100 Places to Stop on a Road Trip Along California’s Highway 1
During the decade I lived in Southern California, one of my favorite getaways was driving the Pacific Coast Highway (commonly called the PCH). Whether it was just a day trip up to Malibu, or a weekend getaway to Santa Barbara and my other favorite Central California stops, or a longer PCH road trip vacation up to the Bay Area, I was always up for hitting the road with some snacks and my camera, ready to take in those gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway views.
I’m always one for breaking up a road trip, so usually stop a lot when driving the Pacific Coast Highway. If you’re the same way, then you’ll love this post which includes my top 100 recommendations for where to stop and things to do along the Pacific Coast Highway.
I’m starting right where the Pacific Coast Highway begins in southern California: Dana Point. Then I’m taking the stop ideas all the way up the California coastline to where the California PCH technically ends in Leggett, California, if you’re going by Highway 1 (from there it becomes Highway 101…but shhh…you can still call it the Pacific Coast Highway all the way up to Seattle if you want…I won’t tell).
Alright, let’s start this Pacific Coast Highway Top 100 Stops list!
Pacific Coast Highway Stops in Southern California
#1 Dana Point
Dana Point is on the southern end of ritzy Orange County, but it has an artistic, eclectic vibe and is home to a marine. If whale watching is on your list of things to do during your Pacific Coast Highway drive, then this is the place to book one.
#2 Laguna Beach Pirate Tower
Want to feel like you’ve stumbled upon Rapunzel’s tower? Then make this stop after you enter Laguna Beach to see the Pirate Tower. Walk down the stairs to the sand and you’ll come to a very cool looking tower built into the side of the cliff. It’s privately owned so you can’t go into it, but it still makes for a great photo op, and a fairy tale feeling in surfer-centric SoCal.
#3 Art Galleries in Laguna Beach
I love Laguna Beach’s downtown area called the Village. It is both fancy and artistic at the same time, with trendy restaurants, highbrow art galleries, and murals painted on the side of buildings…all within walking distance to a fantastic beach. But I think it’s the art galleries that make Laguna Beach special and it’s fun to walk around some of them before getting dinner.
#4 Crystal Cove State Park
If you’re more into surf and sand than art, then spend your stop in Laguna Beach hanging out at Crystal Cove State Park, a relaxing stretch of sand without all the hustle and bustle of the main beach off of Laguna Village.
—–> Accommodation Tip: Beach Houses in the Crystal Cove Historic District
#5 Newport Beach Harbor
Califooooorniaaaaa, here we cooooome! Ok, now that I have The O.C. theme song stuck in your head, let me say that Newport Beach is much more than a bunch of rich kids running around it as that old early-aughts show may have had you believe. If you want to make a stop in Newport Beach, head to the harbor, which feels more like an ocean promenade fairground.
#6 Catalina Island Detour
While you’re in Newport Beach, you can also park your car overnight, take a break from your PCH road trip, and hop on the ferry over to Catalina Island. Once there, you can enjoy this carless island and take golf carts around, walk through desert gardens, or just enjoy the bars and restaurants along the main street of Avalon.
#7 Huntington Beach
This beach makes me think the most of those scenes from Baywatch where it’s miles upon miles of golden sand, lots of beautiful bodies, and lifeguard towers proudly dotted down the beach.
#8 Seal Beach
Before you exit the Orange County part of your road trip and start the LA part of it, you’ll come to Seal Beach, a laidback surfer town with beach bars right by the sand.
#9 Long Beach
But before you get into LA, you’ll drive through Long Beach, a little bubble of a city that is in LA County, but doesn’t quite have that Los Angelenos vibe yet. Long Beach has its own harbor, is close to the cruise embarkation port for Los Angeles, and feels very industrial in parts. But its also home to a cool museum you can tour that is housed in the RMS Queen Mary, a retired ocean liner that’s permanently docked in Long Beach.
#10 Redondo Beach
#11 Hermosa Beach
#12 Manhattan Beach
Manhattan Beach is another one of those quintessential SoCal beaches, with miles of soft sand next to rolling waves and topped with blue lifeguard towers. But Manhattan Beach stands out for its picturesque pier that is topped with a red roof at the end.
#13 Venice Beach
Go to Venice Beach for some people watching. Muscle builders work out right on the sand and street performers hang out on the boardwalk.
#14 Santa Monica Pier
The Santa Monica Pier is fun to walk around. Take a ride on the ferris wheel for gorgeous views of the Pacific, and try your luck at a few carnival games before continuing your road trip.
#15 The Getty Villa
This is one of the top tourist attractions in LA and is worth a stop to see during your Pacific Coast Highway drive. Marvel at the architecture, which is a recreation of a ancient Roman country house, and visit the different museum exhibits housed inside.
#16 Wine Tasting in Malibu
Aw, now to my favorite part of LA County: Malibu. And one of my favorite California pasttimes: Wine tasting. Malibu is home to a little-known wine region and has beautiful ranch-style wineries and tasting rooms.
#17 Lunch on Malibu Pier
Try some fresh seafood and local farm ingredients at the restaurant located on the Malibu Pier. Delicious food and awesome views.
#18 Zuma Beach
#19 El Matador Beach
#20 Solstice Canyon Hike
After you get through Malibu, you’ll be to the wilderness part of the drive as you make your way through Central California and stunningly beautiful Big Sur. But if you need to stretch your legs before you do so,
—–> Accommodation Idea: Camping in Malibu
#21 Leo Carrillo State Park
Another place in Malibu to do a hike or sit on the beach.
#22 Lunch at Neptune’s Net
Right at the tip of Malibu before you begin the Central California part of your Pacific Coast Highway drive is Neptune’s Net, a cool little restaurant across from the beach that’s been there since 1956 and has been featured in blockbuster films like Fast and the Furious, Point Break, and Iron Man 3. Order the daily catch or some fish tacos and fill up on a delicious seafood meal before you hit the road again.
Pacific Coast Highway Stops in Central California
#23 Ventura Botanical Gardens
Ventura is home to beloved outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia. It’s also home to Ventura Botanical Gardens, which has over 160 plant varieties and sweeping coastal and city views.
#24 Surfers Point at Seaside Park in Ventura
Take a break from your drive to watch the surfers and windsurfers glide along the waves at this beach. Or try it yourself if you’re surfer!
#25 Emma Wood State Beach
After driving through the city limits part of Oxnard and Ventura, you’ll likely want to stop somewhere peaceful. Emma Wood State Beach is a great place to do so and is located right where Hwy 1 and 101 divide back up.
#26 Rincon Point
This is another spot to watch some skilled surfers do their thing. Located in Carpinteria, this is one of the best surf breaks in California so don’t give it a try yourself unless you know what you’re doing!
#27 Get a Pint of Craft Beer at Island Brewing Company
Try some local Central California beer at Island Brewing Company in Carpinteria.
#28 Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve
Walk along dirt hiking paths through vegetation with panoramic ocean views at this pretty nature preserve where you can often see harbor seals.
#29 Urban Wine Trail in Santa Barbara
The Urban Wine Trail is home to a dozen or so tasting rooms located right by downtown Santa Barbara, pouring vintages from the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley. And it’s just a few blocks from the beach if you want to go take a nap on the sand afterward.
#30 Take a Bike Ride up Santa Barbara’s Main Street
State Street cuts right through the center of downtown Santa Barbara, and it’s a lovely main street home to leafy trees and buildings housing cafes, restaurants, and shops — lots of shops! But my favorite way to explore it is by bike. There are lots of bike racks located along State Street so you can park your bike, do some shopping or get a latte and lunch, and then head off onto the pretty side streets.
#31 Get Ice Cream at McConnell’s
Santa Barbara is home to a famous ice cream shop called McConnell’s. It’s not right in the tourist center, but it’s worth the short drive to get there and try some freshly made flavors.
#32 Walk Down Stearn’s Wharf
Stearn’s Wharf is a wooden pier in Santa Barbara that has ocean and mountain views, and is also home to fishing and restaurants.
#33 One Thousand Steps Beach in Santa Barbara
The name says it all. Take the 1,000 stair steps to this beach (ok, actually just 150 steps or so…phew!) and you’ll be on a remote and ruggedly beautiful beach. Just remember you’ll have to take those steps back up! Head to the end of Santa Cruz Boulevard off of Shoreline Drive to find this beach.
#34 El Capitan State Beach
#35 Gaviota State Park
#36 Detour to Solvang Option
Less than 20 minutes from Gaviota State Park is the kitschy, but charming town of Solvang. Modeled after an authentic Danish town, you’ll find windmills and terraced architecture and — yes — danishes. Plus lots of wine tasting rooms. You’ll have to get off Highway 1 to access it via Highway 101, then you can backtrack the 10 miles or so to get to the Pacific Coast Highway where you left it, or take a shortcut to your next stop of Lompoc via Highway 246.
#37 Lompoc Wineries
Lompoc is a less-visited wine town in the Santa Ynez Valley, but it’s worth a visit. It has a historic center and many wine tasting rooms all within walking distance of each other in the downtown area.
#38 La Purisima Mission State Historic Park
This park contains the most completely restored Spanish mission in California, which is open to visitors to walk around and see. The mission dates back to 1935.
#39 Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach isn’t my favorite beach along this stretch of coastline, but it had a fun vibe and lots of nearby restaurants and shops. But really, the main reason to visit here is if you’re like me and still can only think “Pismo Beach Disaster Fund” in your head in Cher’s voice when you hear the name of this coastal city. 😉 #90skid #clueless
#40 Dinosaur Caves Park
This 11-acre park has beachfront, a grassy area, and best of all for families doing a PCH road trip…a playground!
#41 Avila Valley Barn
#42 Avila Beach Wine Tasting
Keep taking the Avila Beach Drive exit west and you’ll soon be at the little coastal community of Avila Beach, which is a great place for lunch or to do a wine tasting just steps from the beach. You can read more about Avila Beach things to do here. xxx
#43 Avila Beach Pier
#44 Madonna Inn
This is a super fun place to spend the night, but even if you aren’t resting your head in one of the hotel’s eclectic and theme-decorated rooms (some of which even have rock waterfall showers!) it’s worth a stop in. Madonna Inn is located right off the PCH, making it convenient to walk around the lounge area. Check out the bar that looks like it belongs in an enchanted forest, the mostly pink dining area of the onsite restaurant, and the waterfall urinal in the men’s bathroom (if you’re a female, double check no one is in there first, ha!).
——> Pacific Coast Highway Accommodations Idea: Madonna Inn
#45 Pinot Noir Tasting at Laetitia
I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about my favorite place for Pinot Noir in Central Coast California’s wine region. That place is Laetitia Vineyard & Winery and it’s worth a stop to do a tasting or just to pick up a bottle to enjoy when you get to your next accommodation if you like wine.
#46 Tri-Tip Sandwiches in SLO
This stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway cuts inland for a bit and thank goodness it does, because it takes you through San Luis Obispo, where you can get one of the best tri-tip sandwiches ever at Firestone Grill. It’s worth the wait in the often long line, and has a sports bar ambiance inside and a large outdoor patio.
#47 Morro Bay
Sleepy Morro Bay still has roots in fishing and is characterized by the large Morro Rock in the bay, which can be driven to via a causeway and has a sandy beach at its base.
# 48 Elfin Forest Hike
#49 Estero Bay
#50 Harmony Headlands State Park Hike
Cute little city known for its pies and gift shops. If you’re doing the PCH drive in October, you must stop in Cambria to see the creative scarecrows put up all over town (Cambria has a scarecrow competition every year).
#52 Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
#53 Sea Chest Restaurant
For a unique dining experience by the sea with high-quality seafood, make a reservation to dine at Sea Chest Restaurant before leaving Cambria. Sea Chest Restaurant is located in a quaint clapboard cottage and has gorgeous ocean views.
#54 Friends of the Elephant Seals Visitor Center
Don’t miss the pull-outs for the beaches where the large elephant seals hang out. Watch for the signs. A great place to learn more about the elephant seals is at the Friends of the Elephant Seals Visitor Center off Highway 1 shortly after you leave Cambria.
#55 Hearst Castle
The United State’s best example of a castle. It’s actually a huge, meticulously planned and built mansion that was the home of Randolph Hearst. Multiple tours are offered since the grounds and home are so large it’s hard to see it all in just a day.
#56 San Simeon Pier
#57 Hearst Castle Wine Tasting Room and Restaurant by Pier
Down the hill at the base of the Hearst Castle ground near the San Simeon Pier is the Hearst Castle wine tasting room, where you can try some wine from vineyards grown on the property. It’s adjacent to a ranch-style restaurant. There’s also a bright and (usually) sunny pier to walk down.
#58 Elephant Seal Vista Point
More elephant seals!
#59 Piedras Light Station Tour
#60 Ragged Point Scenic Viewpoint
#61 Salmon Creek Trail to Salmon Creek Falls
#62 Gorda Springs
Stop at Gorda Springs Resort for a bite to eat in Whale Watcher’s cafe, which has a casual dining area with an outward facing design perfect for looking for whales spouting during your meal.
#63 Nathaniel Owens Memorial Redwood Grove
#64 Sand Dollar Beach
Enjoy beautiful coastal views and have fun looking for sand dollars at this aptly named beach in Wildomar, California. Just be aware it takes a little bit of a hike and some stairs to get to.
#65 McWay Fall Hike in Big Sur
This is one of the most famous hikes in Big Sur and a fairly easy one, with a flat, well-trafficked trail that leads to a viewing platform for the majestic McWay Fall, a long, thin waterfall cascading over a cliff into a salt water pool right by the open water of the Pacific Ocean.
#66 Pfeiffer Beach
The sand on this beach actually looks purple at times due to tiny organisms that wash up onshore. Combine that with rock arches and you have a beach that feels almost magical.
#67 Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant
Even if you’re not staying overnight here, the Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant is worth a stop to check out their cute general store for some road trip snacks or souvenirs. Get a soda or something else to drink and then walk down to the shallow river, where you can wade in and relax in the chairs that have their legs submerged in the water.
#68 Point Sur State Historic Park
#69 Bixby Bridge
You can’t miss this iconic bridge in Big Sur since you’ll be driving over it, but it’s worth it to stop at one of the pull-outs before or after the bridge for a photo op.
#70 Point Lobos Loops
#71 Downtown Carmel
Carmel’s downtown area is just darling, with tree lined streets, upscale shops, and lots of cozy cafes and restaurants. Keep walking down the hill of the main street and you’ll come to Carmel Beach, a beautiful piece of curving coastline from which you can see Pebble Beach in the distance.
#72 Eat at Casanova
Love this restaurant in Carmel! Charming and romantic ambiance (my sister-in-law even had her wedding reception here) and gourmet cuisine.
#73 17-Mile Drive
This stretch of the PCH in Big Sur is not to be missed. It has incredible views, including the Lone Cypress and ends at the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course.
#74 Pebble Beach
Instead of just driving past it when you reach the end of the 17-Mile Drive, take some time to walk around the pretty grounds around the clubhouse at Pebble Beach Golf Course, or to do some souvenir shopping for the golf lover in your life at the gift shops in the clubhouse.
#75 Point Pinos Lighthouse
#76 Lovers Point Park
One of the most picturesque parks located close to downtown Monterey, Lovers Point Park is a grassy area with picnic benches that is right by beaches strewn with large rocks and curved sea stacks home to birds and seals.
#77 Del Monte Beach
This is one of my favorite beach in Monterey. It has windswept coastline and sweeping sand dunes, and you can often see sea lions and other wildlife from the shores.
#78 Monterey Cannery Row
This is the historic part of Monterey, which is home to buildings that once housed the businesses that made up of the Monterey sardine industry around the turn of the 19th century.
#79 Eat at the Sardine Factory
Speaking of sardine factories, there is a restaurant named after this time in Monterey’s past. You won’t find canned sardines on the menu, but you will find high-quality seafood and meat dishes and an array of beautifully designed and decorated dining areas.
#80 Monterey Bay Aquarium
This is one of the most famous aquariums in the world and for good reason. It’s a world-class museum with educational and conservation platforms, and also has excellent exhibits showcasing the animals that call the Monterey bay home.
#81 Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough Reserve
Moss Landing started out as a homestead for a Texan whose last name was Moss and his family who moved to Califiornia in 1866. Today, it’s changed into a charming little tourist destination that still has a small town feel. Walk around the antique shops, fill up on some delicious seafood, and then rent a kayak to paddle through the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.
#82 Santa Cruz Wharf
Santa Cruz is located just south of the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s home to a long boardwalk, gorgeous sand, a roller coaster, and the Santa Cruz Wharf, which is the West Coast’s longest pier.
Bay Area Stops Along the Pacific Coast Highway
#83 Shark Fin Cove
#84 Half Moon Bay Beaches
#85 Mori Point Hike
#86 Presidio of San Francisco
#87 Hike to the Beach by Golden Gate Bridge
#88 Drive Across the Golden Gate Bridge and Stop for a Photo
After you cross the bridge (if coming from south to north) stop at the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point for a spectacular shot of the city skyline.
#89 Bay Area Discovery Museum
This is a great stop for families with young kids. It’s located right by the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge and has a play area for kids.
#90 Point Bonita Lighthouse
On the southern tip of Golden Gate National Recreational Area is this striking lighthouse.
Shortly after you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll see the exit for Sausolito. Take it and you’ll arrive in a charming waterside city that has excellent seafood restaurants and a historic houseboat community. Though it has excellent views of San Francisco, it feels a world away from the city.
#92 Muir Beach
Muir Beach is a local favorite and feels a bit secluded due to its location on a calm cove. It is on the northern part of the large Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has fire pits. In the autumn months you might even see the flock of monarch butterflies that migrate through the area. If you’re traveling with kids you might want to avoid the northernmost part of the beach — it’s popular with nudists.
#93 Muir Woods National Monument
Escape down well-worn paths for a blissful walk through the towering trees of Muir Woods.
#94 Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach is a beautiful sandy beach in Marin County, California, about an hour north of San Francisco. Stinson Beach is known for its long, curving coastline that plays host to a number of activities, including surfing, fishing, and beach volleyball.
#95 Glass Beach
Trash becomes beauty in Fort Bragg, California. At Glass Beach in MacKerricher State Park, you’ll find colorful sea glass mixed with sand. This rounded glass is the result of ocean waves pounding against trash that was dumped near the beach decades ago.
#96 The Westport Whale
This is a unique roadside attraction in the coastal northern California city of Westport. It consists of a small art gallery, with a large whale sculpture as the focal point. The art is constantly evolving and is put together to facilitate hope, peace, and a love for whales.
#97 Westport-Union Landing State Beach
While you’re in Westport, also head to Westport-Union Landing State Beach for wild coastline dotted with large sea stacks standing tall amidst crashing waves.
#98 Coast Highway Lookout
Before Highway 1 makes a curve to go inland and connect with the 101, make one last Pacific Coast Highway stop at the Coast Highway Lookout. It’s a gorgeous viewpoint that showcases the wild and rugged coastline of California perfectly. If you’re continuing north, it will be your last view of the ocean for awhile as you drive into the thick Redwood forests.
#99 Drive-Thru Tree Park
Right before you connect with the 101, you’ll drive past a drive-thru tree. This is a great introduction to the glorious Redwood forests you’re about to go through since it’s an old hollowed out tree that is so wide most cars can fit through it!
#100 Leggett Valley/Redwood Mercantile
This is a fun, rustic little general store that’s great for a pit stop right after you get on the 101. Do some souvenir shopping and stock up on snacks before hitting the road again to continue your way north.
Heading all the way up to Oregon and want more stop ideas? Read my itinerary for the Redwoods National and State Forests and Lost Coast.
Also check out my Oregon Coast guide for all the best places to stop along the Oregon Coast.
And if you’re heading all the way up to Washington, you can’t miss the beaches located in Olympic National Park.