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The winding Oceanside coastline connects to the charming towns of San Diego through the U.S. Highway 101—a panoramic drive for the ages. As salty air dances along the open road, you’ll find yourself enchanted by the glory that is the Golden State.
From roaring shorelines to mountainous wilderness, the sweeping curves of Highway 101 hug a handful of attractions along the way. Next time you’re on the road, make your journey as marvelous as your destination by checking out the best Highway 101 attractions.
The Top Places to Stop Off Highway 101
Santa Monica Pier
Packed with an abundance of restaurants and bewitching seaside views, the iconic Santa Monica Pier remains a Highway 101 road trip necessity. Take a slight detour from the 101 and make your way through the Ocean Avenue neighborhood to find the charming pier in all its inviting glory.
Built in 1909, the Santa Monica Pier was a pioneer along the West Coast. Locals quickly caught on to its sailing and fishing potential—the latter is a popular US 101 activity to this day.
Now, you can find the pier overflowing with family-friendly activities. Marvel at the street performers and explore the historic Looff Hippodrome while munching on delicious cotton candy. By the time evening rolls around, the South Bay and Malibu inherit a magnetic glow, perfected by the sound of waves crashing in the distance.
Located in the charming city of San Luis Obispo, this quirky Highway 101 attraction invites you to uncover your inner eccentricity. Take your pick among 110 distinct rooms—all adorned in picture-perfect whimsy. A room called “Caveman” features solid rock walls and animal prints; “Just Heaven” is ethereal with golden cherubs and a spiral stairway; and the “Fox and Hound” suite transports you to an English summerhouse.
Besides an unforgettable stay, the Madonna Inn offers trails both guided and unguided—perfect for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Dine at the inn’s quality restaurants, then unwind at the on-site spa before heading out to continue your Highway 101 road trip.
Cerro Alto Trail
The 2,624-foot Cerro Alto Peak is the perfect place to break up your road trip along the Pacific Coast. Hop on the 41 in Atascadero for a short 15-minute drive and indulge yourself in mesmerizing scenery while making your way through a willow-tree wonderland.
Located on the northern tip of Los Padres National Forest—one of the highest points in San Luis Obispo County—this five-mile loop trail is rated moderate. Despite the route you take, the first half a mile or so will prove uncomplicated, with a flat trail bordering the rugged coastline. As the hike turns steeper, you’ll have to put in more effort. Luckily, gorgeous volcanic peaks stretching between Morro Bay and Edna Valley serve as your lofty reward.
If your 101 road trip cannot be complete without your four-legged friend, don’t worry—the three-hour Cerro Alto Trail allows dogs to tag along if they’re on-leash.
Monarch Butterfly Grove
Located just off the 101 and the PCH in Pismo Beach, the Monarch Butterfly Grove is a can't-miss thing to do on the Central Coast and one of Highway 101’s most enchanting stops. Picture 100,000 butterflies marked with orange and black stripes circling the lush eucalyptus trees in a shingle effect. Visitors from all over are greeted by friendly and knowledgeable staff who offer tours and daily talks.
Every winter, these butterflies migrate from the frigid north and cluster in Pismo Beach to enjoy warmer weather—a much-needed shelter for their survival. Due to the seasonal migration, the Monarch Butterfly Grove operates from late October to February.
Palace of Fine Arts
1915 marked a rebirth for San Francisco with the installation of the Palace of Fine Arts, which remains one of the best highway 101 stops today. Surrounded by an idyllic lagoon, this extravagant palace celebrates architecture through its Roman columns and pale-pink hues. Unsurprisingly, this Beaux-Arts marvel has been featured in a number of films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Upon arrival, Australian eucalyptus trees mark your way through lagoons full of swans, turtles, and geese. Meander through the inviting greenery to find spectacular sculptures at the top of the colonnades. The man-made lagoon is gorgeously reflected both at sunset and sunrise, so don’t miss your chance to snap a shot. When you’ve finished taking in this stunning destination, climb back in the car, jump on the 101 and prepare to sail across the iconic Golden Gate bridge.
Trees of Mystery
Mythical air sways through the fallen trees as woodland creatures swarm the area in large numbers. From hiking trails to canopy rides, the Trees of Mystery are home to all sorts of outdoorsy activities. Prepare to be amazed by the 60-foot logger and his 30-foot ox surrounded by towering redwoods.
When the initial intimidation fades, you’ll find that the grounds ahead hold many more mysteries worth exploring. Pay a visit to the Native American Art Museum, make homemade fudge, and purchase some trinkets at the gift shop before you leave.
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