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Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) at southern end of Big Sur, California
Photograph: Shutterstock

The ultimate Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Find oceanside amusement parks, historic missions and spectacular views at the best stops along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Written by
Garrick Ramirez
&
Sarah Medina
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California’s Pacific Coast Highway is road trip nirvana. Winding along the Golden State’s coast, the famously scenic route boasts some of the best places to visit in California, including inspiring vistas, fun diversions, and destination-worthy restaurants. From the sunny beaches of Southern California to a famous seaside coaster in Santa Cruz, you’ll find countless pit stops to fill your coastal itinerary. Plus, with mealtime options including waterfront lobster rolls and a steakhouse with dazzling pink interiors, there’s plenty to fill your belly as well as your Instagram feed. Listed in geographic order from south to north, here are the best stops along the P.C.H. 

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Best Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Treasure Island Beach Park

With palm tree-lined bluffs, golden sand, and azure waters, this dreamy waterfront park is the perfect place to start your road trip. Follow the blufftop path, which is dotted with pocket gardens and numerous lookouts that offer sweeping views of the shimmering Pacific. A walkway leads down to the shore where beachgoers sunbathe, swim, and explore craggy outcrops. Pack a picnic, or splurge for lunch at the tiny Montage Resort before you hop back in the car. 

Santa Monica Pier
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Matthew LeJune

Santa Monica Pier

This 1909 landmark offers timeless fun in the sun. Stroll its 1,080-foot expanse pausing to gaze at the sweeping views of the coastline, and nab a hand-scooped shake from Soda Jerks. You won’t want to miss lobster rolls at The Albright, mesmerizing sea jellies at the aquarium, and a whirl on the giant Ferris wheel that soars high above water. Just mind the traffic when posing for pics beneath the piers’s iconic arched, neon sign.

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Madonna Inn
Photograph: Shutterstock

Madonna Inn

The primary draw of the visually striking Madonna Inn is its 110 rooms outfitted with over-the-top themes such as the rock-filled cave man room and the frilly robin-egg-blue interiors of the romance suite. But there’s plenty for casual, daytime visitors, too. Pair meaty steaks with shockingly pink, tufted booths at the Gold Rush Steak House, dig into comfy diner fare at the Copper Cafe, or nab a sky-high slice of frosted cake for the road. 

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Moonstone Beach

Officially part of the Hearst San Simeon State Park, peaceful Moonstone Beach immerses visitors in the natural beauty of California’s central coast. A one-mile, wooden boardwalk ambles along a low, seaside bluff, skirting driftwood-lined sand and outcrops with yelping sea lions. Along the way, numerous staircases lead down to the shore for exceptional beachcombing. Go during the morning for quiet contemplation, or at sundown for brilliant, fiery skies.

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Hearst Castle
Photograph: Courtesy Visit SLO

Hearst Castle

Famously designed over the course of 28 years by the pioneering architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle—the sprawling estate of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst—drips with exquisite architecture and Hollywood lore. Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies threw infamously lavish bashes frequented by notable celebs and dignitaries including Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, and Joan Crawford. By the time the ailing Hearst left the property in 1947, his yet-unfinished Xanadu encompassed 165 rooms, numerous pools, and acres of gardens. 

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

It’s unfair to pick a favorite spot in the coastal paradise that is Big Sur, but if you only have time for one stop, make it Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the home of the famed McWay Falls. While other noteworthy Big Sur sites require a lengthy hike or drive, visitors can marvel at the spectacular coastal waterfall within minutes of stepping from their car (follow the 0.3-mile trail from the parking lot). Bonus points for exploring nearby Partington Cove, a two-mile drive north of McWay Falls, which overlooks the glimmering turquoise waters of a secluded beach cove.

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Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

You’ll want to clear your camera’s memory for the gobsmacking beauty awaiting you at the coastal Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Often referred to as the crown jewel of the California state park system, this series of rocky promontories is lined with trails that traverse an almost otherworldly coastal landscape with stirring vistas of the Monterey Bay. It’s hard to go wrong here—a captivating scene lies around every bend—but a favorite destination is the Bird Island Trail which skirts beach coves with resting seals and turquoise waters. If you have more time, check out the North Shore Trail which zigzags through tangled pine and cypress forests set high above the Pacific. 

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Monterey Bay Aquarium

Situated directly above bay waters, the Monterey Bay Aquarium protects one of the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems on the planet. You’ll enjoy intimate views of playful sea otters, feasting hammerhead sharks, and scores of sea creatures swimming about a giant kelp forest housed in one of the tallest aquariums in the world. The aquarium is also renowned for its ocean conservation efforts such as the pioneering Seafood Watch program which ensures diners food choices help foster healthy oceans.

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Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Opened along Santa Cruz’s seafront in 1907, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the state's oldest amusement park and still packs the fun in with nostalgic midway games, candied apples, and a mix of modern and vintage rides. The Giant Dipper, a legendary 1924 wooden coaster that’s designated as a National Historic Landmark, still elicits screams from its numerous twists and drops. You’ll also find mini golf, a sprawling arcade, and a seasonal lineup of free concerts and movies on the beach.

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Swanton Berry Farm

To find Swanton Berry Farm just look for the vintage yellow pick-up truck. The indoor farm stand is crammed with treats made from its organic fruit including pies, scones, shortcakes, cobblers, and lemonade, plus a self-serve tasting bar allows you to sample their extensive lineup of homemade jams. Pack a picnic to enjoy at one of the many picnic tables strewn inside and out, and remember to bring change for the honor system till.

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Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

It’s impossible to miss the Pigeon Point Light Station, a 116-foot beacon named for the Carrier Pigeon, one of the many ships that wrecked offshore before the lighthouse was constructed in 1872. You’ll discover more fascinating tales inside the former fog signal building, but you needn’t be a history buff to marvel at the striking coastal surroundings. Numerous walkways lead to dramatic overlooks perched above the churning Pacific, offering an exhilarating spot to snap a pic or spy migrating whales.

Sam's Chowder House

Head to Sam's to sample the things that made the coastal community of Half Moon Bay famous: fresh seafood and small independent farms. Set on the shores of Pillar Point Harbor—where visitors can still buy seafood direct from fisherman’s boats—the waterfront eatery dishes up New England staples such as lobster rolls and clam chowder in a dining room with sweeping vistas of the coastline. Outside, a heated patio and sprawling fire-pit warmed deck is the place to be at sunset.

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The Presidio

Before becoming a national park in 1994, The Presidio served as a military outpost for Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. Here, historic military structures house modern attractions such as the Walt Disney Family Museum set in former officers barracks and the House of Air trampoline park occupying a former airplane hangar. Don’t miss a stroll along waterfront Crissy Field which leads to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, or historic Lover’s Lane through a lush eucalyptus forest.

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