Another day, another road trip. This week we’re in Los Angeles, heading north for a jaunt along one of our all-time favourite roads – the Pacific Coast Highway, which (mostly) hugs the California shore between Dana Point in Orange County up to Mendocino County in the north.
Setting off from Santa Monica, this little section of the PCH would take well under two hours non-stop but we’re throwing in a little diversionary loop for good measure – which will add about another hour – as well as a few other worthwhile distractions…
Topanga Canyon Loop
Taking central Santa Monica’s oceanfront stretch of Highway 1 as our starting point, head north towards Malibu passing Palisades Park on your right. Half a mile after the entrance to Getty Villa – featured in our recent guide to seeing LA for free – take a right onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard (Route 27). This is where we almost immediately head off route, for a scenic inland journey through one of the most legendary and infamous parts of L.A.
Topanga Canyon had already established itself as a 1920s weekend hideaway for Hollywood stars, but historically it’s better known as a bohemian enclave for artists and musicians, who flocked here en masse in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Locals at that time included Charles Manson who’d established his notorious ‘Manson Family’ in a nearby ranch, as well as — at various points — Woody Guthrie, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison and Neil Young, who recorded most of his After The Gold Rush album in his Topanga basement studio in 1970.
Follow the road up through the Santa Monica mountains and keep right when you reach the fork with the Old Canyon Road. Stay on route 27, which snakes circuitously through the hills and look out for the offbeat stores, diners and ramshackle saloons that punctuate the roadside. Turn left onto the Mulholland Highway (after stopping for outstanding views of the San Fernando Valley at the Top of Topanga Overlook) then carry on down to the Old Canyon Road which leads back to the aforementioned fork, and onwards to the PCH.
Topanga Canyon: turn right onto Route 27 half a mile after the Getty Villa entrance.
Point Dume State Preserve, Malibu
Carry on driving north along the Pacific Coast Highway and you’ll hit Malibu in about fourteen miles. Take a left turn onto Westward Beach Road and follow signs for Point Dume. This is an area of vast, wide sandy beach, headlands, cliffs and rocky coves and is a fantastic place to spot migrating California gray whales during the December to March migrating period.
Remember Charlton Heston’s emotional discovery of a rusting Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand in the original Planet of the Apes? That was filmed here. So was the classic ending of Coen brothers’ masterpiece The Big Lebowski where Walter and Dude unsuccessfully attempt to scatter Donnie’s ashes out to sea.
Point Dume State Preserve: take the Westward Beach Road turning off the Pacific Coast Highway at Malibu, and follow to the end of the road.
If you can, get the roof down and put some Beach Boys on because the only thing between Malibu and Ventura is fifteen miles of beautiful State beaches and the open road. As the town of Oxnard approaches, you’ll head inland and be directed through the centre until you hit the Ventura Freeway (US 101). The Pacific Coast Highway runs concurrently with 101 here – just carry on for another eight miles and you’ll end up right on Ventura Beach in front of the pier.
Ventura has some of the best surfing in California; sitting on the beach and watching the surfers roll in as the sun sets over the historic wooden pier is a quintessential West Coast experience, especially a few hundred metres north of the pier at Surfer’s Point Park. If you arrive earlier in the day, then have a mooch around historic downtown Ventura too – the area is home to an appealing assortment of vintage boutiques and secondhand stores, galleries, gift shops, coffeehouses and cafes, and a few very trendy restaurants. Ventura is also the departure point for boats to the Channel Islands National Park.
Ventura: Pacific Coast Highway/US 101 – Exits 68, 69 or 70a
Carpinteria Harbour Seal Rookery
As you leave Ventura, make sure you get back onto the two-lane PCH just after town to make the most of the ocean views. It will join back up with the 101 shortly before you reach tiny Carpenteria twenty miles north. The town’s major selling point is the Carpenteria Harbour Seal Rookery, which is home to nearly 100 adult seals who give birth to their pups on the Carpenteria shoreline. The beach on both sides of the rookery is closed during December and May’s pupping season, but the seals are there all year long and you can visit the preserve via the cliffs above, rather than via the beach. If you’re lucky, a member of the local Seal Watch voluntary organisation will be on hand to answer your questions.
Carpinteria Seal Rookery: Take the Bailard Avenue exit from US 101 and drive towards the ocean and the cliff-top car park.
It’s the final stretch of our journey – just ten miles north of Carpenteria lies seriously sunny Santa Barbara, dubbed the American Riveria for its astounding climate and laid-back lifestyle. This is California living at its most serendipitous. Tall swaying palms line the streets and beachfront, whitewashed Mediterranean-style architecture fills the downtown area, complete with the city’s trademark red-tiled roofs, and al fresco restaurants entice visiting road-trippers with fresh, regional and organic produce – bay scallops, shucked oysters and other kinds of seafood and shellfish are, of course, a speciality.
Visit Santa Barbara’s best known attraction, the old hilltop Mission just northwest of downtown. It’s home to a long-standing community of Franciscan friars, and the peaceful landscaped rose gardens have great views. Back on the waterfront, you can jump aboard a year-round whale-watching catamaran tour, rent a kayak and paddle along some secluded bit of coastline, or even learn how to surf or paraglide.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Los Angeles from London Heathrow airport. For fly-drive holidays to California, visit Virgin Holidays who will be able to tailor an adventure to your exact requirements.
Photos: Header shot of Santa Barbara © David M. Schrader | Dreamstime.com, Topanga Canyon © Vectorbug on Flickr, Point Dume © ggewen on Flickr, Ventura Pier © Dmitry Rogozhin | Dreamstime.com, Carpinteria © Georg Henrik Lehnerer | Dreamstime.com, Santa Barbara Mission © Klodien | Dreamstime.com.