Driving the Pacific Coast Highway Without a Plan

March 22, 2024   2 Comments »

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway Without a Plan

April 18, 2019 2 Comments »

In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from writer and traveler Staci Schwarz. I met Staci a few years ago when she and her family left for a family sabbatical.   I loved following her travels and subsequent learnings from that experience.  However now her kids are off to school, so she’s now an empty nester!  I asked her to write about her recent California road trip  – her first empty nest travel experience. All opinions and experiences expressed here are hers. –Sherry

As my husband and I sat down to plan our Pacific Coast Highway trip, empty nest syndrome was hitting us hard. It had been nearly 12 years since we had traveled without the kids, but now our daughter was in college and our son was working full time and living on his own. They were less likely to want to spend their time and money traveling with their parents – which was hitting me hard.

Travel is my favorite family activity. From road trips down the Mississippi River to big city explorations in Chicago to a 5-month trip around Turkey, India, and SE Asia, we have had some amazing adventures together. I love seeing the world through their eyes, hearing their thoughts about what is happening around them, and watching as new experiences widen their worldview. I wasn’t sure how we would do on our first trip without them.

The Pacific Coast Highway and a Campervan

Our objective was to rent a campervan and drive the Pacific Coast Highway – Highway 1 – from San Francisco as far south as we could manage in 9 days and then back up to Napa to visit some friends. We rented out a campervan from Lost Campers, and the process was quick and easy. We even met a couple in the parking lot who were returning their van, and they passed onto us some supplies they hadn’t used, including a few cans of beer, much to the delight of my husband.

And then it was time. How would we do on this first adventure as empty nesters? As Mason started up the van, we looked at each other and smiled nervously as we pulled out of the lot and into the California sun.

Take this Northern California and Oregon road trip filled with adventures

We didn’t want to be stuck to an agenda or feel rushed so we chose to not set any specific destinations and allowed ourselves to stop wherever we wanted and for however long we wanted. We let the road guide our itinerary as we embraced our new freedom without kids. This turned out to be a magnificent idea as it allowed the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but the pace of the trip and the laidback atmosphere of California would give us the time and space to reconnect, to be present with one another, and to dream about future travels. We got plenty of “windshield time” which is our code for that precious time in the car when we can focus on one another without the distractions of phones or other screens. Windshield time can be used for deep conversations, for scheming and dreaming or for singing duets to our favorite road tunes loudly and mostly off-key.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway 1

San Francisco

On our first afternoon in San Francisco, we visited the Haight. Every picture shows us dog-tired with dark circles under our eyes and weak smiles. We had taken red-eye flights, and now it was catching up with us because even though we still consider ourselves young, our bodies tend to disagree. Eventually, we ended up dragging the blanket from the van into the middle of a sun-drenched park and taking a catnap. It was glorious and remains one of my favorite moments of the trip.

That delicious spontaneity is something that you sometimes lose as you parent. Life for young children is often easier when it is structured, and before you know it, it can become so structured that you forget the deep joy of gratefully accepting whatever the moment has to offer. And is there any better place than the Haight to celebrate spontaneity and freedom of spirit? We were raised by hippies, and strolling through the Haight felt a little bit like connecting to our roots. It took us right back into the beauty of spontaneity, and it thrilled me to no end.

pacific coast highway san fransicso

It would have been easy to spend the entire week in San Francisco. There was certainly no lack of things to do. But the goal was to drive Highway 1, so we did a whirlwind tour of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and Muir Woods, blowing kisses to the Golden Gate Bridge as we headed out of town and hit the open road.

The Slow Coast

The stretch of Highway 1 between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz is known as the Slow Coast. Slow Coast is a state of mind, a state of being, if you will. It scoffs at the need to rush anywhere and encourages a change of pace, a heightened sense of being present, a little “stop and smell the flowers” frame of mind. With lovely little shops tucked into Airstreams and roadside stands selling every fruit and baked treat your heart could ever desire, it really does make a compelling argument for taking your time. Throw in the best strawberry shortcake I have ever had in my life from Swanton Berry Farm (with an honor system box to pay, no less!), and I was completely sold on their motto of “In Slow We Trust.”

pacific coast highway drive
Get the strawberry shortcake!!

Santa Cruz Surf History

We were excited about Santa Cruz, and it didn’t disappoint! We spent part of the day at the tiny surf museum learning about the history and evolution of the sport. It was absolutely captivating and it gave some great insight into a tradition that helped to shape the culture of California’s coast. We made a stop on the Boardwalk to have a funnel cake and then sat on the beach for hours with our toes sunk in the sand, quietly enjoying one another’s company and listening to the song of the waves.

pacific coast highway tips
On the boardwalk


Monterey was a dream. If I could go back immediately to any of the places we visited, I would choose Monterey with no hesitation. The historic walking tours absolutely wooed me, and the Monterey aquarium sealed the deal. I remember strolling along hand in hand with Mason as we searched for the last remaining whalebone sidewalk when he looked at me and grinned.

“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied.

We were both very pleased with ourselves. We were doing this!

pacific coast highway

Moss Landing

When we were exploring Muir Woods outside of San Francisco, we met a woman who told us to skip the whale-watching tours in Monterey and head to Moss Landing instead. We took her advice and were so glad that we did! Captain Kate met us and about 10 others on the dock and offered us all an essential oil blend of peppermint and lavender to help calm sea sickness and then off we went! Seeing whales has been at the top of my bucket list for years, so you can imagine my squeals of delight when we came upon 6 humpback whales and nearly 200 seals feeding together. The seals would dive down first, followed by the whales, and then the ocean would become perfectly still and calm. A few minutes later, the surface would erupt in a riotous flurry of seals, and two deep breaths later, the whales would breach. We must have watched this cycle nearly 30 times and it made me wonder-filled every single time.

california highway 1

California Perfection

Over the course of the 9 days we were in California, we boated through what seemed like a billion translucent jellyfish. We searched for moonstones on Moonstone Beach and came away with handfuls of little glowing pebbles. We drank sparkling wine in Napa. We laughed a lot. We drove with the windows down so that we could smell the ocean and the fog in Big Sur. We bought books at the Henry Miller library, and we read Dharma Bums together before we fell asleep at night. We may have cried due to the beauty of it all (ok, this was mostly just me).

I am an ocean baby. I am completely blissed out when I am near the water. The sound and smell of the ocean run through my veins. Mason, on the other hand, is a mountain dude. California completely seduced us both. We talk about our road trip almost weekly with a dreamy longing in our voices.

Big Sur

But What About the Kids?

We missed the kids a little, but we re-discovered pieces of ourselves that we had lost as parents. We remembered how much we loved to spend time together. How we thrive equally from deep conversations and comfortable silences. We discovered that adventure is a mindset, and approaching new places with a sense of wonder is one of our superpowers. We remembered how much we love freedom and spontaneity and going with the flow. We remembered that we were road-tripping rock stars, and we came home confident that we were going to be able to handle this empty nest thing just fine!

pacific coast highway road trip
Empty Nesters!

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Tips:

  • It feels so adventurous to rent a campervan and dream of waking up to the sounds of waves on the ocean. However, it is very difficult to find places that will let you sleep in your vehicle and it’s illegal to pull over and camp on the side of the road. Renting a tent and camping supplies may be a better route to go.
  • Take your time. The point of the 1 isn’t to arrive at any particular destination but to enjoy the journey. Stop as often as you can at every lookout, in every town, and at as many roadside produce stands as your stomach can handle.
  • Have your heart set on whale watching? Stop in Moss Landing rather than Monterey. The tours are less expensive and Captain Kate absolutely elevated our experience. Her enthusiasm was contagious! We enthusiastically recommend Blue Ocean Whale Watching!
  • Stop at the Surf Museum in Santa Cruz. It is tiny but mighty. We loved it.
  • Put together a travel playlist before you go. This is such an iconic road trip, and it demands an iconic soundtrack.
  • Bring layers. It can get chilly and foggy on the coast, even in the summer. We did not plan accordingly and ended up buying sweatshirts to avoid freezing to death.
  • Fuel up before you hit Big Sur. The long stretch of highway has very few gas stations and gas is astronomically more expensive. We learned this the hard way.
  • Eat as much avocado as you can. Trust me on this.

Meet the Author

Hello! My name is Staci and I am a writer, traveler, and dancing queen. I live in Iowa with my husband and my puppy. When I am not traveling, I host ecourses that help inspire people to live in harmony with the seasons. Sometimes I host writing retreats and sometimes you’ll find me teaching body positive movement classes. I am a great many things! Stop on by my Insta or website and say hi!

Blameitonmywildheart.com| Instagram

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