11 Stops to Make Along the Pacific Coast Highway

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One of the most famous and beloved highways in America, California State Route 1 runs along the coast, offering beautiful vistas of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding landscape. It meanders along the Golden State's coast for 655 miles, from its southern point in Dana Point (a 20-minute drive south of Laguna Beach) up to Leggett (a six-hour drive from San Francisco). From large oceanside metropolises to quintessential beach towns, the drive provides travelers with an array of worthwhile attractions -- suitable for both quick roadside iPhone snaps and week-long retreats. If you're thinking of taking this epic road trip, read on for the 11 stops you need to make along the Pacific Coast Highway.

1. San Diego

Sunset in La Jolla

Though San Diego isn’t actually along Highway 1, it makes an excellent starting off point for travelers driving up the coast. Plus, it’s jam-packed with stunning sights and family-friendly attractions. Famed Balboa Park alone has over a dozen museums and the San Diego Zoo; Coronado is a peninsula with a quaint town and beautiful beach; and the Gaslamp Quarter is the hip downtown area with quality restaurants and bars. After a day of exploring all that the sunny city has to offer, head a bit north to La Jolla, an upscale community with art galleries and cliffside Torrey Pines Golf Course.

Check out our full travel guide to San Diego.

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2. Los Angeles

You don’t have to be an actor or movie buff to enjoy Los Angeles. In addition to year-round lovely weather, the City of Angels offers Disneyland and the Hollywood Walk of Fame for kiddos, surfing at Santa Monica Beach, skateboarding and top-notch people-watching along the Venice Beach Boardwalk, and high-end shopping on Rodeo Drive. That barely scratches the surface of how to spend time in L.A., so grab a green juice and burrito and get to sightseeing. 

Check out our full travel guide to Los Angeles.

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3. Santa Barbara

After experiencing the highly populated L.A., you’ll want to head to the lovely seaside town of Santa Barbara, which has a population of just around 90,000. Though small, it offers a surprising amount of things to do amid charming Mission-style architecture (a local ordinance requires all commercial construction to follow this design). Set between the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains, the city has great hiking trails, world-famous wineries, the historic Stearns Wharf pier, and a main street lined with boutiques and tasty eateries. 

Check out our full travel guide to Santa Barbara.

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4. Solvang

Located a 45-minute drive from Santa Barbara, Solvang is a small Danish town with a population of around 6,000. Aside from walking the streets dotted with adorable Danish architecture, travelers can tour the Old Mission Santa Ines that was founded in 1804, get a picture in front of the windmill at Hans Christian Andersen Park, sample the region’s wines at the numerous vino tasting rooms, and of course, eat delectable Danish pastries. The town also has a Danish celebration in September and Christmas celebration in December. For a weekend getaway, consider the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, which is situated a five-minute drive outside town. The family-friendly spot is set on a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch.

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5. San Simeon

Want to spot wildlife without having to go to a zoo? Head to Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon, where a beachfront boardwalk allows visitors to get a good look at the pretty sea creatures for miles. While they can be spotted year-round, the peak times are in late January, early May, and late October. Entrance is free and there are several hotels nearby for those that want to extend their time. 

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6. Big Sur

Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur/Oyster

Easily one of the most breathtaking sections of the Pacific Coast Highway is the stretch through Big Sur. Jagged oceanside cliffs on one side and rolling hills, plus redwood forests, on the other make for stunning panoramic vistas. It’s also suitable for both the relax-minded and active vacationer. Ample hiking, biking, and horseback riding paths can burn some calories, while the numerous hot springs, spas, and retreat centers offer a zen, spiritual getaway. If it’s in the budget, consider booking a stay at Esalen Institute. Speaking from experience, it doesn’t get much better than watching whales, dolphins, and otters from a cliffside natural hot spring.

Check out our full travel guide to Big Sur.

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7. Carmel

Another Monterey County town, Carmel (officially Carmel-by-the-Sea) offers a lot of the same beauty as Big Sur, as well as a quaint town center with an artsy reputation. This pedestrian-friendly city has tons of art galleries, a restaurant owned by Clint Eastwood (who once served as mayor for the town), and lots of cute bed-and-breakfasts that make it a particularly enticing pit stop for couples. Additionally, the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links is about a quick 15-minute drive away. 

Check out our full travel guide to Carmel.

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8. Santa Cruz

About an hour’s drive north past Monterey Bay sits Santa Cruz, the embodiment of a laid-back surf town. After all, legend has it that this is where surfing was first brought to the mainland from Hawaii in 1885. While you’ll see lots of young hippies browsing the vintage clothing stores and eating vegan fare, there are also tons of families with kids taking advantage of the amusement park along the beach. Grab a corn dog and some saltwater taffy and have some old-fashioned fun on the Ferris wheel, swings, and roller coaster. Well, maybe not in that order. 

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9. Half Moon Bay

Golfers, especially, will be drawn to Half Moon Bay for its cliffside course that provides 36 oceanfront holes. However, that’s not all the city has going for it. Several beaches, hiking trails, fine-dining eateries, and charming shops along Main Street can also be found here. While The Ritz-Carlton offers a seriously luxe stay, Cypress Inn on Miramar Beach is a romantic oceanside pick for around one-fourth of the price.

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10. San Francisco

A quick 45-minute drive north of Half Moon Bay, and a likely must-stop destination on your road trip, is San Francisco. Though the city can be freezing, extremely foggy, and expensive, there’s a reason people keep visiting. Notable sites — Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts, and Fisherman’s Wharf — an array of cultural activities like the opera and art museums, and thriving gay scene are just a few of its tempting features. Add in its mix of bay and ocean, plus a hilly landscape, for a truly gorgeous city from multiple vantage points. 

Check out our full travel guide to San Francisco.

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11. Mendocino

You’re nearing the end of Highway 1, but there’s still one more stop to make and celebrate your journey: Mendocino. A four-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco, Mendocino is an unincorporated community that had a population around 900 in 2010. The tiny town is a Historical Landmark and largely popular for spa or writer’s retreats and wine tours. Travelers more interested in spending time outdoors can keep busy with the stunning Glass Beach, Point Arena Lighthouse, horseback riding along the beach, local artist shops, and surrounding redwood forest. Check out the Sea Rock Inn, which made our list of the Best Oceanfront Hotels in California and Most Romantic Resorts in California

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