Rides & Destinations: The Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway, from Cambria to Carmel, is 100 miles of motorcycling nirvana.

The Pacific Coast Highway.

Photo by Joe Berk

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The Skinny
What:
California SR 1, also called the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the world’s great motorcycle rides.
How to Get There:
From Southern California, take US 101 north to San Luis Obispo, pick up SR 1 and head north. From Northern California, take SR 1 south.
Best Kept Secrets:
The olallieberry pie with a scoop of ice cream at Linn’s in Cambria. (Tell Aaron that Joe sent you.) When you visit Hearst Castle, make sure you watch the free movie; it provides the story behind the castle’s construction.
Avoid:
Speeding. There’s just too much to see!

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California’s Pacific Coast Highway (also known as PCH and officially SR 1) runs almost 656 miles from Capistrano Beach in Southern California to Leggett in Northern California. I’ve ridden most of it, and in my opinion the most beautiful stretch runs from Cambria to Carmel. It’s a 100-mile stretch of motorcycling nirvana with compelling coastal views for nearly its entire length, fantastic curves and a riding experience like no other. You could do it in three hours if you wanted, but there are so many interesting stops that I recommend a full day.

Breakfast in Cambria (a delightful little town just north of Morro Bay) is a great way to start this ride. After breakfast, head to San Simeon, a few miles north and home to the famous Hearst Castle. It’s the former private residence of William Randolph Hearst, who was about as eccentric a figure as ever lived. The guy had more money than God (the family fortune was made in silver mining and then publishing) and furnished Hearst Castle with not only statuary and furniture from actual European castles, but also ceilings and walls. I know it sounds touristy, but trust me on this, as Hearst Castle is a must-see stop. And if you’re lucky, you might even see free-ranging descendants of the exotic animals Hearst kept (on a recent trip, we saw zebras).

A bit farther north where the highway runs along a cliff at the Pacific’s edge you’ll see a sign for elephant seals. Be sure to stop, as there really are elephant seals lolling on the beach and frolicking in the surf just a few feet below, taking refuge from the great white sharks waiting farther out. If your timing is right, you might also spot California gray whales on their annual migration between Alaska and Baja.

You’ll encounter twisties and scenic stretches as you pass through Ragged Point, Big Sur, Notleys Landing and other deliciously and descriptively named spots. The twisties through Big Sur are awesome, but don’t take them at speed; it’s best to savor this epic road the same way one would a fine wine — slowly. The rugged terrain, ocean air, deep forest and open grasslands make for a dramatic and delightful ride.

The magnificent Bixby Bridge spans a deep canyon just south of Carmel. The Bixby Bridge and several other bridges along this stretch were part of the recovery effort undertaken during the Great Depression, and this was one shovel-ready project that met its intent. The bridges were built of concrete to better withstand the salty air, at a cost that seems laughably low by today’s standards. Originally projected to cost a whopping $203,000, the Bixby Bridge came in under budget at $199,861, a bargain that has been paying road warrior dividends for nearly a century. You’ll want to choose your stop carefully to get a good photo (and to exit the road safely).

We recommend spending the night in Carmel, and if you want a memorable experience you might consider Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch Hotel. Fine dining experiences abound in Carmel, and if there’s a bad restaurant in that town, we haven’t found it yet.

The photo opportunities on the Cambria-to-Carmel stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway are stunning; it’s really basically one picture postcard panorama after another. And don’t be surprised if you’re overcome by a strong sense of déjà vu; chances are you’ve encountered some of these very same scenes in countless movies and commercials. There’s nothing like seeing it in person, though. It is one of America’s crown jewels. — Joe Berk