10 Must-See Places You’ll Want To Experience On Pacific Coast Highway
If you’re in need of California trip ideas, consider driving up the iconic Pacific Coast Highway. It’s renowned as one of the most scenic road trips in America, and of course there are dozens of fun places to stop and check out along the way. These are just ten of the many places off Highway 1 that you’ll want to experience.
Wish you could explore Europe, but don’t want to pay for a flight and hotel? Solvang, California has everything you need and more, just outside of Santa Barbara in Santa Ynez Valley. The charming little town proudly shows off their Danish roots everywhere from the building architecture to the authentic pastries in the downtown bakeries. Try tasting the local wine, shopping in the many boutique shops, and learning more about their Danish culture at the Elverhøj Museum of History and Art.
2. Hearst Castle, San Simeon
Some people will tell you to skip this overrated stop in San Simeon, but really, how often do you get the chance to walk around an elegant hilltop mansion? Hearst Castle isn’t just a stunner from out front, but you can tour inside for a first-hand look across the lavish grounds.
Plus, if you opt to see the upstairs suite, you can take a peek inside rooms where icons have stayed, like Charlie Chaplin and Joan Crawford. It’s worth the splurge and experience, most definitely.
3. McWay Falls
Ahh, McWay Falls. This coastal waterfall has to be one of Big Sur’s finest hidden gems. Visitors aren’t actually allowed to go down to the pristine beach where the water lands, to help keep the area naturally beautiful (and if you are seen trying to go down there, you’ll get hit with a big fine). But you can still get perfect photo ops from an overlook just off the highway. It’s a short, 0.6-mile walk round-trip, leading along cliffs to the final viewpoint. If you are looking to stop and explore for longer, you can also pull into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (there is an entrance fee) and hike other trails in the area as well.
4. Bixby Creek Bridge
You can’t pass over Bixby Bridge without stopping to get photos of the beautiful overpass itself. It’s an icon of the PCH near Big Sur, and has been used as the backdrop in many car commercials and movies. Most people will pull off into a small area on the west side of the highway, north of the bridge to capture their Instagram-perfect shot. But you can also turn up Old Coast Road, a dirt route on the north side of the bridge for more dramatic views. See related: Famous Bridges of California.
5. Santa Cruz Boardwalk
Cheaper than Disneyland, this amusement park in Santa Cruz is set along a mile-long stretch of sandy coastline. Admission is free, but if you have a little to spend you can enjoy a wide range of carnival rides, games, and food options. Go for a round of mini golf, score points in the Casino Arcade, or shop around for a variety of souvenirs.
6. Half Moon Bay
Just south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay lies between forested hills and the beautiful Pacific Coastline. The small Bay Area community is packed with fabulous lodging and local dining options. We recommend trying a hearty cup of chowder from Sam’s Chowder House (which overlooks the ocean), and staying in the lovely Mill Rose Inn, where the cozy accommodations are less than a mile from the beach.
7. Golden Gate Bridge
Don’t just cross the Golden Gate Bridge – stop in Golden Gate Park (or by the Vista Point overlook) to really marvel over this world-famous San Francisco landmark. If you’re traveling northbound, Vista Point can be found by taking the first exit off the bridge, to the right. It’s a nice stopping point to get a quick photo before heading back up the highway. Or if you’re looking to explore for a bit, pull into Golden Gate Park and check out the views from the clothing-optional Baker Beach (as pictured). See related: Photographing the Golden Gate Bridge.
8. Point Bonita Lighthouse
Also set in the Golden Gate area, Point Bonita is the only lighthouse you can reach by crossing over a suspension bridge. Built in 1855, the light still remains active on the southwest tip of the Marin Headlands and getting out to it is an adventure of its own. The trail winds for about a half-mile, past rock formations and through a 118-foot-long man-made tunnel.
9. Muir Beach Overlook
An easy hike with big rewards, Muir Beach Overlook will give you wide open views of the ocean without even going a full half-mile. The trail starts just north of Muir Beach, leading down steps along a rocky promontory. It eventually comes to a platform, where you can stop and soak in the views of the Pacific, and find some of the area’s top whale watching opportunities.
10. Point Reyes
In Northern California, Point Reyes offers a quiet day trip out of San Francisco with hiking trails, sandy beach and panoramic ocean views. The nature preserve is also home to an abandoned shipwreck near Inverness that’s popular with photographers. Try taking on the Chimney Rock Trail for about 1.6 miles to a scenic overlook – it’ll not only give you fabulous views, but the opportunity to see adorable elephant seals.
Where are some of your favorite places to stop off the Pacific Coast Highway? We also recommend stopping in all of these charming seaside communities.