California’s Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most famous, scenic drives in the world. Stretching along a large chunk of the Sunshine State and hugging the shoreline the bulk of the way, from Malibu southward, makes this road trip also one of the most flexible. Nearly anywhere you start, stunning views are guaranteed.
Pull off a quick weekend trip by just hopping through the smaller beach towns near San Diego, or plan the mother of all road trips along Cali’s coast from San Francisco to the southern tip of California and stop at as many cities, parks, overlooks and attractions as you have days for.
Because so many points on this highway are famously fantastic, it can be hard to narrow them down. We’ve picked our top 10 favorite stops along California’s coastline, from top to bottom, to help you plan your way.
Muir Woods' ancient redwoods — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jason Toff
1. Muir Woods
San Francisco packs big amusement in its hilly neighborhoods, lined with great shops, restaurants and bars–and of course, the famous Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. But our favorite part of this region is beyond the city and into Muir Woods, where you can find 500-plus-year-old redwood trees in an otherworldly forest. Ancient trees stretch farther than seems possible, hundreds of feet tall.
Then head to the hidden, charming Stinson Beach, a small town with a peaceful strand, historic lighthouse on a cliff and a 308-step walkway with panoramic views that will leave you breathless, in more ways than one.
2. Half Moon Bay
About a half an hour south of San Francisco is a history buff’s beachy paradise, Half Moon Bay, formerly Spanishtown. The city has made it a priority to preserve its history, as one of the oldest settlements in the San Mateo County.
Walk through the historic downtown, ride bikes through the bluffs and enjoy often open stretches of sand all for yourself. The luxurious hotels and romantic restaurant options here offer a different experience, following the small-town simplicity of Stinson Beach (although Half Moon Bay is far from presumptuous).
3. Big Sur
This is one of the most well-known areas of Highway 1 and it’s considered a destination, in and of itself. Big Sir is a designated American National Scenic Byway, and the views explain why. Wildlife-watching is big here; expect to see anything from whales to elephant seals. Stop to hike to the stunning cliffside waterfall in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Hearst Castle — Photo courtesy of Jill /Blue Moonbeam Studio via Flickr
4. Hearst Castle
Ideally located right in the middle of San Francisco and San Diego–four hours either way–and just past the Los Padres National Forest is the Hearst Castle. This residence, built by newspaper bigwig William Randolph Hearst in 1919 and overlooking San Simeon, is filled with art, gardens and water features.
Take a tour through the various buildings on the castle’s 127 acres and feel like you’ve traveled back in time. This is a museum like no other.
5. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara offers plenty to visitors: great shopping, stunning mountain views and outdoor adventures galore.
But it’s the dining and wining scene that stops our car every time. Santa Barbara has earned a reputation for its award-winning wineries. Take tours, sign up for special wine dinners or, if you’re lucky, be in town for a wine fest.
The movie Sideways was filmed here, too. Take a self-guided tour of the various locations seen in the movie (and grab a glass along the way).
Venice Beach at sunset — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
6. Venice Beach
Venice Beach is one of the quirkiest, most creative beaches in California (and that’s saying something). Stroll along the lengthy beach promenade and watch people exercising outside at Muscle Beach, breakdancing, skateboarding, selling crafts, playing street basketball and painting.
The urban art is colorful, the surfing here is great and there are more tourist shops than you could visit in a day. Save time to visit the inexpensive and exciting Venice Beach Freak Show and see sword-swallowing and other shocking tricks.
Dana Point — Photo courtesy of Vu Bui via Flickr
7. Dana Point
Dana Point is a must-visit along the highway, whether you want to get into the water or just look at it.
Dana Point is considered the “Whale Capital of the West” for its endless opportunities to view the marine mammals in their natural habitat. And the high bluffs here provide stunning coastal views. Surfers love the waves, fishers like to cast out and thousands of boats set off from here. Watch ships in the harbor before visiting the shops and waterside restaurants. Don’t leave without visiting Doheny State Park, the Salt Creek Beach or Baby Beach.
Solana Beach cliffs — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
8. Solana Beach
Solana Beach may not be one of California’s most famous beaches–you do have to earn an oceanside seat on the sand by climbing down often lengthy and steep staircases carved through the high cliffs–but the scenery here is stunning and memorable. Solana is rocky, with some cliffs dropping right off at the edge of the ocean.
Find one of the handful of beach access points and you’ll be at one of the most secluded beaches in a bustling California town. Many art galleries, restaurants and home decor stores, all walking distance to the water’s edge, fill the downtown.
9. Ocean Beach
This small community not far from San Diego feels like it’s still in the 60s and 70s. Expect to see VW buses, shirtless beach regulars, taco stands, antique shops, dogs everywhere and tattoo parlors in Ocean Beach, arguably the most laid back, surfer town on the coast. No fishing license needed to cast a line. Prices are more moderate than other San Diego communities, too.
Walk all the way to the end of the lengthy pier and get a full view of the OB. The entire town feels vintage–in the best way.
10. Point Loma
End your road trip at a historically significant, dramatic landmark, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. This lighthouse marks the entry to San Diego Bay and is a reminder about the region’s history; it’s one of the oldest lighthouses on the West Coast. Sign up for a tour or just explore it yourself.
Then take time to visit the Cabrillo National Monument on the Point Loma Peninsula. This marks the place where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to land on the West Coast in 1542.