A trip along the shore-hugging, sun-drenched Pacific Coast Highway (also known as California State Route 1) is guaranteed to be the adventure of a lifetime. But, since it covers more than 650 miles of sandy beaches, redwood forests, big cities, and cute towns, planning a trip down the PCH might seem a bit daunting. This list of the top absolute must-see stops along the way and tips for traveling the highway should help make taking the leap from dreaming to doing easy as pie!
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a gorgeous slice of Big Sur beauty that is an iconic PCH stop, and the park's crown jewel is McWay Falls. The 80-foot cascade flows year round, and you can view it from an overlook reached the half-a-mile Waterfall Trail that starts at the park's parking lot. You even walk through a tunnel below the PCH!
Tip: A waterfall that's on the beach is actually called a "tidefall". You can't actually get down to the beach to see this one up close, since it's a very fragile ecosystem and too rocky and dangerous, but it looks pretty amazing from afar.
There are a lot of reasons why the Santa Monica Pier is so important. It's historic, as it opened in 1909, and it's been a popular destination for beachgoers ever since. It's been featured in countless TV shows, and movies, and holds an important spot in road trip history as the very end destination on Route 66. Today, you can find all kinds of retro fun, from the old-school rides to the arcade to the aquarium. Sit down and enjoy a seafood dinner at The Albright, or just grab a milkshake and enjoy the primo people-watching. Bonus points if you watch the sun set over the water from the edge of the pier!
As you make your way up the coast, make a point to stop in the town of Solvang. It's a strange little town that looks like it was picked up from Denmark and dropped off in Southern California. Windmills, Tudor buildings, and fairy tale-themed parks give the village a totally unique atmosphere. Immerse yourself in the town's Danish vibes and order some aebleskivers... they're pancake-like puffs served with raspberry jam and powdered sugar, and they're delicious. The restaurant has a menu of rib-sticking Danish staples and breakfast food (think cabbage, sausage, burgers, potatoes, and waffles) in an adorably decorated restaurant that will make you feel right at home.
Tip: If you just want the aebleskivers or a Danish hot dog as a quick snack, they have a walk-up window where you can grab the goodies to go.
People aren't the only ones who tend to vacation to California during the winter... butterflies do it, too. The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is a hotspot for gorgeous black-and-orange monarch butterflies to spend the winter. Between November and February, you have the chance to see thousands of the delicate creatures hanging out at this grove of eucalyptus trees at the southern edge of Pismo State Beach. The coolest part about the butterflies is that, despite the fact that they only live long enough to make the journey to the grove once in their 6-month lifetimes, their offspring somehow know to come to this specific spot generation after generation. Scientists aren't sure why, but it's definitely a special phenomenon. Even if it isn't butterfly season, Pismo State Beach is a great place to stretch your legs, catch some sun, and enjoy the ocean breeze.
Perfectly located in between Santa Barbara and Monterey, the Santa Margarita KOA is a great place to spend a few nights while you make sure you visit all of the attractions around. It's right on Santa Margarita Lake as well, which is perfect for anglers who want to spend part of their vacation casting a line. Quiet RV and tent sites are perfect for campers comfortable setting up their own stuff, while cabins and awesome yurts let you enjoy the feeling of being in nature, except with a comfy mattress instead of a sleeping bag on the ground.
Take a break from nature and visit one of the country's most fabled historic homes: Hearst Castle. Built by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, it's a seriously opulent and extravagant estate. Featuring 165 rooms, 3 guest houses, two massive pools, and 127 acres, the Moorish Castle is unlike anything else in America. The rooms are ornately decorated, and the gardens are impeccable, but the absolutely decadent pools are the real stunners.
Tip: Tours sell out fast here, so book yours online in advance. They're the only way to see the castle. Ticket prices start at $25 a person, but trust us... it's worth it.
The Pacific Coast Highway actually crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, but take the time to park and walk (or bike) across before you drive it. It's an amazing experience; start in Golden Gate Park, where you can find some great angles for pictures (it'll probably be foggy, but that's San Francisco for you!) and then feel the breeze off the bay as you make your way across. The other side of the bridge will put you in the town of Sausalito, which has a cute boardwalk, a marine center, Rodeo beach, galleries, boutiques, bars, restaurants, and tons more.
Tip: Spend as much time as you want in Sausalito... you can always take the ferry back across the bay to San Francisco if you're too wiped out to walk the bridge again!
As you make your way north, you'll find yourself in wine country! One of the coolest in the area? Castello Di Amorosa, which features a 13th-century Tuscan-style castle nestled among the rolling vineyards. The barrel cellar and tasting room are in a cave built into the hillside, and general admission gets you access to the castle and a 5-wine tasting. You can add on chocolate or cheese pairings, or even guided tours of the castle. You don't even have to be a wine-drinker to tour the totally cool estate!
Tip: Visit the torture chamber... it has an authentic, 300-year-old iron maiden and some crazy replica devices.
Just off the Mendocino coast, set back in a cozy redwood forest, is the Willits KOA Holiday. The western theme fits in with the quiet countryside setting, and they've got loads to see and do, from mini golf to the petting zoo to the splash pad to the hot tub, sauna, and pool. They feature all the usual accommodation options (tent sites, RV sites, Camping Cabins and Deluxe Cabins) but they also feature a tepee you can rent to spend the night in as well!
Tip: If you're just passing through, you can buy a day use pass to this KOA and enjoy the fun!
Of all the many beaches along the California coast, none are as unique as Fort Bragg's Glass Beach. For years, locals used the shore as a dump, tossing trash onto the sand. Eventually, it was decided that the beach should be cleaned up and opened for public use, and as the community worked to clear the garbage off the beach, they discovered something incredible: The glass bottles that had been thrown onto the beach had been swept out to sea, and pounded into colorful, smooth glass pebbles by the waves. Over the years, people have been sneaking handfuls of the glass sand away, so it isn't quite as impressive as it once was, but you can still see some of the pebbles scattered across the sand. It's a powerful place that tells a lot about how Mother Nature can take trash and turn it into treasure.
Drive-thru trees are a classic roadside stop that are unique to California. Where else in the world will you be able to see trees that are big enough for a car to fit through, let alone ones that are tunneled out so that you literally can drive through? There are several drive-thru trees in Northern California, near the end of Highway 1, and the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree is neat because the tunnel appears natural, as opposed to being cut through the trunk. There are some cute little playhouses here that kids will love.
Tip: If your car is too big to fit through the tree, don't stress... you can walk through it instead, and still grab that picture!
As you wind your way along the coast on Highway 1, leave yourself time to make unexpected stops and take unplanned detours. There are countless things to see and do along the way, and each stop is its own special experience. Whether it's an iconic stop that you just gotta see, or a hidden gem you've stumbled upon yourself, the Pacific Coast Highway is one incredible route that will be an unforgettable adventure.
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