The Delights of California’s Pacific Coast Highway 1

Oakland Sunset

California is blessed with more geographic and cultural diversity than most nations.

And many of the Golden State’s most extraordinary landscapes and towns can be found along or near California Highway 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway. Come along with us as we explore this incredible strip of asphalt.  

After visiting Sonoma wine country, we hit the Pacific Coast Highway at Jenner, at the mouth of the Russian River 30 miles west of Santa Rosa. From there, we meandered for 195 miles as far as Point Lobos State Natural Preserve, just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea in the northern Big Sur. Along the way, we visited such wonderful spots as Marin County, San Francisco and Oakland, and explored Santa Cruz, Castroville, Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Southbound from Jenner, we motored through the beautiful coastal environment around Bodega Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore on our way to San Francisco.

Most of this leg was spent in Marin County, a fabulous potpourri of upscale towns like Sausalito and Mill Valley, wineries and wilderness. The Muir Woods National Monument in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a magnificent place to see towering old-growth redwood trees.

Golden Gate Bridge

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin brought us to San Francisco, a city worthy of several days’ exploration. Some of its must-see highlights are Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, Lands End, the Ferry Building, Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, great neighborhoods set in the hills, the historic corner of Haight and Ashbury, and many others.

Oakland, San Francisco’s across-the bay neighbor, connected by Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Oakland Bay Bridge, has its own bundle of interesting places to explore. We enjoyed our visit to nearby UC Berkeley, Jack London Square’s restaurants, shops and passenger trains running down the street, Lake Merritt, and spectacular views of San Francisco Bay from the Oakland hills.

Leaving San Francisco behind, we headed to Santa Cruz. We followed the gorgeous coastal route through Half Moon Bay, which hugs the shore, passing many picturesque state beaches en route and offers postcard-like vistas.  

Santa Cruz, with its iconic pier and boardwalk, is a charming microcosm of what central California has to offer — sun, sea, infrastructure and education. The beautiful University of California, Santa Cruz campus is a worthy destination unto itself. It is set on more than 2,000 acres of rolling hills covered with redwoods and offers amazing views of Monterey Bay.

Nearby is the charming little coastal town of Capitola. It’s a great place to stop for a view of a Pacific sunset and browsing some charming shops.


A detour we strongly recommended is a drive to Felton, a mere 8 miles of meandering roads from Santa Cruz through hills and redwoods. There you will find the historic and scenic Roaring Camp and Big Trees steam railway and the adjacent Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The train ride in open cars through the mountains and imposing redwoods is beautiful. Make sure you leave time to walk among the redwoods in the state park.

The highway passes through and near some of the most productive agricultural land in the world. We watched strawberries being harvested in Watsonville, stopped at a roadside stand to taste fresh and fried artichokes from Castroville and marveled that Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world. We watched crews harvesting crops right along the highway and realized that the entire region, including nearby Salinas, is a farm-to-table chef’s dream.

Continuing to skirt the blue waters of Monterey Bay, we arrived at Monterey, home of a world-class aquarium and Cannery Row, the latter put on the map by John Steinbeck. Today, it is no longer a gritty working sardine cannery but a picturesque if touristy conglomeration of shops and eateries.

Wandering again off California Highway 1, we stuck to the coastline just outside of Monterey for a short swing through Pacific Grove and Lovers Point and explored some of the Peninsula’s secondary roads instead of the justly-famous 17-Mile Drive, which we had driven on an earlier trip. For first-timers, 17-Mile Drive is worth taking since it passes many imposing mansions as it follows the beautiful coastline.

Our meanderings led us to the upscale town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a lovely little coastal town full of tony shops, upscale restaurants and many occupied “Fairy Tale Houses,” as well as a nice beach and mansions poised on the shore.

Not quite through with the Pacific Coast Highway yet, we drove another 4 miles to reach the Point Lobos State Natural Preserve on the north end of the Big Sur. Often called the “crown jewel” of the California State Parks system, it has it all — amazing Pacific Ocean vistas, rugged and rocky shores, blue lagoons, majestic land and sea wildlife, and miles of trails. It even has docent-led nature walks that we wholeheartedly recommend.

While the Pacific Coast Highway runs all the way to Dana Point, 60 miles south of Los Angeles, time constraints and a temporary road closure due to a landslide in the Big Sur caused us to say goodbye to this incredible stretch of asphalt for the time being. We will be back.

Before You Go:

Getting There:

  • Major airlines serve San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Other nearby choices are San Jose (SJC) and Oakland International (OAK).
  • Amtrak operates frequent north and south service the length of California, stopping at many of the locations mentioned here. Oakland is also served by the California Zephyr from Chicago and the Coast Starlight from Seattle and Los Angeles.
  • Driving the Pacific Coast Highway and exploring nearby attractions requires a car.
  • The best choice for a cruise port is San Francisco.
The Big Trees and Roaring Camp Railroad offers a delightful way to see California redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Must-Sees for a Short Trip:

  • Muir Woods National Monument
  • San Francisco
  • Santa Cruz
  • The Monterey Peninsula
  • Point Lobos State Natural Preserve

If You Have Several Extra Days:

  • Take at least a day to explore wine country in Sonoma and Napa counties.
  • More of the Pacific Coast Highway south from Point Lobos. Be sure to catch Hearst Castle at San Simeon, the home of William Randolph Hearst. Alternatively, continue north from Jenner toward Mendocino, Fort Bragg and the Oregon border.

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way for Exploring CA 1:

Dress comfortably for walking and exploring towns and roadside attractions, but bring a jacket or other dress-up accessories since you might want to dine in an upscale restaurant along the way.  

This Destination at a Glance:

Over 50 Advantage: Self-paced touring through gorgeous scenery.

Mobility Level: Low, with the minimum agility required getting in and out of a car and walking short distances. Some optional hikes can be strenuous.

When to Go: Any time. The California coastal climate is relatively mild year-round but winters are often rainy.

Where to Stay: Many choices are available along the highway, ranging from campgrounds to luxury hotels.  

Special Travel Interests: Nature, photography, wine.  

There are impressive coastal vistas from the paths in Point Lobos. | Photos by Jeffrey Orenstein

Jews Along California Highway 1

Jews and Jewish life can be found all along portions of California Highway 1. Jewish congregations, kosher food and wine, and Jewish institutions are scattered throughout the state, and this region is no exception.

Starting in wine country, there has been a Jewish presence since the California gold rush. Both Napa and Sonoma have significant Jewish communities with several congregations and some Jewish institutions. Despite some historic bouts of anti-Semitism, quite a few Jews reside there today and are important members of the local wine and tourism economy.    

Not surprisingly, the epicenter of Jewish life is in San Francisco and Oakland, the region’s biggest cities. The almost 100,000 Jews living in the area are fully involved in public life, education and business. Congregations representing all varieties of Judaism and Jewish institutions are easy to find on both sides of San Francisco Bay.

While not many early Bay-area Jews were miners, they established businesses that catered to those seeking gold. Levi Strauss, who sold overalls to those hoping to strike it rich, was one of the area’s most famous early residents. The University of California-Berkeley also has a large Judaic studies program.

In Santa Cruz, Jewish history dates to the 1850s. The local Jewish cemetery, Home of Peace Cemetery, started in 1877, and may be the oldest continuously operated Jewish gravesite west of the Mississippi River. There are about 7,000 Jews in the area and many are affiliated with the University of California-Santa Cruz.

In the Monterey Peninsula, there are Jewish communities and congregations in Monterey and Carmel.


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