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

Guide to the ultimate Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Follow the ribbon of highway up the coast of California and see tons of great offbeat and traditional destinations

Written by
Sarah Medina
Garrick Ramirez
Erika Mailman

There’s a reason car commercials often feature California’s Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a beautiful, sinuous ribbon of highway that goes along the Pacific Ocean, sometimes on high cliffs that make you hold your breath. All along Highway One, you’ll find great places to stop and experience the things that make California so rad—like fresh seafood, coastal breezes, palm trees and the ever-noisy but charming sea lions. These stops are listed in geographic order, starting in SoCal and working your way north up the coast.

Note: As of this writing, Highway 1 is closed between Limekiln State Park and the north end of Paul’s Slide near the town of Lucia, with no predicted re-opening date. That’s thanks to winter storms that literally took out some of the roadway. However, coastal businesses remain open. This website lets you check conditions and learn the detours that will keep you moving.

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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 enjoy some of the best snorkeling around. 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 the water. Just mind the traffic when posing for pics beneath the pier’s iconic arched, neon sign.

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Sidecar Wine Tour

It’s hard to beat winetasting while you’re shuttled from winery to winery in a sidecar—especially if the sidecar holds you and another buddy! The Sidecar Tours company has the world’s first and only tandem sidecars. Your designated driver, wearing a vest and tie, will be knowledgeable about the wine region and will narrate what you see in the vine-covered hills—and even maybe drive between the vine rows. The experience lasts 2.5 hours and includes tastings at three wineries. Now you just have to find a dog with goggles!

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 caveman 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 the chance to see yelping sea lions, otters and maybe even whales and dolphins depending on the season. 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.

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. 

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Photograph: Courtesy Highway 1 Road Trip

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Want to see an elephant seal baby be born? Or watch an elephant seal fight? It’s all possible at this rookery, where you follow a flat, wheelchair-accessible path that overlooks the beach where the seals live. There are interpretive displays, docents to talk to, and, of course... bulbous, adorable sea friends who can be as large as 16 feet long and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. The rookery is just off Highway 1, seven miles north of San Simeon, with ample free parking. Although it’s free and open year-round, the best viewing times are late January, late April and late October.

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 80-foot-tall 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)—keep your eyes out for condors along the way. Note that there is no beach or ocean access from the top of the falls due to hazardous conditions that have caused deaths. The park is named for a pioneer woman rancher and is a different entity than the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Bonus points for exploring the nearby Partington Cove Trail, a two-mile drive north of McWay Falls, which overlooks the glimmering turquoise waters of a secluded beach cove.


Nepenthe restaurant

The veranda of this Big Sur restaurant is like the prow of a ship overlooking the Pacific—and turn your head to see the gorgeous Santa Lucia Mountain range. Sunsets here will make you stop your road trip and just...linger. It sits 808 feet above sea level and has great hippie lore associated with it, as well as its origin story of being built on the site of a love chalet for Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. There’s an excellent wine list, with neighbor-grown pinot noirs and the offerings of other family-owned local wineries. Grab an Ambrosiaburger and bliss out on the view.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

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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 Monterey Bay. Edward Weston and Ansel Adams spent years photographing the region. 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. And, as the name suggests, you may see many cormorants and other birds. 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 leopard sharks, and scores of sea creatures swimming about a giant kelp forest. The open sea exhibit is 35 feet tall and holds 1.2 million gallons. 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, look for the vintage yellow pickup 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.

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

It’s impossible to miss the Pigeon Point Light Station, a 115-foot beacon named for the Carrier Pigeon, one of the many ships that wrecked offshore before the lighthouse was constructed in 1872. The lighthouse itself has been closed since 2001 ($18m for renovation funding was approved in 2021), but the exterior is still photo-worthy, as is 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 army 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 on the historic Lovers' Lane Trail through a lush eucalyptus forest.

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