California is home to some of the most spectacular coastline and some of the best coastal attractions in the world. Even if you spent months driving up and down the coast, you’d barely scratch the surface. To help you decide what destinations to prioritize on your next road trip down California State Route 1 (SR 1), also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), we’ve listed nine must-see spots from north to south.
1. Point Reyes National Seashore
Right off the PCH, Point Reyes National Seashore is 30 miles north of San Francisco.
Although Point Reyes is one of the foggiest areas on the coast, it’s captivatingly beautiful. Each season at Point Reyes brings something different. Watch humpback whales migrate in the winter, see wildflowers bloom in the spring, or hike in the mild weather of the fall.
Additionally, consider a visit to the Point Reyes Headlands to drink in panoramic views of the ocean. Not only will you see the Point Reyes Lighthouse, but you’ll also see the wildlife in their natural habitat. The lighthouse, decommissioned in 1975, houses a maritime museum that covers the history of the lighthouse, the area, and the many shipwrecks that occurred off the coast.
Other notable stops include the Cypress Tree Tunnel, South Beach Overlook, and Alamere Falls. You won’t regret spending part of your day exploring all the 70,000 acres of Point Reyes National Seashore have to offer.
2. San Francisco
Inevitably, your PCH road trip will bring you through San Francisco. You’ll cross the Golden Gate Bridge into the iconic City by the Bay, which is worth a stop of at least three or four days.
Packed into only 7 square miles, San Francisco has something new to explore on every block. On your first day in town, head to the more than 1,000 acres of green space at Golden Gate Park. Stop to smell the roses -- literally -- at the Conservatory of Flowers, walk on the living roof at the California Academy of Sciences, and hop across the Music Concourse (at which you might experience a musical performance, if you’re lucky) to explore art collections in the edgy M. H. de Young Memorial Museum building.
After reveling in classical art in the Legion of Honor’s French neoclassical building, walk down a nearby path for sweeping views of the bay with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Then head down to Ocean Beach and stop at the seaside Cliff House for an incredible meal. Finally, meander through the various piers, making sure to stop at Pier 39 to grab a bread bowl of clam chowder and watch the sea lions lounge on the docks.
Spend another evening experiencing San Francisco’s symphony, ballet, or opera, or catch a baseball game at the home of the San Francisco Giants, eight-time World Series champs.
Although there are many enchanting coastal towns on the PCH, Carmel-By-The-Sea is exceptionally charming. It’s a quaint village known for its art galleries and fairy-tale-like cottages. Take the Ocean Avenue exit and travel 1 mile into downtown Carmel. Must-see galleries include Gallery-by-the-Sea Carmel, Dawson Cole Fine Art, Scott Jacobs Gallery, and Steven Whyte Sculpture Studio & Gallery.
Carmel Beach is conveniently located at the end of Ocean Avenue. If you’re a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, you can walk to the south end of the beach to see a privately owned home designed by the architect. Although most days you can only enjoy the exterior, the home is open one day each year in June. Another remarkable structure in the town is the Carmel Mission Basilica. Built in 1777 in a mixture of Spanish and Moorish architectural styles, the stone church is still used for Catholic worship. There are also exhibits about the architecture, history, and influence of the mission.
After a day in Carmel, you’ll understand why the town is a magnet for artists, writers, and photographers. If you have more than one day, spend the second day hiking, bird-watching, and observing the sea lions at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. You might even watch the sun set on the horizon and think about moving out to California to live in a cottage by the sea.
4. Big Sur
An hour south of Carmel-By-The-Sea, the PCH cuts Big Sur in half. Known for its indescribable cliffs and wildlife areas, it’s one of the hot spots along SR 1.
Before arriving in Big Sur, you’ll drive over Bixby Bridge. Pull over to the side of the road to take in its unique architecture and stunning backdrop.
Probably the most well-known spot in Big Sur is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Its most iconic attraction is the Waterfall Overlook Trail with views of the 80-foot-tall McWay Falls. In the winter, this trail also offers great spots to watch whales migrate along the coast. Consider staying two or three nights at the Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground and exploring Sand Dollar Beach, Pfeiffer Beach, Point Sur Lighthouse, and the area’s other attractions.
5. San Luis Obispo
Continue down the PCH until you reach San Luis Obispo. It’s best known for being the home of California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), but there’s much more to this Central Coast town.
Near the attractive downtown area is a unique Bubblegum Alley. It features, as you might have guessed, walls covered in different colors of chewed bubblegum. You can find this sticky gem between 733 and 737 Higuera Street. Additionally, you can see a well-preserved 1772 Spanish mission built in a distinctive L-shape. It’s the only mission of its kind in California. For more incredible man-made wonders, visit the Madonna Inn with its 110 hotel rooms, each outfitted according to a different theme.
Close to San Luis Obispo are some great hiking trails and the Irish Hills Natural Reserve, Bishop Peak, and Nine Sisters. Cool off in the afternoon with fruity white wines at the nearby tasting rooms.
Nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley (which is also known for great wine tasting) is an adorable town that looks like it’s been teleported straight from Denmark.
About a 15-minute drive inland from the PCH, Solvang’s Danish architecture is the most stunning feature of this little town. With its five windmills, Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, and Hans Christian Andersen Park, you’ll think you’re in Europe! After learning about Danish-American history, be sure to explore the arts-and-crafts stores while spoiling yourself with aebleskivers, or sugary pancake-like treats.
7. Santa Barbara
You won’t miss sunny Santa Barbara, with its three exits off the PCH. The first order of business? Take advantage of the water activities. Boat tours in search of dolphins and whales frequently head out of the Santa Barbara Harbor and are a great way to learn more about the wildlife inhabiting the Pacific Ocean. More adventurous visitors can rent a kayak or paddleboard and explore the gorgeous coastline independently.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, head to State Street. This main road runs through downtown Santa Barbara and ends at a beach coastal walk. Trendy, clean, and lined with palm trees, State Street is home to stylish boutiques and outdoor patios perfect for enjoying scrumptious seafood dishes. After dinner, head to Stearns Wharf to enjoy a golden sunset in the Golden State.
8. Santa Monica
Known for its golden beach, organic green smoothies, and high-impact yoga studios, Santa Monica is a haven for hippies and tourists alike. Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian-only outdoor mall, is one of the main attractions in the busy coastal city of 92,000. It features the latest restaurants, beloved name-brand storefronts, and a host of outdoor performers.
Just two blocks from Santa Monica Beach, the Santa Monica Pier is a must-stop on your road trip. Taking a ride on the iconic -- although somewhat questionable -- Ferris wheel is a great way to see the beach and surrounding area from above. Walk along the wooden planks of the pier, enjoying the soft breeze, neon signs, and musical performances. Santa Monica is, after all, neighbor to the music hub of Los Angeles. To finish off the evening, sip a cocktail at The Bungalow, where you may rub elbows with a celebrity!
9. San Diego
Although technically the PCH ends in Dana Point about an hour north of San Diego, locals consider the coastal Interstate 5 part of the route. This puts San Diego on our list of must-stop spots.
San Diego’s idyllic weather (266 sunny days per year!) makes the city the perfect place to surf, lounge on the beach, and sip craft beer from the local breweries. It’s been a long drive, so take a load off with a cold one at Stone Brewing, Ballast Point, or Coronado Brewing Company.
Enjoy a lazy morning walking alongside the shoreline at Ocean Beach, or take in classic San Diego views at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Equally as nice, take a day to explore Balboa Park, home to the San Diego Zoo, the Spanish Village Art Center, the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Natural History Museum, and much more. Just 5 minutes down the road is the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter; grab brunch at Barleymash, Italian pizza for dinner at Biga, and late-night drinks at Vin de Syrah.