It’s about 1,137 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles if you drive the most expedient route, the inland U.S. Interstate 5. Go ahead and do it that way — if you hate fun, yourself, America, and the idea of discovering some of the best driving roads on this continent.
Don’t hate those things? Then you need to take U.S. Route 101 instead until you get down to California State Route 1, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
Do that and you’re in for some 1,500 miles of tight, winding mountain roads with the Pacific Ocean at your side, the sea wind in your hair and the sun on your face. You’re in for some of the most awe-inspiring natural beauty this great nation of ours has to offer. You’re in for a drive you will never forget.
(Full disclosure: BMW wanted me to drive an M4 convertible so badly they lent me one with a full tank of gas for a whole 10 days — after I asked for one, of course. All other travel expenses including flights, hotels, food and booze were paid for by yours truly as part of his paid vacation from work. Thanks for the clicks, everybody!)
A legendary part of America’s road trip history and culture, the PCH is traversed by thousands of drivers seeking adventure every year. But there are things you need to know first if you want to get the most out of this journey. I know this because I spent 10 days doing it last month in a 2015 BMW M4 Convertible. Here’s what to do and not do if you attempt this voyage as well.
Do get the right car. Obvious, but critical. When Mrs. PG and I started planning for this trip late last year, I suggested to then-Jalopnik editor Travis Okulski that I worm my way into a new 2015 Ford Mustang, ideally in ragtop form with a V8 under the hood.
He scoffed at the idea, saying every car on the PCH would be a Mustang convertible. (It turns out he was wrong, by the way — only every other car on the PCH was a Mustang convertible. The rest were Camaro convertibles.)
Our steed ended up being a convertible M4, a car that is unquestionably better than a Mustang but also unquestionably more expensive. This gorgeous Yas Marina Blue hardtop convertible stickered in at a whopping $90,625, thanks to options like the $8,000 carbon ceramic brakes, $1,000 adaptive suspension, and $3,500 executive package, which featured not only a heated steering wheel and headlight washers but also neck warmers — vents in the seat headrests that shoot hot air onto your neck.
Neck warmers! My God, what an age we live in. All these years you’ve been driving around with your neck un-warmed, like some plebe asshole. Little did you know the Germans have invented a better way!
It ended up being as close to a perfect car for this road trip as I could ask for. While the M4 has grown into a larger, more grand touring role than the M3 coupes of the past, its comfortable ride and seats, 425 horsepower twin turbo inline six engine, handling prowess, delightful stick shift and array of options made it ideally suited to this journey. It even got decent fuel economy when I babied it — I averaged about 25 MPG by the end, which was fine for such a high performance car.
There are a few downsides to the M4, of course. Like I mentioned before, there’s the size of it, preventing it from tackling the PCH’s tight, winding curves as well as a Lotus Elise, a Mazda Miata or even the smaller BMW M235i. There was the fake engine noise, which I never warmed up to. The steering also felt way too numb, too artificial — BMW has a ways to go until their electric racks are as good as their competitors.
I am not yet convinced the current M3 and M4 will be instant classics like their predecessors. But it was a fine machine, one I missed when I had to give it back, and an ideal PCH car.
Now, not everyone has access to a $90,000 BMW for their PCH road trip. That’s understandable. But whatever your budget, I can’t recommend enough that you get something fun, fast and engaging to drive. It makes all the difference. Oh, and one other thing…
Do get a convertible. You need something with a roof that goes away on command — there’s no ifs, ands or buts about that one. Put aside whatever beefs you have with convertibles and their inclination toward extra weight, body roll and sunburns. The Gods of the PCH demand you have an open roof. You need to be able to smell and taste the sea air. You need to be able to feel that California sunshine on your skin once you get down to the Golden State.
We flew in to Seattle, picked up the M4, drove south through Portland and Eugene onto the 101, finally on the Oregon coast headed south. This is where our journey really began, where the curving roads along the Pacific Ocean opened up to us.
It’s nothing short of majestic out there. Dense fog rolls off the hills and into the water below. Take a deep breath and the cold sea air kisses your lungs, making all the other air you’ve breathed seem like a sad, pale imitation.
Along the way you’ll pass by or through several state and national parks full of redwood trees that are between 500 and 700 years old. The air’s surprisingly chilly up there, but with heated seats, the heater on full blast and the neck warmers warming our necks, we were just fine.
One big plus to putting the top down was that it better let us hear the M4’s raucous exhaust note. If there’s any doubts as to whether the car deserves its M credentials, fire it up, stand behind it while it idles, and then go for a fast drive with the top down. It’s a raspy, burbling, crackling beast of an exhaust.
Now imagine all that with a roof over your head. Whatever the opposite of a happy thought is, it’s that.
Do have a beer in Oregon. When you’re done with your driving for the day, Oregon is a fun place because even if you pop into the nastiest, shittiest, gnarliest bar in the smallest town you can find, one where a biker gang is all but certainly cooking meth out back and where the hardscrabble waitresses are 40 but look closer to 65, those waitresses will still tell you “Our seasonal tap is a lovely double IPA with a hint of grapefruit, honey and vanilla!”
They take their beer very seriously up there. Their coffee, too. It’s all very in line with my values.
Do pack smart. Since this is a road trip story, I should probably talk about the packing situation. The 4-Series’ trunk is inherently compromised by its convertible roof, so the folks at BMW told us to pack lightly. Inside there’s this movable parcel shelf thing that can stay up if the top is up, but has to go down if you want open air fun.
We packed most of our clothes for this 10-day trip into two big soft duffel bags. When I wanted to put the top down, I had to move one of the bags to the back seat. No big deal. Otherwise, it proved pretty roomy and practical for two people on a vacation.
If you end up taking a convertible, and you’re crazy not to, keep in mind the trunk space may require some sacrifices.
Don’t underestimate how cold it can be. Even though we did this trip in late May, it only really got warm as we approached Los Angeles. Northern California is cold. So is Oregon. Bring sweaters and jackets and don’t be afraid to crank that heat (or neck warmers) when the top is down. Layers are a good idea.
Do the crazy loop between the 1 and the 101. Oregon gives way to California’s northern coast and, at last, a chance to get on State Route 1, the real Pacific Coast Highway. But to get on that, you have to divert from U.S. 101 along a winding, uphill nine-mile stretch of mountain road.
When I saw it on my navigation map, I knew it was time to party.
I hit the M Drive 2 button on the steering wheel, setting the car into its sharpest and angriest setting, and finally let the devil out. The comfortable highway cruiser I knew before was gone, replaced by the vicious, snarling, hoon-capable M car I dreamed it would be.
With the top down and my wife hanging on for dear life in the passenger’s seat, I powered up a complex mountain road thankfully free of traffic. It’s a lot of fun, and if you’re in a good car (You should be! Haven’t you been paying attention so far?) you can really wring it out up there. That will change once you get to the actual coast.
Don’t speed. Driving the PCH is quite different from going full force on your favorite empty back road. Too many blind corners, too many other cars, too many stopping points where pedestrians walk about taking photos, and not enough guard rails. (Both states could really stand to invest in more of those.) One mistake out there and it’s into the Pacific Ocean you go. In other words, you have to be especially careful and not stupid.
Want to know how dangerous those roads really are? Even the sportbike riders behave themselves out there. When was the last time you saw that happen anywhere?
But even so, you wouldn’t want to blow through them at some insane pace. This drive isn’t about speed, it’s about what you get to see. If you drive the PCH you’re in some of the most stunningly exquisite sights in all of North America. Whatever I expected to see out there, what I actually saw was far more gorgeous.
Don’t push yourself too hard. We split our 10-day trip between driving and days-long stops in various cities. The way we spaced it out, we had about two days of really hard car time. The most exhausting part came between Brookings, Oregon, where we had stopped for the night, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Normally, winding rural roads are what I live for. They’re what I do instead of therapy, or opiates. But after one day that involved 10 hours of nonstop driving on those coastal roads, with nothing but a cliff separating us from a watery grave, I had had about enough. Ten hours of maximum focus and maximum adrenaline had left me drained.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I told my wife. “Can you find me a highway?” And so we ended up back on the 101, cruising comfortably into the Bay Area. I relaxed a bit and got my second wind. Winding roads are wonderful, but highways are nice when you need them.
Do take pictures. After two nights in San Francisco we headed south toward Los Angeles, passing through Santa Cruz and Big Sur along the way. The entire drive up to that point had challenged our existing concepts of natural beauty, but this leg of the trip was the most scenic. Every corner on the 1 revealed a more beautiful coastal landscape than what we had seen before.
Look at that. Why on earth did I come back from that? Why am I here now?
Don’t forget to stop along the way. Sure, the car was great, but the drive was only half the fun. If you’re going out that way, make sure go to San Luis Obispo and stay a night or two in the 1950s-tacular Madonna Inn and get yourself a huge steak. And when you’re in nearby San Simeon, stop by the majestic castle-mansion that newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst built for himself because he was insane and obscenely rich, a combination that produces interesting results in life. Tour tickets to that one aren’t cheap, but they’re worth it. It’ll give you something to aspire to.
It was a fantastic trip in a fantastic car. I have to come back to the PCH someday. This may have been a bucket list trip for us, but I doubt it’s the last time we’ll do it. Next time I want to try it in a vintage car, like the WRX-engined Karmann-Ghia I dream of building or the Porsche 356 Speedster I’m buying myself once I hit the Powerball.
It may take longer, and my neck may not be quite as warm, but it should make for a good story.
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