Road Trip: USA California – The Road to Hell and Beyond

On a visit to California, a few years ago, we had to travel to San Diego from San Francisco and decided that it might be fun to drive down the coast using the PCH rather than fly between the two cities. So from that decision a little road trip was born.

This is the final section between Santa Barbara and San Diego broken up with an overnight stay on the Queen Mary ship in Long Beach.

Distance: 221 miles
Time: 4 hours 20 minutes without stopping

sb leadbetter beachNext day we set off for our final stop in Long Beach about 100 miles south. I was not looking forward to the final stretch of the journey – the free for all freeways of Los Angeles are notorious and to say I was nervous of driving there is no exaggeration. PCH merges with US Route 101 at this point for the next 54 miles and the traffic was intense.

ventura freewayDriving along the ‘Screaming Eagles Highway’ and then ‘Ventura Freeway’ we hugged the coast with great views of the ocean to the right and the Ventura Hills to the left with the lyrics of America’s “Ventura Highway” buzzing around our brains. Just after Ventura is Oxnard where the 101 and PCH part company again and passing a huge naval base we were back on the coast. Seeing islands close to the mainland we subsequently found out about the Channel Islands Park that lies in the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Monica Basin – the park encompasses five of the eight California Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara). You can get there by boat from Oxnard harbour and spend time hiking, kayaking, camping, photography, painting, bird-watching and snorkelling as well as looking for wildlife. I had never heard of these islands before this trip, but they look more than worthy of a visit if you are in the area.

Two sunny hours later and we reached Santa Monica on the outskirts of Los Angeles where the traffic was heavy on a late Sunday morning and somehow we missed the turnoff for the PCH which would have taken us through Santa Monica to Venice Beach and Redondo Beach (and also under the runways at LA International Airport), instead we found ourselves on the Santa Monica Freeway and the stuff of nightmares – 12 lane freeways with cars overtaking from the left and the right.

QM bar copy QM insideFortunately we managed to weave our way through the spaghetti onto Interstate 405 (the San Diego freeway) and then Interstate 710 (Long Beach freeway) to our destination in Long Beach harbour where the Queen Mary is berthed.

This lovely grand ocean liner with its memories of old Atlantic crossings is a timeless art-deco masterpiece and a wonderful place for an overnight stay in staterooms with original wood panelling and artwork (and plumbing) and half the price of the motel in Santa Barbara!

The following day we reluctantly said goodbye to the Queen Mary thinking we really must try a cruise some time and carried on our journey southwards. Locating the PCH we skirted across the north of Long Beach before plunging south to the coast again. I heaved a sigh of relief. Much as I love driving I no longer enjoy big towns and cities and LA is one huge mother of a city!

billabongWe abandoned the car at Huntington Beach, a pretty surfer town just south of LA, to meet up with a friend for breakfast. I had a half stack of pancakes with maple syrup – the first time I had tried the pancake option and I can only say how glad I was not to have ordered a full stack! Coffee was plentiful and the aroma of crisp bacon filled the air.
huntington beachThe name of this café? Sugar Shack on Main Street. Owned by the same family since the 1967 it is a place where you can dine with surfers coming back from “catching the waves”. Go there if you can for mammoth portions of the best breakfasts in California along with interesting surfing posters and surf boards in 1960s splendour and old family memorabilia.

After a brief walk around the pier and promenade in the much warmer (though still cloudy) SoCal climate to try to burn off some of those calories we continued along the coast to Capistrano beach near Dana Point in Orange County where the PCH ends becoming Interstate 5, the San Diego freeway. Shortly after lunchtime we drifted into the car rental place in downtown San Diego with only fumes left in the tank.

Our journey ended with a sigh, ‘Surfin’ USA’  rattling around our heads and a reluctance to return to normality.

This journey can be done in a couple of days, but if you aren’t in a rush I recommend taking your time. The Pacific Coast Highway is an excuse for a long, lazy trip in the sunshine and if you drive from north to south as we did, you are all but in the ocean for most of the time – though choosing a less inclement time of the year would be an improvement.

NB: Also check the route before setting off as there can often be road closures along the coastal roads from landslips.

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I have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

31 thoughts on “Road Trip: USA California – The Road to Hell and Beyond”

  1. Oh Jude, what a great trip! I know what a nightmare it can be driving around LA. 😦 I travelled the West coast + inland for several weeks, many, many years ago and also spent 5 days in LA; the traffic is unbelievable, a true pain.

    I am green with envy, your stayed on the gorgeous Queen Mary!!
    Does this mean it is used as a hotel today or was this a special event for a limited period?

    Wishing you a lovely weekend,
    Dina and the rest of the Four

  2. Now you’ve got me sighing! A night on the QM! We saw her at berth, on our way to San Diego, but trailing a small boy it didn’t occur to me to book. 😦 😦

    1. It was the cheapest accommodation around LA and absolutely marvellous. One of those things that I will always remember. The freeway on the other hand I would like to forget.

  3. Those 12lane highways are terrifying, and what is it with overtaking either side. Crazy way of driving!

    Glad you survived and that you had such a lovely time on the Queen Mary.

  4. You are so brave to take on those scary freeways Jude and driving on the other side of the road. But what a memorable trip I was amazed that QM was cheaper than motels

    1. I was surprised at the cost of a room on the QM too! And it was very comfortable, although the plumbing was a bit noisy 🙂 I never minded driving on the right, once I was used to the car it seemed quite natural. Roundabouts are odd, but they don’t have too many of those in North America.

    1. Yes LA was an obstacle to get around! But needs must and no-one else was going to drive the car. I am just glad I chose a Sunday to do that bit! The QM IS amazing. We had drinks in the lovely cocktail bar listening to a trio performing and then a nice meal in the dining room. Was another world!

  5. I would love to stay on the Queen Mary. But I hate the thought of all those crazy drivers and confusing huge freeways. One of the many reasons I was never that bothered about ever visiting the US when I was younger. Certainly not by driving myself around, that’s for sure. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete. x

    1. Ah, but most of the US freeways are fabulous to drive on Pete once you get away from the cities. I knew I’d hate the LA ones though with traffic coming at you from both sides. The Queen Mary is fabulous!

  6. We did a very similar journey a couple of years ago. Being a passenger scared me to the point that I would be reluctant to do it again. I am so impressed you drove. We spent one night on the Queen Mary too, believe it or not! I tried to take a photo of the picture above the bar but yours is much better. The place I liked most around there was Venice Beach although we were only there a few hours.

    1. Unfortunately I am the only driver so I had no choice. I was gritting my teeth a lot in LA though. The Queen Mary is fabulous! We just wandered around admiring the craftsmanship of the ship and reading its history.

  7. Getting on some U.S. highways can be a nightmare, as you found here, Jude. I bet that night on the Queen Mary was fabulous. California Dreamin’ for sure. 🙂

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