From the wild coastline of Northern California to Malibu beaches lined by celebrity homes, a drive along California’s iconic Highway 1 is one for the bucket list.
Take a few days to savor this legendary road trip, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Head south from San Francisco on twisting coastal roads and stop at some of the state’s most unforgettable destinations, like world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium literally hanging over sparkling Monterey Bay, and Hearst Castle, the hilltop estate of legendary business magnate William Randolph Hearst. There’s natural splendor tracing the cliffs of Big Sur, where roadside turnouts might afford not just a beautiful photo, but spouting gray whales migrating between Alaska and Mexico. Picture-perfect coastal communities beckon throughout—from artsy Carmel-by-the-Sea and its storybook cottages to the “American Riviera” of Santa Barbara with its Mediterranean architecture and lavish gardens.
San Francisco to Santa Cruz: Redwoods, wine-country, and roller coasters Less than an hour from San Francisco, just off the highway along the San Mateo coast, relax on beaches hidden within rocky coves, or hike on trails with gorgeous views of waves surging into offshore boulders.
Just north of the Santa Cruz County line, Highway 1 reaches Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve, one of California’s most remarkable wildlife areas. It’s home to northern elephant seals, which are aptly named for their mass (males can weigh 6,000 pounds/2,722 kilograms — as much as a sport utility vehicle) and trunk-like noses. Northern elephant seals nearly went extinct but a hunting ban helped their population recover. Isolated California locations like Año Nuevo provided sanctuary, and now their numbers have grown to 160,000. (You can also see elephant seals north of Hearst Castle at Piedras Blancas in San Luis Obispo County.)
About 20 miles /32 kilometers past Año Nuevo, Highway 1 reaches Santa Cruz. Thanks to the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (home to the Giant Dipper, a vintage wooden roller coaster), the city has been a seaside escape for Californians for more than a century. Santa Cruz also serves as a gateway to state parks where fog-shrouded redwoods grow to 300 feet/91 meters. It’s also a thriving wine region celebrated for pinot noir and chardonnay. And despite its chilly waters (averaging about 57°F/14°C year-round), the coast here is internationally renowned for surfing—particularly big wave surfing at world-famous breaks like Mavericks. Learn about local history at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, then watch surfers in action at Steamer Lane.
Monterey to Big Sur: Fishing history, a stellar aquarium, and amazing coastal splendor
Highway 1 follows the sweep of Monterey Bay until it reaches California’s original capital city, Monterey. The city is filled with reminders of California’s Spanish and Mexican eras, most notably at Monterey State Historic Park, which preserves more than 400 years of history.
Nearby Cannery Row blends tourist attractions, including an IMAX theater, with remnants of the 1900s sardine industry made famous by novelist John Steinbeck. Located on the site of Cannery Row’s last processing plant rises the must-see Monterey Bay Aquarium, which uses extraordinary exhibits and massive tanks filled with sea life to literally take you beneath the waves and into Monterey Bay’s rich and diverse marine world.
From the aquarium, continue south along the coast past pretty and wild Asilomar State Beach to the start of the famous 17-Mile Drive, which winds past oceanfront estates and Pebble Beach’s legendary golf courses. Head into the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea to browse shops and galleries (the town has long been an artists’ haven), and visit the elegant Mission San Carlos de Borromeo, dedicated in 1770 and one of 21 missions built along the California coast by Spanish padres.
Beyond Carmel, the coast takes on a wilder character. First, there’s Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, lauded as “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world,” with granite coves where harbor seals and sea otters find shelter from the pounding surf, and Monterey cypress trees—so rare they only grow in one other place on Earth— cut handsome silhouettes against the sky.
South from here, things get even wilder. Sweeping views take in the roiling ocean as massive fog banks (thickest in summer) veil the mountains. State park trails let you escape into cathedral-like redwood groves, where waterfalls plunge into fern-lined grottoes or, at 70-foot/21-meter McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, off cliffs to the beach below.
Hearst Castle to Santa Barbara and Malibu: Opulent splendor to movie-star dazzle
After 30 miles/48 kilometers of Big Sur’s serpentine twists, Highway 1 flattens out across the ranchlands of San Luis Obispo County. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst once owned much of this land and chose a commanding promontory for his dream estate, La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill). Just about everyone knows it as Hearst Castle, and, by any name, it’s the grandest home ever built in the U.S. Tours lead through formal gardens and into 165 rooms filled with an eclectic mix of priceless art and antiquities.
Past Hearst Castle, Highway 1 rolls past broad beaches and Morro Rock, the 600-foot/183-meter-tall volcanic outcrop dubbed “the Gibraltar of the Pacific.” By this point, you may have realized that there isn’t one California coast but many. The mood keeps changing, from Pismo Beach’s landmark pier and vintage beach town atmosphere to the otherworldly beauty of towering sand dunes (the West Coast’s highest) at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes.
Highway 1 twists inland here to reveal more classic California. At Lompoc, visit another restored mission at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park and its 2,000 acres of parkland. Or taste outstanding pinot noirs in the nearby Sta. Rita Hills wine region.
Then, after winding through oak-studded hills, the highway drops through Gaviota Pass and swings back to the coast. With the Channel Islands hovering in the mists 25 miles offshore, you soon reach Santa Barbara. Here, breezes rustle palm trees and an almost tropical light washes over the city’s white walls, red-tiled roofs, and bougainvillea-cloaked paseos. But for all of its regal Mediterranean atmosphere, the good life—Southern California-style—plays out along Santa Barbara’s oceanfront, as kayakers and stand-up paddle-boarders glide along beaches where volleyball players battle to the very last point.
From Santa Barbara, it’s only 90 miles/145 kilometers more Los Angeles. But what a 90 miles! There are the antique stores and cafes of Ventura’s restored downtown, and trails into the canyons and wildflower-filled meadows of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area near Malibu. Oh, and Malibu Beach? Watch closely: you really can see movie stars splashing in the surf.