This is the first part in Caitlin Martin’s three-part MINI roadtrip series exploring KOA campgrounds. Check out the rest of the series below:
Ah, the great American “roadtrip”! Remember the simple joy of hitting the open road with family and friends? And that feeling of cruising in an awesome car, wind blowing in your hair, without a care in the world? Well, my boyfriend and I set out to do just that. And to see some sights in our state along the way since we tend to be in planes more than driving our cars. We set out in my precious red MINI Convertible up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), aka California State Route 1. You can’t really get more awesome than a red convertible for this iconic ride. Our destination? Santa Cruz to stay in our very first Airstream at Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA.
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)
California offers some of the most incredibly scenic and notable drives in the country. The Pacific Coast Highway is a 665-mile stretch of road that runs from Orange County near Dana Point up the coast of California to its northern termination point in Mendocino County north of San Francisco. The road was built over several decades, but construction of the first segment began in the 1930s in Big Sur. The stretch we would be driving would take us from the South Bay area over 400 miles to Santa Cruz in the north. Not all the driving would be on quaint two-lane, beach-front roads as the PCH merges and becomes collocated with the 101 in several sections. But the scenery is always unbeatable.
Tip: Try to avoid those winding coastal roads at night because the driving can be more challenging.
Notable PCH sights, LA to Santa Cruz
Our favorite stops and tourist destinations in the order we found them on our way to Santa Cruz.
The first real stop on our trek northward was in the town of Santa Barbara. Positioned about 105 miles from our starting point in Los Angeles, this coastal California town mixes a laid-back beach-town vibe with Mediterranean flair. On a recommendation, we stopped at the Santa Barbara Harbor to check out Brophy Bros. Restaurant and Clam Bar. This two-story eatery showcases awesome views of the harbor and surrounding mountains. We chowed down on great oysters and my boyfriend opted for their cioppino, a house favorite. Also don’t miss the clam chowder. Bellies full, we drove the MINI around beautiful downtown Santa Barbara, taking in the Spanish tile roofs with the top down, before getting back on the road and heading north.
2. Morro Bay
We selected Morro Bay as our overnight stop on the PCH for no other reason than its midway location along our route. Little did we know the treat we were in for. Upon our arrival at the Bayfront Inn, we found ourselves in the middle of the 34th Annual Morro Bay Harbor Festival.
The festival features fresh seafood from local vendors, live music, and shopping. We dined on barbecued oysters as we watched an ABBA tribute band play their hits. We finished up the evening by watching the dazzling fireworks display before heading back to our hotel.
We woke staring at the striking dome-shaped Morro Rock. Eager to get underway, we drove to the rock, took a couple photos, and got underway.
3. Hearst Castle
Probably one of the most famous stops along the PCH as it winds up the central coast is Hearst Castle. This striking and awe-inspiring structure was the property of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who initiated its construction in 1919. Designed by San Francisco architect Julia Morgan, the house was under construction in one form or another until 1947. Following Hearst’s death in 1951, the property was maintained in his trust until 1958, when it became a California State Park.
Tickets are required and a stop at the visitors center includes admission to a quick movie about Hearst’s life and his attachment to the land around San Simeon. The movie adds some context to the grandiose opulence we would shortly see!
Tip: A bus connects the visitors center with the castle itself and provides great views of the hilltop residence and the Pacific Ocean below.
The castle itself is truly unbelievable. We selected a Grand Rooms Tour which included a tour of the Assembly Room, Refectory, and Theater. Each room was more lavishly appointed than the next. Art that Hearst had accumulated throughout his lifetime was everywhere, including paintings and tapestries. Our guide even explained how the size of certain rooms was dictated by the fact that Hearst had already purchased ancient ceilings to adorn them! Once the guided tour was over, we wandered on our own around the beautifully landscaped property. We could have spent several more hours at the house, but we had to hit the road.
4. McWay Falls
Located inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, just south of Big Sur, McWay Falls is one of the most scenic and photographed spots on California State Route 1. Park your car and walk the waterfall trail back under the PCH until you can see the continual stream of water falling 80 feet onto the beach below and into the ocean. During high tide, the waterfall flows directly into the ocean, one of only two waterfalls in the region to do so. We took the time to stretch our legs, snap some photos and enjoy the scenery before jumping back in the MINI and heading north.
5. Monterey Bay Aquarium
My boyfriend’s favorite stop along the way had to be Monterey Bay Aquarium (he SCUBA dives, so what should I expect?). Located along the Monterey Bay on the famous Cannery Row, the aquarium features fish and wildlife from the California coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Tip: The cute sea otters and penguins were the highlight of my visit. Also check out the “Open Sea” exhibit and see some huge fish, including bluefin tuna and sharks!
The aquarium’s location on Cannery Row makes it a great stop for a day in Monterey. But if you’re looking for a quieter experience, Carmel-by-the-Sea has all the charm you’d expect from a coastal California village.
Our final destination: Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA
After two days of peaceful driving and many, many stops along the way, we finally made it to our final destination: the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA.
We selected the campground’s unique Airstream trailer as our accommodation for the weekend because: 1) The Airstream looked awesome, and 2) We wanted a camping experience but with little luxuries like a bathroom and comfy bed. The Airstream is just one of several unique options that KOA offers at its properties across the country. Other sites have options like tents, teepees, and even cabooses!
Our Airstream slept up to four people with a forward bedroom containing a comfortable queen bed and a dinette that converted to two twin beds. The kitchen included a stove a cooktop, a refrigerator, and all the utensils you could need to make dinner after a day exploring. We thought the Keurig and included K-cups were a nice touch. The bathroom was the only reminder we were in a travel trailer and not a hotel. The shower while nice, though a little small, and the bathroom had a camping toilet which took some getting used to. The Wi-Fi was also appreciated by those of us that can’t completely disconnect. It was pretty much what we expect from a hotel, but in a shiny aluminum package!
The uniqueness of our trailer continued outside with a funky, vintage outdoor patio table and chairs set upon the green artificial turf you’d expect to see in front of an Airstream! Also included in our stay was our own grill and firepit—everything you’d need for a family barbecue under the stars.
Glenn was happy to point out the great family-friendly activities at KOA like the Express Fun Train and Big Bouncer, a giant inflatable jumping airbag (it’s for big kids too!). We were happy the Santa Cruz KOA was centrally located in Santa Cruz, a perfect launching point for sightseeing in the Santa Cruz area, and as soon as I pulled my boyfriend off the Big Bouncer, we got to experience it firsthand.
An Airstream at Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA starts at $164.30/night.
Santa Cruz for sundown
At Glenn’s suggestion, we made our way first to downtown Santa Cruz and then down beautiful Cliff Drive to Natural Bridges State Beach. Tucked in suburban Santa Cruz, this beach actually has a lot jammed into a rather small space. The beach itself faces a natural bridge stone archway just offshore and has several tidal pools. They are great for looking at marine life that populates them as the tide goes out. The most surprising section of the park was the Monarch Trails, which contain thousands of Monarch butterflies as they arrive from their migration to feast on the eucalyptus trees. They were clustered everywhere and I just loved watching them!
Tip: The state suggests November as the best month for viewing the butterflies, as they generally arrive in mid-October and leave again in February.
Then we chose to view the sunset from Wilder Ranch State Park. The coastal park has fantastic hiking trails and is relatively flat. The walk into the park through grassland gives way to spectacular cliffs with the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing below. I could not think of a more beautiful place to watch the sunset than here.
Tip: The trail is unlit and does get dark rather quickly after the sun goes down, so I strongly recommend bringing a flashlight!
While flying to Monterey and Santa Cruz would have certainly been faster, the experience of driving and stopping along the way to take in all the beautiful sights along the Pacific Coast Highway was simply unbeatable. And the whole experience definitely lived up to the old adage: Getting there really IS half the fun!
The MINI had fun…
And so did I (I think it was partially because of my awesome travel companion!):
Caitlin Martin’s three-part roadtrip series continues here.
Photos credited to Spencer Marker.