USA Road Trips: The Pacific Route

Thick fog covering Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Photo: Radoslaw Lecyk/Shutterstock
Thick fog covering Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Photo: Radoslaw Lecyk/Shutterstock

Today’s California Highway 1 has a history that is comparable with its more famous companion, Route 66. Until 1909, it had been a narrow, bumpy, dirt-surfaced track on which horse-drawn wagons and primitive autos competed for space. Then a concrete and macadam road began stretching north from the cities of San Diego and Oceanside. This new road stimulated the rise of a phenomenon known as “car culture,” epitomized in sunny California, which spawned all the enterprises that subsequently came to be associated with travel along the highway, such as gas stations, car dealers, motels, diners, and auto laundries.

Pacific Route

The highway led visitors from all parts of the Pacific Coast to San Diego’s Balboa Park for the 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition, enticed Hollywood movie stars and others to its pristine beaches, and lured those in search of a good time during Prohibition to Mexico’s Tijuana.

In 1925, the road officially became US 101. Increased traffic spelled its doom, however, and by the end of the war a new four-lane highway, eventually to become Interstate 5, bypassed the old route. Today, the Pacific Coast Highway, often abbreviated to “PCH,” and also known as El Cabrillo Trail, is a sometimes-scrappy, often sea-scented mixture of the old US 101, California Highway, and roaring Interstate 5. We have followed it here as faithfully as possible, stopping off at breathtaking sites like California’s Big Sur and taking in the major Californian centres of Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as sometimes diverting inland and away from its charms to visit the vibrant northern cities of Portland and Seattle. Along the way there are quaint Victorian-era towns, wineries, giant redwoods, romantic windswept beaches and historic sites to savour.

The Pacific Coast Highway’s villages and towns – as well as much of its old structure – are still here, and for those who have time, and a romantic desire to reclaim an earlier America, following Highway 1 and historic 101 along to Seattle is a great pleasure.



Places to see along the way

San Diego

San Diego is a busy, elegant harbour town with a history unsurpassed in the state of California. Here’s a list of the not-to-be-missed attractions:

• Mission San Diego (1769) offers a peaceful sanctuary with fragrant gardens.

• Old Town State Historic Park preserves the site of the original settlement where Spanish soldiers and their families lived until the early 1800s. Its historic adobe structures now house interesting small museums and shops, offering a glimpse of California as it was in the Spanish, Mexican, and early American periods.

• From Dixieland jazz to haute cuisine, the old, restored Gaslamp Quarter offers some of the city’s best entertainment and nightlife, as well as interesting Victorian architecture.

• In the heart of San Diego, 1,200-acre (490-hectare) Balboa Park is San Diego’s major cultural destination, with 17 museums, theaters, beautiful gardens and art galleries, not to mention the landmark San Diego Zoo.

• La Jolla (pronounced “la-hoy-ya”) is a seaside community that once boasted “the richest zip code in America.” This college community and upscale town has beautiful homes and a downtown area – which calls itself “the village” – filled with expensive shops, as well as a branch of San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Los Angeles

Sun-drenched beaches, Hollywood celebrities, fabulous food, blockbuster theme parks… La La land is a vast metropolis with many identities and many cities within one.

A huge, sprawling city of 18 million people, Greater Los Angeles is California’s biggest city and a metropolis with multiple (and often opposing) personalities. There’s the MOCA’s modern art and the cliff-side Getty Center, innovative fine dining from celebrity chefs and street-side food carts, slick clubs and hipster dives, and designer Rodeo Drive and tiny vintage shops. Movie buffs can soak up Hollywood and television show tapings, while beach lovers have plenty to keep them busy: from the exclusive Malibu colony to the roller-blading boardwalk of Venice, Los Angeles wouldn’t be Los Angeles without its photogenic beaches. A forward-looking city from the start, Los Angeles has been a mecca for the young and hopeful since the 1950s, and it is still a magnet for the adventurous, for those seeking to begin a new life, and especially those looking to become a star or at least see one.


From star spotting to designer shopping – discover more in our Los Angeles travel guide


Santa Barbara

In Santa Barbara, following a destructive 1925 earthquake, the city’s policy of rebuilding in Spanish Colonial−style architecture – white-washed adobe, red-tiled roofs, and iron grillwork – has created one of the most beautiful cities on the California coast. Largely, that’s due to its unique geography, which juxtaposes the soaring, east-west-trending Santa Ynez Mountains with wildlife-rich beaches beneath steep cliffs, the sparkling waters of the Santa Barbara Channel, and a moneyed, laid-back lifestyle.

The 1782 Mission Santa Barbara ( may have one of the best locations of any California mission: at the start of the lush foothill drive known as the Riviera. Nearby is the tiny Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (, which has an excellent Chumash tribe artifact collection and a huge blue whale skeleton outside. A satellite, the Ty Warner Sea Center, is an aquarium located down on historic Stearns Wharf, at the bottom of State Street. Nearby Santa Barbara Harbor is the spot to enjoy fresh-off-the-boat seafood.

Big Sur

The 94-mile (151km) stretch of coastline between San Simeon and the Monterey Peninsula is known as Big Sur, a legendary wilderness of holistic healing retreats and remote homesteads inhabited by third-generation pioneers. The area was barely accessible to traffic until 1937, and even now the sheer cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains hugged by the highway occasionally slide into the sea, leaving residents in complete isolation until the road is rebuilt.

The dark, thicketed mountains rise steeply to the right; the foamy sea to the left constantly changes shape and color. Only the two-lane road separates the two, which means the curling ribbon of road has its own distinct weather pattern. Driving here is not for the faint-hearted, but for those with a sense of adventure and time on their side, this stretch of the California coastline is one of the most exhilarating routes in the US. 

Until 1945, Big Sur was mainly populated by ranchers, loggers, and miners, but soon after began to attract writers. The Henry Miller Memorial Library ( preserves works by and about the world-famous author, who called the area “the face of the earth as the creator intended it to look.”

North of Big Sur is the area’s crowning man-made achievement, Bixby Bridge. Spanning the steep walls of Bixby Canyon and often obscured by fog, the bridge was called an engineering marvel when it was constructed in 1932.


Planning to stay in Big Sur? See recommended places to stay in our California travel guide


Driving over Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco


San Francisco

San Francisco is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, vibrant, and diverse cities on the planet. Sitting like a thumb at the end of a 32-mile (50km) peninsular finger, this city of seven hills is surrounded by water on three sides and blessed by one of the world’s great natural harbors. It is joined to the mainland by two acknowledged masterpieces of bridge design and construction, including the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge that glitters at night, often blurred by a blanket of fog. Icons abound: visit the original Beat enclave of North Beach and 1960s anti-establishment hub Haight-Ashbury, discover the Castro’s gay community or explore the Latin American-meets-hipster district of the Mission. And don’t forget a boat trip to windswept Alcatraz.



Beyond the iconic San Francisco – the grand bridges, rattling cable cars, and barking sea lions – the city has far more depth than you might expect from a city only 49 sq miles (127 sq km) in area. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of Downtown, but there are over a dozen distinct and wonderfully original neighborhoods to explore, each with its own appeal. And whether it’s innovative cuisine, fine art, classical music, contemporary dance, sprawling parks, or boisterous street festivals you’re after, you will be sure to find it.


For maps, walking routes and alternative things to do, see a selection of San Francisco travel guides

San Francisco architecture


Sonoma and Napa Valley

The Napa and Sonoma valleys, California’s wine country, is within easy reach of San Francisco and offers an enticing excursion from the PCH – and a place to stop overnight. With numerous distinguished wineries and tasting rooms spread throughout the 17-mile (6.9-hectare) valley, Sonoma feels less hectic than its famous neighbor, Napa. Highlights include the Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves, Château St Jean, and Buena Vista Winery, California’s oldest winery, dating from 1857.

On the east side of the mountains, Highway 29 runs through America’s most renowned wine region, Napa Valley. Some 300 wineries lie cheek by jowl in this beautiful rolling landscape, ranging from boutique winemakers to vast corporate operations. It can be a little overwhelming for first-time visitors, so stop by the Napa Valley visitor center ( in Napa town center for a guide to tastings and tours.

There are tasting rooms in Napa itself, an attractive riverside town with good restaurants, gourmet food shops, and galleries. Pretty St Helena, with its lovely old homes and upscale shopping, is a favorite base. At the northern end of the valley, Calistoga is most appealing of all, with its mineral baths, arcaded Victorian-era main street, and casual air.


Read more about Napa and Sonoma on our USA destinations pages or buy our California travel guide.

Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park

As its name implies, Redwood National Park is famed for its trees. Enormous, ancient redwoods characterize the park, which also has a fascinating coastline. Redwood National Park was established in 1968 to protect Northern California’s redwood forest from logging. Here, one of the few remaining groves of coastal redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, grows just a few minutes’ walk from the relentlessly pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean. The giants rise prodigiously, some to a height of more than 300ft (90 meters). Roosevelt elk graze in nearby prairies, seals and sea lions splash in the waves, salmon and trout swim in streams and rivers, and a wide range of birdlife inhabits the shore and forest.

Thirty-seven miles (60km) long from north to south and totaling 133,000 acres (53,800 hectares), Redwood National Park and State Parks includes the national park and three California state parks – Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods – all four jointly managed by the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Impressive Roosevelt elk – many weighing more than 1,000lbs (450kg) – graze on the prairies, often right beside the highway. Native to the area, the animals once roamed from the central California valley to the north’s Mount Shasta.



Portland is a famously livable city. It has always prided itself on its bike-and-pedestrian friendliness and trees-and-parks image. In a city that boasts 247 parks and recreational sites, including 196 neighborhood parks, the largest is 6,000-acre (2,438-hectare) Forest Park, the fifth largest municipal park in the US.

Top art spots include Portland Art Museum ( and the Museum of Contemporary Craft (

The city’s efficient transit system embraces a 300-block “Fareless Square” Downtown, where passengers ride free on buses or the light rail system. Washington Park subway is within easy access of many major attractions, including Oregon Zoo, the World Forestry Center, Hoyt Arboretum, and the Children’s Museum. A streetcar system links Downtown with the Pearl District (an area colonized by local artists) and the Nob Hill neighborhood, with its fine Victorian and Georgian mansions. In the historic Skidmore District, there’s a large weekend open-air market with live entertainment. Portland also has more microbreweries and brewpubs than any other city in the nation.


The Discovery Coast

It took three weeks for the Lewis and Clark exploration party to cross the wide mouth of the Columbia River and set up another camp near today’s Chinook on the Washington coast (“the Discovery Coast”). Motoring across the 4-mile (6km) -long bridge linking Oregon and Washington is one of the great thrills of driving this Pacific Coast route, even (or perhaps especially) in a fog. It climbs steeply above the water, as seagulls swoop overhead with keening cries and the wind reaches almost gale force.

Ilwaco sits at the bottom of the Long Beach peninsula – 28 miles (45km) of sandy beach – which gets nicer the farther north you go. In the southwest corner, in Cape Disappointment State Park, Fort Canby guarded the mouth of the Columbia for almost a century before it became part of the state park in 1957. Built in 1856, Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is the oldest operational lighthouse on the West Coast. So treacherous was Cape Disappointment that another lighthouse had to be built in 1898 at nearby North Head.

Nearby Long Beach is a perennially popular beach resort with weekenders from Seattle and Portland. It specializes in good, old-fashioned seaside fun and games and doesn’t put on any airs or graces. Beaches on the peninsula are popular for clamming.



Seattle is youthful and friendly, business-minded, busy, and beautiful: a city of the 21st century. Here’s a list of the not-to-be-missed attractions:

• Glide into the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle, on the monorail and explore its many attractions, from theaters and a children’s museum to the excellent Pacific Science Center.

• The Seattle Aquarium features 200 varieties of fish native to Puget Sound, plus environments simulating rocky reefs, sandy seafloors, eelgrass beds, and tide pools. It’s one part of the vibrant Waterfront area, which also has ships, piers, stores, and restaurants.

• Set in a Frank Gehry building, Experience Music Project (EMP) is a rock music museum conceived by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame, featuring artifacts like Eric Clapton’s guitar, state-of-the-art technology, and interactive exhibits.


Planning a trip? Take a look at our Seattle travel guide

Peet's Coffee House, Seattle


Plan your US road trip

To read more about what to see in the United States, visit Insight's USA destination pages.

See also our guides to the Northern route, from east coast Boston to west coast Washington state, and the Atlantic route, from New York City to Key West, Florida, plus tips on renting a car for your journey, and road trip survival skills. Film critic Scott Jordan Harris takes us on a tour of some of the best locations from US road movies, and we have a June competition to win DVDs of five road movie classics.

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