Destination United States of America

From San Francisco to Monterey on the Pacific Coast Highway

The United States Department of Transportation recognizes the more than 600 miles of the legendary Pacific Coast Highway as a national heritage site due to its archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic value. Here is a view of the section that stretches along the coast of California known as California Route 1.

Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón

As the sun is barely peeking over the horizon, we are ready to leave our hotel in San Francisco for the legendary Pacific Coast Highway, or California Route 1. Countless houses and streets separate us from our destination, but the John F. Foran Freeway has us is in the middle of the scenery in just twenty-three minutes. The Pacific Coast Highway is famous for a reason: from the start of the journey the photogenic scenery that characterizes this roadway emerges everywhere.

Sharp Park Beach is our first stop. As we walk along the beach, we quickly learn about the brown sand’s high iron content. A place sought after by surfers the world over, we are told that during the summer athletes must share the waves with large schools of anchovies, which in turn are followed by seagulls and swallows, desperate to get a bite.

Three miles later we arrive at Linda Mar Beach, one of the most popular surfing spots in the region. It is three quarters of a mile long and it forms the shape of a perfect crescent. Thanks to a beach habitat restoration project, carried out from 1989 to 2005, from August to April a fence protects the nesting Western Snowy Plover, a bird in danger of extinction.

Just past the tunnel that goes from Linda Mar to the beach at Gray Whale Cove, we stop in front of a coastal promontory, where a cement structure known as Devil’s Slide sits: it is a WWII bunker built as part of the defense of the Port of San Francisco. But the bunker is not the most spectacular thing, it’s the incredible view it offers of the cliffs with the blue sea as a backdrop. I don’t know what the soldiers must have thought while they were on guard duty; I just look at the horizon, breathe, and relax to the cadence of the waves and the wind in my face.

Traveling towards Monterey, I see the first fearless surfers on the beach at Princeton Breakwater. I say “fearless” because during these months the water is very cold. The highway rocks us from bend to curve while we pass countless landscapes of infinite horizons with small beaches and dunes covered by native vegetation. After about fifty miles we arrive at Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which stands above a rock that was named for the ship Carrier Pigeon, which sank here in 1853. The lighthouse, built in 1871, is still an active navigation aid for the Coast Guard.

The winding road traces beaches and cliffs. There is the smell of the sea, the feel of the sea breeze, and the sound of the waves as they strike the mainland. It’s food for the senses. After about 114 miles, we reach our destination: Monterey.

Founded in 1770 under the name El Presidio Real de San Carlos de Monterrey, this city pulses with history. Long before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Rumsen Ohlone tribe lived here, one of seven Ohlone linguistic groups in California. The city also served as the first capital of the state of California, from 1777 to 1849.

As I face the bay and look out over its coastline I try to imagine why the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno christened it “Monterey Bay” in 1602. Its records served for it to become a docking port, still used for fishing and recreational boats. Throughout history, many flags have flown here, including the flags of the Rumsen tribe, Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Less known is that for six days, from November 24 to November 29, 1818, the Argentine flag was raised here, when the pirate Hipólito Bouchard, at the service of the United Provinces of South America, took Monterey Bay.

My ruminations vanish when my nephews urge us to hurry up and get to the aquarium. In the distance I can see Old Fisherman’s Wharf, the old pier where fish were once sold wholesale. Today it is a tourist attraction filled with seafood restaurants, casual outdoor bars, and formal restaurants overlooking the bay… Then we arrive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, across from the legendary Cannery Row, the street made famous by the writer John Steinbeck in his colorful stories. Today it is home to restaurants, hotels, attractions, and recreational activities.

The aquarium has eleven exhibits. My nephews run excitedly to get a close up view of a giant Pacific octopus, sea otters, and kelp forests (a type of giant seaweed). When visiting the aquarium, children and adults learn about marine life, the habitats of Monterey Bay, the ocean depths, and the open sea. Visitors also get to see the ocean’s rarest, most spectacular and curious creatures: the jellyfish. Since 1984, this aquarium has educated two million students and teachers with its free open programs. All of this is in addition to its research and environmental awareness programs, which include Seafood Watch, an electronic guide and app that indicates the most responsible edible seafood choices.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring every inch of the aquarium. When we pass the Reef Pavilion, my imagination once again takes flight as I recall pleasant dives in the Caribbean Sea alongside fish, coral, and multicolored sponges. The jellyfish pavilion really catches my attention. I have never seen such a variety of species; the diversity of their sizes and colors is fascinating. Here I can watch them without fear; jellyfish have tentacles made of stinging cells that they use to inject poison to capture prey or defend themselves.

We are now at the end of an amazing day. The Pacific Coast Highway has taken us along curves lined with infinite landscapes and diverse sandy beaches, the waves of which crash forcefully against rocky cliffs. My visit to the Monterey Aquarium helped me learn about what lies beneath the surface of these landscapes and see that there is much more than meets the eye. Each moment of this trip, covering about 125 miles of road and a thousand sensations, will remain etched in my memory. I hope to travel each of the six hundred miles of this scenic route.


Useful Information

The Pacific Coast Highway is 655 miles long and its construction began in 1934.

It was designated a National Scenic Byway, which limits development in the vicinity of the highway.

The road was built on the so-called “Camino Real,” a land route that linked the Spanish religious missions of Baja California with Upper California.

State Route 1, or Route 1, is part of the Pacific Coast Highway that runs along the Pacific coast of California.

Getting There

From North, Central, South America and the Caribbean, Copa Airlines offers a daily flight to San Francisco through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City.