When I initially booked our visit to Morro Bay, one of my goals was to use it as a jumping off point to drive a particularly scenic portion of the Pacific Coast Highway. The PCH is a 1675 mile coastal road that begins in Washington state and ends in Southern California. The section we were interested in, between San Luis Obispo and Carmel, includes the oft photographed Big Sur and is designated a National Scenic Byway. Driving the PCH has been a bucket list item for years and our visit to Morro Bay seemed like the perfect opportunity to make it happen.
But, in January, just a couple days after I booked our stay, this happened:
A massive rainstorm that dumped 7+ inches of rain in an area ravaged by wildfires last year resulted in a mudslide that took out over 150 feet of the road.
These landslides have been a regular occurrence on the PCH for decades, but they are becoming more frequent and more destructive as climate change continues its assault on the environment. (As I understand it, the state closes the road when big storms are forecast in order to keep drivers from getting killed in a landslide…which is very nice of them.)
As you can imagine, fixing a problem like this takes a lot of time, money, and manpower. Prior landslides had resulted in road closures that extended between 8 and 14 months. Fortunately, the state estimated this repair wouldn’t take quite that long, but it would still be too late for us. We would be in Morro Bay for the month of April and CalTrans, the state’s department of transportation, was estimating they would have the road re-opened by the Summer.
But, all was not lost. Within a couple weeks, CalTrans created turnarounds on the north and south sides of the damage, allowing tourists to drive most of the route either from the north or south.
We figured we’d take a trip from the south and just see what we could see before the turn around.
However, before we could even do that, the good folks at CalTrans announced they were moving the schedule up! They announced they would actually be done and have the road re-opened by April 30…. which was the day I was scheduled to get my second vaccination and the day before we left the area.
BUT…a funny thing happened the night before we planned to drive up the southern portion. I was on google maps figuring out where we should stop and I noticed the road was completely open!
Turns out, CalTrans was able to finish their work even ahead of their accelerated schedule!
How could this be? How could this go from a 6 or 7 month project to a 3.5 month project to a 3 month project?? My guess is, it went something like this:
Frank: Hey boss… Ya know how the plan calls for each section of bracing to have 12 bolts? Well, I’ve just been using 3 bolts and it seems to be holding up fine! Whaddaya think?
Boss: Tomato-Tomahto, Frank. Tomato-tomahto.
And with that, we were off!
(PS: Thank you, CalTrans District 5 – Y’all rock!!)
The Pacific Coast Highway
The portion of the PCH we traveled, between Morro Bay and Carmel, is about 110 miles long. There are times the road leaves the coast and goes a bit inland, but the vast majority of it hugs the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. For RVers, we would strongly suggest leaving your rig at whatever campground you’re staying at and driving your car. While oversized vehicles are not prohibited on this stretch of the PCH, and plenty of people do it, I can promise you, this guy was not having fun…
In addition to the whole ‘trying to not crash into someone while driving in the wrong lane” thing, many of the overlooks and vistas have limited space for parking, so driving the PCH in a big RV would result in a whole lot of stress with very few rewards.
If, on the other hand, you are in a smaller RV or you are planning to tent camp, there are some state park campgrounds along the way that looked positively dreamy.
No matter what your plans, be aware there’s no cell coverage, very few services, and no street lights, so plan ahead, come well prepared, and try to be off this stretch of roadway before it’s completely dark.
Heading north from Morro Bay, there are several pretty, sandy beaches and look outs, but the first must-see stop is the elephant seals rookery in San Simeon. While there are always seals on the beaches in this location, there are several particularly popular times: winter, when males arrive and try to stake their claims on pupping areas, early Spring when pregnant females arrive to give birth and then mate again, and late Spring, when seals return to molt. We were there when there were young pups still on the beach and some of the older ones were in the process of molting.
As we continued our trek north, the road started twisting and turning and gaining elevation over the sea. The landscape was rocky with little vegetation, but by looking far enough into the distance, we could see the colors of the water start to change.
As we drove the next section, we were blown away by just how turquoise the ocean was:
We also noticed hundreds of seals, visible here as little black marks in the water, swimming away from the coastline. The bridge is the Big Creek Bridge which spans the Big Creek River.
Somewhere in this area, we came around a corner and saw an incredible floral display on both sides of the road. On the right, was this little island carpeted with bright pink flowers and on the left, creating a border between the road and the ocean, were hundreds of California’s state flower, the poppy:
I’m still not sure what this area was or who maintains it (you can see there’s an empty sign post standing among the pink flowers), but it was strikingly beautiful and pretty much everyone driving the PCH stopped to admire the scene.
Soon, we got to our first major stop: McWay Falls, which is part of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. There’s a small parking area on the east side of the PCH which also provides access to several inland trails, however, the belle of the ball is accessed by a quarter mile trail that goes under the highway, and leads to an overlook:
The viewing area looks down on a rare beachside waterfall next to the jewel colored sea:
Unfortunately, the overlook beyond this point was closed for construction, so this was as far as we could get. Visitors are not permitted on the beach at all.
Continuing on, we pulled over to take in this view from Sea Otter Viewpoint. Though we didn’t see any otters, we did notice this impressive cliff side home with its rather enviable views (unless there’s a mudslide in which case, it’s not so enviable anymore.)
Hurricane Point & Bixby Bridge
Bixby Bridge is one of the most iconic landmarks on the PCH. If you’re coming northbound, definitely stop at Hurricane Point to take in this epic view. If you look closely, you can see the bridge out in the distance.
Once you cross the bridge itself, there are small parking lots on both sides of the road where you can admire the bridge, from the back:
and the front:
This part of the PCH is Big Sur which boasts all the quintessential elements of this spectacular byway. The scenery is dramatic with plunging cliffs, crashing waves, rolling green hills, and stands of remarkably colorful wildflowers.
Garrapata State Park
Eventually, we stopped at Garrapata State Park and walked the Bluff Trail. Here, the rocky coastline is carpeted in greenery. The Bluff Trail also includes natural stairs carved into the cliffs as well as a wooden bridge over a creek. The trail’s designer did a fantastic job of making the whole trail blend into the cliffs without standing out.
Point Lobos State Reserve
The endpoint of our trek north was Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Here, we meandered sections of several walking trails, taking note of the beautiful wildflowers and the variety of tree and plant life:
Down on the beach, we gawked at the swirling tides and listened to the thundering waves:
If we’d had more time, we would have loved to walk the entire 7 mile loop trail that circumnavigates the park, but we knew we needed to head home.
Once we turned south, the views only got better as the sun dropped in the sky:
On our way back we stopped at a different section of Garrapata State Park to find the Calla Lily Valley. Yep, that is a thing that exists on this planet – an entire valley, just a couple hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean, bursting with striking white calla lilies.
Seriously, California: now you’re just showing off.
As you can see, our visit was at the very end of their season and the flowers were starting to die, but it was still quite a sight.
We headed further south, stopping briefly to take in the view of Bixby Bridge from Notley’s Landing:
and stopped once more at Hurricane Point to take a couple sunset photos, one of which is the featured image at the top of this post. If you look really closely at that photo, you can see a bunch of cows in the center of the grassy area. I guess they get dinner and a view every evening.
Nearby, we spotted this incredible house, perched on the very top of a cliff, surrounded by trees, and enclosed primarily in glass.
Talk about getting away from it all…
Continuing south, we watched the sun set, took a few last snaps, and headed for home.
To say the Pacific Coast Highway lived up to expectations would be an understatement. This was an absolute standout travel day and one of the best experiences we’ve had on the road. We couldn’t see everything (Hearst Castle was closed, we didn’t have time to stop for lunch at the oft-recommended Nepenthe Restaurant, etc.) but over the course of about 10 hours, we saw an unbelievable amount of stunning scenery.
Montana de Oro State Park is located on the coast just south of Morro Bay. I didn’t include it in my last post because it’s not a town, and it’s not actually part of the PCH, but it’s a beautiful park worth a visit if you find yourself near Morro Bay. The best way to experience it is to walk the 4 mile bluff trail that tracks the coastline. Other trails lead up into the hills and offer commanding views over the park and ocean if you’re looking for a bigger challenge.
This section of coastline is just as striking as Big Sur, and if you visit during Spring, you’ll enjoy loads of colorful wildflowers in addition to the sensational ocean views.
If you find yourself in the area, don’t miss it!
Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and exploring U.S. 395.
Where we stayed: Cypress Morro RV Park, Morro Bay, California