personal reflections photography road trip

Pacific Coast Highway on the Winter Solstice

Travel is the frivolous part of serious lives, and the serious part of frivolous ones. – Anne Sophie Swetchine.

Less than 15 miles after leaving my home my eyes had already sighted two pods of whales spouting off the Big Sur coast on a 60 degree brilliant sunshine day, Friday, December 20.

Highway 1 is a winding road with cliff drops of several hundred feet. Keeping my eyes concentrated on the road was a necessity. Cars veer over the cliffs each year along the 80 miles of road south of Monterey before Highway 1 flattens out near Piedras Blancas lighthouse.

Rocky Point Restaurant was a place where I knew I could stop and snap some photos.

Rocky Point

Rocky Point Restaurant

Gray Whale photos of a large mass at the ocean’s surface a couple thousand feet from shore are not too revealing. The big picture is easier to appreciate.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the United States. I see Bixby Bridge in almost as many commercials as the Golden Gate Bridge. This stretch of road 20 miles south of Monterey is used in dozens of automobile commercials. The viewpoint is Hurricane Point looking north.

From Hurricane Point at more than 500 feet elevation there was a gray whale passing directly below.

Whale at Hurricane Point

Whale below Hurricane Point, Big Sur.

The Pfeiffer Fire in Big Sur broke out on Monday and raged for a couple of days burning nearly 1,000 acres and more than a dozen homes. 2013 is going to be the driest year on record for the central coast of California. Big Sur would normally have been drenched with heavy rains by mid December. A rapid response contained the fire, yet there are lives damaged from the destruction of personal property. The smoke had been heavy over Monterey Bay on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. There were only small plumes of smoke to be seen Friday morning.

Red Cross Big Sur

Red Cross Disaster Relief truck heading into Big Sur. A plume of smoke is visible in the Big Sur village valley. The fire burned west of Highway 1 between the road and the sea.

I hugged the Pacific Coast as much as I could on my two day drive from Monterey to San Diego. One of the beautiful sights I saw along the 500 miles of road were deciduous trees in the Big Sur valley and Santa Ynez Valley south of Santa Maria with brilliant orange leaves in December.

Big Sur in orange

Stopping for photos is the real time constraint of driving Highway 1 Big Sur. There are frequent 20 mph twists in the road. Frequent stops to give undivided attention to the scenic beauty is what typically slows me down when driving the 135 miles distance of Highway 1 between Monterey and San Luis Obispo.


View from Lucia in southern Monterey County. These are the Santa Lucia Mountains along the Big Sur coastline and inland for about 30 miles separating the rugged coast from the Salinas Valley.

I was on a timeline after purchasing a ticket for a Hearst Castle tour. I had 3.5 hours to get from Monterey to Hearst Castle, a distance of 95 miles. I made it ten minutes early by dragging myself away from the elephant seal rookery after 40 minutes.

Hearst Castle is one of the finest homes ever built in the USA. The estate sits on a hill at 1,600 feet over the Pacific. It has been a California State Park since 1959. The views on a clear day are worth the $25 admission fee for a tour.

Hearst Castle view

Hearst Castle Pacific Ocean view.

After a night at the Holiday Inn Santa Maria, I hit the road again on the winter solstice. I recall in 1980 when I called my family on Christmas Day when it was –35 in Montpelier, Vermont and 85 in California. The temperature was only in the 60s along the central California coast yesterday for the winter solstice.

California bike and surfer

Out there having fun in the warm California sun.

From Pismo Beach to Gaviota, there is no coast road for 60 miles of Highway 1/101. Vandenberg Air Force Base places a large section of central California coastline under federal restricted space. This is the place where the military test fires weapons missiles out across the Pacific Ocean. Hopefully, some day this land will become a National Park. Some of the finest specimens of California live oak trees are located on the missile base.

Highway 1 and 101 are the same road when following the coastline east again into Santa Barbara. No whales to be seen on this stretch of road. I guess the whales don’t like oil rigs.

Santa barbara oil platform

Oil platforms dot the seascape along the Santa Barbara coastline.

As soon as I came to the coast in Los Angeles County near Malibu I spotted porpoises cruising by near to shore. I stopped to photograph the porpoises and they were not to be seen. I did spot a solitary sea lion.

Sea lion off Malibu

Sea lion near Malibu.

Malibu claims to be 27 miles of scenic beauty. I am jaded by the road from Monterey to Big Sur.

Malibu 27

The beaches here do not do much for me. Neil Young fans might remember the 1975 album Zuma. That is the name of one of the popular Malibu beaches.

The problem with Malibu are all the houses restricting beach access along a large section of the coast.

Malibu houses

There was a pod of porpoises near the shore and I could not find any beach access near the porpoises.


The freeways were crowded for the last 125 miles from Santa Monica to San Diego. There are just too many people in southern California and I do not like driving with the masses.

The place name San Onofre seemed familiar and I exited Interstate 5 at the beach north of San Diego. $15 for day use and I only wanted a 15 minute rest break from driving. The lovely woman gate attendant looked to be in her 50s and she said I had to at least see world-famous San Onofre Beach. She was singing me some Beach Boys lyrics. She pointed to a spot next to her Jeep where I could park and walk over to the bluff to see the world famous surf spot.

San Onofre Beach

Little waves and little surfing.

Possibly even a worse environmental decision than oil rigs off the Santa Barbara coastline was the decision to construct nuclear reactors at San Onofre. The first reactor was built in the 1960s. The nuclear plant was closed down just last year for safety concerns. Eight million people live within 50 miles of the plant.

I think it was the San Onofre nuclear site that had given me familiarity with the name rather than the world-famous beach.

San Onofre Nuclear Reactors

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Facility north of San Diego.

Over the past couple of decades I generally only come to southern California to see family or attend conferences. When it comes to the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, my love affair with the road ends in the south when Cabrillo Highway turns into PCH.


  • Ric Garrido December 22, 2013

    Oops. Wrote equinox instead of solstice in the title. I really do know the difference.

  • Varun December 22, 2013

    Nice photos but we need more picture of Hearst Castle please! Maybe a separate blog post if you have the time.

    I did the Grand Rooms tour last year and hope to have a chance to visit again.

  • Jamey Key December 23, 2013

    You nailed it. Very good. Bring your driving gloves.

  • James December 23, 2013

    Around 1980, I remember the power plant advertising in the San Diego Union Want Ads to sweep up waste water for $14/hr. I thought it was a joke – it wasn’t.

  • Ric Garrido December 27, 2013

    @Varun – I will write a separate post on Hearst Castle.

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