Best Pitstops on a California Coast Road Trip

California Coast Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway is one of America’s most iconic drives that courses through much of California’s surreal landscapes. This thrilling adventure ride passes seaside cliffs, coastal forests, cozy towns, and sandy beaches.

With over 650 miles of highway, you could spend months uncovering the California coast’s cultural attractions and untouched natural wonders. Driving from south to north, we have picked out nine noteworthy stops on this epic journey.

Huntington Beach 

Huntington Beach Surf City

Surf culture reigns supreme in Huntington Beach and its long, sandy shores are a California icon. Dubbed “Surf City, USA,” Huntington Beach stretches 10 miles and welcomes talented surfers from all over the world.

Crowds gather to watch international surf contests, but the five unique beaches stretching along the coast are curated to all types of beachgoers. Have a bonfire, listen to music, play beach sports, or admire the coastal views from the iconic Huntington Pier.

Inland, Huntington Central Park is the largest urban park of Orange County and features numerous walking paths, an equestrian center and a dog park. 

Venice Beach 

Venice Beach

You never know what to expect when you wander the cultural melting pot of Venice Beach’s famous boardwalk. Spot all sorts of characters for a full-fledged day of entertainment on your road trip.

Art is a way of life in this beachfront neighborhood as creative souls pour their passions into poetry, colorful murals, and street performances.

Spend your day shopping at quirky boutiques on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, watch bodybuilders pump iron at Muscle Beach Gym, or watch skaters shred at Venice Beach Skate Park. After indulging in the free-for-all festivities, hike past the palm trees and lounge on the golden shores to watch a dreamy sunset.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

The “American Riviera” conjures up images of the Mediterranean and it’s easy to get lost in its laid-back vibe. Golden beaches, the sea, and a picturesque mountain backdrop mesh to give nature enthusiasts an abundance of adventures.

Shoreline Park is popular for its seaside views, Leadbetter Beach is a haven for kitesurfers and windsurfers, and Seven Falls will test your climbing skills. Stearns Wharf is one of California’s most storied piers where you can watch boats sail by or munch on fresh seafood.

Discover the Spanish colonial roots of the city by visiting Mission Santa Barbara and the Royal Presidio of Santa Barbara.

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo

This sleepy town along California’s Central Coast boasts over 300 days of sunshine per year and is teeming with historical sights and peaceful landscapes.

The 18th century Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is a beautiful Spanish adobe structure with a courtyard garden and a fascinating museum. Witness other charming buildings in downtown San Luis Obispo and don’t miss out on Bubblegum Alley, a narrow pathway coated with chewed gum.

Roughly 10 miles outside of town, San Luis Obispo Bay shelters Avila Beach and calm waters make this a haven for swimming, kayaking, and paddleboarding. Soak your troubles away at the nearby Avila Hot Springs within the scenic landscapes of the Avila Valley.

San Simeon

San Simeon Hearst Castle

Take in the spectacular views from Hearst Castle, one of the greatest architectural wonders of California. Business tycoon William Randolph Hearst helped design the lavish hillside retreat, and the property showcases over 160 rooms, radiant gardens, artistic masterpieces, and an opulent Neptune Pool.

Nature lovers are in for the rare treat to spot elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Rookery. You may see the seals mating or giving birth as the facility has free entry and is open year-round.

The Piedras Blancas Light Station has protected seafarers from San Simeon’s rugged coastline since the late 19th century and visitors can tour the iconic structure. For a splendid day in the outdoors, head towards the coast and swim, sunbathe, kayak, and fish on San Simeon’s picturesque shoreline.

Big Sur

Big Sur

Perhaps the most dramatic stretch of California’s Central Coast, the winding roads of State Route 1 present hair-raising seaside views. The rugged coastline is a paradise for hikers, beachgoers, photographers, and campers.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park enlightens the soul with its granite cliffs, enormous redwoods, and the 80-foot McWay Falls that tumbles into the ocean. Imposing sea stacks line the shores of Pfeiffer Beach and the nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground lets you spend the night in the coastal forest.

Stop by the historic Bixby Creek Bridge for a stunning panorama overlooking the ocean before tackling the hiking trails of Garrapata State Park. Keep your eyes peeled for otters, sea lions and gray whales that are frequently spotted offshore.

Monterey

Monterey Bay Aquarium Whale

Famous for its diverse marine ecosystem and seaside charm, Monterey is one of the most beautiful stretches of the Central California Coast.

Check out penguins, rays, sharks, jellyfish, and other incredible species at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you prefer being in the wild, go on a whale watching cruise to spot gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales, orcas, and dolphins.

Made famous by the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, Cannery Row is the cultural heart of Monterey. The whiff of sardine canning factories has been replaced by trendy restaurants, hotels, and wine tasting rooms.

Head to Old Fisherman’s Wharf to see the town’s thriving fishing industry, explore the rugged scenery of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, or play golf at the world-class courses at Pebble Beach.

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay

Just 25 miles south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is a quaint community renowned for its coastal scenery, farmlands, and a melting pot of cultures.

Take a stroll on miles of sandy beaches, capture awe-inspiring views from the hiking trails near Montara Mountain, or ride the waves at Mavericks Beach. Pillar Point Harbor is jam-packed with fishing boats and a gateway to fabled shipwrecks and whale sightings.

You’ll feel insignificant walking amongst the mighty redwoods of the Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve. Farms sprinkled around the rustic area date to the 1800s and Lemos Farm hosts an array of family-friendly activities.

San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge

A hotbed of culture, San Francisco is decorated with storied landmarks, engineering feats and buzzing neighborhoods. Admire the iconic Golden Gate Bridge before driving across this symbol of human creation.

Alcatraz Island sits in the San Francisco Bay and echoes stories of America’s most infamous criminals. Capture unbelievable views of the bay and lounging sea lions while snacking on crab and clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Drop off your bags and roam the streets of Chinatown, go on a shopping spree in Union Square, and check out the eclectic architecture such as the Palace of Fine Arts and the Painted Ladies.

To escape the hustle and bustle, skip across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Muir Woods National Monument and meander down hiking paths through redwood forests.

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