My Guide to Road Tripping America’s Pacific Coast Highway

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Earlier this month, Sean and I took a 10 day road trip along the West Coast of America, most on the Pacific Coast Highway (route 1). We started in San Diego, CA and ended in Seattle, WA. If I wasn’t certain that the west coast is the best coast before this trip, I’m fully convinced now! Even though I grew up in Seattle and spent most vacations visiting family throughout California, I’d never driven the entire coastline and it was spectacular. Here’s what we did:

Day 1: Flight from Seattle to San Diego

We flew out on a Friday night on a Southwest Flight that cost less than $100 per person. The flight is about 2 hours. My cousin, Mike, picked us up from the airport and we made a beeline for burritos.

Day 2: Exploring San Diego

My brother and I visited San Diego often growing up because my mom’s whole family lives there, but we’d never visited the city as tourists. We started the day with a city tour from my grandpa, Hal Sadler, who’s a prominent architect and lives in Point Loma. We drove to Cabrillo National Monument, where we could see the entire city. He pointed out key landmarks and buildings he’d worked on. Then we drove by Shelter Island and headed into downtown San Diego, where we saw my cousin’s office (he works at Classy) and scoped out the San Diego Padres stadium, Petco Park. (Pro tip: We didn’t go this time, but we usually get fish sandwiches at Point Loma Seafoods. It’s right by the airport.)

IMG_1781Sunset at Ocean Beach.

That afternoon we took a beach brewery tour with my cousin and his wife along Ocean Beach, stopping at Helmes Brewing, Belching Beaver and Culture Brewing before catching a sunset right on the beach. Then we headed to Modern Times Beer before grabbing (more) burritos at Cotixan for dinner.

Day 3: San Diego to Los Angeles

We woke up and headed into San Diego’s Little Italy to pick up our rental car. (We did a 1-way mid-size rental for 8 days, which cost us about $600 total. Do some research before you buy, as many places will tell you that the one way fees will cost you well over $1,000, but you can definitely find something that’s within your budget. I’ve also heard of people having success bidding for cars on Hotwire.) After breakfast at The Crack Shack, we drove along I-5 for two hours and change, directly to a taco place that makes me drool just thinking about it: Guisados. I ordered the chicken mole taco, a fish taco and some horchata, but Sean won the ordering game by choosing the sampler plate. He got to sample every single taco on offer in smaller versions.

IMG_3874I will dream of these tacos.

We stayed at an airbnb in Silver Lake that night, dropping into Korea town for appetizers at The Bun Shop (get the chicken katsu bun) and dinner at Dan Sung Sa.

Day 4: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara

This was our birthday! (Yes, Sean and I share the same birthday). We celebrated with a morning run at Echo Park, then breakfast at the Grand Central Market (Avocado Toast from Clark Street Bread and fresh squeezed juice from Press Brothers Juicery for me; and a sausage breakfast bowl from Berlin Curryworst for Sean). Then we dropped Jason off at the airport and headed out along route 1 to Santa Barbara, stopping to drive through Pepperdine University on the way. We grabbed lunch at Neptune’s Net.

IMG_7448As we munched on Calamari at Neptune’s Net, we watched wind surfers along the coast.

Then we headed to The Cave in Ventura for wine, only to find that the cave was closed. At this point, the engine light on our rental car came on so we took a bit of a detour to exchange it nearby and ended up at our airbnb in Mission Canyon right around sunset. We headed back down the hill for a birthday dinner at Convivo, where we shared handmade pasta and a charred avocado salad, plus cocktails and focaccia.

Day 5: Santa Barbara to Big Sur

We woke up to a spectacular view from our airbnb and had breakfast on the patio after practicing yoga in the bright sunshine (we Seattleites need all the vitamin D we can get!).

IMG_4444The spectacular view from our Mission Canyon airbnb.

After packing up, we drove down the hill to Handlebar Coffee Roasters, then headed out along route 1 again. We stopped at Jalama Beach for lunch and good lord, what a surprise. I didn’t do much planning for this trip, but my coworker had recommended Jalama Beach as a good place to stop. I put it into the GPS and off we went, down 14 miles of private roads toward the coast. At the end of these 14 miles, we came around a bend and were greeted by a tiny outcropping of beach– the only public beach for 35 miles– accompanied by a general store, cabins and campsites.

IMG_8201This place is a spectacular hidden gem. It’s one of those finds that I barely want to mention, for fear that it will become crowded and ruined by tourists.

After lunch we drove towards Big Sur; however, because of landslides, we took a detour up through the Los Padres National Forest which took us over the mountains, back toward the coast. It was scary driving along the cliffs at high altitude, but the views were absolutely breathtaking. After a long day in the car, we rolled up to Deetjen’s, our hotel for the night. Deetjen’s was built in the 1930s by a Norwegian furniture builder and we stayed in “little room,” a $100 per night room barely big enough to stand up in.

IMG_1492Deetjen’s might be old and funky, but it’s full of charm and great for travelers on a budget.

After dinner at Big Sur Taphouse, we struggled to stay awake. At midnight, we got back in the car and drove to Esalen, a famous learning institute about 15 minutes from our hotel. From 1 to 3 am each night, the institute opens to the public for night time bathing in the hot springs. The hot springs are pumped into natural rock tubs (the waters are 115 degrees, but you can cool them down a bit if needed) on the edge of a cliff and we sat for more than an hour on the edge of the cliff in the pools, watching the waves below and the stars above, soaking in the natural waters and the pure silence. It was a magical experience.

Day 6: Big Sur to Guerneville

We slept in this morning because of our previous long day of driving and adventures, and enjoyed a big breakfast in Deetjen’s restaurant before checking out. Then we followed route 1 past Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey, along the Golden Gate Bridge. We stopped for some In-N-Out Burger, too, as per tradition.

IMG_4499We always get the same thing: two cheeseburgers animal style (double double for Sean) with animal style fries on the side, plus a rootbeer for Sean and an iced tea for me.

After burgers we sat in terrible traffic along the 101, eventually making our way to Guerneville where we stayed in the lovely Cottages on River Road. We loved Guerneville, which rests along the Russian River Valley below hundreds of massive redwoods. After we arrived, we had a change to relax and nap. I wrote some new yoga sequences and Sean walked over to the local brewery.

For dinner, we checked yelp then headed downtown to a Korean diner– only to find that the diner was closed. In typical millennial fashion, we whipped out our phones and started to scroll in panic. What else is good here? After a moment, I realized how dumb we looked. There were 3 open restaurants in town and we could simply walk by and look at them to decide where to eat. What a concept. We strolled down the main street, eventually happening upon a community dinner at Big Bottom Market. On Wednesday nights, the owner cooks one meal for his neighbors from 6-8 pm. We walked in and he ran up to us. “Welcome to my house,” he said, leading us to a table. For $13, we got a big bowl of spicy lentil stew, homemade biscuits and a green salad. The wine was excellent, the ambiance was glorious, and the chef kept bringing us new condiments to try on our stew as we ate. He recommended hikes and things to do in the area. We left dinner feeling happy and cared for, with a strong reminder that sometimes it’s best to look at what’s in front of you rather than trying to find “the best possible thing.”

Day 7: The Redwoods to Shasta Lake

Guerneville is right next to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, so we set out on a nice hike on the morning of day 7. (If you want to do this, head out along East Ridge to the Waterfall Trail, then take the Discovery Trail back to the parking lot. It’s about 3 miles, with lots to see and decent altitude gain– it took us about 75 minutes).

IMG_5537This tree is over 1,000 years old!

Then we headed back to our new favorite home base — Big Bottom Market— for a glorious lunch of curry chicken salad with kombucha. We stopped at several vintage shops on our way our of town, then wound through Napa Valley, shocked at the destruction from the fires that lay around us. We took 1-5 on day 7 because we headed inland to Shasta Lake. We landed at Shasta Dam right before sunset and walked several miles across the dam and back, marveling at the bright colors and savoring the sunshine.

IMG_9261When I was in 8th grade, I spent a week staying on a houseboat on Shasta with my church youth group. Since then, I’ve dreamed of going back. It’s just as beautiful as I remembered!

We picked up pizzas for dinner at Cinders Wood Fired Pizza and spent the night watching movies and drinking beer in our tiny airbnb cabin near the lake.

Day 8: Shasta Lake to North Bend, Oregon

We had 5 hours of driving ahead of us on this day, so we decided on a McDonald’s breakfast (it’s our tradition to do this at least once on road trips) then hopped on 1-5 for a quicker trip toward the coast. We stopped in Ashland, Oregon for lunch at Hiro Ramen. Ashland is a cute little town that, as one woman aptly put it, “knows its brand.” It’s best known for its summer Shakespeare festivals and is full of little hippie shops. I bought some incense, several candles, and some yoga shirts.

After many hours of listening to the second Harry Potter book, we arrived at the Itty Bitty Inn in North Bend, Oregon, right next to Coos Bay. (This route will take you through the mountains between California and Oregon, and this pass is known to be a bit dicey when there’s snow. We didn’t have snow, but be sure to check before you head up there. You may need chains for your tires.) The Itty Bitty Inn is $50 per night and each room is themed to a different decade. We stayed in the 70s room– it had a vintage atari system!– and had a blast getting to know the host, Rik. Each room has growlers, which you can take to the market across the street and fill up from their 25 taps of local craft brews.

IMG_6812Itty Bitty Inn might look like a simple road side motel, but it’s so much more. It was one our our favorite stops on the trip.

When we arrived, Rik ran to the phone and made us a dinner reservation (without our consent) for Tokyo Bistro. Confused by his enthusiasm for small town sushi, we decided to roll with it and hopped back in our car. What followed was what can only be described as one of the culinary high points of my life. Tokyo Bistro is run by a chef who trained at Nobu. He wanted to get out of the rat race of big city cooking and hoped to find a town that was on the same latitude as the place where he was raised in Japan. Enter: Coos Bay, Oregon. This man has personal relationships with the fisherman, whom he has taught to butcher the fish in the perfect way for making sushi. He dives for his own seaweed every day and changes the menu based on which fish is the most fresh. He makes his own sake. I usually don’t like sake but I could drink gallons of this stuff. It was well priced and incredibly high quality. We sat at the sushi bar next to a couple who lives in Coos Bay and goes to Tokyo Bistro every week. They started feeding us sushi from their plates and pouring us sake from their bottle. We sat there for 2 hours, ordering plates of sashimi and nigiri and rolls and chatting with the owner and our new friends. After dinner, they gave us their contact information and invited us to visit any time. It was an experience I will never forget.

Day 9: North Bend to Cannon Beach

Still in a haze of sushi happiness, we woke up and ran across the street to Mom’s Kitchen, where we loaded up on buscuits with sausage gravy and piping hot coffee. Then we packed up the car and drove to Spinreel ATV Rentals. We spent several hours bumping around the sand dunes on ATVs, me screaming as we plunged 25 feet down the side of the hill and Sean laughing at my panic. The views were unreal.

IMG_7081I was initially terrified to drive my own quad, but Sean had to drag me back to the rental place after our time on the dunes. I loved it!

Then we continued along the coast, stopping at Green Salmon for lunch (try their matcha cream cheese and their many fantastic drinks) and grabbing cheese samples at Tillamook Cheese Factory. We drove into Cannon Beach in the early evening, then took a leisurely jog along the quiet beach and explored tide pools. (We didn’t have time this trip, but one of my favorite things as a kid was to rent bikes from Family FUNcycles and ride them along the beach.)

IMG_3247I grew up vacationing in Cannon Beach and was incredibly excited to show Sean the little coastal town. It was just as great as I remembered!

We ended the day with take out pizza from the Surfcrest Market (along with a 6 pack of Buoy Beer) and hunkered down to watch Wild Wild Country on Netflix.

Day 10: Cannon Beach to Seattle

It rained on the final day of our vacation, the only rain we saw for the whole trip. We woke up and headed to Lazy Susan for breakfast, just like I’d done so many times as a kid. Sean got their famous gingerbread waffles and I got a smoked salmon quiche. Then we walked over to Cannon Beach Bakery and picked up sandwiches for the road (I recommend the marionberry jam, and make sure to grab a loaf of Haystack bread and sugar cookies to go, too.) Sean also grabbed some salt water taffy for the car ride.

After 3 hours on the road (and a jawdropping moment as we caught the view across the gorgeous Astoria-Megler Bridge), we were back in Seattle! This was a trip to remember, full of views that just kept getting better, of leisurely mornings and endless detours off main roads to snap pictures of the views. I cannot recommend it more highly.

 

 

 

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