Goals. That’s a concept we all understand. We set goals in every aspect of our lives.
Many years ago, I picked up a book by Chris Guillebeau and fell in love with his approach to travel.
Chris didn’t set up a simple goal to travel more. He didn’t set up a bucket list to cities he wanted to visit. Instead, he made it a quest to visit all 193 countries in the world and to do it before his 35th birthday.
He has several published books to his name. But I picked up “The Happiness of Pursuit” about the time we started making plans to slow travel the rest of our lives.
Chris defines a quest as:
A long term pursuit with a clear goal or destination. There are milestones and stages along the way. There’s also a lot of challenges, because a quest should never be too easy. Lastly, there’s usually an element of transformation or change that occurs during the journey.
Yep, that sounded like something I’d love to partake in. But I found that quests aren’t something you pull out easily like you do goals. Instead, quests find you.
As we moved up to the Pacific Northwest, my first quest popped into my head.
The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most recognizable road trips in the world. It consistently makes top lists of places to visit in a lifetime. And while I’d hopped onto the 101 here and there in my life, I set my sights on seeing the entire Pacific Coast Highway from the Canadian to the Mexican border, and visit it in detail.
This wasn’t a quest I wanted to fulfill in a week – though a lot of people do. Instead, I wanted to chunk it. To see bits and pieces of it here and there, and really get to enjoy what each area has to offer.
After completing my quest this past month, I’ve put together a guide to share all I’ve come to love about the Pacific Coast Highway. Breathtaking sites, not to be missed stops, things to see, where you should spend your time – I want to give you all the best parts so you can explore based on what you want to see and do.
Plus, I’ll be giving you a little bit about what I came to discover about myself in the process. This is, after all, a site on midlife reinvention. And after 1,650 miles of travel and exploration, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two about myself!
The Pacific Coast Highway is a bit different in Washington. I’ve seen a lot of travelers jump on I-5 to complete their roadtrip, but that isn’t how the 101 meanders through the state. Instead, the 101 is a loop that feeds through some of the most beautiful country in the Pacific Northwest. It starts in the middle of the state in the capital city of Olympia. Then it weaves its way through the Olympic National Park before finishing at the border at Cape Disappointment.
What I love most about the Pacific Northwest is it’s very easy to get “lost” and feel like you’re the only one driving or hiking on the trails. Yes, it gets busier in the heart of summer. But outside of July and August, traffic dies down to a trickle. You’re in the Pacific Northwest; it’s going to rain in the fall, winter, and spring. But the rain brings out the romance of it all – we’ve had great experiences every season of the year.
Here’s a little bit of trivia for you. Officer and a Gentleman was filmed in the Olympic Peninsula, specifically at Port Townsend and Fort Worden, since the US Navy didn’t permit filming at Pensacola. I went back and watched it a while back and loved seeing now-familiar places in the film.
This part of the Pacific Coast Highway is all about driving, hiking, and taking in the views. If you want to stop and stay awhile, head into Port Townsend, one of my favorite small towns on this stretch of highway. You’ll find eclectic stores to shop in and a wide variety of restaurants to meet all of your needs.
Port Angeles is also one of the larger towns on your journey around the 101. We’ve explored the waterfront several times, as this is also home to the Port Angeles ferry system that connects with Victoria, British Columbia. If you have the time, walk on board and spend a day in Victoria. Just be sure to take your passport. It’s a walkable city – I love it!
Cape Flattery is the northwesternmost tip on the continental US. Honestly, it doesn’t matter where you choose to hike, you’re going to find soul-searching forests, nothing but quiet as you hike along with rarely anyone else in sight. Just watch the signs and stick to marked trails. Keep your eyes open as you’ll probably see bald eagles flying overhead.
A lot of the 101 in Washington doesn’t have water views. But you will find stunning forests and quaint little towns that hold your attention as you zip down the road.
Cape Disappointment sits on the southernmost tip of Washington, right before you take a breathtaking ride over Megler Bridge to continue your 101 journey into Oregon. Washington and Oregon are separated by the Columbia River. Head back to your school days and remember the story of Lewis and Clark. This is Lewis and Clark country; they discovered this land back when they were attempting to find an easier trade route. There is a lot of history here if that’s your thing. We’ve come back to this area over and over again, learning all about how this area was discovered.
Astoria is the first city you’ll cross into on the Oregon side. This is one of my favorite coastal towns. It’s about 90 minutes from Portland, and it has wonderful shops and restaurants. You’ll even find cruise ships stopping in for the day in the summer before heading up to Alaska.
Another little bit of trivia for you. The Goonies was filmed in Astoria. I went back and watched that movie a while back, and loved picking out the landmarks as the kids wandered through town. Especially as they flew down hills on their bikes, and landed on a recognizable part of Cannon Beach, which is more than 25 miles away.
If you loved the Goonies, be sure to grab lunch at Astoria Brewing Company. Don’t forget to add a few Goonies souvenirs to your bill. On nice days, they roll back the windows and let the fresh breeze flow inside. Keep an eye out towards the water as you’ll probably see sea lions jumping and playing.
Then pick up the 101 once again, sit back, and enjoy the views as you meander down the Oregon coast. It’s some of the most beautiful scenery on the west coast. You can’t go wrong by stopping, hiking, and exploring anywhere.
Fort Stevens is worth a stop if you have the time and love history. It was built to guard the mouth of the Columbia River during the American Civil War and remained an active military installation until 1947.
Everyone talks about Cannon Beach because it’s breathtaking. You’ve probably seen the iconic Haystack Rock over and over again. Cannon Beach has all kinds of quaint shops, lots of great restaurants, and the busiest beach in the state. Granted, it’s not California busy, so even in the summer you’ll be able to have a little personal space as you walk the beach.
If you want to avoid the crowds, just to the north of Cannon Beach is Ecola State Park. Park at the top for fantastic views. Look for the trail that leads down to a beach that is only accessible by hiking down to it, or at low tide when you can walk over from Cannon Beach. You’ll get a walk in a forest AND a walk along the beach all in one day! (Shh, don’t tell anyone else. It’s our secret. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had the beach to ourselves.)
Of course, there’s so much more to see!
How about taking a Tall Ship tour in Coos Bay?
Or checking out one of the many lighthouses along the way.
Or enjoying the turbulent waters.
Don’t forget to spend some time on the sand dunes in Florence.
Or just having fun!
As you cross over from Oregon to California, the scenery remains breathtaking mile after mile.
As we drove the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California, the rocky beaches we love in Oregon remain. Yet it’s breathtakingly unique in its own right.
The Redwoods are here. You don’t know what big is until you stand next to one of these trees.
When in San Francisco, be sure to do all the touristy things, just because. Like Alcatraz, Chinatown, or the Wharf. The sea lions never get old. 😉
My journey stopped at the Bay area until my last trip. (I’ll cover Carmel to Santa Barbara in more detail in the next section.)
LA is all about palm trees and beaches. Sneak off the beaten path and you’ll find a treasure trove of unique neighborhoods with shops and restaurants to please any palate. (How about Venice?)
When In San Diego, you can’t miss places like La Jolla. Watch sea lions from afar. Or take a tour of the Midway and learn a little more about our history. Or spend some time on Coronado Island.
What I Learned While Cruising The PCH
In November, we completed our journey by driving along the coast from Carmel to Santa Barbara. We drove from LA up to Carmel By The Sea on the 101, and returned following the coast on Highway 1. And it surprised me – both the 101 and 1.
The 101 is flatter, more desolate, drier than I anticipated. Coming from Oregon, I guess I expected it to be more like the rolling hills throughout the farm country here. Not to say it wasn’t beautiful in its own right. Just different.
Highway 1 was more remote than I anticipated. There’s not a lot along that stretch of road other than hills and ocean views. There were visible signs of the landslide damage, enough that it gave an eerie appearance as we drove through there through patches of fog.
You know that picture of Bixby Bridge – one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world? The one you see in television shows like Big Little Lies and more? Yeah, we didn’t get it. The day we crossed it was so foggy, we could barely see the other side. Oh well.
But that’s what I love most about traveling. You can go into any situation expecting one thing, and experience something completely different. All of my planning wouldn’t make the fog disappear the day we drove the Pacific Coast Highway, and that’s okay.
Because we loved every moment of our trip anyway.
When we arrived in Carmel, we dropped off our bags at a wonderful little boutique hotel called the Pine Inn. Built in 1889, the suites were quaint and luxurious at the same time. And the complimentary breakfast the next morning … yummm!
Of course, we had to visit the beach. That’s a requirement whenever we get the chance.
But soon, our stomachs talked, and we listened. As we were eyeing the menu of a small little restaurant, Daimetra Cafe, in the heart of downtown, a couple stopped and assured us we couldn’t go wrong by heading inside. They knew the owner and said it was one of the best in Carmel. We opened the door and took a seat just inside the door. The food was fabulous. The ambiance was just what we needed after a day of traveling. And when the owner came out with a guitar to sing happy birthday to someone at a table nearby, I joined in and danced around the room, enjoying being in a place where celebrating life was at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
We continued walking around town and snapping photos – that’s what photographers like to do wherever they go.
A woman noticed us and made a suggestion for the following day. “You have to go to Point Lobos. And take the Cypress Grove Trail. It’s simply breathtaking.” With a recommendation like that, we couldn’t refuse.
She wasn’t kidding. It was gorgeous! And we have the photos to prove it!
After another long day of driving, we found ourselves in Santa Barbara at the Brisas Del Mar, Inn At The Beach. The staff was friendly and helpful, and made all kinds of suggestions for dinner and things to do. After walking around town and snapping photos from the pier, we decided to opt for a night in to enjoy our comfy suite instead. We ordered takeout from Tyger Tyger and returned home to enjoy it with the complimentary bottle of wine we received when we checked into our hotel
We found a vegan restaurant – Mesa Verde – I wish it were a lot closer to our home in Portland.
We witnessed Monarch butterflies at Pismo Beach as they came to rest on their migratory journey.
And all too soon, it was time to leave.
But that’s the whole point of quests. Eventually, they come to an end.
I’ve traveled more than 1,600 miles to see every inch of coastline from the Canadian to the Mexican border. I’ve met countless people who made recommendations, or stopped to have a friendly chat. I’ve taken in some of the most breathtaking scenery North America has to offer.
If you don’t think travel will change you, then you haven’t traveled.
Too many people say they’ll travel someday. For too many people, someday never comes. They have heart attacks. The face cancer. They make up excuses to why they just can’t do it right now.
I never traveled outside of the Midwest until I married. I never saw an ocean until I was 22.
Once I started traveling, it changed everything.
To see the world makes you look at your own life in a different way. It opens your heart to what’s possible. It makes your dreams come alive, and seem just a little more doable. It builds confidence. It shows you just how much we’re all alike.
It’s the ultimate in personal growth.
I’ve finished my quest to travel the Pacific Coast Highway. Thanks PCH for all the memories. Now it’s time to create a new dream.