California Towns, Landmarks, & Restaurants


This guide to the best Pacific Coast Highway road trip stops will help you plan your Highway 1 road trip up the California coast. Includes Pacific Big Sur, Monterey, Morro Bay, Mendocino, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara tidepools, redwoods, vineyards, beaches, waterfalls, where to stop, what to eat, things to do, California travel tips, and more!

Psst: Please be sure to follow all local regulations, social distance, and wear a mask to keep yourself and others safe. Also: this post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission (for which we are deeply grateful) at no cost to you.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Avalon Travel and includes tracking links. For more information about tracking links and how to opt out, please visit All About Do Not Track prior to clicking any links found in this post

Sunny beaches. Foggy coastline. Swaying palm trees. Towering redwoods. Playful otters. Flomping elephant seals. Fresh oysters. Vintage wines. Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is not only one of the best California road trips: it’s one of the best road trips in the world!

Our favorite way to spend a weekend is to hop into a car and head down the Pacific Coast Highway, windows rolled down to let the sea breeze in, singing loudly along to our Driving in California Playlist, and stopping every few minutes to take in the view. It’s one of the best parts of living in California; and for Jeremy, it’s home: the Pacific Coast Highway runs right through the middle of his hometown!

Even though we’ve driven Highway One dozens of times, each trip we try to stop somewhere new and stumble upon new secret and hidden spots, points of interest, towns to explore, and restaurants to return to again and again. Today, we’ve finally thrown all of our favorites into this guide to the best Pacific Coast Highway stops, created in partnership with Moon Travel Guides.

Psst: Planning a California coast road trip? We’ve created a free, printable version of the ideal Highway One itinerary! Plus, we’ll also send you our favorite tips to help you plan your California road trip! Just sign up below.

Printable Highway One Itinerary

This FREE printable Highway One itinerary will help guide you on your road trip! Plus, we’ve included our San Francisco walking tour, and we’ll send you some helpful tips to plan your trip.

Psst: We’ve got a whole bunch more resources to help you plan your California road trip. Take a look at the posts below, or click here to see all of our California travel guides.

We also have a Highway One podcast episode! A humanist cult, a Danish hideaway, a gravitational anomaly, towering trees, a spoiled rich kid’s castle, clothing-optional hot springs, and the cutest (and weirdest) animals imaginable: in this episode, we cover everything you need to plan your trip up the California Coast – and all the weird history you never knew along the way.

Listen below or just click here! Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss new episodes.

Moon Guide to Northern California Road Trips guidebook.
Travel Tip: Don’t forget to bring a map for when you inevitably lose cell service! The Moon Northern California Road Trips guide is full of maps, helpful tips, and places to stop to help you discover the best stops along the way.

California Coast Road Trip Tips

Before we dive into the best stops on Highway 1, here are a few important tips to keep in mind as you’re preparing for your Pacific Coast Highway road trip!

You can’t rely on cell service along Highway One. So download some podcasts (like ours), load up your music in advance, and bring a guidebook for when you inevitably get lost or hungry! Moon Northern California Road Trips covers the entire California coast (and a little bit of Oregon) in detail and with easy-to-read maps. 

Plus, the guidebook includes several other once-in-a-lifetime road trips, scenic drives, and itineraries to continue your California adventure. This guidebook lives in our glovebox!

The Pacific Coast Highway is also called Highway One, or just “The One.” You’ll hear them used interchangeably, including in this post. Just don’t get it mixed up with the 101, which is a totally different highway that just happens to overlap the 1 multiple times! (Fun fact: on my first Highway One road trip I accidentally drove the 101, and was super confused the entire time.)

The term “Pacific Coast Highway” is also sometimes used to lump together multiple highways along the entire western coast of the US. In this post, we’re only talking about Highway One!

Highway One runs from southern California in Orange County, all the way up the California coast to Mendocino county. Its southern terminus intersects with Highway 5 and its northern terminus merges into Highway 101.

We recommend driving the Pacific Coast Highway south to north, from Los Angeles – where the “highway” is actually more of a crowded street in a busy city – all the way up past its end to Avenue of the Giants off the 101. For more details, check out our detailed 10-day Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary!

  • Budget Travel Tip: Booking a rental car? We recommend using Kayak to price-compare prices on car rentals for your trip! Look here for deals direct from Los Angeles

The best time of the year to drive the Pacific Coast Highway is in mid-to-late February through April.  February is usually the end of California’s annual rainy season, which turns California’s golden hills bright green and covers the coast with colorful wildflowers that last through April and into early May. This time of the year also overlaps with elephant seal pupping season as well as whale migration season!

Watch your gas gauge! There are stretches of hours before coming across gas, and the isolated ones are understandably expensive. When in doubt, fill ‘er up! (The same advice applies to bathrooms.)

Leave no trace! This is more than just “don’t litter.” The majority of the coastline is made up of fragile ecosystems. Do your part to stop erosion and damage by not going somewhere dangerous for a picture, staying on trails, watching your kids and pets, not going somewhere dangerous for a picture, not touching animals, not throwing apple cores or orange peels out of the window, AND NOT GOING SOMEWHERE DANGEROUS FOR A PICTURE!

California is colder than you think. Several stretches of the coast get very cold, with crazy wind and a lot of fog. But just to make things more confusing, there are also odd patches of hot weather. Rule of thumb: bring a lot of layers, and don’t forget to pack a warm jacket!

Cliffs descending into the ocean along the California Coast on the Pacific Coast Highway.
You’ll see plenty of views like this on the stretch of Highway One between Morro Bay and Big Sur! No special stop necessary (but there are plenty of pullouts for photos).

The Best Places to Stop on the Pacific Coast Highway

Many of the best places to stop on Highway One are charming little coastal getaways which can only be accessed by driving Highway One. And each of these Pacific Coast Highway towns is well worth a stop or an overnight! We’ve included a few of our favorite things to do in each. 

Let’s start from the northern tip of the Pacific Coast Highway and head all the way down. Ready?

The tasting room at the Mendocino Country Store in downtown Mendocino, California.
Mendocino is one of California’s best wine countries – and one of our favorite towns to. visit along the California Coast!

Mendocino 

Mendocino is a charming coastal town at the far northern end of the Pacific Coast Highway known for wine and marine life. Too many visitors drive the California Coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles without continuing up north – that’s a mistake! The northern stretch is every bit as scenic, and Mendocino is the crown jewel of the Northern coast.

Here are a few of the best things to do in Mendocino:

  • Mendocino is famous for its wine tasting! Visit one of the many beautiful vineyards off the coast along Highway 128, aka The Wine Road, or stop by the Mendocino Country Store’s gorgeous tasting room in the heart of town.
  • Stroll through the charming downtown and stop in absolutely every shop (especially Mendocino Jams and Preserves, which we love because they have hella samples and their chutney is next-level). 
  • Rent a kayak at Catch a Canoe and take a calm, self-guided kayak trip down the Big River Estuary. Keep an eye out for otters and sea birds!
  • Mendocino’s coastline is dotted with stunning natural sea caves – you can explore them on the Kayak Mendocino Sea Cave Nature Tour, led by Kayak Mendocino.
  • Go hiking at Van Damme State Park. Part redwood forest, part coastal park, part Pygmy forest, Van Damme is a day-hikers dream. 
  • Explore the tidepools at MacKerricher State Park. We recommend driving to the Seal Watching Station to visit the tidepools at Laguna Point!

We’ve got plenty more suggestions for things to do in Mendocino in our Mendocino travel guide:

Stinson Beach

Located under an hour north of San Francisco, Stinson Beach is one of Northern California’s most famous beach towns, famous for its long, wide, sandy beach. Everything in the town of Stinson has a nostalgic surf-town vibe, and most of the tiny town is walkable – perfect for a day at the beach! 

This is where San Franciscans come to visit the beach, because Ocean Beach within the city is a frigid arctic tundra which is so foggy it often resembles Silent Hill.

Also, if you like, there’s a nude beach. Because it wouldn’t be Northern California if there wasn’t.  There are actually a LOT of clothing-optional stops on the Pacific Coast Highway, from beaches to hot springs. Enjoy!

When you’re ready to towel off – or put a towel back on – head to The Siren Canteen at the base of the lifeguard tower for a delicious post-beach snack, like tacos, ice cream, or loaded nachos. 

The famous Painted Ladies on Alamo Square in San Francisco, California.
Hey, it’s us! Just bein’ mushy in front of the iconic Painted Ladies on Alamo Square.

San Francisco

Ahhh, the best city along the Pacific Coast Highway (all tea, all shade – sorry Los Angeles and San Diego, but we’re number one)! We’ve lived next-door to or within San Francisco for the past decade, and we absolutely love this weird, ever-changing city by the Bay.

How do you explain a city like San Francisco? San Francisco is the city where “the next big thing” has already arrived; a city that belongs to everyone and no one at the same time; a city of technology, art, culture, food, and fog; a city that is as historically important to the story of this country as it is today. It is a city with so many quirks and oddities that I created an entire post all about them.

But San Francisco is also a bit of an acquired taste. It will push you out of your comfort zone, both physically and emotionally.

We could go on and on forever, but instead, we’ll direct you to a few of our other resources and just give you the must-do highlights:

If you’re planning to spend some time in the city, we’ve also got a guide to where to stay in San Francisco (and a guide to the best coffee in SF, for your mornings).

Mori Point in Pacifica, California
The hike to Mori Point is one of the best things to do in Pacifica, California! Plus, you can eat at the world’s prettiest Taco Bell afterward. (Don’t knock it ’till you see it.)

Pacifica

Located a few minutes away from Half Moon Bay along the peninsula south of San Francisco, to locals Pacifica is famous for one thing: the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world. It’s beautiful, and yes, we will go all the way down from San Francisco just to eat there.

But there are plenty of other reasons to stop in Pacifica (although yes, we absolutely recommend visiting the Taco Bell):

  • Pacifica is also famous for its excellent surfing at Linda Mar Beach – although before hopping in the water, you’ll want to check that it’s not Great White Shark migration season. (Fun Fact: did you know there are sometimes Great White Sharks in the Bay? This whole area is known as “White Shark Café” and I have to ask, why wasn’t at least one Jaws sequel set on Alcatraz??) 
  • Take a tour of the quirky  McCloskey Castle, aka Sam’s Castle. Built on a hill overlooking the sea by an anxious rich guy and designed to be an earthquake-proof haven after the devastating 1907 earthquake that destroyed much of San Francisco, over the years the castle has been an underground abortion clinic, a speakeasy, an epic party palace, and a brothel.  Today, the castle is filled with a truly odd selection of furnishings and decor. You should absolutely stop for a tour: it is a prime example of Northern California weirdness.
  • Hike the famous Devil’s Slide, formerly a segment of Highway One but was deemed too precarious. Now accessible on foot, the Devil’s Slide Trail is a 1.3 mile long path with jaw-dropping cliffside views over the surf. 
  • Another excellent hike in Pacifica is Mori Point, a gorgeous 2.5 mile loop.
  • Nerdy plant lovers (hi, me) must stop at the Shelldance Orchid Garden, located just off Highway One. The plants are amazing and the views are phenomenal.
The beach at sunrise in Half Moon Bay, California.
The beach at sunrise in Half Moon Bay, California.

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is a small coastal town just 30 minutes south of San Francisco made semi-famous by the award-winning film Birdemic: Shock and Terror! (actually I think it won an award as the “Worst Film Ever Made”, so obviously we love it, please go watch the trailer). 

But there’s more to Half Moon Bay than awful bird movies: there are also gorgeous beaches, annual pumpkin patches, a quaint little downtown, and some of the best surfing on the West Coast.

Here’s what to do on a stop in Half Moon Bay:

For more suggestions, our friend Jess at A Passion and A Passport lives nearby and has a fantastic guide to things to do in Half Moon Bay.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk, California
Welcome to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk! If it looks like Disneyland, that’s because Disneyland’s Pixar Pier is designed to look like it! (To be clear: Santa Cruz did it first.)

Santa Cruz

Just south of the Bay Area, Santa Cruz is a laid back, quirky hippie town. From the beach boardwalk to the lush redwoods, Santa Cruz is one of the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway. And it’s hard to miss: you’ll be driving right through, so when you see roller coasters, it’s time to stop.

You might notice a strange phenomenon when you’re in Santa Cruz, and we’re not just talking about the gravitational anomaly and kitschy fever dream that is the Mystery Spot, which by the way, is a blast to visit. 

No, we’re talking about banana slugs! These neon yellow slimy friends are the mascot of UC Santa Cruz and the patron saint of the area. You’ll see them all over the place, and if you can get past the fact that they are giant slugs, they’re actually kind of cute!

Other than befriending slugs, here are the best things to do in Santa Cruz:

If you decide to stay overnight, we highly recommend staying at this quirky redwood treehouse next door to the Mystery Spot! 

Monterey Bay Aquarium on a California Highway One Road Trip
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is hands-down the best thing to do in Monterey, and one of the best aquariums in the world. Photo Credit

Monterey

Best known for its incredible aquarium and John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, Monterey is all about celebrating sea life and the beautiful California coast. Rent kayaks, ride bikes, and go tide-pooling as you explore this coastal paradise. 

Here’s what we recommend doing on a stop in Monterey:

  • Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There’s a reason why it’s famous! The aquarium is one of the best in the world and is part interactive museum, part animal conservation facility, and part research lab. Don’t miss the otters – they’re freakin’ adorable.
  • After learning about the local kelp forest ecosystem, rent kayaks or standup paddleboards from Monterey Bay Kayaks to get up close and personal with otters, seals, and other Monterey Bay residents.
  • Rent a bike and explore the scenic Coastal Trail.
  • Explore the tidepools and nature walks in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
  • Walk around Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoy the boardwalk.
McWay Falls in Big Sur, California
McWay Falls in Big Sur is one of California’s two tide falls – waterfalls that spill directly into the ocean. And it’s right off the Pacific Coast Highway!

Big Sur

Although Big Sur is technically a town, when most folks talk about Big Sur they’re referring to the 90-mile stretch of coast between Hearst Castle and Carmel – some of the most beautiful coastline in the entire world. 

The appeal of Big Sur lies primarily in its absolutely jaw-dropping scenery. Big Sur is beautiful, rugged, and isolated. Mountains and redwoods and valleys loom on to one side of Highway One, the ocean on the other. There’s not much more than a few insanely expensive homes and a small cluster of businesses. And you can’t get there via any other way than driving the Pacific Coast Highway – electricity didn’t even reach this area until the 1950’s!

Arguably the most famous stop along Highway One, Big Sur is known for many things: it’s the oldest and most historic stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, and its reputation is attached to creatives and artists. Folks like Jack London, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac,  Ansel Adams, and many many others have either lived or spent time in Big Sur. 

  • Sidenote: Like many of our favorite places in Northern California, Big Sur has a whole bunch of weird, quirky history, my favorite of which involves a cult-like “institute,” clothing-optional hot springs, and a shootout involving Hunter S. Thompson. If you’re curious, we get into it on our Highway One podcast episode.

One of the most influential artists to make their mark on Big Sur is Henry Miller, whose Memorial Library remains the cultural center of Big Sur and attracts artists from all over the world to give impromptu concerts. It’s well worth a stop!

Here are some more of our favorite things to do in Big Sur:

  • Dive into the quirky history of Big Sur (literally) and head to the Esalen Institute to relax in the hot springs. Clothing, of course, is optional.
  • To best enjoy Big Sur, we recommend lacing up your hiking boots and exploring on foot. The Partington Cove trail leads through a tree-lined canyon and a tunnel to a beautiful rocky beach. The Pfeiffer Falls & Valley View Trail is an easy 2-mile hike filled with waterfalls and sweeping vistas. For a longer hike, or a fairly easy overnight backpacking trip, the 10-mile out and back Vicente Flats hike showcases all the best parts of Big Sur: sweeping coastal scenery, redwoods, and even a campsite with a babbling brook running through it. For more details, head to our post about the best Northern California hikes.
  • Whether you’re up for a hike or just passing through, be sure to stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and to see the iconic McWay Falls, one of California’s two tide falls – waterfalls that spill directly into the ocean. There’s no hike needed to see the falls, which are perfectly in view right off the side of the highway.

We recommend spending a night in Big Sur, either camping or staying at a charming little inn (we recommend Big Sur River Inn). There’s something truly magical about waking up in Big Sur: the coastal fog, the smell of salt and redwoods, the quiet stillness of the surrounding forest…. 

And possibly most importantly, the croissants at Big Sur Bakery, which typically sell out before noon!

Morro Bay

Located in the heart of California’s Central Coast on the scenic stretch of Highway One between Los Angeles and San Francisco (almost exactly halfway, in fact), Morro Bay can be easily identified by its two major landmarks: an old power plant whose three large smokestacks can be seen from anywhere in town, and Morro Rock, a giant volcanic behemoth located directly on the beach.

Morro Bay is fixed on a natural harbor, making it a fantastic place to see marine wildlife, as well as an adorable little coastal town. Morro Bay is home to great restaurants, friendly locals, and a ton of wildlife. It is a natural refuge for animals like harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, snowy plovers, peregrine falcons, and more.

Also, fun fact, it’s where Jeremy grew up! Morry Bay is his hometown.

The best things to do in Morro Bay are:

  • Take a relaxing stroll along the charming Embarcadero to see the otters and harbor seals who call the Bay their home. You can usually find them hanging out by the docks across from the Great American Fish Company.
  • Go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding in the harbor – the better to meet marine critters! You can rent gear at Kayak Horizons.
  • Enjoy a delicious fresh seafood dinner with a sunset view at Tognazzini’s Dockside, Dorn’s Breakers Cafe,  Windows on the Water, or Dutchman’s Seafood House

For more suggestions, check out Jeremy’s detailed Morro Bay travel guide, full of local’s insider tips:

Cayucos

Located just north of Morro Bay along the coast, Cayucos is smaller and more undiscovered by visitors. The vibe here is super mellow, a little bit Wild West, and very chill surfer, but there are plenty of options here to make a stop worth your while!

Here are some of our favorite things to do in Cayucos:

  • Grab a board at Good Clean Fun and surf – you’ll find some of the best surfing around right underneath the pier.
  • After you tip your toes in the surf, hop next door to crusty pirate dive Schooner’s and drink with the locals while watching the waves roll in.
  • Stop at Brown Butter Cookie Company for a San Luis Obispo County local staple! Really the name tells you everything you need to know about it, except for how addictive they are…but Highly Addictive Melt In Your Mouth Cookies From Heaven doesn’t flow as well.
  • For the best street tacos along the Pacific Coast Highway – yup, we said it – pop into the Cayucos Gas Mini Mart. Yes: it’s a gas station. But it’s also home to a tiny little Mexican eatery whose street tacos are legit AF. Also, major bonus points if you’re there on Taco Tuesday: the tacos are only 99 cents. Bless.

For more suggestions, head over to our Cayucos travel guide:

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is the Central Coast’s relaxing beach town, a laid-back beach town in close proximity to the many wonderful places to visit in San Luis Obispo county. 

But Pismo Beach also has a couple of extra tricks up its sleeve that make it a must-stop: dune buggying, and really good cinnamon rolls. Here’s what to do in Pismo Beach:

  • Rent a dune buggy for a crazy sand dune adventure! Dune buggying is basically like being on a roller coaster, only there’s no track and you’re the one controlling the wheel. Ahhh! You can rent an ATV made to careen gracelessly over the sand dunes at Sun Buggy – and prepare to hold on for dear life. 
  • Hop in a kayak and explore Pismo’s incredible sea caves on a Sea Cave tour with Central Coast Kayaks! Keep your eyes open for sea lions, otters, and dolphins.
  • Want to give surfing a try? Hit up Pismo Beach Surf Shop, where you can pick up a board and wetsuit.
  • A must do in Pismo is renting a beach cruiser and cruising down the coast. Wheel Fun Rentals is located right in the heart of Pismo and rents all types of bikes and water gear.
  • Relax at the beach. Stroll along the pier and boardwalk. Watch an incredible sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Build a sandcastle. Chill. Live the SLO life.
  • Old West Cinnamon Rolls. serves up heavenly cinnamon rolls and addictive icing in a classically old-school, unassuming little shop. Insider tip: order the cream cheese icing on the side and you’ll get a little more than usual to eat with a spoon later. 
Santa Barbara, California waterfront at sunset
Beautiful Santa Barbara, California at sunset!

Santa Barbara

When people who aren’t from California think about what the state looks like, more often than not they’re imagining Santa Barbara: long stretches of sand, waving palm trees, Spanish architecture, and morning fog lifting to reveal the sun. 

It’s a beautiful area, and it also happens to be the southernmost town we recommend visiting along Highway One – before the PCH turns into a busy street in the middle of sprawling Los Angeles.

Here are a few things to do in Santa Barbara:

  • Santa Barbara County produces excellent wine, and you can taste it all right in downtown Santa Barbara along the Urban Wine Trail.
  • No trip to Santa Barbara would be complete without a trip to East Beach, followed by a walk to the end of Stearns Wharf. If you’re hungry, grab lunch at the famous Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.
  • Visit Lotusland, a 37 acre botanical garden considered to be one of the best gardens in the world! It’s a bit out of the main hub, but worth a stop if you enjoy a good garden.
  • Visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara. Historic Spanish missions like this one pepper the California coast. When visiting, keep in mind what these structures were for – converting Native Americans to Catholicism. They weren’t happy places, but they tell an important piece of the complex history of California.
Point Reyes Lighthouse in Point Reyes, California, one of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops.
The Point Reyes Historic Lighthouse dates back to 1870 and is typically obscured by thick fog, but if you’re lucky, you just might catch a view like this!

Points of Interest on the Pacific Coast Highway

Many of the best places to visit along the Pacific Coast Highway are not located within an actual town, which makes it very easy to pass them right by. The trick is to know what you’re looking for and keep an eye out – or you’ll drive right past!

Here are the best Highway One points of interest not located in one of the towns we recommended above.

Lia in San Francisco, California in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.
For this viewpoint of the Golden Gate bridge, head to Battery Spencer just north of San Francisco!

Battery Spencer

Just over the Golden Gate Bridge on the 1/101, Battery Spencer is once of the best viewpoints of the bridge and the San Francisco skyline! 

The viewpoint itself is a quick stop, but you can add onto it with a detour into the adorable town of Sausalito, just across the water from San Francisco.

Muir Woods

Muir Woods is a beautiful place to explore California’s famous old-growth redwoods, some of which are absolutely huge: the tallest tree in the park is over 250 feet high! 

Muir Woods is named after famous naturalist John Muir, known as the grandfather of the modern conservation movement and the National Park Service. But Muir Woods has been an important Bay Area landmark since long before Muir’s movement – it was home to the Indigenous Miwok Tribe for generations. 

Muir Woods has hikes for all skill levels, including a loop that takes about half an hour which you can do right from the park entrance.

  • Important Travel Tip: If you plan to visit Muir Woods, you will need to make a reservation in advance.

Hearst Castle

If you, like us, are obsessed with judging ostentatious rich people and their frivolous grandeur (think Versailles, The Biltmore Estates, etc), you absolutely must stop for a tour of Hearst Castle. It is absolutely, supremely over-the-top.

Located just north of Cambria on the stunning stretch of Highway One between San Luis Obispo and Big Sur, the sprawling estate of Hearst Castle is one of the weirdest, gaudiest points of interest along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Built by famed newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who was inspired on a luxurious family vacation to Europe as a child to build his very own extremely expensive castle, the mansion has 165 rooms, 123 acres of gardens, and a bunch of exotic animals – you can still see zebras roaming along the highway. 

The opulent decor is a mish-mash of expensive stuff from all over the world, mixed together with jaw-dropping swimming pools and fascinating tales of Vintage Hollywood’s elite, who partied here in their heyday.

Touring the castle is well worth a stop – just be sure to book in advance!

Elephant Seals yawning on the beach at the San Simeon Elephant Seal rookery.
If you’re driving up Highway 1, Piedras Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon is one of the best stops for watching adorable, flomping, uglycute elephant seals lay around on the beach and make weird noises at each other.

San Simeon Seal Rookery

Located almost across the street from Hearst Castle, The Elephant Seal Vista Point is the best stop along Highway One to meet one of California’s most underrated marine stars: elephant seals! You’ll find these strange animals at the rookery year-round, but between December to March – our favorite time of year to drive Highway One – you’ll see mostly pups on the beach, which is as cute as it sounds!

We should warn you, though: elephant seals are a bit of an acquired taste. They are the doofiest, oddest looking animals in the world – kind of like a cross between a manatee and an elephant, except not cute. They make a horrifying screeching sound like howler monkeys and mostly flomp around on the beach, occasionally fighting with each other and frequently sneezing. 

Elephant seal babies are truly adorable, but only for like a month … then they hit puberty and start horrifically shedding their skin like an episode of The Flopping Dead. 

And yet for some reason, we are obsessed with them. We love them SO MUCH. Their weird noises, their awkward lazy flops… if there’s any one animal that best represents us, it’s definitely an Elephant Seal. If you think “ugly” dogs like Frenchies and Bulldogs are adorable you’ll probably love them too!

Bixby Bridge at sunset on a California Highway One Road Trip
The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most iconic landmarks along Highway One!

Bixby Bridge

One of the most iconic places to stop along the Pacific Coast Highway is the Bixby Creek Bridge (or Bixby Canyon Bridge if you’re Death Cab for Cutie). Located just south of Monterey en route to Big Sur, the bridge has a beautiful lookout and makes an excellent photo op to document your Highway One adventure!

There are parking areas on either side of the bridge, and you don’t have to go far to find the best views.

Important safety note: erosion is a thing; do not be the person who plummets to their death for a picture. Unlike the lyrics of that Death Cab for Cutie song would suggest, you cannot safely descend the sheer canyon cliffs, and doing so only puts you in danger of high tide. Stay at the top where everyone else is, please.

Point Arena Lighthouse

Located on the northern stretch of Highway One between San Francisco and Mendocino, this beautiful lighthouse is one of my favorite scenic stops along the Pacific Coast Highway, the perfect place for a little picnic or just a cute photo op. If you’d like to spend more time here, you can even book a room inside the lighthouse!

The tiny town of Point Arena itself is also charming, as are the nearby small towns of Elk and Gualala. If you learn nothing else from this post, let it be that absolutely every small town along Highway One is charming and worth a stop to explore, no matter how small!

Point Arena is also located near Schooner Gulch beach, aka Bowling Ball Beach, home to uniquely round geological formations.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel on Highway One along the California Coast
Pigeon Point Lighthouse is both a gorgeous lighthouse AND an awesome hostel!

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Yeah yeah, another lighthouse. But this is no ordinary lighthouse: there’s a hostel inside, with a cliff-side hot tub looking out over the ocean! Sunset watching? Check. Falling asleep to the lulling sound of waves and barking seals? Check. Budget-friendly? CHECK!

If you do decide to make a pit stop at one of the coolest hostels in the country, you’ll want to make a reservation months in advance – it’s understandably quite popular.

While you’re in the area, you can also hike the redwoods in  Butano State Park, watch majestic elephant seals elegantly flomp around at Año Nuevo State Reserve, sample goat cheese at  Harley Farm Goat Dairy, and grab a beer at Highway 1 Brewing Company.

Colorful sand on Glass Beach at sunset in Fort Bragg, California.
The colorful glass that gives Glass Beach its name is actually trash turned to treasure by the pounding surf. Isn’t nature amazing?

Glass Beach

Glass Beach is located in Fort Bragg, just north of Mendocino all the way up almost to the northern terminus of the Pacific Coast Highway. The name comes from its unique sand, which is full of smooth, colorful little pebbles. At certain times of day, you can catch rainbows reflecting off the glass along the shore. This is a wonderful place to watch the sunset!

Although it appears to be a natural phenomenon, the real origin of the rainbow array of glass pebbles might surprise you: this beautiful beach was once a dump! Over time, the pounding waves turned trash to treasure, resulting in the unique sand we now enjoy. Isn’t nature amazing??

Point Reyes National Seashore
Exploring Point Reyes National Seashore will take you a little bit off of the Pacific Coast Highway, but with views like these, a stunning lighthouse, a beautiful Cypress tree tunnel, a shipwreck, and a herd of elk to discover, it’s well worth the detour.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Located across the water from the charming town of Bodega Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore is a stunning coastal peninsula just north of San Francisco that has long attracted backpackers and hikers all over the world thanks to its wildlife and amazing views. Within the expanse of Point Reyes you’ll find a lighthouse, a resident herd of Tule Elk, and a gorgeous Cypress Tree Tunnel

But this isn’t a quick stop along Highway One: you’ll need to take a detour into the National Seashore and plan to spend a few hours exploring its winding roads.

For your efforts, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful scenery and plenty of marine life. If you have time, we highly recommend a hike to Tomales Point – keep an eye out for elk!

For a shorter stop, head to the charming little town of Inverness to see the Point Reyes Shipwreck and enjoy fresh oysters at Saltwater Oyster Depot. 

The stretch of Highway One around Bodega Bay and Point Reyes is known as the Point Reyes Oyster Trail – so even if you don’t go into the National Seashore, you should at least stop for fresh oysters at Bodega Bay Oyster Company, The Marshall Store or Hog Island Oyster Co. And don’t worry, you don’t need to try them raw if that’s not your thing – they’re also delicious grilled, barbequed, or smothered in cheese and butter.

Avenue of the Giants on Highway 101 California
The Avenue of the Giants is a stunning stretch of road running through a redwood forest. It’s a bit of a detour, but well worth it on any Highway One road trip.

Bonus: Avenue of the Giants

Technically, Avenue of the Giants is not located along the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s actually located off the 101, about half an hour after the northern terminus of Highway One. But if you’re driving all the way up there anyway, it’s WELL worth the detour. It is truly one of the most beautiful, humbling stretches of road in the world (yes, maybe even more so than Highway One itself).

The 31-mile route winds directly through a dense forest of old-growth redwoods. These incredible trees are hundreds of years old and mind-blowingly incredibly enormous. There’s even a tree so large you can drive right through it – kitschy and campy, yes, but also one of those things you can only do in Northern California.

Our favorite way to experience the Avenue of the Giants is a slow, awe-filled drive with the sunroof open, gazing all the way up until the trees seem to bend together to form a canopy. 

We even have a favorite song to listen to along Avenue of the Giants: Holocene by Bon Iver. “and at once I knew, I am not magnificent” is the lyric that perfectly encapsulates the way that the redwoods make us feel.

Fresh seafood at Wild Fish restaurant in Mendocino, California! Arrive early or make a reservation - there are only a handful of tables.
Fresh seafood at Wild Fish restaurant in Mendocino, California! Arrive early or make a reservation – there are only a handful of tables.

The Best Places to Eat on the Pacific Coast Highway

We are major foodies, and we’ve been known to plan an entire itinerary around where we want to eat! Through our many trips along the California coast, we’ve collected a list of places to eat  on Highway One – and what to eat there – that are well worth a stop whether you’re driving right through or planning to stop overnight. Bookmark this page for when you get inevitably hungry on your drive!

  • Circa ‘62 in Little River: The best brunch near Mendocino, hands-down.
  • Queenie’s Roadhouse Cafe in Elk: Absolutely incredible burgers – well worth a stop on this quiet stretch north of San Francisco.
  • Wild Fish in Mendocino: A fine dining restaurant with sustainably sourced local ingredients – and wine.
  • Taqueria Cancun in San Francisco: San Francisco is known for its Mission burritos, and this is the place to try them. 
  • Cayucos Gas Mini Mart in Cayucos: Excellent, no-frills Mexican food. Stop here for gas, and also the best street tacos in the Central Coast.
  • The Marshall Store in Marshall: One word: OYSTERS! Try them BBQ’d, smoked, smothered in cheese and garlic butter, or in their purest form: raw.

What is the point of eating if you don’t get dessert, amiright?! Listen, don’t judge us. We eat a lot of dessert and we have a lot of suggestions for where to stop.

  • Linn’s Bakery in Cambria: Stop here for a slice of freshly baked olallieberry pie with whipped cream – a Central Coast specialty!
  • Old West Cinnamon Rolls in Pismo Beach: Giant, fluffy classic cinnamon buns topped with everything from raisins to nuts – and cream cheese icing, of course!
  • Brown Butter Cookie Company in Cayucos: Nutty little bites of shortbread deliciousness. Also, they have samples, so you have no reason not to stop.
  • Big Sur Bakery in Big Sur: One word: CROISSANTS. Actually, 2 words: ALMOND CROISSANTS. Also, wake up early – these sell out fast.
  • Goodlife Cafe & Bakery in Mendocino: Try the bread pudding – especially the espresso caramel bread pudding the most.

Are we missing your favorite? Please leave us a comment! We will absolutely use it as an excuse to take another weekend trip.

California Highway One Road Trip rolling hills and ocean view
You’re gonna run out of service right around here. So save this map to your phone so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the view!

Pacific Coast Highway Map

We threw a ton of places to stop along the Pacific Coast Highway at you, from towns to points of interest to restaurants – how can you keep it all straight? Our handy-dandy map will help! Just bookmark this page to come back to later, or save the map to your phone.

We’ve also created a free, printable version of our 10-Day Highway One road trip itinerary! Plus, we’ll also send you our favorite tips to help you plan your California road trip! Just sign up below.

Printable Highway One Itinerary

This FREE printable Highway One itinerary will help guide you on your road trip! Plus, we’ve included our San Francisco walking tour, and we’ll send you some helpful tips to plan your trip.


Are you ready to pack your bags, roll the windows down, and hit the highway? Which Pacific Coast Highway stops are you most excited to visit? Drop us a comment below!

Psst: We’ve got a whole bunch more resources to help you plan your California road trip. Take a look at the posts below, or click here to see all of our California travel guides.

We also have a Highway One podcast episode! A humanist cult, a Danish hideaway, a gravitational anomaly, towering trees, a spoiled rich kid’s castle, clothing-optional hot springs, and the cutest (and weirdest) animals imaginable: in this episode, we cover everything you need to plan your trip up the California Coast – and all the weird history you never knew along the way.

Listen below or just click here! Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss new episodes.

Did you find this post informative? Save it for later on Pinterest!

Our Top Travel Tips & Resources

Here are our favorite travel tips & resources for saving money and planning travel logistics! For more tips, check out our complete guide to trip planning.

  • Face Masks: Scientific consensus demonstrates wearing face masks protects both yourself and those around you from viral spread! We love these reusable face masks because they’re ethically made with sustainable materials and budget-friendly.
  • Booking Flights: To score flight deals, search on Skyscanner or Kayak. Money-saving tips: fly mid-week or on the weekend; fly carry-on only on a budget airline; and take red-eyes or early morning flights.
  • Accommodations: We usually stay in mid-range boutique hotels or private rooms in hostels. We use Booking.com to book hotels (we love their flexible cancellation policy) and Hostelworld to book hostels (low deposit, easy change/cancellation, and excellent reviews). Depending on the destination, we also love staying in AirBnBs. We’ve also used TrustedHousesitters as both hosts and travelers.
  • Travel Insurance: We always, always, ALWAYS buy travel insurance for international trips, and we STRONGLY suggest it – visit our Travel Insurance Guide to find out why. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing for international travel insurance.
  • Vaccines & Meds: We use the travel guides on the CDC website to research recommended medications and vaccines for international trips. We always recommend getting every vaccine recommended by the CDC! You can get them at your primary care doctor’s office or a walk-in pharmacy.
  • Tours: We love booking guided tours, especially food tours and walking tours, to get a local’s perspective and a history lesson while sight-seeing! We book our tours using Viator and GetYourGuide.
  • Transportation: We use Rome2Rio to figure out how to get from place to place using public transit. When we book a rental car, we use RentalCars.com to find the best deal.
  • Luggage Storage: Checking out early or taking advantage of a long layover? Use Stasher to safely store your luggage while you’re running around. Be sure to use the code PW10 for 10% off your booking!
  • What to Pack: Here are the travel essentials that we bring on every trip. We also have packing lists for hot weather, cold weather, and many more. Take a look at all of our packing guides!

Source link

Recent Content