For more context on this post, start at the beginning of the series, “Joshua Trees & Desert Adventures.”
I have to tell you, guys, that it’s been about three weeks since my sister and I came back home from our California road trip. And now that I’m finally “unclenching” after a particularly stressful 10-hour-workday, I:
- Feel like I’ve just taken the SAT test. 3 times.
- Need dessert. Stat. I’m thinking ice cream. Or a Reese’s cup. Or Reese’s cup ice cream.
- Am ready to be on vacation again. Preferably in California. Where all I cared about was where to point the car next, and which beach we should spend our day lounging on.
Luckily, tonight is the night that I was planning on writing this post about the last leg of the trip––the Pacific Coast Highway, and all the stops we took along the way.
(While it could be interpreted as such, that last sentence wasn’t actually sarcastic. Looking at these pictures is actually helping the situation tremendously. So is the bowl of ice cream I have next to me as I type this.)
Okay, so after leaving Sequoia National Park, we headed straight for the coast. We’d spent the past few days in the desert and the forest, and it was time to see the ocean. We started driving west.
For 2 1/2 hours, the landscape was dominated by grassy hills populated by supremely relaxed, fat red cows. No cows in the photo below, but believe me, there were a lot of them.
When we finally glimpsed the sea, it came as somewhat of a surprise. We cleared a hill, and there it was. A hazy strip of blue in the distance.
And then, it wasn’t hazy at all.
It was all jewel tones, white foam, and dramatic cliffs coming into focus, sharp and clear under the hot sun. Traveling along the coastline felt like driving on the edge of the world (the continental United States anyway), and––as the trip’s full-time designated driver––it was a feat of major self-control not to just stare out to my left at the ocean stretching away for miles.
Luckily, there were plenty of turnouts and “vista points” where we could stop, get out of the car, and do just that––stare. At the ocean, the cliffs, the sea birds, the wildflowers and succulents growing by the thousands on the rocks and grassy hills, and the cars––every single one of them seeming to pass by at an exaggeratedly slow pace, drivers and passengers alike gawking at a blue almost too blue to actually occur in nature.
Our first actual stop on the PCH? Hearst Castle.
This wasn’t part of our official itinerary (because yes, we are the kind of people who create itineraries before going on trips. Not that we don’t deviate from them often––but it’s always good to have a plan! Also, we’re nerds), but there seemed to be a lot of signs pointing to it, and anything with the word “castle” in it is worth a stop in my book. So we turned around and followed the signs.
I had the vague notion that Hearst Castle was the home of publishing/print media magnate William Randolph Hearst, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. I guess I was picturing something similar to the boxy, marble mansions you see in Newport or somewhere like that. But my East Coast expectations were dramatically exceeded by a whole new brand of West Coast excess.
This, is Hearst Castle:
But while the castle itself was extremely impressive (there was a cool––but very short and kind of expensive––tour of a few rooms inside the house), I think the surrounding gardens were even more insane. We were there in late May, and every plant was out at full force––roses, succulents, and other color-saturated blooms that I can’t name.
I would consider myself extremely lucky to be able to live in this GUEST HOUSE:
The view wasn’t bad either.
Remind me to tell my future gardener that roses and palm trees should always go together.
And that having a herd of African goat/gazelle/deer thingies on your property is a good idea. The actual name for these animals has completely slipped my mind. I vaguely recall Alex Trebek (who hilariously recorded the audio track that played on the bus ride up from the parking lot to the castle itself) telling us what they were called. Even a well-crafted Google search for “Hearst Castle deer thingies” failed to give me the answer. Ah well.
After spending the afternoon traipsing Hearst’s grounds and snapping photos of grandiose landscaping ideas, we got back on the road and started driving north towards Big Sur. On the way? This delightful beach full of sleepy elephant seals:
We were headed for Carmel Valley, which would be our home base for the next 4 to 5 days.
On our first day of being comfortably settled in our Airbnb, and after our first night of sleeping in an actual bed (As opposed to in a sleeping bag. In a tent. On the ground.), we had some very important things to take care of.
Namely: 1) Getting our gnarled, dirt-encrusted camping hands to a manicurist so that we could feel like girls again. And 2) Getting our gnarled, dirt-encrusted clothes to a laundromat so that they could feel like clothes again.
After our domestic morning at the manicurist & laundromat (located conveniently just 3 doors down from each other––shoutouts to Tina Nails and Sudz Cyber Laundry in Pacific Grove!), we headed to Kaitlin’s happy place: the aquarium.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, to be exact.
Seriously, Kaitlin was in fishy, anemone-filled heaven.
It was a bit of a cloudy day, as demonstrated by this shot near Fisherman’s Wharf…
So we decided to do some shopping.
We picked up a PILE of vinyl at an awesome place called Recycled Records, and had fun searching through the nooks and crannies of the Cannery Row Antique Mall. What can I say? My sister and I are into antiques. We’re basically 80-year-old grannies.
The next day, we slept late, and picked up sandwiches from a place called Compagno’s. We forgot to take pictures of the place, and the sandwiches, and the macaroni salad that Kaitlin was obsessed with, and the broccoli salad that I was obsessed with. But suffice it to say that their sandwiches are enormous. And really good.
Funny story, as they were taking my order, I was asked a simple question. “Half or whole?”
Without hesitation, my answer: “Whole. Please.”
The guy then asked me, “Will you two be sharing that?”
My answer: “……No.”
At which point a burly tattooed guy behind me started laughing. And a kindly elderly man in line in front of us turned around, gestured at the huge sandwich he was holding and said, “This is a half sandwich. I just don’t want you girls to hurt yourselves.”
At which point, I begrudgingly acquiesced to change my order to a half and tried really hard to not feel judged. Silver lining: We felt empowered to order the aforementioned mac salad and broccoli salad.
Our modestly enormous sandwiches in hand, we drove to Carmel Beach.
Where it wasn’t crowded at all. We set up our beach towels, had our sandwich picnic, and proceeded to do absolutely nothing on that beach for the next four glorious hours.
And we ended the day with a visit to Carmel Mission.
In the ensuing days, we continued to explore the area, heading South the way we came to Big Sur. We hiked the beach trail in Andrew Molera State Park, where we ended up having to cross a pretty cold and surprisingly deep stream just to get onto the trail. (No one told us about this, including the attendant in the parking lot, who I’m sure took one look at our long pants and had a good chuckle to himself). So that was fun!
But the trail was awesome.
And the beach ended up being totally worth it, of course.
We saw more beaches in and around Big Sur…
And the most striking thing about them was how few people there were. As someone who’s associated beach-going with memories of being umbrella to umbrella with other families on the Jersey shore, it was like finding the promised land.
Of course, a trip to Big Sur wouldn’t be complete without a hike through redwoods.
It’s really incredible just how many amazing natural wonders there are in such a short stretch of road. We ended the day at McWay Falls, which is a waterfall that flows right onto a beach and into the ocean.
The day after that, there was more hiking to be done. This time a little closer to our home base of Carmel Valley. We drove to Point Lobos in the morning, and it was a misty hike through flowers, fields, and rocky tide pools.
By the time we made it to San Francisco––the last stop and exit point for our trip, we were hanging around Haight-Ashbury, stopping in a bunch of cool stores and poking our noses into good-smelling restaurants…
But we were still dreaming of this: