Iconic Roads: Pacific Coast Highway

Text: RoadRUNNER Staff • Photography: RoadRUNNER Staff

Dream it, build it, and ride it … an unbroken road along the California coast.

The idea was conceived around 1919, but it wasn’t until 1964 that the completed highway from Leggett to San Juan Capistrano was named the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Widely copied on other continents, “California 1” may be the best motorcycle touring road in the world—a perfect complement to the world’s best touring motorcycle: the Honda Gold Wing.

The PCH snakes through giant redwoods from Leggett to the cliffs at Rockport before meandering south, passing Fort Bragg and Mendocino, then tracking the coast rolling south through Jenner and Bodega Bay, the setting of Hitchcock’s The Birds. A magical stretch of road follows as the highway rambles over grassy cliffs and swings around the edges of numerous ravines that slice into them—this section is often featured in auto commercials. Traffic becomes heavier as the road follows the coast through Stinson Beach toward San Francisco.

One merges with 101 to cross the Golden Gate Bridge before spearing out to the coast again through Half Moon Bay and on to Monterey. The 17-mile drive around the Monterey Peninsula offers magnificent views and passes exotic mansions before exiting via Pebble Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

“Curves next 74 miles,” promises the roadside sign. This is the most evocative stretch of California 1 as it sweeps over the cliffs around Big Sur and Morro Bay. The road winds inland through woodland groves before hurtling back to the ocean, bursting from the trees to yet another panorama of grassy knolls and turquoise ocean.

After uniting with 101 through Santa Barbara, the PCH splits south at Oxnard, rolling past Malibu’s swanky oceanfront towers and into LA’s urban seaside, Santa Monica. Exiting the city, the highway tracks a coastline of surfing beaches to its terminus at Dana Point in San Juan Capistrano.

Best travel times are May to mid-October. The coast is sometimes foggy, so check locally for conditions.

Points of Interest

  1. Mendocino
    A historic town trapped in a time warp, Mendocino’s residents have stifled development, maintaining a sleepy seaside atmosphere. Many episodes of Murder, She Wrote were filmed here. Cruise organic food markets, artisan galleries, and used bookstores. Stay at Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites.
  2. Mount Tamalpais State Park
    Take the Panoramic Highway exit from the PCH at Stinson Beach and follow the roller-coaster ride up to the East Peak parking lot. From here, hike to the East Peak—just a quarter-mile—and get great views over the San Francisco Bay area. There are many more hiking and mountain bike trails on “Mount Tam.”
  3. The Very Best View of the Golden Gate Bridge
    The PCH joins Highway 101 at Marin City. Take the last exit (442) from 101 before the Golden Gate Bridge and follow Conzelman Road toward Hawk Hill and the Marin Headlands. There are a couple of pullouts, and they’re usually pretty busy—but there’s always room for a Gold Wing! On a clear day the view is spectacular, but check locally for coastal fog.
  4. Big Sur
    Designated an American Scenic Byway, this stretch of Highway 1 south from the 1932 Bixby Bridge swings along the cliff tops offering dramatic views over the ocean below. Pause for a cappuccino or stop overnight to find out why Big Sur has been voted ”Best Romantic Getaway” and “Best Place to Play Hookie.”
  5. Solvang
    Twenty miles east of Lompoc is the Danish village of Solvang. Stroll the boulevards to admire the architecture, shop for authentic European goods, and taste pinot noir from nearby Paso Robles. Don’t miss one of the world’s best collections of racing motorcycles at the Solvang Motorcycle Museum.
  6. The Queen Mary
    On May 27, 1936, the Cunard steamship Queen Mary departed Southampton, England for New York on her maiden voyage. After serving as the largest (and fastest!) troopship in the Royal Navy during WWII, she was restored to cruise service in 1947. Just 20 years later, she made her final voyage to Long Beach, where she is now moored as a floating hotel.