California dreaming? Consider the freedom of a road trip

It’s an iconic American scenic drive but what are the dos and don’ts to consider when taking on the iconic Highway One road trip? Cathy Bartrop shares her advice from the benefit of recent first hand experience…

Technically the 656 miles of State Route One start at Dana Point in Orange County to the south and end in Leggett in Mendocino County to the north. It’s the longest road in the state of California but most think of it as the scenic Pacific Coastal drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Better known as Highway One, this is the road that hugs the coastline but, confusingly at times, runs in tandem to the faster Highway 101. At certain points the roads merge, notably to the north of Carmel and to the south of San Luis Obispo. So, aside from key Big Sur coastal section, you can switch up your route depending on your time limitations. 

The first decision to take is your direction of travel. Driving in either direction you going to be treated to breath-taking coastal scenery. Driving south to north you will always have a lane of traffic in between you and the view. North to south gives you more open views and also the advantage of being able to pull in and out of lay-bys and vista points more easily without crossing a traffic lane. 

If, as we did, you start out in San Francisco, its best to pick up your car rental when you leave the city. Public transport in the city (a connected system of trams, trolley cars, metro and buses) is excellent so driving and parking simply add an unnecessary level of stress. It’s different in LA where the car is king and everyone drives everywhere but, even there, I’d still favour getting around by Uber or taxi at least for the first day or two if you’ve just flown in from the UK. Not only will you save on exorbitant hotel valet parking charges but also the humiliation of being honked at by notoriously impatient Angeleno drivers should you dither at a junction.

Golden Gate Bridge

It’s almost impossible to get lost on Highway One itself but I would strongly recommend making sure you request a car with (sometimes optional) Sat Nav for navigating your way in and out of the cities and for detours and deviations. It’s also handy to have a good old fashioned road map in the car for planning stops and just in case, as can happen in more remote spots, you lose wifi connection.

Once you are out of the cities, driving becomes a joy rather than a stress. I loved the ease of driving an automatic car, the wide lane highways and generally unhurried pace. You can happily take your time in the slower lanes and drive at a steady 55-65 mph without issue. It’s also very striking just how clean the highways are, we literally didn’t see a scrap of litter anywhere. Not entirely surprising given the numerous signs warning of $1,000 fines, but a pleasant change from UK motorways.

We were travelling in April, not long after pandemic restrictions were lifted stateside. The hotels were busy but we didn’t encounter any issues with excessive traffic, finding parking or indeed crowding. On the Big Sur section, some spots are naturally busier than others, especially Instagram hotspots like Bixby Bridge but, even there, there’s ample parking on both sides of the bridge and we found a parking spot with ease. There are no guarantees on weather but California enjoys a year round sunny climate and, generally speaking, Spring and Autumn are great times to do this drive. 

It is important to be aware though that this is a popular route and you will almost certainly need to book accommodation way in advance, particularly if you want to stay in some of the top end hotels or, conversely, to guarantee a campsite spot. We stayed somewhere different every night but, for a more leisurely trip, I’d definitely suggest considering a mix of one and two night stays. In places like Monterey and Carmel, San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara, there’s plenty within short driving distance to fill at least a couple of days. Especially if hiking is high on your agenda, you can easily lose a day or two discovering the endless trails along the route and within the State Parks.

The Big Sur section is a two lane road that is winding and narrower in some sections. Locals used to driving on wide lane, straight highways might warn you its a daunting drive but, by European standards, it really isn’t. That said, it is certainly a section where you should expect to drive slowly and make multiple stops to enjoy the amazing scenery. 

Of course, the more detours you take, the more you need to keep an eye on gas tank. Especially along Big Sur, there are not as many gas stations as you might expect, so it’s always best to err on the side of caution and fill up way before the red light comes on. If you are not a regular US visitor, be aware at gas stations the norm is to pre-pay for petrol and then fill up the tank.

Along the route there are loads of places to pull over, enjoy the views, take a walk or stop for a meal or picnic. There are also California Welcome Centres along the route where you can pick up maps and handy local information. They can also advise of any temporary road closures. For example, when we were there, the section between Carmel and Bixby Bridge was closed for a morning to accommodate the annual Big Sur International Marathon. All you can do is embrace whatever is happening and adjust your plans accordingly.

There is so much to see, so many variables and possible detours, advance research and study of the Visit California website will be certainly be helpful to sketch out your itinerary. Once you are on the road, if Google fails you, don’t despair, just enlist the help of locals for their tips on everything from where to eat to best hikes, best viewpoints, best everything. Some of our best food finds came from random chats with waitresses, hotel staff, Uber drivers and conversations in hotel lifts. Californians love to share their local knowledge with visitors and asking for advice is a great conversation starter. 

Most important of all – don’t rush it. The joy of a road trip is taking your time, being spontaneous, and making the most of every turn in the road.

Next Steps:

To book your road trip in California, call 0800 412 5678 and our Silver Travel Advisors will help you plan your perfect journey.

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Cathy Bartrop

Travel writer & vlogger

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