A Photographer’s Guide to “Cruising the Pacific Coast”

A dramatic Pacific sunset paints the sky in Garapata State Park, Big Sur, California. © Jerry Ginsberg
A dramatic Pacific sunset paints the sky in Garapata State Park, Big Sur, California. © Jerry Ginsberg

Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg

Over a span of many years I have driven and photographed the entire Pacific Coast, a varied landscape of beaches, sea stacks, forests, buildings, and lighthouses where the vast Pacific Ocean meets the contiguous US. However, that cruising has been strung out over a long series of disparate, bite-sized, bits and pieces. One of the many items on my bucket list is a single, continuous drive from San Yisidro, California, on the border with Mexico, all the way up to Port Angeles, Washington, right across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

For the most part, that means driving the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, that stretches almost the entire distance from border to border. We begin in San Diego with I-5, change to Route 1 where it begins heading north just above San Clemente, and eventually yields to the long and well traveled Route 101.

Cataloging the best photo spots along this fabulous coast from south to north is going to sound like just a laundry list, but it really is the most efficient way of taking in the best of the best. That includes not only some of the most dramatic scenic gems that America has to offer, but also several fascinating and historic man-made subjects that deserve our attention.

This journey will take you through three great national parks, but more about those later as we come to them.

Elegant cala lilies growing right alongside the road in Big Sur, California. One of my favorite images. © Jerry Ginsberg
Elegant cala lilies growing right alongside the road in Big Sur, California. One of my favorite images. © Jerry Ginsberg

Photographing SoCal (Southern California)

When starting this singular odyssey from the border with Mexico at San Yisidro, California, head 17 miles up the Silver Strand to the famed Hotel del Coronado. This architectural gem opened in 1888 and is as luxurious today as it was then. When soaking up some ambiance, don’t miss the lobby with several framed stills from 1959’s “Some Like it Hot,” perennially rated as one of the best comedy movies ever.

Before leaving San Diego take in the Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma and Sunset Cliffs at, what else, sunset.

Next stop – the Mission at San Juan Capistrano. If you have a taste for history, this original and very charming 18th century Spanish mission will intrigue you. The swallows no longer return as they once did since a renovation wiped away their nests.

Moving on to Long Beach, stop at the RMS Queen Mary. Once monarch of the seas, this classic liner has been drawing folks here for half a century. A stroll along her deck brings back a style of travel luxury now long gone. At this writing, the ship is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Dramatic views of the ship from the shore are still possible.

From the Editor: It is always a good idea to check with the parks, landmarks, and other destinations you plan to visit. California, in particular, was hard hit by wildfires in 2020 that temporarily closed a number of sites and resulted in restricted access to others. Landslides after heavy rains sometimes close sections of the 101. Restrictions related to the coronavirus continue to pop up as the virus ebbs and flows. Don’t be disappointed. Know before you go!

The famed Green Room inside Scorpion Rock is one of the volcanic sea caves that honeycomb the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California. © Jerry Ginsberg
The famed Green Room inside Scorpion Rock is one of the volcanic sea caves that honeycomb the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California. © Jerry Ginsberg

Photographing the Central Coast

Bypass sprawling Los Angeles and head on up to Ventura to board a boat to Channel Islands National Park. At least visit close by Anacapa Island. Add Santa Cruz with its exciting sea caves if time permits.

Heading on north, explore the Guadalupe and Oceano Dunes in Santa Barbara County. Oceano now claims to be the location of Edward Weston’s famed black & white dunes images. However, I recall that he shot mostly within the Guadalupe Dunes south of Oceano. Merely viewing these classic photographs online can be very instructive. Explore the dunes and try your hand at using line, light and shadow.

Once passed Ragged Point, Route 101 enters the Big Sur area. As many times as I see it, this singular landscape never fails to thrill me. It is certainly one of the most lovely and dramatic meetings of land and sea anywhere. I have not yet captured the quintessential image of this terrific coast, but I keep working at it.

In addition to taking in the serrated coastline, make sure to stop and enjoy McWay Falls, the only such cascade dropping directly into the ocean and the lovely grove of coast redwoods in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Stunning California sunset in Pfeiffer State Park, Big Sur. © Jerry Ginsberg
Stunning California sunset in Pfeiffer State Park, Big Sur. © Jerry Ginsberg

Without a doubt, the most popular attraction in all of the Big Sur region is famed Hearst Castle, the palace of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon. It’s an eye-popping sight; make sure to take the tour.

Just before reaching Carmel, stop and enjoy Point Lobos State Nature Reserve. This is a terrific little gem of a beautiful protected place. Pinnacle Cove offers a great scene with several compositions to photograph. Caveat – the gates to the reserve may not open until 8:00 AM, well past the time of the best light.

Now it’s time for the Monterey Peninsula. Charming Carmel and historic Monterey are connected by the 17 mile drive running along Pebble Beach. Walk these two towns: enjoy their unique sights, aromas and flavors.

Shortly past Santa Cruz take a look at classic Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

Onward to San Francisco. More than enough has already been said and written about San Francisco. Some reports indicate that it may not be the tourist draw of yesterday. Take a look and decide for yourself. Right after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, stop for a great meal in lovely Sausalito.

Once this far north, the dramatic scenery begins in ernest. Stroll through Muir Woods National Monument with its towering Coast Redwoods (Sequoia semperviren), tallest trees on Earth. You will likely need a parking reservation, available online, so be sure to plan your visit in advance.

Next, explore Point Reyes National Seashore. At 71,000 acres there is a good deal to see here, but it is mostly rather subtle and will require a fair amount of time and deep seeing to discover.

Pink rhododendrons blooming in the spring in Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood National Park, California. © Jerry Ginsberg
Pink rhododendrons blooming in the spring in Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood National Park, California. © Jerry Ginsberg

Photographing Northern California

As you continue north on Route 101, keep a sharp eye out for seastacks as they begin to appear just offshore. These unique rocks are a striking feature of the Pacific Coast from here on.

About two hundred scenic miles above Pt. Reyes the road reaches the southern edge of Redwood National Park. Make sure to hike the Damnation Creek trail and see the Stout Grove in the Jedidiah Smith segment of RNP.

Separated chunks of this great 200+ square mile park continue through the neat little town of Crescent City, northernmost town along the California Coast. Don’t miss the Battery Point lighthouse in the harbor.

Sunset light on a coastal sea stack in Harris Beach State Park in Brookings, Oregon. © Jerry Ginsberg
Sunset light on a coastal sea stack in Harris Beach State Park in Brookings, Oregon. © Jerry Ginsberg

Photographing Oregon

About a half hour beyond Crescent City the coast highway crosses the border into Oregon. After passing through Brookings, head for Harris Beach State Park, a great place for some late afternoon and sunset shooting.

The Oregon Coast is just packed with state parks, beaches, seastacks and sprinkled with lighthouses.

Among the best of these are:

But my all-time favorite spot along this long stretch of coastline is Bandon. Walking the Bandon beach under both early morning and late day light is an experience that offers far too many compositions to count.

Unique sea stacks seen through a driftwood window on Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington. © Jerry Ginsberg
Unique sea stacks seen through a driftwood window on Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington. © Jerry Ginsberg

Photographing Washington

Farther on, the road takes you across the wide Columbia River, whose gorge and many waterfalls are a significant photo destination in their own right, into Washington and up to one of our most diverse national parks, famed Olympic. That diversity is attributable to Olympic’s three very distinct environments; lush green rain forests, dramatic and rugged beaches and the wonderful Olympic mountains. This wide variety makes the 1440 square mile park one of the very most interesting to explore and photograph.

As you round the bend in the road and head eastward through Port Angeles, the landmass visible across the Strait of Juan de Fuca is British Columbia, Canada.

Congratulations! You have just completed a drive along the entire Pacific Coast!

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean at Second Beach in Olympic National Park, Washington. © Jerry Ginsberg
Sunset over the Pacific Ocean at Second Beach in Olympic National Park, Washington. © Jerry Ginsberg

Logistics

The easiest way to accomplish this drive is to rent a vehicle at San Diego airport and return it at SEA-TAC. This will save you from a need to backtrack, but will very likely incur a drop charge. It’s a compromise.

Lodging presents no problem whatever. The Pacific Coast Highway and nearby streets offer too many motels to count. The well known brands are mixed with many independents. Rates and amenities vary widely.

If you feel like splurging a bit, the best places to enjoy are the luxurious Hotel del Coronado next to San Diego and the Crescent Lake Lodge in Olympic National Park, a real favorite.

Prize-winning photo by Karen Schuenemann plus a selection of pages from free handbook titled CONTEST SECRETS: WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU ENTER A PHOTO