Highlights of the Pacific Coast Highway: natural beauty and driving bliss

Cover of Road Trip USA, by Jamie Jensen (courtesy Perseus Books)(This is a guest post by Jamie Jensen, author of Road Trip USA – the fifth and newest edition was just released – and its companion pocket guides, Pacific Coast Highway and Route 66. To celebrate the new edition, check out his personalized trip planning for readers on his blog.

I’ve used previous versions of Road Trip USA quite extensively on my own US road trips, and I’ve always liked Jamie’s detailed descriptions of lesser-known attractions, bits of history and friendly, humorous writing style.  Here is why he loves the Pacific Coast Highway….)


Riding my bike across the Golden Gate Bridge the other day, I had a flash of insight into what makes my best travel experiences. Like most people, I am wowed by natural beauty yet also appreciate the sybaritic comforts of civilization, so perhaps it’s no great surprise to hear that my personal travel nirvanas occur where nature and culture converge.

What surprised me was recognizing the third component of travel bliss: being in motion, which adds a tangible sense of dynamism and excitement to an otherwise passive pleasure.

When I think about my other favorite spots around the world, the same relationship emerges again and again.  Much as I love the sights and sounds of, say Venice, what I remember most about it is the experience of riding through it, on a gondola, a vaporetto, or best of all—on a speedboat racing like James Bond across the lagoon.

Closer to home, the same trinity still applies. As with the Golden Gate Bridge, travel magic is made by the combination of natural scenery and human interest (beautiful buildings and bridges always seem to work best for me), magnified by the possibility of moving through the scene, either on foot or bike or (most likely, especially for us Californians!), in a car.

Back on the bridge, I thought about where else I’ve found such perfect combinations, and as I drew up my mental list of world’s most gorgeous places, the West Coast claimed honors again and again. Which made me think: if you like rugged mountains, primeval forests, cliff-backed oceans, all within easy reach of charming towns, comfortable beds and very good food, there’s nothing better than the Pacific Coast Highway.

Jamie with the World's Largest Catsup Bottle, in Collinsville IL (photo courtesy Perseus Books and Avalon Travel Publishing)Known in shorthand as “PCH”, and famous for the photogenic Golden Gate Bridge and the stretch of Hwy-1 along central California’s redwood forested cliffs of Big Sur, the Pacific Coast Highway offers unforgettable experiences almost its entire length, from the northwest tip of Washington all the way to Mexico.  Even along the recently suburbanized southern stretches, there are still a few surviving flashes of brilliance in the form of Laguna Beach and other well-protected environs, but most of the other highpoints are found in the northern half, between San Francisco and Seattle.

In California, a stretch of the old Pacific Coast Highway known as the “Avenue of the Giants” winds its way through miles of the world’s tallest trees, some of which are so massive you can drive your car through tunnels cut right through them.

Nearby, fascinating old towns like Arcata and Eureka offer gourmet food and drink, as well as a taste of the “alternative” lifestyles California is so famous for.

Continuing north, the coast of Oregon rivals the splendors of Big Sur as PCH makes it way around rugged headlands like Cape Perpetua, while quaint towns like Cannon Beach and Bandon offer comforts you will appreciate after a day rolling along the Pacific Coast Highway, on two wheels or behind the wheel.

At the far north end of PCH, in Washington’s Olympic National Park, series of unimaginably lush green, jungle-like valleys form the only official “rainforests” in the USA, ranged along rivers at the foot of permanently snow-capped peaks.

Home comforts are offered in the old logging town of Forks (recently famous for its role as location for the teen vampire film “Twilight”), and even more so midway to Seattle in the under-appreciated Victorian arts community of Port Townsend.

All these unforgettable travel experiences are linked, and their pleasures magnified, by the narrow black 1000-mile ribbon of the Pacific Coast Highway. So get out there and drive some today!

By Jamie Jensen

Author,  Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America’s Two-Lane Highways


  1. Megan April 30, 2009
  2. Antonia Malchik May 1, 2009

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