Image courtesy of Travel and Leisure.
The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most famous stretches of road, offering wonderful views of the Pacific Ocean, and is full of beautiful, small beach towns. It’s the perfect road trip to do over a long weekend, when you have enough time to see all that this part of America has to offer. The scenery here is some of the most photographed in the world, and with good reason. No matter whether you choose to do San Francisco to Los Angeles or vice versa, you’re in for a treat with this exciting road trip! So pack your camera and your sense of adventure and let’s hit the road!
Half Moon Bay, CA | visithalfmoonbay.org
When starting off your journey, it’s a good idea to set the pace for your trip. If you’re taking a couple of days for this road trip, why not take some time and explore the Half Moon Bay area since it is so close to San Francisco? Here you can visit the beach, collect shells, and watch the surfers as they go in and out, as it is a very popular spot on the northern coast for surfing.
You could also visit the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Station, which is the tallest on the West Coast or the Redwood preserve and be awed at the enormity of these beautiful trees. There’s lots of dining and shopping in the main business district, in case you need to pick up any last minute supplies!
Santa Cruz, CA | cityofsantacruz.com
Next on your trip south, you’ll come to Santa Cruz, which is definitely worth a visit. This city is famous for its pristine beaches, but also for its boardwalk and pier. The boardwalk is home to two historic landmarks, the Giant Dipper and the Looff Carousel which are a must-see! There’s a lot going on at the boardwalk, which you might recognize as the backdrop used in The Lost Boys and Jordan Peele’s Us.
If you have time, see if you can charter a whale watching excursion, depending on what time of year you’re visiting. You’ll also find more opportunities to view redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
Monterey, CA | seemonterey.com
No road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway would be complete without a visit to Monterey. It goes without saying that their world famous aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, should be a stop while you visit this serene coastal town. The scientists and staff at the aquarium are among the leading experts in oceanology, marine biology, and oceanic conservation science, but it also has animals and exhibits that you can’t see anywhere else! There is also a lot of history to explore in the city proper, in addition to beautiful parks and cliffside vistas.
Monterey was once the center of the sardine packing industry, and was novelized by John Steinbeck in his book Cannery Row. You can also visit the boarding house that author Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in while he wrote “Old Pacific Capital” and who may have been inspired by the Monterey coast in his timeless Treasure Island. Also, don’t miss your chance to get a picture of the famous Lone Cypress Tree on 17 Mile Scenic Drive!
47225 Hwy 1 | Big Sur, CA | bigsurcalifornia.org
When it’s time to stretch your legs out for a little bit, there’s no better place to do so than in Big Sur. The Pfeiffer state park is the southernmost point that California redwoods live, and the park is full of plenty of trails to get out and see them. You can also hike to McWay Falls along one of the well marked trails. Opt to take a hike or take the scenic 17 Mile Drive and get some amazing pictures of Bixby Bridge.
This area can be prone to landslides on Highway 1, so make sure you’re aware of the condition of the road before heading out to the Big Sur.
750 Hearst Castle Rd. | San Luis Obispo, CA | hearstcastle.org
Of all the places you’ll visit along your coastal road trip, nothing comes close to the grandiose Hearst Castle. It was built for publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst and was designed by master architect Julia Morgan. Mr. Hearst passed away before it was completed, even though at his death there were 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, pools, and walkways.
There are a couple of different tours you can sign up for, depending on what part of this castle interests you the most! There is a Grand Rooms tour, Upstairs Suites tour, Cottages and Kitchens, and even an evening tour, where you can see the castle illuminated as you view the magnificent architecture and priceless works of art.
After the tour, head over to San Luis Obispo and take in the slower pace of life of this sparkling culinary town. You can visit the 18th century Spanish mission and learn about the early European history of this region. Or take a walk down Bubblegum Alley, and maybe leave a piece of gum of your own!
555 Pier Ave. | Pismo Beach | pismobeach.org
Pismo State Beach is the next fun stop on your road trip, and one that offers fantastic beaches for relaxing or dipping your toes in after some time in the car. If you’re traveling in the cooler months of October through February, make sure you check out the Monarch Butterfly Grove, where each year thousands of Monarch butterflies seek shelter on the eucalyptus trees with access to an estuary that flows to the Pacific Ocean. This is quite an impressive site and something you won’t soon forget.
Dinosaur Caves Park is also worth a visit, if just for the amazing views off the bluff. There was a dinosaur sculpture and caves open for tourists in the past, but neither exist today. Instead there’s a walking-friendly park and perfect views of Pismo Beach.
125 Refugio Rd. | Santa Ynez, CA | sunstonewinery.com/
Moving further down the coast, and you’ll run into the Santa Ynez Valley wine area. There are many local wineries-- as well as some breweries-- that are well worth getting a flight or two at, but consider stopping at Sunstone Winery. This winery offers small batch wines that you can taste, purchase, or ship home.
Not far from Sunstone is the town of Solvang, which is known for its Danish-style architecture and authentic Danish cuisine and pastries. Prepare for a friendly European welcome when you arrive off the highway. You can choose to stop into one of the local places to grab a bite to eat, or if you prefer, pick up world-renowned sweet treats instead! Throughout the year Solvang always has a lot going on, including its signature Solvang Julefest around the holiday season, the Solvang Grape Stomp, and Solvang Danish Days, all of which celebrate the unique Danish influence on this town.
2201 Laguna St. | Santa Barbara, CA | santabarbaramission.org/
Moving down the Pacific Coast Highway and you come across Santa Barbara, which has lots of fun things to do and places to explore. You can choose to spend the afternoon on one of their not to be missed beaches, either relaxing or trying your hand at surfing or bodyboarding. You could also opt to take in the views of this city via its many walking or biking trails that guarantee some Instagram-worthy pictures.
You still have all kinds of wineries to explore if you’d like, or instead try some of the local vintage in one of the cafes. While you’re there, make sure to pay a visit to the Old Santa Barbara Mission, which was built in 1786 and is the cultural highlight of this popular beach town. It is still home to a community of Franciscan friars, who strive to bring the mission of the Mission into the modern era. It is also a functioning parish with masses and active parishioners. Tours are offered daily of the church and the beautiful gardens surrounding it.
“Must visit in Santa Barbara. Nice to know history and connect the religious dots. You get to see sacred garden, museum , graveyard and coffins inside.” -Yelp Review
Malibu, CA | www.zuma-beach/
You’ve made it this far south, now it’s time to explore what southern California has to offer!
Take some time and explore Zuma Beach, which is one of the best surf spots in the country, and known for its long, white stretches of sand. While many movies and TV shows have been filmed here, due to the spectacular views, it is also the place where Don Henley penned his famous song “The Boys of Summer.”
Malibu is just a short drive out of Los Angeles, but according to visitors and locals alike, it seems much further than that. The green Santa Monica hills, blue water, white sands, and the sea breeze are what are waiting for you at the end of your road trip. You might catch some celebrities out and about at the local restaurants and shops, but everything here seems to have much more relaxed pace than many other popular SoCal destinations.
Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles is sure to become your favorite road trip-- with beautiful scenery, quaint towns, and lots of local history, you’ll find yourself wanting to visit again! What are your favorite places to visit on the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles? Let us know on Facebook!