24(ish) Hours on the Pacific Coast Highway

There are all kinds of guides on the Internet about what to do and see when traveling on California's Pacific Coast Highway, but most (all?) of them suggest taking 2-3 days, stopping to eat or stay in various towns along the way. When Ben and I planned our California trip, doing this drive and spending time in Big Sur were at the top of the priority list, but because we were at the mercy of Major League Baseball's schedule and also had to fit in 4 baseball games in 2 parts of the state in an 8-day span, the PCH was unfortunately not the only thing vying for a spot at the top of the list. We had just about 24 hours, from 10am one morning to 10am the next morning, to travel 200 of Highway 1's most scenic miles.

Hour 1: Half Moon Bay | After the game in SF on Thursday night, we wanted to get a head start on our journey south so we drove out to Half Moon Bay to stay the night (and by "we" I mean Ben drove while I was passed out for a half hour in the passenger seat). We stayed the night at Half Moon Bay Lodge and the next morning we headed about 15 minutes north first, to check out Mavericks Surf Shop and pick up a t-shirt for a surfer family friend of ours. It wasn't a stop we would have made without reason, especially since it was technically in the wrong direction, but I'm glad we went! The surf shop was exactly what I thought a California surf shop would be like, and the area where it was located was full of quaint little shops and restaurants. And sail boats. Lots and lots of sailboats at the marina!

After that short stop we finally got on the road and headed in the right direction. There were so many opportunities to pull off the road and, in our haste, we stopped at a beach less than 30 minutes into our trip. Our first true look at the Pacific Ocean! I was really excited about a quick frolick in the water (although I remembered later that I actually have been in the Pacific before since I've been to Hawaii - duh). 

Hours 2-3: There's a lot of driving involved on this trip. If you're the passenger, I suggest spending the majority of it with your head out the window and a camera attached to your face.

Hour 4: Carmel-by-the-Sea | If you're coming from somewhere north like San Francisco, it takes a bit of driving on Highway 1 to get to anywhere really worth stopping. Our morning lasted a little longer than I originally planned, but I had heard so many things about Monterey/Carmel that I wanted to stop just for a bit. We decided to head to Carnel-by-the-Sea to grab a coffee. We ended up at Carmel Coffee and Cocoa Bar in Carmel Plaza for an iced mocha/coffee cake (me) and Americano/apple strudel (him). We sat at a little table outside the cafe and there was a man sitting next to us, holding his sunglasses-wearing dog. I mean, what more could you want? In case that's not enough, we also saw the largest number of luxury cars (Porrsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis) we've ever seen at one time, thanks to the Concours d'Elegance happening that weekend. Carmel is big money and it was fun to check out how the other side lives.

Hour 5: Bixby Creek Bridge! | Be still my heart. There are so many vista points to stop along Highway 1, you could spend an entire day driving the whole thing if you stopped at every one (and I wouldn't blame you if you did). The one, must-stop for us was the Bixby Creek Bridge, about a 20-minute drive from Carmel. The pullout to the right was actually full but there's a road you can turn onto directly across the street from the pullout, so we did that. Best thing ever! The view of the bridge was way better from there (and way less crowded), plus you could actually see down into the canyon below. We did end up going to the other side to snap pictures too, but I liked the "wrong" side better.
I died and went to bridge heaven.
Hour 6: Nepenthe | Lets be real: coffee cake is great and all, but it's not lunch. Restaurants in Bug Sur are sparse; we passed Big Sur Station about 15 minutes past the bridge, which is a little roadside stop with food, gas, lodging, etc., but we decided to keep driving another 15 minutes to the highly-recommended Nepenthe. At that point we were close to 30 minutes off my schedule for the day (we had to be somewhere at 6:00pm), and when we were told the wait would be 40 minutes, we almost left. But in a rare go-with-the-flow moment I decided that I would gladly sacrifice my hair being perfectly curled for our photo shoot later on in favor of eating lunch (and enjoying a $20 glass of California wine) with that handsome husband of mine overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Our wait ended up being much shorter than anticipated and I still had enough time to get ready - for once, throwing caution to the wind actually turned out to be a win-win.

Hours 7-9: Our only set-in-stone item on our Big Sur agenda was renewing our wedding vows. We celebrated 5 years of marriage in July and, while our wedding was beautiful and wonderful and amazing, we've both grown individually and together so much over the last half-decade that we wanted to take some time on our anniversary trip to say the things we didn't get to say on our wedding day. We were SO fortunate that Hannah of Hannah Kate Photography was available to capture these special memories! Since she's local and had photographed another couple's 5-year renewal in Big Sur the year prior, she knew just the setting: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. One of the things I wanted to do most in Big Sur was get lost in the redwoods, and that's exactly what we did. Our special reason for being there made our visit all the more magical, but even if you have nothing in particular to celebrate - other than being in freakin' BIG SUR - the park is a wonderful place to explore. We started in the forest side amongst the redwoods, then moved over to the beach side via the tunnel that runs under Highway 1. There's a path off to the right for a view of McWay Falls - the perfect place to catch California's "Golden Hour" and a sunset like you've never seen before.

Hours 10-22: As with restaurants, there aren't a ton of hotel accommodations in Big Sur. We stayed at the Lucia Lodge, just a few miles south of Big Sur proper, which provided the most picture-perfect backdrop for the end of our dreamy day. (Fun fact: I booked this place in April, and at the time we got on the plane to San Francisco, it remained the only lodging we had booked. Our travel style has gotten pretty go-with-the-flow over the years.) We chose Lucia Lodge based solely on a website I had looked at that listed Big Sur's few hotel options based on descriptions of "If you're looking for _____, stay at ______." Lucia Lodge was the one listed under, "If you're looking for a view..." and I thought, "Done. Sign me up." Lucia Lodge isn't a fancy resort and there are no bells and whistles, just 10 cottages nestled atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The views get increasingly better as the numbers ascend; #7 was the best available at the time we booked. We slept perfectly and awoke to the sights and sounds of waves crashing against the cliffs. I got up at sunrise and spent an hour or so in silence, admiring the scenery with my morning coffee.

Hour 23: When we left Lucia we headed south again, but not too far before stopping at Sand Dollar Beach. We didn't find any sand dollars, but we did find a quintessential coastal California beach. There's down a long dirt path toward the beach, then when the earth seems to stop and give way to the beach, there's a long set of wooden stairs down to the beach. We saw a parade of surfers heading out, dogs playing, the craziest seaweed we've ever seen, and even a starfish washed up on the beach.
After a walk on the beach, we hopped back in the car and made another stop in a couple of miles at Willow Creek, which is touted as being a popular spot for finding jade. We searched for about 30 minutes and while we're still unsure if any of the rocks we pocketed are jade or not, it was a fun hunt either way.

Hour 24: Another 25 winding miles or so after Willow Creek we hit Elephant Seal Beach. In the 1990s, a colony of elephant seals mysteriously moved into this cove and have called it home ever since. They now total up to 8000 and spend their days playing in the shallow waters and lounging on the beach. There were so many it was honestly hard to notice what was part of the natural landscape, and what was seal.

Not long after that, Highway 1 shifted away from the coast, and we soon hit the 101 to head toward Los Angeles. Here's the thing: we could have spent eternity in Big Sur and it still wouldn't have been enough time. I'm sure there are some must-dos on some list somewhere that we missed, but I wouldn't have spent our 24 hours any other way.

It was real, Highway 1. See you soon.


  1. These pictures are amazing! I love the cute stops like the coffee shop and surf shop! I can't get over how cute y'all looked for such a long road trip, I would look like a straight up mess!

    Linds @ Not A Mom

  2. What a beautiful trip! Seriously, your pics are gorgeous. For your pocketbook's sake, I hope that $20 glass of wine was fuller before you took the photo? Or that it was wayyyy worth it!

  3. Ugh. I want to go back to the PCH so badly. This just made it even worse! ;)

    We did a completely different section than you did though. We started at Crescent City and drove down to San Francisco before heading east to eventually end up back home. So we went to Cannon Beach and saw Haystack Rock and all of that kind of stuff. I really, really wanted to hit the Monterey/Salinas area because I'm a huge John Steinbeck fan.

    I will always be fascinated by how few hotels/restaurants there are on the coast though. One night, we struggled to find somewhere to stay because there were just so few options! I'm glad though because it didn't feel overly commercial like so many of the east coast beaches can.

  4. Love this. California is just the best. I love everything you did and I love you pictures and your attitude about everything. I'm still not over how gorgeous those pictures from your vow renewal are, seriously amazing.

    I also love those elephant seals, San Diego has a bunch and there are some restaurants were you can see them while you eat!

  5. Omg. I'm dying to go now!!!!! I cannot wait to see the rest of the photography she captured for you. Eek!!!!!!!

  6. i love all of this so much i don't know where to start! i much prefer shorter itineraries and i hope one day we get to go! all the beaches look gorgeous - and yay for going with the flow! i couldn't do that with lodging, but i could probably do it with a restaurant lol - and Lucia Lodge looks so amazing.

  7. Oh my goodness all of these pictures!!! I have never wanted to visit the west coast quite as much as I do now!!! All of these views are just stunning!!! And the seals. Oh the seals!!! What a memorable trip you guys had for your 5 years!

  8. Tracy, this place is heaven. Thank you for showing it to us! I alternated between wanting to slowly go through every picture and memorize every bit, and just waiting until I can be there myself and see the real thing. So, next spring, right? (I mean, I just can't not. We can't not.) Also, that photo from your renewal of you two walking across the fallen tree could make me cry. And that should probably be weird since I've never met Ben but whatever.

  9. I really want to do the PCH. It's always toward the top of my road trips to take list.

  10. Your photos are amazing. I would love to visit that place. Have a great Labor Day

  11. What an amazing 24 hours! Your pictures are stunning. Big Sur is definitely on my bucket list now!

  12. Such beautiful photos! Thank you for sharing them :)
    Morgan - theradwife.blogspot.com

  13. What an incredible trip.
    Girl... those anniversary photos are just plain DREAMY. Love the dress you went with!

  14. What an incredible trip.
    Girl... those anniversary photos are just plain DREAMY. Love the dress you went with!


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