Picture it: Driving down the scenic California coast, in the awesome car of your choice, windows (or top) down, blasting your favorite tunes…sounds like the perfect road trip, right? Well, the Pacific Coast Highway, formally known as California State Route 1, is the ultimate road trip route. It’s designated an All-American road for its scenic views, and it packs one heck of a path that takes you past some pretty rad attractions and places. Here’s a guide to the must-see spots while road tripping the PCH!
The Children's Pool is the best place on the Pacific Coast to get up close and personal with seals! Back in the 1930's a seawall was built in the ocean at this beach to make it safer for kids to swim without the danger of strong waves...but as it turns out, the beach proved to be even more popular with harbor seals than human kids. You're allowed on the beach, but discouraged from getting into the water, or from getting too close to the seals...but it's still pretty wild to see them this close.
Only in California would something like "artisan water" from a historic site fly. Whether you visit Carlsbad Mineral Water Spa for a soak in their mineral water baths, or you're just picking up some water (it's 70 cents per gallon) it's definitely a unique place to stop. The mineral water is alkaline, and is said to be the most healthful mineral water in the world (actress Shailene Woodley is a fan).
After getting refreshed, pull over at Laguna Beach's Moro Ridge. This hike along a canyon ridge has picnic areas and epic views of the coast (on a good day, you can see clear to Catalina Island!). Plus, the canyon is home to tons of adorable rabbits, which are always fun to watch.
Since you're driving along the coast, why not go all in and spend the night on a boat? And this isn't just any ol' boat...it's the RMS Queen Mary, which is a historic luxury ocean liner that sailed the seas between the 1930's and the 1960's. It's now a tourist attraction, museum, and hotel... and it's reportedly haunted.
The next stop is Rancho Palos Verdes and the Wayfarers Chapel. Built by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, who was named Lloyd Wright, this chapel is a great example of the "organic architecture" for which both the Wrights were so well known. It enhances the already-stunning landscape of the California coast with lots of wood and glass.
If you're hungry, head to Manhattan Beach's Fishing With Dynamite restaurant. Whether you go for the raw bar, a massive platter, or just something off their brunch/lunch/dinner menu, you're sure to enjoy the fresh seafood here. Their menu is divided into "old school" and "new school" dishes, depending on how adventurous you feel...plus they've got awesome cocktails and tasty dessert.
Then finish up your day at the historic Santa Monica Pier. Take a spin on the historic carousel, sit at the soda fountain, see some fishy friends at the aquarium or just enjoy the beach and the people-watching. This is probably the most iconic and historic pier along the coast! From the rollercoaster and Ferris wheel to the arcade, and the signs noting that it was the official end of Route 66, there's tons of old-school fun to be had here.
Once you reach Malibu, pull over at Point Dume State Beach. Here, you can spot dolphins, explore tidepools, and swim in the relatively calm water...or just sit on the beach and soak it all in!
The coolest hotel in Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Auto Camp, isn't even a hotel! These old-school Airstreams have been artfully decorated ad fully tricked out. Think, full kitchens, complete bathrooms with clawfoot tubs, and beds to fit a family...all done up in simple retro awesomeness. Seriously, you might be too busy Instagramming everything to get any sleep.
Santa Barbara, CA
Forget In 'n' Out! The Habit Burger Grill makes a truly crave-worthy charburger. And not just that, but you can order it "Teriyaki Style" with pineapple and grilled onions, or "Santa Barbara Style" with cheese and avocado. Don't forget sweet potato fries, onion rings, and a rich malt to complete the meal.
Once you reach Lompoc, prepare for some serious wine-tasting. The laid back vibes at Palmina Wines make the experience of tasting their outstanding varietals (which they pair with cheese, charcuterie, bread, and olive oils) even more incredible. They do lots of European (mostly Italian) wines, and get their grapes from vineyards across the county.
During the winter, majestic Monarch butterflies come to Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove to wait out the cold weather. Scientists aren't sure what keeps the beautiful butterflies returning to this location each year, but between November and February, the place is filled with hibernating Monarchs.
Next you'll reach Cambria. The PCH bisects the Fiscalini Ranch preserve, which features some of the best hiking in the area. A total hidden gem, you can see wildflowers, forests, and dramatic ocean views from the 400-foot bluff. Several well-maintained and short-ish trails offer plenty of ways to experience the ranch.
With natural scenery as fabled as that of the California coast, is it any wonder that one of America's richest newspaper moguls chose to build his legendarily opulent estate here? The Hearst Castle in San Simon is actually a collection of luxurious mansions built by William Randolph Hearst between the 1920's and the 1950's. Here, he entertained the most fabulous movie stars and other members of the social elite at the time. Today you can tour the buildings, which are kept up by the California State Park Service. Tickets might seem pricey at $25 a pop for adults, but once you see the massive, gorgeous pool, you'll realize that it's worth it.
Since those views of the coast are one of a kind, finding a place to spend the night immersed in nature isn't a half bad idea. Splurge for a yurt with a view at the Treebones glamping resort; a yurt is basically a pimped out tent with a queen bed, a deck, and running water. Or, if you're feeling extra adventurous, book a stay in their human nest. I seriously can't make this up.
One of the most famous views in all of Big Sur is that of McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can't get too close to them, but it's doesn't matter, because they look fabulous from this particular angle.
While much is made of how lovely the wild, rugged coast of Big Sur is, the rocky cliffs made it super hard for sailors to navigate during the olden days. Thankfully, a lighthouse was built on this outcropping, now called Point Sur Historic Park, to guide the way. The rough terrain meant that the lighthouse keeper and his family here lived a pretty isolated life, and it wasn't even automated until the 1970's. Tour the property to take in the views and learn about the human history of this special landscape.
And if all of that fresh ocean air is making you hungry, you'll probably need lunch, or afternoon tea, if you're feeling classy, and The Tuck Box Tea Room is the perfect stop. Sandwiches, salads, and amazing baked goods, as well as a storybook atmosphere will add to the effect of this road trip that often times feels right from a fairy tale.
It'll cost you about $10 to take the majestic 17 Mile Drive, but it's worth it-- and it's a lot cheaper than playing a round on what is commonly accepted as one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world: Pebble Beach. Keep a lookout for otters, golfers, the gorgeous mansions, and, of course, the famed Lone Cypress tree, which is begging for a photo op.
Named after the John Steinbeck novel (also called "Cannery Row") which took place in Monterey, the real-life Cannery Row is a waterfront street that was once home to numerous sardine canneries. In what might be one of the most enchanting opening sentences of any book ever, Steinbeck described it by saying, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." Today, it's more of a tourist attraction, but there are tons of shops for browsing, restaurants and bars, and things to see and do.
If you're getting hungry, head to the Santa Cruz Diner. Any place that serves meatloaf, lasagna, and pho all at once definitely has my attention, plus, it was mentioned on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, so it's got the Guy Fieri seal of approval. It also has a great diner-y, beachy atmosphere which makes eating here even more fun!
Housed in a historic lighthouse, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is right at home in this coastal town. Photos, artifacts, and more document the changes in surf culture, "from idyllic summers spent at the beach in the 1930s and 40s, through the hipster beach party 50s, the surf rock 60s, the 'soul surfing' 70s, the neon 80s, and the rebirth of classic long-board riding in the 90s." Rad!
Today, people come to the Moss Beach Distillery for the freshly-made food and views, but back in the 1920's, celebs flocked here for illegal hooch! The private beach located below the restaurant was the perfect place for bootleggers to land their boats loaded with booze so that it could be carried into the restaurant under the cover of night. This restaurant was featured on Unsolved Mysteries for their resident ghost, The Blue Lady, who, according to legend, was a married woman having an affair with the piano player at the eatery. The two were attacked, and she was killed, while they walked on the beach below. Diners and employees alike have reported mysterious happenings, which they think were caused by her spirit.
It may not look like much now, but back in the early 20th century, these crumbling ruins were once the largest indoor swimming pool in the world, called the Sutro Baths. Seven massive pools could hold up to ten thousand swimmers, and there was even a museum, amphitheater, and ice skating rink inside as well. But the huge attraction proved hard to maintain, especially as its popularity waned, and it caught fire shortly after it closed in the 1960's. The remains are pretty fun to explore, though!
Hotel Tomo, located in San Francisco's Japantown, naturally has hip Asian accents. Plus, the rad Kinokuniya Bookstore, the Asian Art Museum, and loads of bars and delicious Japanese restaurants are within walking distance, and you're not to far from San Francisco's other awesome attractions, either!
The Tomales Bay Oyster Company is an oyster farm, but if you bring condiments and tools (you can borrow knives and hot sauce from them if you plan to use their grill but forget the essentials) you can have a picnic here, as well! And if oysters aren't your jam, they sell mussels and clams too-- bring along a loaf of baguette and some garlic and butter to eat with your bivalves, and you've got the perfect picnic.
Most people know that California has a strong Spanish heritage... but Fort Ross State Historic Park features a fort that was actually founded by Russian fur traders! The southernmost point in a Russian colonization of America between the 1810's and 1840's or so, it's been restored and buildings have been recreated. Plus, besides being on the coast, you can also explore the nearby redwood forests, too.
The Point Arena Lighthouse has a fascinating history. Originally built in 1870, it was damaged in a 1906 earthquake, and had to be razed and rebuilt entirely in 1908, helping to pioneer methods to build more earthquake-proofed lighthouses. Oh, and if it looks kind of familiar, don't be surprised: it's the finishing point for the race in the 2014 movie "Need for Speed".
The Didjeridoo Dreamtime Inn is located in a historic, 19th-century home was once owned by artist Emmy Lou Packard, assistant to Diego Rivera, and the current owners have kept the artsy, relaxing vibes. They feature pieces from local artists, a great organic and locally-sourced breakfast each morning, and awesome gardens to explore.
From the cliff house to the ocean views to the sculptures that almost blend seamlessly into the surroundings, you won't find a more beautiful natural setting than the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Oh, and I can't forget to mention the flowers themselves! The dahlias and roses are especially impressive.
There are a few drive-through trees in this part of the country (those huge redwoods lend themselves to being turned into tunnels pretty nicely) and so even though it might set you back a few bucks and take a bit of waiting in line, it's one of those must-do, old-school roadside attractions that's worth doing just to say you did it. It doesn't get any more classic Route 1 than the Drive-Thru Tree Park in Leggett!
You'll feel right at home at this local little joint, the Eel River Cafe, which has the neon sign, the red stools, and black-and-white checker floor that mark a good classic diner. And they don't rest on the adorable, small-town vibes, either: their food is freshly made and completely hits the spot. Expect burgers, tacos and more!
Cruise through Humboldt Redwoods State Park's famed forests on the picture-perfect Avenue of the Giants. It's the largest collection of tall redwood trees in California (although none can top Redwood National Park's Hyperion Tree). Stop by the Immortal Tree, which has survived saws and lightning strikes, to see just how tough these trees can be!
Organic craft beer? Yes, please! They have a solid roster of great brews, including typical stuff like an amber and a porter, plus more California-esque offerings, like an acai berry wheat beer. Plus, they make some tasty pub food (think burgers and smoked BBQ) that comes in vegetarian-friendly options!
When you reach Trinidad, CA, head to Patrick's Point State Park. This secluded and misty park, with its hikes through forests and along the beach, is the perfect place to really feel like you're getting away from it all. Search for agate stones on the shore, appreciate the view from the lookout, and enjoy the solitude with some camping, if you're equipped.
The Trees of Mystery is a classically kitschy roadside stop built around some of the coolest and most unique redwoods in the state. There's the fallen Candelabra Redwood, with smaller redwoods growing out of it, the twisting Cathedral Redwood, made of several intertwined trees, educational trails to hike, an aerial tramway to ride, and you can even get married inside of a redwood, if you're feeling impulsive.
Redwood State and National Parks are often grouped together as one entity with several individual units, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is one of the state parks that falls into that group. There are several groves of notably huge redwoods, and a river that runs through the wooded landscape. It's no wonder that George Lucas used redwood forests like this one as a filming location for the Forest Moon of Endor in Star Wars!
The best time to travel the Pacific Coast Highway: It should be noted that June, July and August are particularly foggy months. If you're looking for a time of year with the clearest views and best weather, October is generally the best time to road trip down the PCH. Also, the summer months can get very crowded at many of the attractions along the route, plus since it's high tourist season you'll experience higher rates at hotels and longer waits at restaurants (many of which are also seasonal and closed in winter).