Load up on snacks, fill up the tank, turn on the radio, and get ready for the ultimate California road trip. That’s right, we mean the classic Pacific Coast Highway drive that will make you fall even more in love with your car. Whether you have just gotten your car repaired, are fresh off the used-car lot, or just took the time to get the car a good wash, there is no better way to show off your ride than to take it on a cliffside cruise along 650 miles of California coastline.
Known worldwide as one of the most scenic drives in America, the Pacific Coast Highway—also called Highway 1—runs parallel to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, from the northern border of the state all the way down to Dana Point. With so many miles to cover, it can feel daunting and overwhelming to consider all of the potential pit stops; fear not, however, because we have found the best road trip sights along the way that are worth every minute.
There is no better way to show off your ride than to take it on a cliffside cruise along 650 miles of California coastline.
Kick off your journey where Highway 1 begins in the southern part of the state, just north of Capistrano Beach in Dana Point. For your first stop, take a 15-minute excursion inland to San Simeon to see the elaborate Hearst Castle. While mansions are anything but rare in Southern California, this opulent residence showcases the impressively lavish life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose home included 165 rooms on 127 acres complete with pools, fountains, and precisely landscaped gardens. Take in the ocean views from the balconies before heading back out on the road to explore more of the breathtaking coastline.
Drive for about an hour to reach Huntington Beach. Dubbed “Surf City USA”, this stop is a must on any true California coastal road trip. Hopefully you remembered to strap your surfboards to your car roof when setting out so you can jump right into the swells (though if needed, there are ample opportunities to pick up a board or rent one from a local surf shop). After catching the perfect wave, it is time to climb back into the car, roll down the windows, and breathe in the salty air as you make your way up the state. Continue north until you come upon the cultural attractions of Santa Monica and Venice Beaches. The Santa Monica Pier is worth a quick trip to take a ride on the ferris wheel, but the spectacles of Venice Beach require longer explorations. Between the street performers, local artists, eclectic shops, and gorgeous views of the pier in the distance, this destination is well worth the time spent off the road. If the beach is not calling, however, head inland to experience the incredible eateries and art museums of downtown Los Angeles, see the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or admire the architecture of Beverly Hills mansions. After the long day, rest your head at one of the nearby hotels, and get ready for the adventures awaiting on the next leg of your trip.
The following morning, make the short drive up to Malibu to look at the coastal homes and grab some breakfast at one of the local restaurants. Stop by the rocky coves, cliffs, and headlands at Point Dume, and take in the views of the San Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook. Then, drive north to Ventura to take a surf break at Surfers Point, see the long Ventura Pier where fishermen cast their lines, walk around Ventura Harbor Village, visit the town’s historical sights, and discover beauty within the art galleries. From Ventura, it is a short jaunt to Santa Barbara, where the rolling hills and sweeping vineyards show the agricultural power of the California coast. Indulge in the local goods, dine alfresco, and hike around the varied landscape before hitting the road again. In the following destination of Pismo Beach, explore the oceanside parks, farmers market, shopping outlets, and butterfly grove before enjoying a picnic on the sand. After walking around this beloved beach town, head slightly inland to San Luis Obispo. Take in the Spanish architecture, meander through the museums, snap a pic in the quirky Bubblegum Alley, and check in to the vibrant Madonna Inn for a charming overnight experience unlike any other.
In the morning, venture on toward the hot springs, rolling dunes, and unbeatable seafood of Big Sur. Cross the frequently photographed Bixby Bridge to experience the rugged coastal views from atop one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. Just north of here, you will find the quaint town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, followed by the popular destination of Monterey. Take some time to explore the aquarium, Cannery Row, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf that make Monterey one of the best stops along the coast. Just on the other side of Monterey Bay, you will find the ultimate beach-bum town: Santa Cruz. Take the opportunity to surf the waves, ride the roller coasters, and stroll down the streets lined with boutiques and eateries that exude the coastal lifestyle of the California dream.
For a slight detour, head out on Highway 17 to San Jose to see the incredibly unusual Winchester Mystery House. This mansion is said to be haunted and has been under continual construction since 1884, due to Sarah Winchester’s wishes and the upkeep that comes along with having the eccentric home open to the public. Take Highway 9 back south toward Santa Cruz and drive through Castle Rock State Park, or travel north through Mountain View to catch Highway 84 and meet up with Highway 1 again at San Gregorio. Either road you take will lead you to Half Moon Bay for exclusive beaches and decadent seaside eateries before taking you up through the must-see city of San Francisco and across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
On the opposite side of the landmark structure, you will find Muir Woods National Monument, which provides the perfect scenery for a forested hike. Continue your outdoor adventure in nearby Stinson Beach and walk around Point Reyes before tucking in for the night. Set out toward Mendocino the next morning, and watch the waves become rougher as the inland scenery becomes increasingly tree-covered. Get out of the car in Mendocino to look at the historic architecture and stretch your legs before completing the last leg up into Eureka and Crescent City, where the beaches are cooler and less populated, the redwoods tower next to the white sandy shores, and the way of life slows down and the relaxation really begins. After reaching the Oregon border, turn around and stop by the quaint fruit stands, fishing towns, intimate beaches, and bustling towns that caught your eye on the way up. Returning home with a happy car and even better memories will leave you eager to plan your next California road trip.