Grande Plans: Big Sur, California and The Pacific Coast Highway

Dreaming of the Pacific... (Photo: Medhat Ibrahim, My Shot)
“California Love.” The Bixby Bridge sits in the distance surrounded by cliffs and ocean waves in Big Sur, California (Photo: Medhat Ibrahim, My Shot)

It’s a bittersweet time for us. A dear friend of ours recently accepted a position at a brewery in northern California and leaves in a few days to explore other side of the country. While it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity for him, it will be sad to see an empty seat in the canoe when our crew ransacks the lake house in New Hampshire this summer.

On the bright side, his relocation opens up an opportunity to visit California for the first time and possibly complete a very high-ranking item on my bucket list: drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a rented convertible.

That’s right. This New England boy has always dreamed of a legendary On The Road departure–a quarter-life crisis. Just “go Kerouac on everyone’s ass” and disappear in the middle of the night for San Francisco in search of adventure, intoxicants, and any life experiences that may come. In my head, I glamorize the vagabond beat-poet lifestyle: fending off dirty dealers & booze-addled women, sipping coffee at 24-hour diners, and huffing down Marlboro reds.

However, at this point in my life, I’d gladly settle for a fresh fish taco with jalapeno, avocado, and a killer sauce.

The Bixby Bridge spans across the creek along Route 1 on Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California. (Photo: Douglas Croft)
The Bixby Bridge spans across the creek along Route 1 on Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California. (Photo: Douglas Croft)

Early Stages: Planning the Road Trip

The Pacific Coast Highway runs from California to Oregon and is a truly exhilarating, cliff-hugging experience, so I’m told. Perhaps the most famous section is Big Sur, a sparsely populated coastal area named after the Spanish translation for “Big South.” Ironically, LA is nicknamed “Big Sewer” and is farther south.

There are no specific borders or boundaries, but Big Sur stretches along miles of mountainous coastline, epic cliffs, vast bridges, and winding roads with views that make even native Californians gasp in awe. It’s an all-American road, if such a thing exists, ranking among the nation’s most scenic and must-see drives. National Geographic included the route in their book, Drives of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Spectacular Trips.

Ready to “go Kerouac” yet?

The Pacific Coast Highway is a gorgeous stretch of road running hundreds of miles along the coast from California to Oregon.
The Pacific Coast Highway is a gorgeous scenic road stretching over 1700 miles along the coast from California to Oregon. (Photo: National Geographic)

The Big Sur scenic route starts somewhere in San Luis Obispo and travels north up the coast to Monterey (I’m assuming that’s Californian-speak for “one small surf town to another small surf town”), but Laura and I plan on starting farther away in LA and ending up slightly north of San Francisco to visit our friend. Avoiding all highways turns a leisurely five-hour drive into more than nine. But, we’ve always dreamed of doing this together. We imagine it would be like that movie Sideways except awesome.

Either way, we need a car.

The first thing to do before renting a car is to check for coupons, deals, and promotions. That’s obvious enough.

Rental cars are significantly cheaper away from the airports, so we plan on site-seeing in Hollywood, dry-humping Tom Cruise’s front gate in Beverly Hills, and getting shot in Compton before picking up a car elsewhere. One-way trips always cost more per day, so only reserve a car for the actual road trip, not the entire vacation. Public transportation in LA and San Francisco are far less horrendous than whatever Boston puts forth, so getting around town is not an issue.

It’s no secret that convertibles will cost more to rent than economy cars (in my recent searches on Avis, Budget, and Enterprise up to 400% more in some cases). So, be prepared to pay a premium or settle for something less extravagant.

Fuel up before leaving civilization. Gas on certain parts of the Pacific Coast Highway is notoriously expensive because, well, it’s so god damn remote. Sparsely populated is not hyperbole. Recent reviews and posts on TripAdvisor report gas as high as $7/gallon. I suppose being so isolated has its perks and its pitfalls, so make sure to gas up before leaving. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to pack a gallon or two of water, some energy bars, and a fire-starting tool… just in case.

Don't die out there, kid. Photo: Les Stroud, Survivorman
Please, don’t die out there, dude. (Photo: Les Stroud, Survivorman)

Our first foray on the west coast is still in the works. More research and planning needs to happen to make sure the good stuff isn’t missed and the bad stuff is avoided.

To me, the anticipation that comes from preparing for a big trip is almost as exciting as the actual trip itself. I love researching different restaurants & attractions and getting to know the lay of the land before ever stepping foot on it. I thoroughly enjoy discovering and sharing local hints & tips that the average tourist overlooks.

I also love it when everything goes to shit and you end up wearing a poncho and eating hot dogs in the rain, laughing, trying not to let too much rainwater fall in your beer.

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