California Road Trip on Highway 1: Four Spots You Can’t Miss
California driving. Image by Steven Ladavich.
Highway 1 is legendary. It’s that snaking route that runs down California’s coastline, offering spectacular sights and amazing opportunities to discover a bit about what makes California a dream destination for so many.
This Labor Day weekend my boyfriend and I set off on an epic road trip from San Francisco to San Diego and back. I won’t dive into the multitude of things you should do in San Francisco (I’ll let Beth do that), but it’s a city you should definitely see once in your life.
With one day to drive from Santa Clara to Malibu (where we would stay for the night) and a tour scheduled at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, we decided to take a laid back attitude toward time, adding things where we wanted and cutting them when the need arose.
Really, that’s the best way to take a road trip. You can’t plan for car sickness (something I unfortunately experienced) or traffic, so keep it easy.
If you’re thinking about taking the same route South that we did or you’re just looking for some sights to see in CA, check out what’s below!
While you may think it’s a little ridiculous to pay $10 to drive through rich people’s backyards, the views are hard to beat. Because my boyfriend and I arrived around 7:30 am, the beaches were wild and windswept, with cold gusts blowing in off the water and the rocks.
And because we took the driving “tour” on a Friday, traffic was much better than what I’ve heard it can be on a Saturday in the summer.
17-Mile Drive winds its way through world-renowned Pebble Beach golf course and then through a neighborhood of extreme wealth. Don’t worry about getting off course; the path is marked by red dashes down the center of the road.
Whether you take the drive for the scenes of nature or you like to keep a tally of how many of the mansions include towers, you won’t be disappointed by a leisurely journey on 17-Mile Drive.
Give yourself 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how often you want to stop.
Bixby Bridge and Natural Wonders
Bixby Bridge doesn’t have the same level of name recognition as the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s almost as impressive. Suspended between two cliffs like a child’s art project, the bridge floats among the clouds.
Bixby Bridge. Image by Melinda Clemmer.
But don’t think Bixby Bridge is the only spectacular sight you’ll see along Highway 1. Big Sur is another popular destination, but from towering Redwood trees and lush forests to lone rocks reaching up from the water to the sky, the whole (long) drive is full of moments that will take your breath away.
The view from one of Highway 1’s many vista points. Image by Steven Ladavich.
If you’re driving with a friend, take turns behind the wheel so that you both have equal opportunity to marvel at the steep drops down to the foaming ocean. And you both experience braving the hairpin turns that will make your stomach clench.
Hearst Castle (San Simeon)
After more than four hours of straight driving from San Francisco, you’ll be ready for a break in San Simeon. While my boyfriend and I didn’t get an opportunity to see the elephant seals, there are lookouts available so you can snap pictures of them sunbathing from a safe, but close, distance.
Our primary destination in San Simeon was Hearst Castle, newspaper man William Randolph Hearst’s “little ranch house.” It is anything but.
The front of Hearst Castle. Image by Melinda Clemmer.
A bus from the visitor’s center takes you to the peak of the mountain, upon which the 165-room mansion sits. The road was designed by Hearst’s female architect (notable at the time of construction) to wind in such a way that visitors catch glimpses of the house and then lose it among mountains and clouds, all the while maintaining a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean below.
The house itself and its gardens were stunning, filled with artifacts from hundreds of years ago that Hearst incorporated seamlessly. In addition to his own airport, the property once laid claim to the largest privately owned zoo. Sheep descended from Hearst’s original herd from Africa still roam the hills, as do cattle and zebras.
Just one of Hearst’s elaborate pools, drained because of the drought. Image by Melinda Clemmer.
You can choose from three different tours, each of which costs $25. We were disappointed that the Grand Rooms tour only took us through about five rooms and then a self-guided walk in the garden, adding up to $5 per room.
Also, weary road-trippers in need of bathrooms should seek them elsewhere. At least during this drought, one of the worst in California history, the bathrooms have been shut down and replaced with portable toilets. Small stalls sitting in the sun used by thousands of tourists? Enough said.
After skipping Santa Barbara due to car sickness (That’s where being flexible comes in handy!), we made it to Malibu, where we would rest our heads for the evening.
The Malibu Country Inn was kind enough to offer us a free night’s stay in a Deluxe Garden View room (read our disclosure statement here) that came with…wait for it…our own private Jacuzzi!
The Inn is set up a very steep driveway against the side of a mountain. Most of the rooms have private entrances, their doors surrounded by lush vines and lovely pink flowers. It has a cottage-y, secluded feel; great for two people looking to get away for a while.
The main office of the Malibu Country Inn. Image by Melinda Clemmer.
The adorable entrance to our room at the Inn! Image by Melinda Clemmer.
Our room was crisp and homey, with dark hardwood floors, a welcome alternative to the usual suspect hotel carpeting. Besides a small private deck and Jacuzzi, it featured a queen-size bed; small gas fireplace; mini fridge; large, wall-mounted television; and a clean bathroom. While there was WiFi available, it was patchy, consistently requiring us to re-enter the login information.
A lovely sight after a day at the beach. Image by Melinda Clemmer.
Just a walk away from the Malibu Country Inn is Westward Beach. After unpacking our things, my boyfriend and I slipped into our flip-flops and enjoyed watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, feeling accomplished after a day of road-tripping.
Westward Beach at sunset. Image by Melinda Clemmer.
Toes in the surf. Image by Melinda Clemmer.
Because southern California is famous for its sushi, we tried out a place recommended by the Malibu Country Inn, Bui Sushi. Tucked into a strip mall next to a CVS, the inside of Bui Sushi is hip. My spicy tuna roll, my boyfriend’s spider roll, and our shared avocado roll were fresh and delicious, a real treat for the taste buds.
Bui Sushi is a hit with young and old alike. Image by Melinda Clemmer.
Upon returning to the Inn, we checked in with Kurt, who was manning the front desk. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the toothpaste we so desperately needed, which made me wonder what standard extras the Inn does carry. He did generously offer us a room upgrade, which we declined because the Jacuzzi was calling to us.
It should be noted that the Inn does not serve breakfast, but Kristy’s is right next door, just a walk across the parking lot; it’s open early and serves a view of the ocean along with fresh fruit for breakfast.
While chatting with Kurt, we learned that about half of the Inn’s visitors are foreign. I asked him why, and he noted that they have “this idea” about Malibu, that it’s someplace special.
As we soaked in the warmth of the Jacuzzi, the cool night all around us, it certainly felt like we had found someplace special.
As two people originally from the northeastern United States, our road trip down Highway 1 opened our eyes to an entirely new and stunningly beautiful part of the country. Whether you’re a California native or hail from elsewhere, whether you can take the time to drive the length of Highway 1 or you’re only briefly visiting, the stops above are certainly worth considering.
Where would you love to take a road trip? Share in the Comments below!