In 1919, construction began on Highway One, a ribbon of rolling asphalt that would link up with the Roosevelt Highway, a 1,400-mile thoroughfare traversing the western United States. And when the two converged, they would ceremoniously tie Canada to Mexico via the Pacific Coast. After nearly 20 years of labor and the addition of 33 bridges, Highway One, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, was completed and staked its mark in American iconography.
Considered one of the most stunning, scenic drives in the country, the PCH traces 485 miles of beachfront along the California coast. Though at the top of many road warriors' to-do lists because of its incredible views and legendary stops along the way, the PCH is as dangerous is she as lovely. So, if you're traveling this busy corridor of American history, it's important to stay safe and be mindful of a few tips for the road, including trip preparations and any dangers that may await.
Though California is known for its sunshine, the weather along the coast is a little more unpredictable. Heavy, dense fog slips onto the highway at night and in the mornings, significantly reducing visibility. The fog is known for creeping along, obscuring oncoming traffic, refracting headlights and completely blanketing the road to the point where you cannot see where the road ends and a long drop down the cliffy terrain begins.
If you are driving the PCH in fog, it's best to reduce your speed. Locals will automatically know you are a tourist, but at least you'll be a tourist who survives the tour. You may be tempted to turn on your high beams to see better, but resist doing so. High beams will only bounce your headlights off the fog and back into your eyes. Use your vehicle's low beams and fog lights. If visibility is really low, use the pavement line on the right side of the road as a guide.
Still, the only weather worse than fog along the PCH is rain. The highway crawls over the cliffs that overlook the sea and down into the valleys that run along the sea, and both terrains are horrifying when viewed through a windshield being pelted by torrential rains. Downpours create two dangers on the PCH: wet roads and landslides. Puddles on the pavement mean hydroplaning, and the last thing you want when cruising along a rising tide or teetering miles above one is for your tires to lose their grip and spin you wildly out of control.
Landslides, or even mudslides, are not uncommon along the PCH. Plus, the hazard here is not only the chance of being swept out of your lane, but also the possibility of being pummeled by debris. If you're driving through rain along the PCH, your best bet is to slow down and flip on your headlights. Try to leave enough space between you and surrounding vehicles. If it gets really bad, and you have the opportunity, pull off to the side of the road and wait out the storm. A smartphone radar app wouldn't be a bad investment, and checking a road condition hotline before your departure could also save you some headache.
There is no plausible way to prepare for every possible horrible scenario that could befall you on the road, but there are several precautions you can take to prevent the ones that occur most frequently. Listed among the top-10 causes of automotive accidents is a defective tire. It goes without saying: If you're taking to the road, make sure to pack along a spare tire.
Better yet, invest in a tire with technology that allows you to keep driving even after a blowout. Kumho’s Escot tires are manufactured with a unique rubber that reinforces the tire’s sidewall, so even after it's punctured, the tire will hold its integrity temporarily, or at least long enough to get your vehicle off a highway known for its hairpin curves and heavy traffic.
Another hazard you would rather avoid would be running out of gas. Rookie mistake, right? Not here. Even some of the most seasoned California drivers have rolled the dice against their vehicle's gas gauge while driving along the PCH. On some stretches, gas can be sparse, particularly the 100-mile leg from Carmel to Cambria. It’s best to gas up sometime before you enter Big Sur, because once there, you would be lucky to find any available or open gas stations.
Highway One. Pacific Coast Highway. Whatever you call it, the PCH is a slice of photogenic American history not to be missed. But when you go, be sure you and your vehicle are prepared, because the roadway is as cruel a mistress as she is pretty — and the PCH is as pretty as they come.