Highway One: The Only Way to Experience California

Highway One
The Golden Gate Bridge along Highway One

Highway One, which slides down the California coast like a spine, is arguably one of the most iconic drives that exists in all of America—or, for that matter, in the world.

The flight from Charlotte to San Francisco will run you just over five hours, wheels touching down on the opposite coast in just enough time for you to have read a magazine and taken a nap. The plane ride there and back is, however, only the cursory travel that allows for the real trip to begin: tackling Highway One by automobile.

It’s not exactly a laid-back, loungey sort of vacation, though: The drive itself requires patience and an iron stomach, and to see as much as you can in each stop requires you hit the streets, beaches, and parks with abandon. But this is a breathtakingly unique block of travel, one that’s evocative of simpler times; the family-caravan style getaway that embodies Americana and the pull of West Coast lore that has colored our country for centuries.

Highway One
Highway One

This is a breathtakingly unique block of travel, one that’s evocative of simpler times; the family-caravan style getaway that embodies Americana and the pull of West Coast lore that has colored our country for centuries.

While you can’t really go wrong when exploring California by Highway One, we do have a few tips and tricks for making the most of your coastal exploration.

Since there’s no shortage of sights in San Francisco, our recommendation is to spend a few days exploring the surrounding area before securing yourself a car rental to gain the freedom to get straight to the heart of this trip; driving away from the Golden City via Highway One, along the dramatic, jagged Pacific coast and all the way down to southern, sunny San Diego. A two-night stop is what we used to break up the 10-plus hour drive (that, with stops, ends up more like 15) but, on a trip like this, the options are endless.

San Francisco

This city is sprawling yet contained, like the West Coast’s answer to Manhattan. Inside, the city is dense and concrete covered, but just moments outside, it’s all views and nature and coastal California glory.

The Clift Royal Sonesta in Union Square area served as home base. The Sonesta is classic San Francisco, and while its exterior is unassuming, stepping through the doors of the hotel transports you into a space inspired by the classic luxury hotels of the early 20th century, with a few carefully delivered dashes of the surreal—a little like that one time your 1950’s Mad Men-esque dad tried acid. Certain corners of the hotel house surprising, artistic details, like the (hugely) oversized furniture by Salvador Dalí, or, since we were there over Halloween weekend, the five-foot-tall sculpture of a bloodied spectre’s head hanging out right by the elevators. Our favorite space in the hotel had to be the legendary Redwood Room, a richly polished, refined bar created from the life of a single Redwood tree. Upstairs, the suites are spacious (really, our king suite was enormous), generously light-filled, and crisp, a detour from the moody, artistic haven waiting outside your door.

Stepping through the doors of the Clift Royal Sonesta transports you into a space inspired by the classic luxury hotels of the early 20th century, with a few carefully delivered dashes of the surreal—a little like that one time your 1950’s Mad Men-esque dad tried acid.

 

Highway One
Catching waves off Highway One

The hotel is in proximity to all you’d hope as a visitor: Fisherman’s Wharf, the Embarcadero, Nob Hill, Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, and Chinatown. San Fran is a walkable place, but when you do need to catch an Uber, prepare for a roller-coaster-esque ride through the impossibly hilly, twisting streets. Our best tip though is to actually get outside the city—the views are unparalleled from places like Twin Peaks, Marin Headlands, Baker Beach, and Dolores Park. Each offers different, but equally sweeping, vantage points of this vast city contained by water. We also drove, as a daytrip, to Muir Woods and Sonoma, and were able to make it back to the city in time for a late dinner.

A pre-sunrise departure from San Francisco via Highway One allowed us one final view from atop Twin Peaks, as the climbing sun bathed our panoramic views in impossibly golden light. We opted to tackle most of it at once, stopping in Laguna Beach for the night, but you could break the drive into two, three, or even five nights and not be disappointed. With coffees in hand, the drive began with some in-town routes, and we made it through Santa Cruz for a late breakfast.

Laguna

A few hours in, the Highway One drive became an endless array of staggering scenery with plenty of just-wide-enough pull off points. Big Sur, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Malibu all provided longer stopping points for us, along with the countless other unnameable mile markers that we couldn’t pass by without a quick jump out of the car. The essence of the drive seemed encapsulated in a passing moment we had, somewhere eight or nine hours in. As we stood overlooking the stunningly stark cliffs of the coast, I murmured, “Wow, this looks like… a whole other country.” To which editor JP Grice replied, simply, “Really? I think this is the most American place there is.” And it is, somehow, both: foreign, arresting, awe-inspiring, and… familiar.

We arrived late in Laguna Beach, well after dark. Pulling up to La Casa del Camino, located on one of Laguna’s main drags, was a relief: One of the favorite hotels among the stars of Hollywood’s golden age, the historic La Casa del Camino was built in 1929 and features Spanish-style guest rooms, each with their own individual design, and houses an iconic rooftop bar and downstairs restaurant.

Highway One
Laguna Beach along Highway One

Laguna itself is an active surf town, with some of the most beautiful and serene beaches I’ve seen, like Thousand Steps and Pearl Street. It’s also a little mecca of health and fitness: Our two mornings started in a very California-esque way, with an early walk to a wellness/juice bar followed by a session upstairs at a welcoming, boutique pilates studio called Fokus. Both served as the perfect refreshment after the long drive, and provided a little sneak peek into the community of Laguna. The people are warm and kind, and you get a sense quickly of what it would be like to actually live in this beloved ocean town. After breakfast, we headed straight to the sand.

 

San Diego

We arrived in downtown San Diego, less than a two hour drive down Highway One from Laguna, with aims of hitting Coronado, Mission Beach, and La Jolla. There was food to eat, bars to visit, and beaches to roam. But first, we checked in to the Kimpton Palomar in the Gaslamp District. The freshly-renovated boutique hotel is in walking distance to all of San Diego’s hot spots, and offers a rooftop outdoor pool and a vibrant Mexican restaurant (don’t miss the late-night taco window). Our suite, with huge floor-to-ceiling windows and a porch, offered up absolutely spectacular views of downtown San Diego from sunrise to sunset and every amenity we could have asked for. Downtown is walkable and vibrant, but getting 15-20 minutes outside the city allows you to access the coast, which is where San Diego really shines. Check out the many farmer’s markets, Little Italy, and chase some sunsets.

 

Highway One
Highway One

Lodge at Torrey Pines

La Jolla was our final stop, for its unbeatably picturesque views and wide swaths of nature access. To say The Lodge at Torrey Pines ended our Highway One road trip on a high note is an understatement: This is old-school luxury at its finest, a legendary AAA Five Diamond property that offers up views of the world-renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course and the Pacific Ocean. Guests of the richly appointed, Craftsman-style Lodge can take advantage of the nearly year-round perfect weather while hiking the Torrey Pines State Reserve, golfing on Torrey Pines Golf Course, or relaxing at the spa. We ate well, slept in perfect comfort, and enjoyed the many amenities The Lodge boasts.

On the flight back home, we jotted down our notes and memories, edited photos and videos, poured back over the last eight days, and bantered back and forth dates we could possibly next return. We may be far from the first to say it, but we’d be remiss to suggest anything other than how memorable this Highway One coastal California road trip truly is, and California sure is a hard place to leave.

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