Tell me that you haven’t imagined yourself, at least once, driving a red, convertible Mustang (or any other sports car with many horsepower), with your hair in the wind, feeling the breeze of the Pacific Ocean, and enjoying the stunning scenery, as seen from any angle, where the powerful waters strike the rocks of the Californian coast, and then they retreat to the sea, cus’ I won’t believe you.
No matter how idealistic it sounds, this is the correct description of a dream road trip on the most scenic route in the United States, the Pacific Coast Highway, a road trip that I made in 2015 and still occupying a leading position in my travels.
I’m telling you from now, the direction I chose was from north to south, meaning San Francisco – San Diego. Hence, I chose this way because I didn’t want to have the ocean view obstructed by other cars in the opposite direction. So, I advise you to follow the same route.
The construction of the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as California State Route 1, begun in 1935, and was completed 15 years later. It stretches over 1055 km or 655 miles, and tourists consider it as one of the most picturesque in North America, and even in the world.
The mountains, the charming coastal towns, the valleys, the cliffs, the beaches, and the vineyards, make up a wonderful landscape, which we have the opportunity to admire in all its splendor, driving on the famous highway that crosses it. Given these points, It’s probably the most relevant experience to really understand the expression “California dreamin”.
Top 15 places to stop along the Pacific Coast Highway
Because it’s possible to be so overwhelmed by the beauties seen along the way, that you won’t know where to stop in order to immortalize the view, I’ll help you with a list of the most beautiful and compelling stops on the Pacific Coast Highway. I have inspired myself from my own experience, and I assure you that each of these points is worth seeing and appreciating.
The starting point is “The City by the Bay“, “The Paris of the West” or “Fog City“. You guessed I’m referring to the gorgeous San Francisco, and its over 50 hills. Because it is permanently prone to earthquakes, due to its location on the San Andreas Fault, the city is not built on height so it doesn’t abound of skyscrapers, like the other American metropolises, the tallest buildings not even reaching 300 meters high. Still, San Francisco has so much to offer.
I highly recommend crossing the famous Golden Gate Bridge, taking on foot Union Square, driving down the most crooked street in the world, Lombard Street, admiring the beautiful pastel-colored Victorian Painted Ladies, enjoying an ice cream in Fisherman’s Wharf, and admiring the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest building in the city until 2016, when it was surpassed by the Salesforce Tower. Moreover, if you’re the kind of traveler who feels he hasn’t seen a city until he has looked at it from above, then hike on one of these two hills: Twin Peaks or Telegraph, for a 360-degree panorama.
2. Montara Beach
30 minutes later and you reached Montara Beach, located about 8 miles from the much more famous Half Moon Bay. Montara Beach is special due to the fact that it is one of the cleanest beaches in America, a perfect place for walking, picnic or admiring the most beautiful sunsets.
3. Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Pigeon Point is not a regular lighthouse, but a very old one, built in 1871 to guide ships on the West Coast. Moreover, it is even the tallest lighthouse on the western side of America, reaching 35 meters. It’s no longer functioning but it’s on the list of the National Register of Historic Places. Surprisingly and extremely interesting, the buildings around it, where employees used to live, are now hostels.
4. Santa Cruz
If we were to make a top of the three most beautiful cities on the West Coast, Santa Cruz would, without a doubt, be one of them. Besides being a very chic town, with tons of restaurants where you can enjoy tasty food, and all the places with a dream view of the Pacific, this small town is also home of the University of California, whose campus I very much enjoyed visiting.
Not to mention that Santa Cruz will also surprise you with a fun park set right on the oceanfront, one of the nicest in the country, where you have the chance to feel the adrenaline, riding one of the oldest wooden rollercoasters, dating from almost 100 years ago. The conclusion is obvious, but I feel the need to put it into words: don’t skip Santa Cruz!
5. Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey
I included both at the same point because they are just 10 minutes away from each other. Physical proximity is not the only thing they have in common, as Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey are both coastal towns with chic homes, dream panoramas, and awesome golf courses. If time doesn’t press on you, go to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a very beautiful place with lots of hiking trails.
6. Bixby Bridge
Once here, you will have a feeling of déjà vu, inevitable. It is impossible not to have seen photos on Instagram or Pinterest, with this specially designed bridge, which automatically propelled it to the list of the most photographed places in the state. The reinforced concrete construction was completed in 1932, it has a total length of 218 m, and a height of 85, and is crossed daily by over 4500 cars, according to the latest statistics. However, I recommend you stop before and after you cross it to capture it in pictures of both hypostases.
7. Big Sur
The highlight of the route is Big Sur, and that’s not because you have reached the middle of the road trip because it’s not the case, but because the landscapes here will cut your breath. Along the 85 miles, you’ll have the temptation to stop in every place, that stunning the views of the coastline will be. Although some time ago, just before the highway was built, Big Sur was an almost an unpopulated place where even the electricity was missing, today it is being assaulted by tourists who come here for hiking, camping, climbing or walking, boat riding and kayaking.
8. McWay Falls
A mini waterfall that has its fall straight into the ocean, rocks covered with musk, glowing turquoise waters, a charming and hardly accessible beach that looks untouched, surrounded by cliffs and lawns with pastel pink flowers, that’s McWay Falls, my absolute favorite spot on the Pacific Coast, a splendid panorama that gives me the feeling of being on an exotic island. The waterfall, located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, can be admired by taking a short trail through the forest. Do not even think about crossing the Pacific Coast Highway, without spending a few hours on this fairytale land.
9. The elephant seals in Point Piedras Blancas
The cute animals were first seen here, on the beach, in 1990. Initially, it was a small number colony, but in the meantime, it has expanded so much that the colony now has 15,000 members. The sea elephants come here to relax on the beach, make voices, socialize, carry out their mating rituals and cool, by throwing sand on their backs with the help of their flippers. Though they smell quite unpleasant and are extremely noisy, these fascinating animals deserve to be seen in their natural habitat.
10. Santa Barbara
The American Riviera has become famous for its wide beaches, relaxing atmospheres, but especially for the colonial Spanish-style houses with red-tiled roofs. It’s easy to recognize Santa Barbara for its large number of vineyards outside the city, but also for the places in the city where wine can be tasted.
11. Santa Monica
You have already reached the 3rd “Santa”, the one in which you find the end of the famous and historic Route 66, the one that’s now 100 years old, and on which you can entertain yourself in old-school style, in one of the most beautiful amusement parks in the country, set right on the pier. All in all, Santa Monica is the perfect place to look at people and sunsets 🙂
12. Los Angeles
The epicenter of the fashionable world of America, point 0 of the cinema and music industry, whose protagonists live in the luxury residences in Beverly Hills. Therefore, Los Angeles could not be properly described in just a sentence, but you can find out more in the article dedicated to the City Angels, where I proposed a 3-day itinerary.
13. Seal Beach
Probably the only optional destination on the Pacific Coast Highway, considering the subjectivity that made me propose it to you. Seal Beach is intimately linked to my childhood memories, in the light of the fact that here was filmed the series I watched every day, 20 years ago. It’s about Sunset Beach, and there are chances you had been a fan of this American drama, as well.
In this case, I suggest you visit Seal Beach, not only for the sake of memories but also for its beauty, for the very large white sandy beach, for ocean-facing terraced houses, for the second-largest wooden pier in the country, but also for the tallest palms I have ever seen.
14. Laguna Beach
I’ve praised and praised the beaches in California, but this time I’ve got to the most beautiful, from my point of view. Laguna Beach, located somewhere halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, is a 7-mile long beach with bays, cliffs, azure waves, parks, and lots of vegetation that offers many activities for nature lovers and art devotees.
15. San Diego
San Diego is not just another Californian city. It is the second-largest in the state and the eighth in the country. Moreover, its position at the border with Mexico makes it really special, bringing influences on culture, lifestyle, and cuisine. So, for tamales, enchiladas, tortillas, and guacamole, it’s no longer necessary to cross the border.
San Diego has beaches, museums, parks, and gardens, but also a great asset, friendly weather all year round. If you get here, you have to cross the bridge and go to Coronado Island, where you will have an ideal view of the city’s skyline.