19 Secrets of California’s Southern Pacific Coast Highway

Story by Jamie Elvidge// Photos by Jamie Elvidge
July 4 2018

It pays to listen to those who know, and where can you get better advice if not from someone who has visited these secrets locales many times?

California’s southern Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is as famous a scenic road as they come. People travel from all over the world to take pictures of Rocky Creek Bridge, to soak in the hot springs around Big Sur, to eat oysters at Domenico’s on the Warf in Monterey.

I grew up on this coast. All my best memories are encrusted in its getaways: beaches, towns and bays strung like charms along the highway’s exhilarating twists and scenic straightaways. In some ways, my intimacy with the area feels like a personal thing, as if the sanctuaries and secret side roads should be kept mum and therefore remain pristine. But more often than not, I’m inspired to share them with people who appreciate a good motorcycle tour in the way I do. Besides, what are treasures if they are not admired?

Though it begins in Dana Point, the PCH is nothing but city streets, and rural fits and starts until you hit San Luis Obispo, about 418 km up the coast. Yes, there are fabulous riding roads in the mountains about Malibu and great day trips out of Santa Barbara, but they are not borne of the highway as much as they are destinations in themselves.

This set of secrets starts just above San Luis Obispo and ends just below San Francisco.

  1. Moonstone Beach

Preparing to Ride Down the Pacific Coast Highway in CaliforniaCambria is a quiet spot on the PCH and a great launch pad for your adventure. It has the appeal of a small town, without the touristy pull of neighbouring Morro Bay or San Simeon. Plus, it’s the terminus of must-do Santa Rosa Creek Road (secret #2). Moonstone Beach is the jewel of Cambria, an uncrowded strand littered with glistening agate, jade and quartz. My favourite place to stay is the Cambria Landing Inn & Suites, where most rooms have an ocean view. It’s not stuffy like some of the other beachfront lodges on the coast, and you can usually get a room on short notice. You can always get a good meal at the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill, where you’re likely to see dolphins, seals and even whales passing by. Staying in Cambria will give you a fresh head for an a.m. romp up Santa Rosa and San Simeon Creek Roads, which do, indeed, require total concentration.

  1. Santa Rosa Creek Road

This is one of the best-loved, least-trafficked sidewinders on the south coast. Ride through Cambria toward the hills until you see the small sign for Santa Rosa Creek. It’s unbelievably twisty and scenic, so decide early whether you’re feeling like a sightseer or a squirrel, since this is one road that won’t allow for both. It’s single-lane, steep and loaded with off-camber corners, eventually hooking up with Highway 46, which you can take back down to Hwy 1. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll turn right around and ride Santa Rosa Creek back down.

  1. San Simeon Creek Road

An out-and-back rush, you’ll find this little sister to Santa Rosa just past San Simeon State Park.

  1. Hearst Castle

Call this the secret only the tourists know about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard locals say they have never visited this wonderful castle. Yes, it is a touristy stop, but totally worth a tour. Just as California’s missions and Wild West towns are a huge part the state’s history, so is this amazing relic of Hollywood’s heyday. Tours start at $25.

  1. Elephant Seals

Blooming Flowers in CaliforniaThe coolest place to view California’s plentiful elephant seals is Piedras Blancas Vista Point, just 13 km north of downtown San Simeon. A huge colony has established itself on the sandy shores, and it’s always up to something, even if it’s just noisy sleep. The viewing area here is a perfect place for photos.

  1. Plaskett Ridge Loop

Here’s an awesome side trip that keeps you headed up, or down, the coast, but throws in some amazing ocean views. You’ll want to take Plaskett Ridge Road up into Los Padres National Forest. Stay on winding Plaskett until it becomes Coast Road, which will lead you north to a connection with local favourite and current mudslide go-around Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (next secret).

  1. Nacimiento-Fergusson Road

This road is busier than normal these days because it’s the only way to bypass the mudslide damage caused by some crazy storms in 2016. Rutted and twisting steeply up into Los Padres National Forest, it’s not for the faint of heart. It will take you all the way over Highway 101, if you want to take the time. If you stay on the ocean side of the hills, Nacimiento-Fergusson branches into Cone Pine Road, which eventually becomes more of an off-road trail, ideal for adventure motorcycles, and heads back down to the coast. Even if you’re not sporting knobbies, taking this road for as long as you feel comfortable is worth the effort. You can ride through the old Hunter Liggett military base and visit the Mission San Antonio de Padua, then ride back over to catch the best views, which are optimal from east to west and early in the day.

  1. Coast Ridge Road

This is another out-and-back road for daring street riders, but it’s the adv crowd who will especially enjoy the asphalt goat path and dirt portion toward the end. You’ll find the turnoff for Coast Ridge on the east side of the highway just before popular Pfeiffer Big Sur campground. If you pass Sycamore Canyon Road on the west side of Hwy 1,
you’ve gone too far.

  1. Lucia Lodge

Roller Coaster at the Pacific Coast Highway in CaliforniaThere are only 15 rooms at the vintage Lucia Lodge, built in 1931, but it’s often overlooked by tourists, so you can secure a bed on short notice. The cliffside view is worth a stop, even if you only have a meal in the restaurant. If you do stay for the night, vie for the Honeymoon Suite, which isn’t all that romantic, but is perfectly situated for an amazing view over the cliffs.

  1. Ripplewood Resort

Big Sur isn’t actually a town, but rather a 145 km region of pristine coastline. The villagers refer to it as Big Sir, but it’s really just a dot on the map with a couple of gas stations and sundry shops. You can find places to stay ranging from thousands of dollars per night to a few bucks for primitive campsites. I like the Ripplewood for its charm. Its unpretentious cabins vary in price, with several sitting right on the Big Sur River.

  1. Get Naked in the Esalen Institute Hot Springs

If you do stay in Big Sur and are up for a late-night adventure, slip into the miraculous cliffside natural hot springs located within the exclusive Esalen Institute. While the institute’s accommodations are only available to seekers attending one of its many healing and personal-growth workshops, the bathing-suit-optional hot springs are open to the public from 1-3 a.m. only ($35 per dip).

  1. Love Triangle

When you visit the level hamlet of Carmel-by-the-Sea, take Carmel Valley Road inland to Cachagua Road, a right-hand turnoff just a few kilometres beyond the village. This is a crazily winding road with quick whoops that can tire you out by the time you reach Tassajara Road. If you’re looking for a short loop, taking Tassajara to the left will deliver you back to Carmel Valley Road. If you’re up for more twisties, with a treat at the end, head for the well-kept secret below.

  1. Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery

After negotiating Tassajara Road, you might want to soak in the calming Santa Lucia hot springs located in the Zen Monastery. Unlike Esalen, you don’t need to sign up for a workshop to enjoy this property, the first monastery of its kind founded outside of Japan. From April 26 to September 9, you can simply buy a day-use pass for $34 and have a hot soak, then swim in the cool creek. Though pricey, you can rent a cabin or yurt and stay for the night. There is also a primitive campground nearby at China Camp. If you want to be really adventurous and seek the little-known, undeveloped Ventana hot springs, the 16 km hike starts here.

  1. The Giant Dipper

Here is a must-do if there ever was one. Stop and walk around retro Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and take at least one ride on the 1924-era Giant Dipper, the oldest wooden roller coaster in California. A ride costs $7 and only last for two minutes, but it’s a thrill you won’t forget; plus, the old boardwalk, with its vintage rides and arcade games, is just good fun.

  1. Swanton Strawberry Farm

This is an actual farm, located 9.5 km north of Davenport, and is another must-stop on your way out of Santa Cruz toward San Francisco. Inside a shack near the barn you’ll find an array of handmade eatables – chocolate-
dipped strawberries, little strawberry cheesecakes, strawberry shortcake with homemade whip cream and, my favourite, strawberry rhubarb Bettys. There won’t be anyone to take your money, though: you just add up your purchases on the supplied calculator and make change in the honour till.

  1. Duarte’s Tavern

If you’re near the town of Pescadero in the morning, stop for a breakfast at historic Duarte’s Tavern and try the artichoke omelette. If you’re around in the evening, there will be great local fish offerings, but don’t miss dipping freshly baked French bread in the restaurant’s signature artichoke soup. Yup, that’s what’s growing next door.

  1. Pescadero Road to Alice’s Restaurant

Pescadero Road is a nice route up to famous Skyline Boulevard, and moto hangout Alice’s Restaurant, but once you reach the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, be prepared to share the road with all the riders who live in the motorcycle-savvy Bay Area, which on weekends can feel like millions.

  1. Alpine Road

This might be one of the most spindly roads in California. It’s a cracked and crooked single-lane with an axle-height crown. If that doesn’t sound appealing, turn around. Alpine Road is not for sissies. It’s a challenging run, and you’re rewarded at the top with sweeping views across the ridge and back to the ocean. You see a lot of sport riders on this road, so watch the blind corners (which are all of them). An adventure bike is a lot more fun up here and less punishing. Alpine hooks into Skyline south of the aforementioned (secret #17) Alice’s Restaurant. Connect Alpine Road, Pescadero Road, Old La Honda Road and Skyline Boulevard for an awesome, albeit popular, loop.

  1. The Biggest Secret of Them All

Don’t think the fun is over once you’ve hit San Francisco. While this southern section of the PCH is the most well known, the section that continues north of San Francisco is in some ways an even better adventure. Its 345 km are less trafficked and more serpentine, leading you through quaint towns like Olema, Point Reyes Station and Mendocino, with side trips into a vast national seashore and a terminus in Northern California’s monolithic redwood forest.
[Editor’s note: There are more out-of-the-way spots along the southern Pacific Coast Highway if you care to stop and admire what they have to offer. Keep an eye on a future issue for secrets of the northern section of the PCH.]

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