Highway One Day 1: The Road to San Luis Obispo

Me and Melissa, in Santa Barbara

With my Route 66 trip over, I am now making my way back to San Francisco. And because I’m in denial that my vacation is about to end, I’m taking my sweet little time to get home – over three days, by way of California Highway One on the Pacific Coast. Today, I took the leg from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo – which wasn’t hard, because much of the One for this stretch of road is actually merged with US-101.

Unlike Route 66, this is a road trip I’ve taken before – and as a Californian, I’ll have the chance to do it again. But I’m doing it because I want to associate good memories with this route. I took it once before in 2004: when I left Berkeley, my asshole roommates handed me a letter asking me to move out – ironic, given I was on the Berkeley Rent Board at the time. I resolved to not let it ruin my vacation, but it certainly distracted me while I tried having a good time. Now, I have the chance to do it again – and link the beauty of Highway One with better times in my life.

Ventura County Line

I left Redondo Beach this morning, as Jim and Sandra helped put the last items back in my car. As I headed through L.A. traffic to take Pacific Coast Highway due north, I put in an Eric Clapton CD to maneuver the challenging landscape. Pretty soon, Los Angeles gave way to the ritzy neighborhoods of Malibu – where you have to pay just to park on the beach and take in the beautiful scenery. Screw that, I’m going to keep driving until I can park somewhere for free. With the Eric Clapton CD done, I put in some George Harrison – the last album the ex-Beatle produced before he died, and was released posthumously.

By now, I’m in Ventura County – and can park the car and step out on the ocean. The sky is overcast, but it’s still a beautiful day – as I sit meditatively on the rocks while the Ocean creeps up on the beach. I’m the only one here, and it feels lovely – still a million miles from where I need to be, as far as I’m concerned. I look on the map, and see that Oxnard is the next town. But wow, Santa Barbara isn’t that much farther away – where I’m supposed to meet up with Melissa, an old friend from law school. I call Melissa, and tell her I’ll be there in an hour.

Santa Barbara

The drive from Oxnard to Santa Barbara is really easy, because Highway One merges with US-101 – a freeway. By now, I’ve switched from George Harrison to the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack – and I get to Santa Barbara in time. Melissa is getting her PhD in History, and lives in graduate student housing. It’s lunchtime, so we get in her car to go eat at a fabulous beach-house restaurant in town. Melissa tells me it’s her favorite beach in Santa Barbara, and we take our leisurely time after lunch to explore the birds and cliffs on the waterfront. Now, the clouds have parted and the sky is a gorgeous hue of blue. She drives me back to where I parked my car – and now it’s 4:30 p.m. I had spent over three hours in Santa Barbara!

Getting back on US-101 due north, the ocean hugs the freeway – and it’s a glorious sight to see. But of course, I can’t stop the car and take pictures – because everyone’s racing at 70 miles per hour. So I put in my Beach Boys album to get into the groove, as the first song “Surfin’ USA” calls out all these cities I’m familiar with like Santa Cruz, Pacific Palisades, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Ventura County Line and La Jolla. Except for La Jolla (which is in San Diego), I already have – or soon will – pass by each of these communities as I drive back up to San Francisco.

Much to my chagrin, Highway One deviates from the Ocean after a few miles – but the drive inland is lovely, with lush green hills that tell me “wow, this is California.” You can see why Americans across the country have migrated here, to come to the promised land. But I still yearn to be back on the beach – sometime before the day is done.

Pismo Beach

After an hour of maneuvering through hills (with Led Zeppelin to keep me company), I finally get my wish in Pismo Beach. By now, it’s almost 6:00 p.m. – and the sun is beginning to set. But I don’t have much more driving to do today – so I take a slow walk into the beach, teasing the waves as they slowly come crashing in.

A mere 20 minutes later, I’ve arrived in San Luis Obispo – a good mid-point for Highway One travelers who take the journey from L.A. to San Francisco. I’m staying at the Hostel Obispo – where I stayed nearly 7 years ago, which is one of the better youth hostels that I’ve visited. Tomorrow, I will go visit Hearst Castle which is a few miles north – and try to see what part of Highway One’s majestic glory I can check out. Unfortunately, it’s been a really bad winter – and mudslides have closed large sections of the One this year. I won’t be going to Big Sur sadly, but I hope to check out as much as I can – before visiting another old friend of mine in Monterey tomorrow night.

5 Responses to “Highway One Day 1: The Road to San Luis Obispo”

  1. Jessica Says:

    Hi, I’m researching for a trip I’m taking this summer with my family and came upon your blog. I haven’t driven Highway 1 in about 20 years and would love to know if you’d offer some advice. We’ll be in California in July. As of now we have the following planned for the last leg of our trip:

    Staying in Anaheim and doing Disneyland. Leaving there on Sunday, July 10 and heading to Santa Barbara for one night. (May I ask the most scenic route.)

    We’d like to leave Santa Barbara and head to Monterey for the next night, again on the most scenic route. From Monterey we’ll head to San Francisco.
    In your opinion is that a doable plan? Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer. Happy summer!

    • paulhogarth Says:

      The route you describe is totally doable in 3 days, and in July it will be the perfect time of the year.

      Highway 1 from Anaheim to Santa Barbara is very doable (but be mindful of L.A. traffic!), because once you get north of L.A. there is a lot of overlap between Highway 1 and US-101. So the actual trip should be fairly fast.

      Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Monterey is *gorgeous* – especially when you get north of San Luis Obispo. Much of this is a stretch of the road I was unable to do on this trip, because it was April and parts of Highway 1 had shut down due to mud slides (we had a very wet winter.) But come July, the Road should be fixed – and you should not have a problem at all.

      Highway 1 from Monterey to San Francisco is eminently doable. Check out Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay – as you make the leisurely up to San Francisco!!

  2. galongbea Says:

    thanks for such information..i really need it for my trip..:)
    garage door repair redondo beach

  3. Layla Says:

    Great blog post! I found this trying to research a trip to my friend’s wedding in San Luis Obispo this summer. I’m trying to decide between flying into Santa Barbara and driving to San Luis Obispo, or paying ~$150 more to fly directly to SLO and avoid that drive.

    Could I ask your opinion? I live in NYC so I’ve barely driven in years; I hate highway driving where people are constantly merging, tons of semis, having to go 80 minimum. Given that, do you think I’d find the Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo drive kind of scary, or is it actually a pretty simple, easy 2hrs?

    I’d love to see Santa Barbara, too, but nervous that my lack of California driving expertise means it’d be better for me to skip the drive.

    Thanks so much if you can answer! I’m too embarrassed to ask my friend…

    • paulhogarth Says:

      Thanks for the message … I wouldn’t call the Santa Barbara to SLO drive the best, given that much of it is inland — and I’m comparing it with the rest of California’s Highway 1, which is absolutely spectacular. But it’s really your call … Personally, I would save the $150 and drive …

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