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Mini road trips: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara

This mini road trip takes us north along one of our all-time favourite roads – the Pacific Coast Highway, which (mostly) hugs the California shore between Dana Point in Orange County up to Mendocino County in the north.

Starting from Santa Monica, this little section of the PCH would take well under two hours non-stop but we’re throwing in a little diversionary loop for good measure – which will add about an hour – as well as a few other worthwhile distractions…

Topanga Canyon Loop

Taking central Santa Monica’s oceanfront stretch of Highway 1 as our starting point, head north towards Malibu passing Palisades Park on your right. Half a mile after the entrance to Getty Villa – featured in our guide to seeing L.A for free – take a right onto South Topanga Canyon Boulevard (Route 27). This is where we almost immediately head off piste, for a scenic inland journey through one of the most legendary and infamous parts of L.A.

Topanga Canyon had already established itself as a 1920s weekend hideaway for Hollywood stars, but historically it’s better known as a bohemian enclave for artists and musicians, who flocked here en masse in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Locals at that time included Charles Manson who’d established his notorious ‘Manson Family’ in a nearby ranch, as well as — at various points — Woody Guthrie, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison and Neil Young, who recorded most of his After The Gold Rush album in his Topanga basement studio in 1970.

Follow the road up through the Santa Monica mountains and keep right when you reach the fork with the Old Topanga Canyon Road. Stay on Route 27, which snakes circuitously through the hills, and look out for the offbeat stores and ramshackle saloons that punctuate the roadside. After the Top of Topanga Overlook – which offers first class views of the San Fernando Valley – turn left onto the Mulholland Highway, which leads to the must-visit Rock Store diner, a famous bikers’ stomping ground. Stop for a drink or a classic burger, then continue to the junction with Kanan Dume Road, which leads back to the PCH.

Topanga Canyon: turn right onto Route 27 half a mile after the Getty Villa entrance.

Point Dume State Preserve, Malibu

Carry on driving north along the Pacific Coast Highway for a couple of miles, then take a left turn onto Westward Beach Road towards Point Dume. This is an area of vast sandy beach, headlands, cliffs and rocky coves and is a fantastic place to spot migrating California gray whales during the December to March migrating period.

Remember Charlton Heston’s emotional discovery of a rusting Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand in the original Planet of the Apes? That was filmed here, right at the far end near Westward Beach.

Point Dume State Preserve: take the Westward Beach Road turning off the Pacific Coast Highway at Malibu, and follow to the end of the road.


If you can, get the roof down and put some Beach Boys on because the only thing between Malibu and Ventura is fifteen miles of beautiful State beaches and the open road. As the town of Oxnard approaches, you’ll head inland and be directed through the centre until you hit the Ventura Freeway (US 101). The Pacific Coast Highway runs concurrently with 101 here – just carry on for another eight miles and you’ll end up right on Ventura Beach in front of the pier.

Ventura has some of the best surfing in California. Watching the waves roll in as the sun sets over the historic wooden pier is a quintessential West Coast experience, especially a few hundred metres north of the pier at Surfer’s Point Park. If there’s time, have a mooch around historic downtown Ventura too – the area is home to an appealing assortment of vintage boutiques and secondhand stores, along with galleries, gift shops, coffeehouses and cafes, and a few very trendy restaurants. Ventura is also the departure point for boats to the Channel Islands National Park.

Ventura: Pacific Coast Highway/US 101 – Exits 68, 69 or 70a.

Carpinteria Harbour Seal Rookery

As you leave Ventura, make sure you get back onto the two-lane PCH just after town to make the most of the ocean views. It will join back up with the 101 shortly before you reach tiny Carpinteria twenty miles north. The town’s major selling point is the Carpinteria Harbour Seal Rookery, which is home to nearly 100 adult seals who give birth at the southern end of Carpenteria State Beach.

The beach on both sides of the rookery is closed during December and May’s pupping season, but the seals are there all year long and you can visit the preserve via the cliffs above, rather than via the beach. If you’re lucky, a member of the local Seal Watch voluntary organisation will be on hand to answer your questions.

Carpinteria Seal Rookery: Take the Bailard Avenue exit from US 101 (Junction 85)  and drive towards the ocean and the cliff-top car park.  

Santa Barbara

It’s the final stretch of our journey – just ten miles on from Carpinteria lies seriously sunny Santa Barbara, dubbed the American Riveria for its outstanding climate and laid-back lifestyle. Tall swaying palms line the streets and beachfront, whitewashed Mediterranean-style architecture fills the downtown area, and al fresco restaurants entice visiting roadtrippers with fresh, regional and organic produce. Bay scallops, shucked oysters and other kinds of seafood and shellfish are, of course, a speciality.

Visit Santa Barbara’s best known attraction, the old hilltop Mission just northwest of downtown. It’s home to a long-standing community of Franciscan friars, and the peaceful landscaped rose gardens have great views. Back on the waterfront, you can jump aboard a year-round whale-watching catamaran tour, rent a kayak and paddle along some secluded stretches of coastline, or even learn how to surf or paraglide. This is California living at its most serendipitous, so make the most of it for as long as you can.


Written by Maxine Sheppard

Image credits:

All images © iStock and Shutterstock

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