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Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway

Known as the PCH, the Pacific Coast Highway offers a scenic view of the Pacific Ocean from start to finish. This long and winding highway runs from the top of California down to Los Angeles, with plenty of stops in between.


Eureka

Start your road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway in Eureka, the northernmost city along the highway. A visit to the Old Town district takes you through some old Victorian houses.

Afterward, stop by Sequoia Park for your first glimpse at California’s famed redwood trees. The massive trees have existed for centuries and are an impressive sight to behold.


Mendocino County

Head south and you’ll start towards Mendocino County. You will get amazing views as you drive along the coast; in fact, they’re film-worthy. Scenes from movies like East of Eden starring James Dean, The Majestic starring Jim Carrey, and Forever Young starring Mel Gibson were all filmed in Mendocino County.

As you drive south, make sure you take a detour to go through the Chandelier Tree, a redwood tree so large that it has a tunnel in it big enough to fit a truck through!

If you stop by the town of Mendocino, be sure to grab some local produce. It’s 100% organic. You can also visit the Temple of Kwan Tai, created by Chinese immigrants who moved to the area in the 1850s to help support the lumber industry.


San Francisco

Any drive down the Pacific Coast Highway should include a visit to San Francisco. Stop at the Ferry Building for some local shopping and then make your way down the Embarcadero and pay a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf. In the winter, there’s plenty of freshly caught crab available. You’ll also want to grab fresh sourdough bread.

If you have some time, a quick ferry trip to Alcatraz is a must. The famed prison was home to some of America’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”


Santa Cruz

Moving toward the Central Coast, you’ll come across the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The Boardwalk features “The Giant Dipper,” an old-timey wooden roller coaster as well as other rides and games.

Walk down the beach from the Boardwalk and you’ll walk right up to Santa Cruz Wharf, where clam chowder and other seafood are easy to come by.

If you have a little time to walk around, visit Natural Bridges State Park. Not only is the view incredible, but you can walk among the tide pools to see some of the local sea life.


Monterey

Continuing through the Central Coast brings you to the city of Monterey.

Its famed Monterey Bay Aquarium was the blueprint for the aquarium featured in the movie Finding Dory. Cannery Row, which runs right up to the aquarium, was the setting for the famed John Steinbeck novel Cannery Row.

Nearby is Dennis the Menace Park, named for the famed comic strip character.

If wildlife is your thing, Monterey has that as well. It’s not uncommon for people to spot sea otters just off the coast. You can even rent a kayak and paddle out to see the sea otters yourself. Just remember, sea otters are protected under the Endangered Species Act, so while you can look, don’t touch!

For you golfers out there, a trip to 17-Mile Drive and Pebble Beach is a must. You can play a few rounds on the course that has welcomed legendary golfers like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer.

The famed 18th hole at Pebble Beach comes with a majestic view of the ocean. If you stick around, you can dine at one of the many restaurants along 17-Mile Drive and watch the sunset over the 18th hole.


Big Sur

Just down the road from Pebble Beach is Big Sur. The drive through Big Sur offers some of the best views from the PCH. When you drive over Bixby Bridge, it may feel like you’re floating.

Make sure you stop in the town of Big Sur for some amazing food and views. Then take a detour to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park for a walk through the massive redwood trees.

When traveling down this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, check the current road conditions first. During the rainy months, parts of the roadway often get washed out, and it takes months to fix.


San Simeon

Further south down the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll find San Simeon. Stop at the Piedras Blancas Rookery to see elephant seals every day of the year. There’s no reservation needed.

Before you make the trip further south to Hollywood, stop by Hearst Castle for a little bit of glamour. The former home of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher that built up the nation’s largest newspaper chain. Hearst Castle is opulent, filled with art, stories, and history.


San Luis Obispo

As your trek down the coast continues, your next stop should be San Luis Obispo (SLO). Home to Cal Poly and a large community college, the town is filled with places for all those college kids to eat and drink. If you’re looking for a place to stop for the night, SLO is a great choice.

Visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa to see some of California’s most storied and controversial history. The mission was one of the first built in California by the Spaniards in the 1700s.


Pismo Beach

On your drive down from SLO to Pismo Beach, be sure to take some detours to the local wineries. The warm beach air makes it great weather for growing grapes.

Once in Pismo Beach, take the time to stop at the Monarch Butterfly Grove. Between November and February, tens of thousands of monarch butterflies arrive in the grove, blanketing the nearby trees.

Pismo State Beach is also a must-visit. Not only can you surf, swim, and suntan, but you can also dig for clams, fish, and rent off-road vehicles that you can ride over the dunes.


Solvang

A slight detour off of the Pacific Coast Highway will lead you to the town of Solvang. Solvang looks like a Danish village was picked up and dropped into the middle of California. With windmills, wine tasting, and charming shops, Solvang has a little bit of something for everyone.

If you have a day to spend, then Solvang is a great choice.


Santa Barbara

 

The city of Santa Barbara is one of the larger cities you’ll encounter on your drive down the California coast.

If you missed Mission San Luis Obispo, then make a point to stop at Old Mission Santa Barbara. There’s also the Goleta Butterfly Preserve along the way if you missed them in Pismo.

For something a little different, visit the Cold Spring Tavern, an actual stop for stagecoaches more than a century ago.

You can also rent a bike and ride down the Cabrillo Bike Path for a scenic view of the shoreline. Stop for a drink of water at Shoreline Park and take in the sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean. Further along, visit Stearns Wharf for a bite to eat.


Ventura

Once you leave Santa Barbara, it’s just a 30-minute drive down the coast to Ventura. Home to the famed Six Flags Magic Mountain, a day at the theme park will give you some thrills.

Other highlights include Ventura Pier and Promenade and the Channel Islands Visitor Center, where you can find out about the wild and plant life that inhabits the national park located in the Pacific Ocean.


Santa Monica

Located just west of Los Angeles, Santa Monica is the next stop on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip.

Complete with a Ferris Wheel, Santa Monica Pier is an iconic sight, one that you’ve most likely seen in a Hollywood movie. Walk the pier and keep a lookout for the original Muscle Beach, where athletes workout and show off their skills.

Once you’ve toured the pier, venture a few blocks to the Third Street Promenade, a nearby shopping district.

For more beach fun, try visiting the Annenberg Community Beach House. According to the website Timeout, the beach house was originally built by William Randolph Hearst for Hollywood star Marion Davies. Now, it’s a public beach house that includes a rec room, swimming pool, and sports facilities.

Finally, flashback to the past and take in a movie at the Aero Theatre. Built in 1939, the Aero Theatre is an excellent place for movie buffs to visit.


Long Beach/Huntington Beach/Newport Beach

Traveling down the coast in the Los Angeles area is difficult and slow going so we’d suggest choosing one of the three cities listed above and stop there.


Long Beach

In Long Beach, visit the Long Beach Waterfront. There, you’ll find the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Rainbow Lagoon. You can take a nighttime swan boat ride on the lagoon.

If you’re a snorkeler or scuba diver, you can also book a trip to Santa Catalina Island, where you can get an up-close look at the local sea life.

Just down the road from the Waterfront is Naples Island, a small community built to replicate a village in Italy.


Huntington Beach

You have to have a claim to fame, and the Huntington Beach Pier has one. It’s considered one of the longest piers on the West Coast. Start your day with a walk along the pier, and then book a whale watching trip to see the humpback whales.

If you want to stay on dry land, take a trip to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a coastal estuary where you’ll see mudflats, salt marsh, coastal dunes, and more than 200 species of birds.

Downtown Huntington Beach is filled with shopping and fine food. If you’re looking for something a little different, Old World Village may be your style. According to its website, it offers “Old World European” dining, shopping, entertainment, and special events.


Newport Beach

If you choose to stop at Newport Beach, make sure that your trip itinerary includes Balboa Island. The man-made island is filled with restaurants, shopping, and adventure.

You can also stop by the Sherman Library and Gardens, a former private estate that’s been transformed into a public garden and research library specializing in the Pacific Southwest history.


Dana Point

The technical endpoint of the Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point is a diamond in the rough.

Beaches are one of its main draws, and there’s something for everyone. Head to Salt Creek Beach if you’re looking for surf; Doheny State Beach for a picnic on the sand; Dana Strand Beach for privacy; and Baby Beach for the kid-friendly waters.


Bonus Stops

Though your trip technically ends in Dana Point, take some time to extend it down to San Diego. You can also start further up the Pacific Coast in Oregon or even Washington.


Anaheim/Disneyland

East of Dana Point is Anaheim, home to the Most Magical Place on Earth, Disneyland. If you have a few extra days, Disneyland never disappoints.


San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano is home to the famed swallows of San Juan Capistrano. Every March, the swallows make a 6,000-mile migration from Argentina to the Mission. If you’re around the area at that time, it’s a sight to behold.

While in San Juan Capistrano, stop by the Los Rios Historic District, an area that’s existed since the late 1700s. For some antique shopping, look no further than the Old Barn Antique Mall. It’s filled to the brim with goodies.


Carlsbad

Along with scenic coastline and beaches, Carlsbad is home to Legoland, a theme park devoted entirely to Legos.


San Diego

San Diego is home to the world-renowned San Diego Zoo and its lesser-known sister park, Safari Park. Balboa Park isn’t just home to the San Diego Zoo, it also houses several museums, art installations, and gardens.

If you’re looking for water-based wildlife, check out SeaWorld.

San Diego is home to a large contingent of the U.S. Navy, so you’ll get some great views of our naval ships during your visit. The USS Midway is open for tours.

Just down the road is Seaport Village, with shopping and restaurants on the waterfront.

You can also drive over the water to Coronado Island, home to the famed and haunted Hotel del Coronado.


Napa Valley

If you’re willing to take a side trip before you hit San Francisco, Napa Valley is a must-see. Famous for its wine, there are hundreds of wineries to choose from in Napa Valley.

Some of them are big names that you find in your local liquor store back home. Others are from smaller vintners that will happily help you ship the wine back to your hometown.


Oregon Coast

A good portion of the Oregon Coast is wildlife and nature. Take your time on the drive and enjoy the scenery. Bloggers Reckless Roaming and the Mandagies offer ideas of where to stop for the best photos and vistas.


North Bend

Heading north, you’ll arrive in North Bend. According to Travel Oregon, “North Bend is home to the towering 500-foot sand dunes of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, historic McCullough Memorial Bridge, beautiful Horsfall Beach and plenty of quaint shops, antique stores, and restaurants.”


Newport

The town of Newport is home to Oregon’s tallest lighthouse. Located in Yaquina Head, the view from the lighthouse offers you a great vantage point for migrating whales, harbor seals, and tide pools. Close by is Newport’s Historic Bayfront, filled with shopping and restaurants.

Much like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Oregon Coast Aquarium has several exhibits, including super cute sea otters. The Hatfield Marine Science Center, run by Oregon State University, features an even deeper dive into the Pacific Ocean sea life.


Portland

You’ll have to head inland to visit Portland, but it’s worth the side trip.

A visit to Washington Park should include a stop at the International Rose Test Garden, where the new varieties of roses are grown. Also inside, the Portland Japanese Garden with ponds filled with koi.

Afterward, head to Powell’s Books, where you’ll find more than a million books gracing the shelves.

A combination of art and history, the Portland Art Museum is the oldest museum in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1892, the museum has amassed a massive collection of art.

If you need a stop for the kids, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is a great choice. Filled with interactive exhibits, your kids will get a hands-on learning experience.


Astoria

Located on the border of Oregon and Washington, Astoria is home to the Astoria Column, which overlooks the mouth of the Columbia River.

Close by is Fort Stevens, a former military installation now a public campground. Fort Stevens was used between the Civil War and World War II to guard the mouth of the Columbia River.

Other highlights in Astoria include a ride on the Riverfront Trolley and the Lewis and Clark National and State Historic Parks, which mark the area that explorers Lewis and Clark ended their cross-country journey.


Aberdeen

In Aberdeen, pay tribute to rocker and former Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, at the Kurt Cobain Memorial Park.

If ships are more your thing, check out the Lady Washington tall ship. It’s a full-scale replica of the original Lady Washington, used during the Revolutionary War against the British.


Seattle

It’s a good thing that Seattle is at the start or the stop of your road trip because you’ll need more than a day to see all the sights.

Start the morning with a visit to Pike Place Market, where you can catch the famed fish toss and then grab breakfast.

Then take a walk by the famed Space Needle. Whether you go up to the top or not, it’s still worth the walk by.

Seattle is also home to some amazing museums. The Chihuly Garden and Glass is visually spectacular. At the same time, the Museum of Flight is an airplane buff’s dream. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center is free to visit and filled with captivating educational exhibits. There’s also the Museum of Pop Culture, the Pacific Science Center, the Living Computers: Museum + Lab, and the Museum of Science Fiction, to name a few.


Written by Erika Towne

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