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Driving Tips for a PCH Road Trip

Here are a few of the important rules of the road. Drivers and all passengers are required by law to wear a seat belt. Infant and child safety seats are required for children weighing less than 60 pounds and/or under the age of six. It is illegal to operate a vehicle and a handheld device at the same time. All motorcyclists must wear a helmet. Don’t litter; there are severe penalties ($1,000 or more) for throwing garbage of any kind from a vehicle. No drinking and driving; driving while intoxicated is extremely dangerous and highly illegal. Always abide by posted speed limits and other road signs.

Highway Safety

The highway has many sharp curves, steep ledges, and high cliffs that do not have guardrails. Drive as slowly as road conditions demand, even if that’s slower than the posted speed limit. Take your time and enjoy the coastal scenery; after all, that’s what you came for!

The Pacific Coast Highway has many sharp curves, steep ledges, and high cliffs that do not have guardrails.
The Pacific Coast Highway has many sharp curves, steep ledges, and high cliffs that do not have guardrails. Photo © Douglas Hamilton/123rf.

This road is quite isolated, especially in areas on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula and just south of Carmel in California, where there are no connecting routes to the interior for more than 90 miles. Make sure you have a full tank of gas, plenty of water, warm clothing, and snacks before traveling these sections of the coastal route.

Many sections of Pacific Coast Highway are not lit by streetlights, making visibility difficult at night, especially when encountering the blinding headlights of oncoming cars. If you are not comfortable driving at night, plan your itinerary accordingly, driving only by day.

Like George of the Jungle, “Watch out for that tree!”…a redwood tree, that is. Some of these beauties sit on the edge of the highway and at dramatic curves, making it very easy to lose a side mirror if you drift too far to the right.

In case of an emergency, always carry flares, a spare tire, and a jack and wrench. Though in some parts of the road you may not receive cell phone service, carry a phone with you. Only pull over when absolutely necessary! Otherwise, wait until you reach a pullout or other safe area. When pulling over, get as far onto the shoulder as you can.

Wildlife on the Road

Warning signs are posted in areas where wildlife are likely to block the road. Photo © Harris Shiffman/123rf.
Warning signs are posted in areas where wildlife are likely to block the road. Photo © Harris Shiffman/123rf.

You may not meet up with Wile E. Coyote or the Roadrunner, but it is highly likely that you will cross paths with deer, elk, fox, raccoon, and other animals. Warning signs are usually posted in areas with higher animal crossing activity. If you come upon wildlife standing in the road, come to a stop and honk your horn, but do not attempt to veer to the side to pass. Deer especially are known to dart in random directions, and headlights can confuse them. Do not get out of the car and approach wild animals. Wait until the road is clear, then be on your way.

Road Etiquette

The majority of the Pacific Coast Highway is two lanes. This can pose a problem when “speed racer” comes up from behind, seemingly out of nowhere. The law requires slower vehicles to use turnouts or safely pull over when five or more cars pile up. If one car makes it clear that they want to get by, let them pass. Do not jeopardize your safety by trying to navigate a winding, unfamiliar highway at an uncomfortable speed. It is imperative that you always leave at least three feet between your car and another vehicle, especially motorcyclists and bicyclists!

Parking

Most attractions, museums, parks, and beaches offer on-site parking, though many require a fee. When booking a hotel, ask if there is a secured parking garage or an open lot, and if there is a daily fee (parking fees can be up to $30 per day). Some hotels offer free parking.

The Pacific Coast Highway serves as the major route of access to the many beaches and beachside towns. On-street parking within these communities can be hard to find during peak season when much of the road is clogged up with traffic. Parking garages, lots, and metered off-street parking is offered in just about every town.

Fuel

Gasoline is difficult to come by on the more rural segments of the road, especially the farther north you are. Even in California, there can be long stretches where you may not see a gas station for miles. Know your mpg (miles per gallon) and fuel up whenever you have the opportunity. Prices on the coast may be considerably higher. GasBuddy.com is a great resource that allows users to check for fueling stations in your area and look for the cheapest rates.

Motorcycles

Motorcyclists are common along the coast, especially during the summer. You can’t beat the gorgeous scenery, twists and turns of the highway, and slower-paced lifestyle of coastal communities as compared to the bustle and traffic of big cities. As with traveling any road, always follow rules of the road, wear a helmet, and keep at least three car lengths between you and other vehicles. Never use the shoulder (or fog line) to pass another vehicle! When necessary use pullouts, and watch for wildlife. Windstorms and rains can create difficult road conditions, such as fallen tree branches, debris, and standing water.

Bicycles

Experienced cyclists will find the Pacific Coast Highway a great way to travel. The shoulder (known as the fog line) can be hazardous due to gravel and road debris. Bicyclists are not legally required to stay on the shoulder, but many do as a courtesy to road vehicles.

Take advantage of pullouts along the highway to allow vehicles to pass. Be cautious when riding cliffside in Big Sur. This part of the highway is extremely windy and rises high above the Pacific. To avoid peddling against the wind, travel from north to south. Two other precautions: Watch for parked cars on the side of the road where the highway passes through coastal towns and watch out for redwood trees. As you wind your way through the redwood forest, you’ll find that some trees sit very close to the edge of the road. Stay alert to avoid accidents. The Adventure Cycling Association offers online resources.


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