If you’re looking to hit the road this summer, try driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s one of the most scenic road trips you can take in the US, with winding turns and oceanside views all the way up California’s Pacific coastline.
The trip mainly follows along State Route 1 (aka Highway 1), and Highway 101 farther north. You can even continue on Highway 101 all the way up the rugged Oregon and Washington coasts, and end on the Olympic Peninsula.
But it’s easy to spend a week in California alone, taking some time to explore the sun-drenched beaches, quaint towns, and attraction-packed cities along the way.
Check out these 15 memorable places the next time you’re traveling up the coast. They’re technically listed from the southern stretch of the coast, heading northbound. But you can also start out in Northern California and make the trip southbound.
First stop: Torrey Pines State Reserve – La Jolla, San Diego
Torrey Pines is a serene park in La Jolla, San Diego, on the southern stretch of the California coast. It’s actually located just south of the official starting point for Highway 1, but the steep, rocky cliffs and pristine sandy beaches (like the secluded Black’s Beach) are just too beautiful to miss.
You can take short trails here along the beach, and through rare pine forest – like the short, 0.7-mile Guy Fleming Trail. Or if you’re not much of a hiker, but would still like to learn more, they also offer free, hour-long guided walks through the park on weekends and holidays.
If you continue back north on I-5, you’ll run right into the official starting point for State Route 1.
Stop 2: Long Beach
After cruising north on Highway 1 for awhile, the city of Long Beach is a great place to stop, stretch your legs, and explore for awhile. You can go shopping for all kinds of gifts and souvenirs here, dine at one of many local restaurants, or just lay back on the sand for a few hours, book in hand, and take in the warm California sun before getting back on the road again.
Stop 3: Venice Beach
Just north of Long Beach – by way of Highway 1 – this oceanside area of Los Angeles has a famous, mile-and-a-half boardwalk that can be really entertaining to walk down.
Street performers can be seen doing everything on the west side of the boardwalk, from break dancing to walking on glass. There’s also several vendors lined up, selling a variety of handcrafted items, like paintings and sculptures.
A variety of small shops are also set up along the east side. Score a souvenir like a t-shirt or sunglasses, and grab a bite to eat from one of the many local options before heading back on the highway again.
Stop 4: Hearst Castle, San Simeon
San Simeon is a quaint little town to stop in along California’s Central Coast. Though small, the town has plenty to see – like this giant mansion on a hilltop that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale.
Hearst Castle isn’t only captivating from the outside. The inside is just as elegant, and you can even get a closer look by taking one of their awe-inspiring tours through the rooms, kitchens, and grounds. And if you opt to see the upstairs suite, you’ll get a glimpse of rooms in which famous icons have stayed, like Charlie Chaplin and Joan Crawford.
As you continue north, you’ll follow a rugged stretch of coastline known as Big Sur. With every turn, the views of the big blue Pacific through this area are just mesmerizing. The highway leads along seaside cliffs on the western side of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Of course, there are plenty of places to stop along here before it ends near Carmel.
Stop 5: McWay Falls, Big Sur
It’s only a short 0.6-mile hike round-trip to see this enchanting coastal waterfall. The waterfall drops over 80 feet down onto a pristine beach, in a postcard-worthy cove.
You can get onto the McWay Falls Overlook Trail two different ways. You can park on Highway One for free and just walk the short route down to an overlook. Or if you’re looking to explore for awhile, you can pull into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (there is an entrance fee) and take other trails in the area as well.
The overlook trail leads along cliffs to a viewpoint for McWay Falls. There is a beach below, but visitors aren’t actually allowed to go down where the water lands, so the area can stay naturally beautiful (and if you are seen trying to go down there, there is a big fine).
After you continue back north on the highway, you’ll not only get a treat for your eyes, but some of your other senses as well.
Stop 6: Big Sur Bakery
About fifteen minutes north, this bakery and restaurant warrants a stop with their wood-fired pizzas and melt-in-your-mouth desserts.
It’s hidden in an old-style ranch house off the highway, just behind a Shell gas station.
They make more than donuts and muffins, though. There’s a delicious variety on the menu with breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner options, in addition to rich desserts.
Stop and dine on a full course meal, or just grab a few of the pastries that have your name on them, and take them for the road.
Stop 7: Bixby Creek Bridge
The Bixby Creek Bridge is a famous feature along the highway. The design of it is simply stunning, and the oceanside views from the bridge could blow anyone away.
It’s been featured in several car commercials, logos, and a digital illustration of the bridge was even used on stamps. You’ll definitely want to pull off and get some photos to remember the experience.
Most people will pull off into a small area on the west side of the highway, north of the bridge to get their Instagram-worthy shot. But you can also turn up Old Coast Road, a dirt route on the north side of the bridge, for even more dramatic views (as seen in the photo above).
Stop 8: Carmel-by-the-Sea
Situated along a white sandy beach, this European-style village is another charming little town to stop in. There are local attractions galore like: museums, fine art galleries, restaurants, coffee houses, and wine tastings, to name a few.
You can also take a lovely, scenic walking loop around the village, which passes by old storybook cottages named after Robin Hood and his friends.
Stop 9: Monterey
Only ten minutes north of Carmel, Monterey is a scenic city with plenty to offer visitors of all ages. Check out the historic Cannery Row by the waterfront, with gift shops, seafood joints and bars, all inside of old, converted sardine-canning factories.
Another must-see in Monterey is the aquarium. It’s absolutely huge, with hundreds of thousands of marine animals and plants. Your little ones will especially love all of their underwater and interactive exhibits.
Stop 10: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
About 45 minutes north of Monterey, Santa Cruz calls for a stop with their beach boardwalk – which is basically an amusement park right by the ocean. It’s what every kid-at-heart dreams of: with all kinds of games, food, and carnival rides (like the Giant Dipper Rollercoaster and a carousel) for a mile long stretch along the Pacific.
Stop 11: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Of course, you’ll want to pull off and get photos of this world-famous bridge, too.
Vista Point is one of the best places to turn off the highway to see the Golden Gate. If you’re traveling northbound, it can be reached by taking the first exit off the bridge, to the right. You can also get extraordinary views on the west side of the bridge, from the clothing-optional Baker Beach in the Golden Gate Recreation Area (as pictured).
Stop 12: The quaint town of Mendocino
This little community on the northern coast was established back in the 1850s, and still has several Victorian-style buildings and sailboat cottages. You may even recognize one of the local B&Bs, Blair House, as it was featured in the popular TV series – “Murder, She Wrote” as the main character’s house:
The town has a little something for everyone, with beaches, trails through redwood forests, family fun attractions, and wine tasting for those 21-and-up. There’s also antique shops here, and outdoor activities like hiking, biking, horse riding and golf. And of course, a good selection of local restaurants from small, cozy cafes to fine, upscale dining.
Stop 13: Glass Beach
Located along the coast in Fort Bragg, this beach is strangely not filled with sand – but sea glass. It was first created way back in the early 1900s, after people disposed debris off the coast after a huge earthquake destroyed the town.
Before the disaster, people would just get rid of their trash by either burning it or reusing it. But after the earthquake, they had way too much debris to get rid of, and believed that it if they threw it all in the ocean, it would simply just wash away.
But of course, it didn’t. The site rather turned into an ocean dump, until they finally stopped years later in the 1960s.
It’s truly incredible that now, decades later, nature has finally reclaimed itself and cleaned out the man-made damage. Over the years, biodegradable materials eventually degraded, and the pounding waves of the ocean broke down the remaining pieces of glass, smoothed them out, and piled them all up on the shores.
Minerals in the saltwater and sand also gave the pieces a unique, frosty appearance. You can read more info here about where all of the different colors came from.
Stop 14: The Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett
If you’re making the trip in a car or van, swinging by the famous Drive-Thru Tree Park in Leggett is an absolute must.
Most regular-sized vehicles will fit through the tree – though sadly most motorhomes and trailers won’t. The park also has an area where you can stop and get out to hike trails, go for a picnic, or browse their gift shop and pick out the perfect souvenir to take back home with you. Pets are welcome too, but they need to be kept on a leash.
Final stop: Redwood National Park
Redwood is an enchanting place to finish up your trip in the very northern part of California. It’s home to some of the tallest trees on Earth, and miles of hiking paths through the woods, views along the coast, and campgrounds where you can set up tent for the night.
Have you driven up the Pacific Coast Highway? Where are some of your favorite places to stop?