Take a road trip along the California coast, from Santa Barbara to Big Sur

Scenic views and crashing waves bring many things to mind. For me, it always brings a sense of equanimity. I closed my eyes and breathed in the fresh air. I was standing on an overlook at the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve, where below me the waves rolled inland, dissolving into frothy white foam on the wet sand.

“Smile.”

I opened my eyes to see my sister, Ellie, camera in hand.

“No photos, please!”

“It’s for Grandma.”

“Delete it. We can take a better one soon.”

“Better one? When will that be?”

I smiled. “I’ll let you know.”

My sister, Ellie, and I were continuing our quest along the Pacific Coast Highway. We started the trip in San Diego, and now found ourselves closer to our ultimate destination in Crescent City at the top of the state, where Grandma Dawn awaited us.

We had left Ventura earlier that morning and took a quick detour at the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve. Ellie is an aspiring photographer, so I suggested stopping so she could take photos of the coast (not me!). The bluffs overlooked the beach down below, providing us with a gorgeous photo-op. I watched as Ellie stood at the edge, adjusting the settings on her DSLR for just the right shot. I pulled out my phone and snapped my own photo of Ellie the photographer for Grandma.

Blooming in Santa Barbara

Prior to taking the trip, Ellie had expressed an interest in expanding her photography portfolio. We looked for attractions that fit this concept, specifically exemplifying the natural beauty and majesty of California.

The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden was definitely at the top of the list. The 78-acre botanical garden has more than 1,000 species of rare and indigenous plants, and when we arrived, it was pretty clear Ellie would fill up one of her camera’s memory cards.

Ellie adjusted her settings for a sweeping shot of the Santa Ynez mountains; the flowers of the field around the Porter Trail were vibrant colors of lilac and gold.

Her camera was slightly aimed in my direction, and I quickly pivoted away. “Nope. Not ready yet, El.”

My sister stuck her tongue out. “Fine. But you can’t be camera shy forever.”

We decided to stay the night in Santa Barbara at the Kimpton Goodland, a boutique hotel with a California hipster mentality. Ellie whipped out her camera, taking as many pictures as possible as we moved through the lobby and to our room.

The hotel’s decor was reminiscent of a bohemian lifestyle, the general atmosphere being one of carefree living and minimalist hipster-chic vibes. There was even a retro record player in our room, provided with plenty of records to play on it.

Before turning in, I decided on a quick swim in the hotel pool. The water was remarkably warm, with ample space that night to relax. The next morning, I snapped a picture of Ellie standing inside the Airstream travel trailer out front—I figured she wouldn’t mind. A prime candidate for the perfect picture? Not exactly. But perfect for Instagram? You bet.

Visiting the danish village of Solvang

Ellie and I continued driving along the coast for 25 or so miles, the wind blowing through our hair. We briefly stopped at the El Capitan State Beach, where Ellie took more photos of the coastline.

Our next stop was in Solvang (Danish for “sunny field”), a small city known for its Danish-inspired facade. We parked at the Mission Santa Ines, starting our tour of the city there. We walked west to downtown, taking in the many gift shops peppering this beautiful Danish-style village. There was even a year-round Christmas store that excited Ellie to no end. So of course, we had to go inside.

Compared to the hustle and bustle of other major cities we had visited, Solvang had an atmosphere of relaxation that was truly intoxicating.

We ended our tour at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, celebrating the author of one of my all-time favorite fairy-tales, The Little Mermaid.

As I admired a bust of Andersen, I heard Ellie behind me trying to stealthily capture my photo.

“Nice try,” I said as I moved away.

We left in high spirits, continuing our journey to San Simeon, a couple hours northwest of Solvang. Passing Pismo Beach, Ellie implored me to stop for a quick photo-op of the pier. But still, it wasn’t quite the perfect photo.

Seals and zebras at San Simeon

We thought just maybe we were going a little crazy.

As we made our way north toward the legendary Hearst Castle, Ellie shouted, “Zebras! There are zebras here!”

I couldn’t see while I was driving, but I took Ellie at her word. Pulling over to the right side of the road, we clambered out. Sure enough, more than a dozen zebras were grazing the rolling green hills south of Hearst Castle. Ellie snapped away, clearly elated at this opportunity.

“Can you believe this?” she exclaimed. “These are wild zebras! How are they here?”

We didn’t have to wonder at the answer long before finding out at the Hearst Castle visitor center. The castle is the former home of publisher William Hearst, who had built the world’s largest private zoo (at the time), filling it with many animals including lions, monkeys, and zebras. After Hearst’s death, his estate was dissolved and most of the animals were sold off to various zoos. However, the zebras were set free. The area outside the castle is 82,000 acres, plenty of space for these majestic creatures to roam.

“I want a zebra,” Ellie remarked.

“Maybe I’ll get you one for your birthday,” I teased.

We spent the rest of the day exploring everything Hearst Castle had to offer, including the winery and gardens. Honestly, I could write a whole piece just dedicated to the castle. There was so much to see.

I admired how the sun seemed to kiss the ocean, its fiery spirit gently caressed by the lapping waves.

Sunset at Bixby Creek Bridge

We left the next afternoon for the Big Sur coast, where Ellie planned to take a photo of the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. It was, according to her, the ultimate photo-op.

Not even halfway there, Ellie accosted me to stop at a sign directing us to Elephant Seal Vista Point. The cove was covered with seals lounging on the beach, occasionally flipping sand over themselves to keep cool. Ellie took a few photos at the start, but eventually just observed her favorite animal, clearly soaking in the moment. I took out my phone, snapping another pic of Ellie in her natural habitat.

Before long, we were back on the road, heading toward the bridge. By the time we arrived, the sun was setting. I pulled off into one of the viewpoints around the bridge and followed Ellie to what she referred to as the “prime” spot.

I walked past Ellie as she prepped, content in my own moment. I admired how the sun seemed to kiss the ocean, its fiery spirit gently caressed by the lapping waves.

“I think this is the one,” I said.

“I know,” said Ellie. “Already took your picture while you were in the zone.”

I laughed. “I’m sure Grandma will be pleased with both of our portfolios.”

Ellie looked puzzled, and in response, I showed her my shots of her over the course of the last few days. After some playful criticism of my depth of field, Ellie agreed the one taken just recently with the elephant seals was the best one.

You could almost say it was a picture-perfect moment.

Experience the Pacific Coast Highway and discover more road trip ideas.

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