California’s Iconic PCH: Where to Stop and What to See
There are many great American road trips to be had for the truly adventurous. Driving Route 66 is something everyone should experience. The Great River Road along the Mississippi is also a spectacular journey.
But there is perhaps no more iconic American drive than along CA-1, otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway. This 650-plus mile roadway stretches along the extreme west coast of the great state of California, hugging the shoreline of the Pacific — from Orange County’s Dana Point all the way up to the town of Leggett in Mendocino County.
Along the way, the PCH takes adventurous motorists through some of the most scenic and picturesque areas of the state, including charming oceanfront towns, rocky cliff faces, and even forests.
(Note: although the PCH doesn’t technically begin until Dana Point, there’s plenty of gorgeous coastal driving from San Diego until the impetus of the highway itself. Beginning in Cabrillo Beach is a great jumping-off point.)
When you make the trip, here are just a few of the can’t-miss spots you’ll want to check out along the way.
Your Pacific Coast Highway adventure starts in beautiful Dana Point. Dana Point is the quintessential SoCal beach town; a relaxed, beautiful city where the sun is warm, and the surf’s always up. The locals here are friendly, and always happy to direct you to their favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, or fun local attraction. Dana Point is also just minutes from San Juan Capistrano, the sanctuary of the famed eponymous swallows. Music fans won’t want to miss the Doheny Blues Festival, and nature-lovers can enjoy some of the best whale watching on the west coast. Grab some snacks and gas here, and head north.
Your first stop is Long Beach, on the southern tip of the Los Angeles Metro area. Long known as one of the busiest shipping ports in the world, maritime enthusiasts will find a lot to love here. The famous seafaring vessel The Queen Mary has been docked here since 1967, and today serves as a hotel, museum, and restaurant. The Aquarium of the Pacific offers a fascinating look at the aquatic life of the region, featuring more than 11,000 animals of more than 500 species — including more than 150 sharks. Before you leave, be sure to pay a visit to the East Village Arts District, home to world-class galleries and eclectic shops.
Beautiful Santa Monica hugs some of the most beautiful shoreline on the entire west coast. The city’s most outstanding feature is the world-famous Santa Monica Pier, an entertainment hub, theme park, and dining destination all in one. It’s adjacent to Santa Monica Beach, where the water is warm and the sunsets are spectacular. The 3rd St. Promenade is a pedestrian-only thoroughfare that’s a haven for talented street performers, dozens of specialty shops, and restaurants you simply won’t find anywhere else.
The storied home of the ultra-rich from the worlds of sports and entertainment, Malibu is an elegant and breathtaking hamlet that skirts 30 miles of some of the most pristine beach frontage anywhere in the world. Surfers flock to ride Malibu’s waves at Surfrider and Zuma Beach. The Getty Center Museum is a must-see for art lovers, and aficionados of architecture. Countless world-class vineyards and wineries dot the lush hills overlooking the water, and many offer tours and vintages for sale. And if you’re feeling hungry, the Reel Inn offers the freshest seafood you’ll ever have. This beach-shack eatery is also a great place to celebrity-spot.
Off-roaders have made Pismo Beach a favorite stop for ages, being as the city’s Oceano Dunes State Recreational Vehicle Area is the only state park in California that permits vehicles to be driven on the sand. Golfers, surfers, and kayakers also make pilgrimages to the city for its abundance of year-round outdoor activities. And bargain-hunters always find amazing deals at Pismo Beach Premium Outlets.
Tiny Cambria may be easy to miss, but it’s definitely worth a stop. You’ll want to check out the charmion shops in the city’s quaint downtown, and maybe grab a bite to eat at one of the area’s excellent restaurants (don’t miss the pies at Linn’s). If you’re feeling outdoorsy, you can become an equestrian for the day, and hop onto horseback at Covell Ranch Clydesdales. Nearby Hearst Castle is the former home of the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and is a must-see before you move on.
The sister cities of Monterey and Santa Cruz sit on opposite ends of Monterey Bay, south of San Francisco. Each is a charming town with endless history. Monterey’s Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a legendarily beautiful park space popular with scuba divers, hikers, and observers of marine life (as is the Monterey Bay Aquarium). Pebble Beach Golf Links is a duffer’s paradise, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf is a treasure trove of dining and shopping. Don’t miss out on the Salt Water Taffy! Across the bay in Santa Cruz, be sure to visit the flagship location of the world-famous Santa Cruz Surf Shop, hit the rides, arcades and midway games of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and stop in at the Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Point.