Less than 95 miles and a two-hour drive separates Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Although the distance is short, the cities are a dichotomy of California living.
If you’re in the mood for a scenic, day-long or weekend road trip, driving the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara is a memorable experience. The PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) hugs the California coastline most of the way and meanders through some interesting locations worth a stop.
A recommended road trip itinerary starts off in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles or Hollywood, where you can catch the Interstate 10 westbound towards to the beach town of Santa Monica.
Santa Monica is where the 10 merges into the PCH. The famous Santa Monica Pier has a vintage vibe with fried seafood, carnival rides, and a Ferris wheel. The PCH heads northbound along several miles of oceanfront homes on the left and canyon-top estates on the right. About 20 minutes into the drive, you will find yourself near Malibu and Topanga Canyon, marked by The Reel Inn Seafood Restaurant, a casual, local hangout serving fresh grilled and fried seafood.
Topanga Canyon is a favorite weekend highway for Hollywood stars since the 1920s, but locals know it best as the bohemian enclave where artists and musicians hide out. Charles Manson established his notorious ‘Manson Family’ in a nearby ranch while Neil Young recorded most of his After The Gold Rush album in his Topanga basement studio in 1970.
Just north of Topanga, the PCH gets hilly as Malibu gets more populated. Malibu is home to multimillion dollar beachfront mansions and the movie stars that occupy them. To cater to the movie star locals, the Malibu Country Mart recently renovated its outdoor mall into a high-end, shopping and dining experience. The famed, paparazzi-flocked sushi restaurant, Nobu, is nearby.
Less than 15 miles northbound on the Pacific Coast Highway you’ll find yourself in the Point Dume area. Make a left turn on Westward Beach Road and follow the signs for Point Dume. The beach is a popular film and photo-shoot location, thanks to the wide, beaches, rocky coves and cliffs. During the whale-watching season of December to March, the beach is the perfect place to spot migrating California gray whales.
Back on the PCH, the hillsides become less populated and you exiting Los Angeles County and enter Ventura County. Soon after you enter Ventura County you’ll find a giant rock named Point Mugu on your left and a sand dune on the right. Pull over for scenic views of the ocean from Mugu Rock and try hiking up the sand dune. The mysteriously high sand dune is the result of winds blowing sand up the steep hill. The steep hill is a challenging hike but offers beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and Mugu Rock.
Northbound again on the PCH leads you past a military base and into the agricultural town of Oxnard. The PCH heads inland here and merges with the Ventura Freeway (US 101). But in another 8-10 miles, the view of the ocean on the left calls you to take exit 70 California Street, where you’ll end in the town of Ventura, in front of the pier.
Ventura has some of the best surfing in California and the pier at Surfer’s Point Park offers beautiful views of the hillsides of the town. If you arrive earlier in the day, wander around historic downtown Ventura, home of a mix of vintage boutiques, thrift stores, galleries, gift shops and cafes.
When leaving Ventura, continue north on the 101. Twenty miles north is the small beach town, Carpinteria. The Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery, home to nearly 100 adult seals who give birth to their pups on the local shoreline is worth a stop.
The final ten-mile stretch of the journey leads to Santa Barbara, with its gorgeous tree-lined streets, missions and red-tiled roofs typical of California’s Spanish architecture. Downtown Santa Barbara is connected to the scenic harbor and pier, offering a variety of restaurants, bars, art galleries and museums all within walking or bicycle distance.
The town is worth a weekend of discovery in itself, offering a variety of hotels and motels for every price range. The best part is you can always get back to Los Angeles in a couple of hours.