai because you have a long stretch of road wedged between the hills and coastline, with lots of towns, side roads, trails, and beaches to explore. The major difference is that it’s warm enough on Kauai for swimming at the beaches.

I used to live in San Jose and explore the coast a lot. I highly recommend the drive, but some sections are better than others. Depending on where you start and how much you want to do, here are my recommendations:

  • If you start in the city of San Francisco, go through the Golden Gate park to Ocean Beach and head south to eventually join up with Hwy 1 near Pacifica. Devil’s Slide is after Pacifica, and it’s really not a big deal when the road is open.
  • Unless you want to see the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Reserve, take 92 inland from Half Moon Bay and turn south on Skyline Drive (35). There are places with great views of the Bay and Silicon Valley. Follow signs to Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Santa Cruz. You’ll go through some quirky little communities in the forests. This is slower than the coast, but a much less seen part of the Bay Area.
  • If you’re pressed for time, you can also skip the coast/skyline here and take 280 (“world’s most beautiful freeway”) south to 17 and “over the hill” to Santa Cruz.
  • Santa Cruz and its suburbs to the south are funky “little” coastal communities and a good place to stop for a meal by the wharf, but not really the Hwy 1 experience. South of Santa Cruz isn’t much of an experience either, Hwy 1 is pretty much a freeway to Monterey.
  • Monterey is again a nice town with some history (old plaza and first capital of CA, cannery row), as is Carmel (beautiful mission church), but there’s a lot of tourist fluff. The aquarium is very nice, but it will take at least half a day to get your money’s worth. The 17-mile drive at Pebble Beach is not worth your money unless you’re out of time and won’t see the same beautiful coast for free further south.
  • South of Monterey is where the “classic” Hwy 1 begins. There are no “escape routes,” or rather they are even slower, but this is the most scenic part anyways.
  • A few miles south of Monterey is Point Lobos State Reserve, the best place to explore the coastal rock formations and tidal pools. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston got their inspiration here (I just found other photos here). If you get out of the car just once, I would vote for here.
  • South of Point Lobos is the oft-photographed Bixby Creek Bridge (though that wikipedia photo doesn’t do it justice). There are also many turnouts along the highway to stop for the many views.
  • I don’t know much about Big Sur, other than the bakery (and cafe) along the road used to be very good. The town is crowded in the summer so we never bothered checking it out. There are trail up the canyons to natural hot springs, but they’re crowded too and we never tried to go there.
  • From Big Sur to San Simeon and Hearst Castle, it is a long 65 miles of scenic driving on a rugged coast with few services. If you have the time, there are a few side roads to explore or trails if you want to get out of the car and get a different view of the area:
    • At Julia Pfeiffer-Burns State Park (not the Pfeiffer State Park in Big Sur), walk on a trail under the highway to see a pretty waterfall splashing directly onto the beach.
    • The Nacimiento-Fergusson road winds its way up into the hills for some nice views. It does connect to 101 inland, but it is much smaller and more deserted than Hwy 1.
    • 4 miles beyond the Nacimiento-Fergusson road is Prewitt Creek and a little hamlet called Gorda. There is a trail that starts at the tiny ranger station and climbs up the grassy hillside for some views. Turn around when the trail heads back into the valley.
    • Salmon Creek is 13 miles further and has a short hike up the valley to some waterfalls among huge boulders and Bay trees (a fragrant relative of the bay leaf spice).
  • Hearst Castle is a must if you have a half-day to spare, it’s another tycoon-plunders-Europe-to-build-an-American-chateau, but it’s pretty and the Hollywood stories are interesting. It is popular and you probably need to reserve your tour ahead of time.
  • Cambria is the little artist’s town to the south of Hearst Castle. It has a nice mainstreet with lots of tourist shops. I wasn’t that impressed because like many places, it’s hard to find the character of a place in the 2 hours you spend on Main street.
  • Morro Bay a bit further south seemed more authentic, and it has a nice big rock in the middle of the bay. From there it’s a short drive inland to San Luis Obispo.

For lodging, there’s nowhere to stay between Big Sur and Cambria, except for a few state campgrounds and a tiny lodge in Lucia with a small roadside restaurant. And since Big Sur and Cambria are small, they are expensive and easily full in the summer. Even in bigger towns like Santa Cruz, Monterey and Morro Bay you would probably need reservations during the summer.

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© 2020.


  1. Darren says:

    Thanks for the info, we’ll definitely add it to our travel documents.

  2. Lisa says:

    Devil’s Slide has slid again, due to all the rain we’ve been getting here in California.

    Highway 1 is closed from Montara to Pacifica, and there’s no estimate of a date for reopening.

  3. Louise says:

    Just a note about Devils Slide, don’t know when it opened up (a couple of months ago?) but it’s definitely open now, Oct 2006.

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