15 Must-See Sights You Can Only See Along the Pacific Coast Highway
Spanning more than 600 miles, the Pacific Coast Highway has been described as the ultimate road trip. Here’s what you can’t see anywhere else.
Redwood National and State Parks
Start your trip outside Crescent City in northern California with a visit to some of the tallest trees on Earth. Redwood National and State Parks are home to more than 200 miles of trails through diverse habitats ranging from old-growth forests to prairies to beaches. Hike your way to Enderts Beach and explore the tide pools, where you just might spot a Periwinkle snail or hermit crab. Just consider thinking twice before you take these photos in a national park.
The Lost Coast
A slight detour, the Lost Coast is well worth the side trip. A favorite destination of surfers, this undeveloped shoreline between the Mattole River and Shelter Cove feels like a secret. It’s also a favorite destination for backpackers who take in views of King Range and wander along the unspoiled beach collecting shells. Just be sure to pack a tide table so you know the best times to visit.
Legend has it that sea glass comes from the tears of mermaids weeping for sailors lost at sea. The truth is that the breathtaking colorful orbs at Glass Beach, located about 120 miles north of San Francisco in Fort Bragg, come from trash people dumped in the ocean after the Great Earthquake of 1906. Then time, salt, and sand turned the trash into treasure. While you’re there, you can also explore tide pools and spot some crabs and mollusks.
Set on bluffs overlooking the Pacific, the tucked-away village of Mendocino has long attracted artists and nature lovers. Home to both saltbox cottages and grand Victorian buildings, the historic town was the setting for the TV series Murder, She Wrote. Mendocino is also home to lots of art galleries and shops to explore—and plenty of delicious places to grab a bite afterward. Before you set off, check out this road trip survival guide.
Further down the coast, you’ll reach the tiny fishing village of Bodega. While in this part of California’s Sonoma County, you can whale watch or paddle around Bodega Harbor. Are you a movie buff? Alfred Hitchcock filmed many scenes for his famous 1963 film The Birds in the one-block town of Bodega. You can still see the Potter Schoolhouse and the St. Teresa of Avila Church.
Keep driving and you’ll soon be crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. You could spend a week touring the city, but must-dos include watching the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf, riding a cable car, visits to the artistic Mission District and hippie haven Haight-Ashbury, and a trip inside America’s most infamous former prison, Alcatraz.
Santa Cruz Boardwalk
In search of some traditional summertime fun? Make sure to stop in Santa Cruz. Crowds flock to the coastal town to stroll its boardwalk and ride its historic wooden roller coasters. Set up on the sand at the beach for plenty of people-watching, or head out on a paddleboard and you might encounter a sea lion. Back on land, you can enjoy some live music or check out the shops.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Marine life is a big part of any trip along the Pacific Coast Highway. To learn more about it, be sure to pay a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Overlooking the bay itself, the aquarium features exhibits ranging from sea otters to a kelp forest to an exhibit on the HBO series Big Little Lies, which has filmed scenes there.
Continue down California’s Central Coast region and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Golden State. About 25 miles south of Monterey, Big Sur is home to one of the most unusual beaches in the United States. Pfeiffer Beach also features rare deposits of purple sand, created by deposits from the surrounding rocks. It’s perfect for making picturesque sand castles. Pfeiffer Beach is also a beautiful place to catch a sunset.
Get a peek into a Moorish-inspired castle here in the United States with a visit to Hearst Castle in San Simeon. A former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the hilltop mansion is filled with rare art, beautiful gardens, and an outdoor swimming pool known as Neptune Pool. You can sign up for a variety of tours, but they sell out quickly in the summer. Then check out these road trips every foodie should take.
Santa Ynez Valley
The Golden State is well-known for its vineyards, and Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country is as good a place as any to partake. From cool ocean air that’s perfect for growing grapes to make chardonnay and pinot noir to the hotter climes inland that are ideal for merlot, it’s a must-visit for oenophiles. The town of Los Olivos is home to plenty of wine tasting rooms in addition to shops and galleries. Movie buffs will appreciate that part of Sideways was also filmed here. Then take a step back in time with a visit to the Danish-inspired town of Solvang.
Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary
Pack your binoculars and hiking boots for a visit to the Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary. Nearly 100 adult seals reside at the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Preserve. Hike or ride a bike from town on the Coastal Vista Trail and with any luck, you’ll see some harbor seals sunning themselves. Note that the sanctuary is closed to the public from December 1 through May 31 to allow the seals to give birth.
There’s a reason beautiful people flock to Malibu, a city west of Los Angeles with 30 miles of coastline known for its perfect waves and gorgeous beaches like El Matador State Beach and Malibu Lagoon State Beach. More of an art aficionado? Check out the Getty Villa, the original home of the Getty Museum. If you’re more curious about the homes of the rich and famous, take a Malibu Stars Home Tour. Getting hungry yet? Check out these road trip snacks nutritionists love.
Santa Monica Pier
For more fun, head to Santa Monica Pier. Chill out at the beach, then head to the amusement park and take a ride on the world’s only solar-powered Ferris Wheel, Pacific Wheel, and enjoy the panoramic view. The pier also features a carousel, classic arcade games, and even a trapeze school. Before you set off, make sure you read this road trip checklist for your car.
End your trip along the Pacific Coast Highway with a visit to the oldest town in California, San Diego. You can take in the Spanish Colonial architecture in Balboa Park and artwork at the San Diego Art Museum. Then experience the town’s Mexican roots with a visit to the Old Town Historic State Park. Take a walk along the waterfront and visit the Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum, home to the USS Midway. Then go visit the strangest roadside attraction in every state.