Travel & Day Trips

Highway 1 vs the 101: The Differences, and How to Choose

Two of California’s most renowned highways, Highway 1 and U.S. Route 101, offer drivers unparalleled experiences of the state’s vast beauty and diverse landscapes. The coastal route of Highway 1 delivers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, while the 101 presents a unique blend of urban, rural, and natural environments.

As a Bay Area resident, I’ve spent a ton of time driving on both roads, both on trips near LA on the 101 and on trips to Half Moon Bay and points south on Highway 1.

In this blog post, we compare these two iconic routes to help you make the most of your next Californian road trip.

Highway 1: A Scenic Coastal Journey

Stretching over 655 miles from Orange County in Southern California to Mendocino County in the North, Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), boasts some of the most spectacular oceanfront views in the world.

Must-See Stops Along Highway 1

Highway 1 is a trip full of unforgettable sights. Begin your journey at Dana Point in Orange County, and wind your way through iconic coastal towns like Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach. Next, make sure to stop at Los Angeles to soak in the vibrant city life.

As you continue northwards, the rugged, cliff-lined vistas of Big Sur will captivate you. Don’t forget to visit the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, an opulent mansion with historical significance. Further north, you’ll encounter the charming towns of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey, known for their artistic vibe and beautiful aquarium, respectively.

One of the final attractions on this road trip is the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a must-see monument before the highway continues through the Point Reyes National Seashore and ends in Leggett in Mendocino County.

California Highway 1 passes through the town of Stinson Beach, California, April 24, 2016.

U.S. Route 101: An Exploration of California’s Diversity

U.S. Route 101, also known as the 101, spans nearly 800 miles, connecting Los Angeles to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. This route, rich in cultural history, offers a blend of cityscapes, farmland, and beautiful coastline views.

Small roadside sign for US Highway 101 in the Silicon Valley town of Mountain View, California, August 24, 2016.

Highlights of the 101

The 101 road trip starts in the heart of Los Angeles, a city bustling with energy, and passes through Hollywood, giving you a chance to witness the glitz and glamor of the entertainment industry. It then winds through the beautiful wine country of Santa Barbara and the quaint Danish village of Solvang.

The 101 also traverses the Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, and the city of San Francisco, known for its cultural diversity and stunning architecture. After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, the highway will lead you to the dense forests of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, showcasing the tallest trees on earth.

As you travel further north, the highway offers more serene, picturesque views of farmland and the Oregon coast before it ends in the lush landscapes of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

The Verdict

Choosing between Highway 1 and the 101 is largely dependent on your personal preferences and the experiences you’re seeking. If your heart yearns for a scenic drive with endless views of the Pacific Ocean, Highway 1 is a dream come true.

However, if you desire a diverse experience that weaves together a tapestry of urban life, wine country, agricultural landscapes, and coastal scenery, the 101 will undoubtedly fulfill your expectations. Both routes offer a quintessential Californian experience, and you can’t go wrong with either.

Combine Both for the Ultimate Experience

For the truly adventurous, consider combining both highways into a single epic road trip. Drive north along the coastline on Highway 1, then return south through the inland on the 101. This grand tour allows you to soak in the state’s magnificent coastal views, diverse cityscapes, and tranquil rural landscapes, making it an unforgettable Californian experience.

To conclude, whether you choose the mesmerizing coastal route of Highway 1, the diverse landscapes of the 101, or a combination of both, your journey will undoubtedly be filled with awe-inspiring scenery and unique experiences that California’s iconic routes have to offer.

Just remember–either road is less boring than the 5!

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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