You can start at the top in Northern California or in the southern part of the state, but either way the Pacific Coast Highway (PCM) is one of the most scenic drives in the U.S. According to Today, it starts in Southern Cali at Interstate 5, south of the city of San Juan Capistrano in Orange County and ends in Mendocino County, on U.S. 101 in Leggett. Estimates vary as to its length: Some claim it’s only 130 miles, but others believe it’s closer to 2,000. Pacific Coast Highway Travel posts that you can cover the whole thing in a day without stopping, but where’s the fun in that when there’s so many places to visit? Here are some unmissable sights along the PCH, traveling south to north; some are worth more than just a look, too.
Santa Monica State Beach
If traffic isn’t too bad it should take under an hour to get to beautiful Santa Monica State Beach. You can rent beach chairs and watch the surfers, check out the Original Muscle Beach, and do the rides at Santa Monica Pier and Carousel Park. There’s also a 22-mile long paved biking trail; bring your own or get a rental.
Located about 95 miles north of the Los Angeles airport, Santa Barbara is a lovely place to spend a few hours or a weekend. It’s known for its laid-back atmosphere, pristine beaches, artsy scene and gourmet beachside restaurants. Find time to visit Channel Islands National Park, which is referred to as the “Galapagos of North America.” You can rent kayaks, see wildlife or even go Scuba Diving. Visit Stearns Wharf afterwards for shopping and an eclectic choice of restaurants.
Point Dume Beach
Drive west for another hour or so and you’ll arrive at Point Dume Beach, with its rocky coves, cliffs, beach access and breathtaking views. There’s an amazing hiking trail that will take you to an ancient coast bluff/sand dune, and there are plenty of parking spots, restrooms, showers and restaurants. Visitors enjoy going surfing, scuba diving and swimming here; there’s a stairway on the east side that provides access to an isolated beach with tide pools. If the weather’s clear, you’ll be able to see grey whales (December through March), Catalina Island and all of Santa Monica Bay.
Pismo Beach/San Luis Obispo
This area is closer to central California, about 160 miles north of Point Dume Beach. Pismo Beach has great sand and surf, but the cool thing to do here is to rent an ATV and tackle the sand dunes. It’s a big thing here, and there are a good number of places to rent them. And after a day of adventure, you can stay over at one of the boutique hotels in San Luis Obispo. There’s also nice beaches here, but you won’t want to miss the quirky downtown area, with its cool little shops, gourmet restaurants and ice cream parlors.
Hearst Castle is about 45 minutes north of San Luis Obispo, and like the ATV rentals, you’ll definitely want to buy tickets in advance. Visiting this museum is like traveling back in time, and there’s also a restaurant on the premises. The guided tours take visitors through the opulent rooms; there are 13 different ones to choose from.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
You can’t do the PCH without pulling over into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It’s just over an hour from Hearst Castle, and has one of the loveliest waterfalls in the state. It stretches out from the Big Sur’s coastline into 3,000-foot ridges, and has redwood, chaparral and tan oak trees. Bring your hiking boots and camera!