Catherine Hiles

Best Road Trip Drives: California Coast

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artistic view of the Pacific Coast Highway with mountains in the background and the ocean on the left
Pacific Coast Highway
Photo: Rian Castillo via CC

One of the most iconic images of California living is driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, taking in the beautiful scenery as the wind whips through your hair. The PCH offers cliff-hugging curves, beautiful beaches, and breathtaking scenery you won’t find anywhere else. Along the way are hundreds of places to stop and explore, so you can really get a lot out of a California coast road trip. Here are just a few things to check out.

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What to see

The main draw of the PCH is the incredible view of the Pacific Ocean the entire way. You’ll see dramatic cliffs where the road seems to cling on for dear life, and acres of lush, green farmland. With a number of road-side stands offering a variety of fresh, delicious goodies, you will be tempted to stop frequently. But depending on how long you have to complete your road trip, you may need to be choosy about what you see along the way.

Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, California, at sunset
Big Sur’s Bixby Creek Bridge
Photo: Keith Cuddeback via CC

One of the most iconic sights along the PCH is the Bixby Creek Bridge in the Big Sur region. This concrete bridge was constructed in 1932 and rises 260 feet above Bixby Canyon right next to the Pacific Ocean. If you don’t know the bridge by name, you will almost certainly recognize it from a picture.

You’ll also see plenty of wildlife along the way if you keep your eyes peeled. Elephant seals and whales are a common sight. You may also spot sea lions and sea otters. There are certain spots along the way that are known for whale or seal watching.

Where to stop

There is so much to see along the Pacific Coast Highway that it’s almost required to make an itinerary.

Big Sur is one of the hottest destinations along the PCH for its breathtaking scenery and wilderness. In addition to its famous bridge, Big Sur is known for its jagged cliffs, panoramic ocean views, canyons, and meadows. It’s also a great place to spot whales and seals, or hike among towering redwoods.

When you find yourself itching for some action, make sure you stop for a while when you come to Santa Barbara. As one of the few cities along the coast with a serene, Mediterranean feel, it’s the perfect place to shake off the car ride aches and pains. The abundance of red-tile-roofed Spanish Colonial architecture will transport you to a place outside of the United States, while the gorgeous parks will give you a reason to stay for a while.

Santa Barbara Mission
Santa Barbara Mission
Photo: Sophie via CC

If you want an almost guaranteed whale sighting, head to Dana Point, which is known as the whale-watching capital of the west. You can often spot whales from land, but to really experience them in the wild you should take a whale-watching boat tour. Your guide will take you on a journey to find whales and dolphins enjoying the ocean in their natural habitat.

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At the very southern tip of the PCH is Old Point Loma Lighthouse. This historical lighthouse is one of the oldest on the West Coast. It was built in 1854-55 to warn ships that they were approaching the entrance to San Diego Bay. Today, the lighthouse is a museum that you can tour alone or with a guide.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse, California
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Photo: Mark Doliner via CC

There are so many places to stop along the PCH that it’s impossible to name them all. If you’re planning a California coast road trip, it’s a good idea to spend some time doing in-depth research to decide where you want to go. There are also numerous itineraries available online if you want to save time — a quick google search will show you what’s out there. Have you driven the PCH before? What was your favorite spot? Share with us in the comments!