Up until two months ago, I had lived in California for about fifteen years. I moved around quite a bit as life pulled me in different directions, living everywhere from Vallejo to Santa Barbara, San Francisco to Berkeley, and Los Angeles to Orange County. Despite the fact that I had traveled around the state so much during that time, I still hadn’t done one of the most epic things travelers from all over the world dream of when they come to California: to venture on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip.
Life’s circumstances then fell in my favor and I was lucky enough to road trip the PCH three times, all within the past few weeks. There are a few places or things you can do once and feel content that you’ve experienced all you can out of it, but a PCH road trip is not one of them. You can literally do this drive over and over again and stop at vistas you didn’t notice before, find hidden beaches, hikes, restaurants and even spas, or depending on the weather, marvel at Big Sur’s turquoise waters or fog laden mountains.
If you’re planning a PCH road trip, here are some of the best places you should consider seeing.
A visit to California without seeing San Francisco is like going to Naples, Italy, the city that blessed the world with pizza, and ordering a salad. You just can’t do it. San Francisco is the cultural and financial hub of Northern California, and arguably the tech center of the world with companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, AirBnB, Uber and Ebay based here or in nearby Silicon Valley.
Visit Muir Woods and hike through the giant redwoods, ride a cable car up and down San Francisco’s famous hills, drive (or walk!) across the Golden Gate Bridge, have some clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf, enjoy the many museums in Golden Gate Park, take a ghost tour of Alcatraz (one of the country’s most famous prisons), grab dim sum in Chinatown (which is the oldest in North America and the largest Chinese community outside of Asia) or just walk around this unique city to photograph its iconic Victorian houses (Alamo Square or the Haight and Pacific Heights neighborhoods are great for this).
These things just scratch the surface of how truly awesome San Francisco is. It’s a MUST!
Santa Cruz is about an hour and fifteen minutes south of San Francisco and is popular for surfing and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, California’s oldest surviving amusement park. There are several awesome beaches here, like Natural Bridges State Beach, Lighthouse Field State Beach and Twin Lakes State Beach. Santa Cruz is a cute, fun beach town that’s definitely worth a stop.
If you decide to stop in Monterey, make sure you visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one of the best aquariums in the country and is heavily focused on marine research, which is reflected in the high quality of its exhibits. It’s one of the few aquariums in the world to display both yellowfin and bluefin tuna, as well as a sunfish (something I had been wanting to see in forever as a scuba diver!).
Other incredible sights to see in Monterey are Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel-by-the-sea (an adorable seaside town), Cannery Row, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf if you’re interested in whale watching or kayaking.
Bixby Bridge is THE bridge you see in all the tourism promo photos for road tripping the PCH. As with most attractions with elevated hypes, this one’s worth a stop. The bridge was completed in 1932 and is one of the world’s tallest single-span concrete bridges. Due to its clean design and breathtaking location, it’s also one of the most photographed features on the West Coast.
Pfeiffer State Beach (Big Sur)
I don’t have enough amazing things to say about Pfeiffer State Beach to encourage you to see it. I absolutely LOVED Pfeiffer. The sandy beach lines a rugged cliffside with beautiful rock formations at the edge of the water. This beach is also known for having purple sand, a result of manganese garnet deposits from nearby rocks. We climbed the orange cliff above the beach to get a better view and kind of had a metamorphic/life realization/revitalizing moment up there. It sounds silly but I’m telling you, there’s something magical about this beach!
There’s more than just the beach (cost is $10 to enter and park) at Pfeiffer – the state park offers great hikes through the redwood forests, camping along the Big Sur River (or a lodge if you prefer), and waterfall trails.
Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls is an 80-foot waterfall that flows year-round into a picture-perfect cove. The cove is visible from the PCH and you can park in one of the turnouts off the road. There’s a short trail that leads you around the edge of the cliff so you can get a good view of it. Beach access is difficult from land and actually isn’t recommended due to unstable rocks and environment preservation. McWay Cove is gorgeous – definitely plan on stopping here.
Esalen Hot Springs
The Esalen hot springs! You’ll need to have some time to stop here, but it’s so worth it. The Esalen Institute offers spiritual workshops and is primarily closed to the public, but they open their hot springs from 1am – 3am for public use. There’s only space for about twenty people per night and reservations need to be made the same day you plan to go. It can be tough getting through on the line, but keep trying! The cost is $30 and just so you’re aware, swimsuits are optional.
Honestly, the Esalen hot springs was one of the highlights of our PCH road trip. Since it’s a spiritual center, the atmosphere is peaceful and relaxed. There are indoor and outdoor baths that sit right on edge of Big Sur’s rocky cliffs. On a clear night, you’re literally soaking in the springs’ healing mineral waters under the stars with the sounds of crashing waves underneath you. It’s seriously incredible – do it if you can.
Restaurants in Big Sur
If you’re looking for a place to stop for coffee or grab some lunch, here are some ideas:
- Nepenthe: For dining with a view.
- Big Sur River Inn: With a general store, restaurant and lodging, it’s a good place to stop if you need any road trip essentials or a place to crash. Our favorite part? Chairs in the creek so we could enjoy our coffee in the water.
- Big Sur Coast Gallery & Cafe: A good rest stop or place to eat. The gallery displays an interesting array of American crafts, sculptures and glass art.
“Hearst Castle pool” by Stan Shebs. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Hearst Castle is a national and California landmark built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1919. During it’s prime in the 20s and 30s, Hearst Castle was an exclusive getaway for celebrities and political figures like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
The castle’s design is inspired by historic European themes and it’s pretty interesting to see how those influences came together in Hearst’s version of a modern castle. A side fact: the site is also home to the world’s largest private zoo.
I went to college in Santa Barbara, a University where you can study on the beach and it’ll only take you ten minutes to get to class from there. Santa Barbara is known for its beaches, shopping, Spanish-style architecture and the historical Old Mission Santa Barbara.
The downtown area (State Street) is beautiful with tons of great restaurants, shops, and obviously has a vibrant nightlife as a result of the university nearby. Stern’s Wharf, a pier in the Santa Barbara harbor, is a popular tourist attraction as well.
The Malibu coastline is a gorgeous, welcoming sight as you make your way into Southern California. My graduate school is in Malibu, so I must have a thing for schools on the beach 🙂 There are plenty of great beach restaurants, pretty piers, surf locations and bike paths to explore. There are also a few awesome dive spots in the area if you a scuba dive. If you’re staying in town and don’t need to drive, stop by the Malibu Wine Safari. Wine tasting and a safari ranch with zebras, alpacas, camels, bison and giraffes – YES.
Santa Monica and Venice
Once you make it to the Los Angeles area, ending your road trip in Santa Monica and Venice is a fun and classically California way to do it. The Santa Monica Pier is world-famous and a 100 year-old landmark with an amusement park that features a solar-paneled ferris wheel, shops and restaurants. During the summer, the beach near the pier hosts weekly free concerts.
You can walk or bike to Venice Beach from Santa Monica. The promenade hosts an array of shops, restaurants and bars. Street performers, fortune tellers, artists and musicians are everywhere. You can visit the Venice Canal District to see a series of man-made canals that were intended to make it the “Venice of America.” Venice is known for its eccentricities, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in California.
The Pacific Coast Highway stretches over 656 miles and it’s impossible to see everything. Even though I’ve now done this drive three times, I’d happily do a PCH road trip again in a heartbeat. The “most scenic drive in America” can never get old and its beauty is incomparable. It’s also one of the most affordable getaways you can opt for, especially if you live in California already.
We’re on the brink of summer, so pack your bags, call your favorite road trip buddies, hop in your car, don’t forget a camera and be ready for the best drive of your life.