12 scenic stops on the Pacific Coast Highway
We all love a good road trip don’t we? It’s a great way to travel, to see a number of different places in one trip, building your own itinerary and taking everything at your own pace.
A country as vast and varied as the USA is made for road trips, and no more so than than the State of California. California has everything. It has huge cities, amazing beaches and coastline, mountains ranges, deserts, ski resorts, wineries and so much more to offer. I don’t think I have ever visited California without renting a car and getting out onto the open road. It’s wonderful. Well, the freeways of Los Angeles completely rammed with traffic are not wonderful, but put that aside and it is wonderful.
One of the ultimate road trip destinations has to be the Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway One, which spans 600 miles of the California coastline from San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north. We’ve driven sections of this coastline twice, between LA and San Francisco. The first time, we (I) had it all planned out. We were heading out of LA and were going to make the journey over three days, with a couple of overnight stops so that we could take our time. We hired a convertible Mustang (well, why the hell wouldn’t you?!) and got excited for our scenic trip heading north.
Here’s the thing.
When you drive the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible Mustang, it’s blustery! Blustery, loud, and a little bit chilly! We spent most of the journey with the roof up and the air con switched on. That was Fail #1. Yes, sadly there was more than one fail. Fail #2 was that my hours and hours of research didn’t really make me question the fact that most of the stunning coastal scenery was best viewed facing south. When you are heading north, driving on the right hand side, nestled into the cliff edges, all of the parking lots and scenic vantage points are on the other side of the road – a winding and twisting road. Sometimes it was a case of ‘close your eyes, put your foot down and hope for the best’ to get in and out of them! Oops, my bad.
So six years later, we chose to drive the Pacific Coast Highway again, but this time heading north to south. Imagine my surprise when the stunning scenery for most parts of the drive was a) in our line of sight, and b) accessible without risking our lives crossing the busy highway to get to the parking lots.
So, this is my big tip to you all:
Drive the Pacific Coast Highway from North to South
I tell you what though, the scenery IS breathtaking. There are quaint towns and villages along the way, dramatic cliff side winding roads overlooking the Pacific Ocean, noisy seals, beach waterfalls and a whole load of other things to see along the way. So let’s take a look at 12 scenic stops on the Pacific Coast Highway that I would recommend between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
1. Wander around Half Moon Bay
Thirty miles south of San Francisco, the small town of Half Moon Bay is a quaint and pretty place centred around Main Street, which is packed full of lovely bakeries, cafes, restaurants and boutique stores. We had lovely coffee and cake at Moonside Bakery & Cafe. It’s a charming little town that should definitely be on the list of stopping points along this stretch of coastline. We visited twice, and the second time decided to splash out on a night at the most fancy hotel I have ever stayed – the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay. I was sold by the headland cliff top location (you could be mistaken for thinking you were on the Scottish Highlands coast), the nautical feel and beautiful ocean views from the room, as well as a bit of luxury to end that particular trip. The location was a photographers dream, and it would have been even better had thick fog not blanketed the area for most of our visit! Typical. Needless to say, despite finding the experience of staying in a high end hotel quite daunting at first, I grew to enjoy and savour it. The rooms were beautiful, we had a delicious meal in the Navio restaurant and spent some time exploring the hotel grounds which had trails around the headland, the beach and the adjacent golf course. I have to say the hotel views at night, in the midst of the fog with a light beacon out to ocean made the murky weather worthwhile.
2. Visit the attractions of Monterey
Ninety miles south of Half Moon Bay lies Monterey – a coastal city that is vibrant with a host of attractions for visitors. Much like the larger city of San Francisco, it has it’s own historic Fisherman’s Wharf area packed full of tourist shops and seafood restaurants. Cannery Row, nearby is another waterfront area full of restaurants and stores, set in the buildings of the now defunct sardine canning factories. The main attraction in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium – a non profit public aquarium with a heavy focus on conservation of the ocean. If you choose to visit the city in September, look out for the world famous Monterey Jazz Festival which takes place annually.
3. Soak up the atmosphere of Carmel-by-the-Sea
Carmel-by-the-Sea is one place I would love to spend some time exploring properly. A mere four miles across the headland from Monterey, it feels like a different world. It’s quaint, quirky, laid back and full of arty types. It also has the most beautiful white sand beach. We literally stopped by for an hour or so, damn me and my packed itineraries, but it seemed like a great place for a getaway for a few days. If you like golf, it’s home of the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course, and the scenic 17 Mile Drive around the headland looks beautiful.
South of Carmel, we head towards the section of coast that, in all honesty, most people choose to drive the Pacific Coast Highway for – Big Sur. There is no specific boundary for the Big Sur coastline, but it’s generally considered to be between Carmel and San Simeon – approximately 70 miles in length. It’s a mostly undeveloped and rugged stretch of coastline, give or take a few service areas and luxury retreats, but the landscape is full of drama. Highway One snakes along the side of the cliff edges offering fabulous views of the coastline and the waves crashing onto the rocks below. Awesome is a great word to describe this area.
4. Don’t miss Bixby Bridge!
If you have ever done some research on the Big Sur coastline, you’ll probably have seen a photo of Bixby Bridge. It’s located fifteen miles south of Carmel. A beautiful piece of architecture, the concrete arched bridge sits high above the Bixby Creek. For a guy who does a lot of research, you’ll be waiting for that travel-magazine-perfect image that I can show off? Well, guess what. I only went and bloody missed it. Twice! Heading north on the first trip, it suddenly appeared, we drove over it and that was that. The second time, heading south I knew that we needed to look for the Castle Rock Viewpoint – that’s where you get the perfect shot, you see. Castle Rock Viewpoint was crowded. We didn’t stop. We drove over the bridge and missed it again! Next time Bixby Bridge, next time! We did stop further along at the Hurricane Point viewing area and got this fantastic image of the bridge. Can you spot it?
5. Look out for Point Sur
As you head south from Bixby Bridge, about six miles further along keep an eye out for a rocky headland rising from the ocean. This is Point Sur, part of the Point Sur State Park and home to the Point Sur Lighthouse. The lighthouse is open for walking tours to limited numbers on Wednesdays and the weekend, so it’s definitely worth booking ahead if you want to visit. There are also moonlight tours available which I imagine would be pretty cool!
6. Have a lunch break at Nepenthe
Taking in all of the scenery of Big Sur and the Santa Lucia mountains doesn’t half build up an appetite, so there is nowhere better to stop on this stretch of coast than Nepenthe. Eleven miles south of Point Sur, and perched about 800 feet above the coast, this is certainly a perfect spot to grab a drink and/or a quick meal while savouring the view from the outdoor terrace. Consisting of the Nepenthe Restaurant, Cafe Kevah and the Phoenix Shop, this bohemian property is full of quirky little details and a relaxed, casual vibe.
7. Take a simple hike to McWay Falls
What’s better after a little rest and some food. A walk, that’s what. Travelling eight miles south of Nepenthe, you enter the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This is a must stop section of the Pacific Coast Highway, and one of my favourite photography spots of the whole journey. It’s only a small park, with beautiful redwood forests on the mountain side, but the main event here is McWay Falls. An 80 foot waterfall that cascades down onto a golden sandy beach, and a beach closed off to all those pesky humans that are going to try and ruin your shots.
It must have taken ages to think up the catchy name of Waterfall Overlook Trail, but this is the aptly named half mile trail that takes you from the parking lot, under the highway to an overlook, which overlooks the waterfall. Superb! I may joke, but in all honestly, this view is stunning. The golden sand, the clear turquoise waters, the rocky outcrops and the waterfall cascading over the cliff face onto the sand is just perfect.
8. Don’t miss Big Creek Bridge (especially if you missed Bixby Bridge)
If you are heading south and you missed Bixby Bridge like we did, don’t worry, because if you are a huge bridge fan then Big Creek Bridge is even bigger and better. Is it as photogenic? Well, maybe not, but we are working with what we have here.
Only seven miles south of the McWay Falls stop, you will cross the double arched bridge that spans the Big Creek Canyon. A little further down the road, you can stop at the Big Creek Cove Vista Point for great views of the bridge and the cove. I should stress that there are lots of these vista points along the Big Sur coastline, which is really useful, especially for the driver to be able to spend some time admiring the scenery.
9. Grab your camera at Ragged Point
Okay, we are getting to the southern end of Big Sur now, so for one of the last opportunities to grab those classic Big Sur coastal shots, make sure you stop at Ragged Point, which is located about thirty miles south of Big Creek Bridge.
We stopped at Ragged Point on both of our Pacific Coast Highway journeys, so heading north this is one of the first spots where you can get out of your car, have a walk around, sample those amazing views, and hear the waves crashing on the rocks below while taking in that fresh coastal air. The complex features a hotel – the Ragged Point Inn, a restaurant, cafe, gift shop and gas station, all situated within beautiful grounds with spectacular views of the coastline (I’m totally staying here next time we visit). The problem with only having brief stops at these places, is that as much as it gives you a taster, you really really don’t get to experience the place. I’d like to see how the colours of the landscape change during sunrise and sunset, and it seems to me that this would be a great place to sit out at different times of the day. Incidentally, for both of our Pacific Coast Highway journeys the weather was lovely, but the conditions were hazy with the coastal mist and fog – something which is generally quite common I believe.
Anyway, the image below shows you the views that are on offer in this beautiful place.
10. Elephant Seal Vista Point
Waving goodbye to where the Santa Lucia mountains meet the ocean, heading south from Ragged Point marks the end of the journey along the Big Sur Coastline, but don’t worry, there is still plenty to see before the end of this journey down to Los Angeles. Next up it’s seals!
Driving down from the cliff edges towards the lower lying stretches of this road, ten miles south of Ragged Point and just north of San Simeon we arrive at the Piedras Blancas State Marine Conservation Area – a protected area of the coastline. This area is home to a six mile stretch of beach that makes up the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, a location where the northern elephant seals migrate to year on year. The viewing areas are open every day, there is no fee to visit and are wheelchair accessible.
November to March is the main season when the seals arrive back at the beaches here – they estimate an average of 18,000 elephant seals to reclaim this six mile stretch of beach – can you imagine? Visiting later in the year like we did, there were still some seals around. They are quite fascinating to watch – fighting, bellowing, grunting and generally lazing around. They are loud and brash, and a bit stinky if truth be told, but definitely a spectacle and somewhere you should stop if you are passing. There is a Friends of the Elephant Seal Visitor Center and Gift Shop in San Simeon.
11. Befriend the Morro Bay sealions
You think you are done with marine life? Well, think again. If it’s not the seals, it’s their noisy, mischievous cousin, the sea lion! The stretch of highway south of the Elephant Seal Vista Point clings to the coastline at low level, heading through the towns of San Simeon (take a detour to Hearst Castle from here, it’s another thing on my ‘next time’ list), Cambria and Cayucos before you arrive at the seaside city of Morro Bay.
We stayed overnight at Morro Bay, in an unremarkable motel. A typical two storey building with an adjacent car park, like one of those that you see in crime films where people get murdered. The lady there tried to rip us off by telling us we had booked two rooms when we had actually only booked one, and insisted we had to pay for both. I don’t think so, lady! Needless to say, we only paid for the one room we had booked, but didn’t have the most settled night, listening for sounds outside and waiting for the murderer to crash through the door. They didn’t thankfully, and I am here to tell the tale.
I’m probably not selling Morro Bay very well, am I? Well, aside from the motel from hell that shall not be named, it is a very lovely and quaint little town and I would thoroughly recommend a visit. It more of a harbour city than a seaside city really, there’s a heavy focus on tourism around the harbour area with a wealth of restaurants and gift stores. A stroll down the Embarcadero was lovely, and gave you the sense of a classic American coastal town.
We ate dinner on the waterfront, at the Galley Seafood Grill. A table by the window overlooking the harbour as the sun was setting, eating classic seafood dishes in a lovely environment was pleasantly relaxing, only disturbed by the sounds of barking sea lions right outside the window on the docks, climbing onto boats and basically causing mischief as best they could. I found them hilarious, my other half not so much. To be fair they did seem to haunt us for most of our first trip. After our Morro Bay experience, we could hear them in Monterey from our hotel which was located almost a mile from the coast! By the time we got to San Francisco and Pier 39 where hundreds of them were gathered on the pontoons around Pier 39, it became a bit much!
How could you not love those little faces though?
I should give a shout out to The Coffee Pot, a great breakfast spot at the waterfront and another great spot to watch (hear) the sea lions.
The main scenic feature of Morro Bay is Morro Rock, a 581 foot tall domed volcanic rock jutting from the ocean at the entrance to the harbour. It’s a nesting spot for birds and a reserve for peregrine falcons which are locally endangered. It dominates the landscape and looks great at sunset!
Leaving Morro Bay, the Highway heads inland away from the coast for the most part until meeting with the ocean again beyond Santa Barbara, around one hundred miles south. There another fairly uneventful stretch of sixty or so miles before you head to towards Los Angeles and reach those famous beaches of Malibu, Santa Monica and Venice.
12. Pretend you are in Baywatch on Santa Monica Beach
You’re visiting the beaches of LA. You’ve definitely packed the red swimsuit and you’re ready to run in slow motion down the beach with the wind in your hair and the red float in your hand? For anyone growing up in the 90’s, the golden sands of the LA beaches, the grey lifeguard towers and yellow 4×4’s are synonymous with one TV show – Baywatch.
I grew up watching Baywatch, so my first visit to Santa Monica was really exciting. To be on those beaches, seeing the lifeguard towers and yellow trucks was like being on a TV set. Unfortunately neither the Hoff nor Pammy were available to complete that dream, but nevertheless I absolutely fell in love with the place. The main shopping areas had a fairly small town feel, and it was great to walk across Ocean Avenue onto the famous Santa Monica Pier, wander around Pacific Park watching the rollercoaster and ferris wheel. I didn’t ride them and really wish I did.
The wide beach stretching out either side of the pier was perfect. People surfing in the Pacific Ocean, fitness fanatics working out at Original Muscle Beach and people rollerblading down the boardwalks. Perfect. The beach is wide, I may have hit lucky on my three or four visits, but it was never crowded and it was a great place to chill and watch the world go by. Take me back!
We stopped off in Venice Beach and Malibu too, at a few of the beaches stretching along the twenty one mile strip of coastline incorporated into the city limits. Whilst the beaches were smaller, they still had that cool California vibe and it was great to wander and admire the stunning houses across the highway, presumably belonging to some pretty wealthy people. It’s a great way to start or end your journey along the Pacific Coast Highway.
In a nutshell…
So that’s it. My top twelve stops on the Pacific Coast Highway – well, for now anyway.
I have plans for the future. I want to spend some time in Santa Barbara. I want to stay at one of those stunning Big Sur retreats overlooking the ocean. I want to ride the Santa Cruz Giant Dipper. I want to chill out in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
That’s the thing about California. It leaves you wanting more. It tempts you and then draws you back in. Over and over again. My favourite destination.
For some great information about the state, head over to the Visit California website – there heaps of useful information on there.