The Pacific Coast Highway: US-101 & CA-1
Like the Al-Can Highway, the Pacific Coast Highway is one of those epic, once-in-a-lifetime drives, providing the opportunity to drive hair-raising two-lane roads along some of the most beautiful coastline in the world.
We drove these 1,500 miles, give or take, over the course of three weeks, allowing us to put in only 2-4 hours of driving everyday (with a couple of longer days). This gave us the time to drive at a leisurely pace, stop to enjoy the scenery, and relax. It also allowed us a few off-the-drive stops in Portland and Crater Lake, plus a little wine drinking in Sonoma.
Note: we’re including the much broader definition of the Pacific Coast Highway to include US-101 from Olympia, WA to near Fort Bragg, CA where CA-1 starts. In the end, it’s all the Pacific Coast, even if it’s not all technically the PCH, which is just CA-1.
Also, we split the pictures up into three galleries, one for each of Washington, Oregon, and California, so keep reading until the end! Over the course of three weeks, we take A LOT of pictures! You’ve seen a few of these from some of our August Pictures of the Week, but those probably accounted for about 2% of what’s in these three galleries. Enjoy the scenery!
At A Glance
From: Olympia, WA
To: Los Angeles, CA
States/Provinces: WA, OR, CA
Length: 1,528 miles
Nearby Cities: Olympia, WA; San Francisco, CA; Los Angeles, CA
Obviously, since we were on our way back from Alaska heading towards San Diego, we drove the entire length of the road from north-to-south. That means that we ended up on the outside of the road for every single mile. On the one hand, that provided a completely unobstructed view of what is, without a doubt, one of the most scenic drives in the world.
On the other hand, it means your margin for error is nonexistent. There are very few guardrails here and this is a curvy and hilly road, at least in parts (parts of it are 4-lane highway). A good portion of the road sits at least 50 feet, sometimes more like 200-300 feet, above rocky bottoms and water.
And holy moly, the fog! The fog can be so dense you don’t even see the ocean. It can be below you, so that it looks like you’re on a floor of cotton balls. It can completely fill one inlet to the point of virtually no visibility, then clear to those blue West Coast skies in a blink.
The south-to-north direction will put you more safely on the inside, giving a much less hair-raising experience, particularly for the passenger! In the end though, whether you choose to go north-to-south or south-to-north, the drive is epic. And, while it can be difficult, keep your eyes on the road!
We’ll just call out a few of the portions of the drive that we found particularly cool. There are probably 10 times as many stops and side trips you could make on your own adventure.
What better place to start than the beginning?
When we first hit the border, we headed for Deception Pass State Park to start camping our way down the west coast. One of our CouchSurfing friends in Alaska is from Bellingham, WA and advised us to take a more scenic route than I-5. Taking a better way than the Interstate isn’t something you have to tell us twice.
Technically, this isn’t part of US-101 (or CA-1, obviously). It’s part of what was considered the old Pacific Coast Highway though, so we’re including it. This was when we knew that we were in for some amazing scenery in Washington, as we wound 25 miles through trees so ridiculously tall we could hardly believe it.
All the while, the road runs along Samish and Chuckanut Bays and through Larabee State Park. This was a fantastic way to start our driving.
When US-101 continued south out of Aberdeen, we hung a right onto WA-105 to stay closer to the coast. WA-105 winds down the edge of Gray’s Harbor to the ocean, then turns back up an inlet before rejoining US-101 in Raymond. It adds 25 miles to the trip, but when you have time, every little scenic detour is worth it.
One of the last stops in Washington is Cape Disappointment State Park. Here, you’ll find the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and some phenomenal views of the Pacific and Oregon.
Pictures From Washington
Our first stop was a city in the most northwestern part of Oregon, Astoria. This is a little town with several fun things to do, including the Oregon Film Museum and the home from The Goonies.
We also visited two Lewis & Clark Expedition forts in Astoria, Fort Stevens and Fort Clatsop.
About one-quarter of the way down from the Washington-Oregon border is Tillamook, home of the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Trust us, you won’t be disappointed if you stop for some cheese and ice cream.
Pictures From Oregon
Finally, we hit California. Neither of us had ever been anywhere north of San Francisco, so we were definitely looking forward to seeing some redwoods. We weren’t disappointed in the slightest.
Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway
While you can just stay on US-101 flying along at 55-65mph, missing the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park would be a great disservice to a trip down the Pacific Coast. This puts you right into the midst of trees with bases wider than our F-150 is long and reaching 350 feet into the sky.
Avenue of the Giants
Just past Rio Dell, there is a series of exits to Avenue of the Giants. This is another scenic drive through dense redwood forests. This is the kind of drive that is dark even in broad daylight because the forest canopy is so thick. It’s definitely worth the side trip.
CA-1 vs US-101
To get to Fort Bragg, you have to hang a right onto CA-1 just past Garberville. Through much of California, US-101 is a 4-lane highway offering about as much excitement as most Interstates. Do yourself the favor of taking the real Pacific Coast Highway, CA-1. The going is much slower, but the scenery is out of this world.
Alfred Hitchcock fans will want to make an extra side trip to Bodega, just past Bodega Bay. The film The Birds is set in the town of Bodega Bay. Just up the street in Bodega, you’ll find the schoolhouse where a major bird attack takes place.
San Simeon – Hearst Castle
Our final stop on the trip from the Canadian border to Los Angeles was the ridiculously opulent house known as Hearst Castle. If you have a few hours and a few bucks, take one of the tours of this 70,000 square foot shanty.