1 February 2016 by Debbie Mayger
The Pacific Coast Highway – or to give it its proper name ‘Highway 1’ – has long been regarded as one of America’s greatest self-drives. Stretching between those two great Californian cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it hugs the winding coast passing idyllic beaches, craggy cliffs and world-class wineries.
However, at over 600 miles in length, it’s all too easy to miss the best sights. That’s why we’ve collated ten of its top stops, helping you plan your perfect trip. We’ve ordered them from north to south, forming an itinerary that takes in the best of this famous roadway.
1. Monterey (Click here for Map ref A)
Originally the Californian state capital, Monterey’s downtown has more historical buildings than any other West Coast city. However, be sure to move away from its perfectly preserved Spanish adobe to its wildlife-rich waters. Here, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and its kelp forests are home to an abundance of seals, dolphins and whales all of which can be spotted on bay cruises.
2. Carmel (Click here for Map ref B)
Since the 1880s, Carmel’s shingled Comstock cottages and white, sandy beaches have been something of a creative’s retreat. Today, the artistic spirit is still realised in the over 100 galleries that line Ocean Drive, the town’s sleepy upmarket main road. And, you’ll be in good company as Clint Eastwood was once Carmel’s mayor. Heading inland will bring you to Carmel Valley’s vineyards and artisan farm restaurants – ideal for ambling sunset walks.
3. Big Sur (Click here for Map ref C)
To some, the Pacific Coast Highway begins and ends here. Its impossibly cambered road carved into the rock takes in everything from cracked cliff faces and crashing waves to perfectly formed hills and secluded coastal inlets. Although only 90 miles long – a short drive to the shops by America’s standards – it’s well worth breaking the trip with several stops to fully appreciate the sites. The McWay Waterfall Trail is a particular highlight, bringing you to an untouched spit of sand in a rocky bay.
4. Nepenthe (Click here for Map ref D)
South of Big Sur, perched high above the Pacific and framed by the majestic Santa Lucian Mountains, Nepenthe has been the restaurant of choice for beatniks and travelling artists since 1949. Before that, it so captured the imagination of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth that they decided to buy the plot of land. Today, it serves a range of gourmet meals accompanied by artisan wines and, most importantly, spectacular views.
5. Cambria (Click here for Map ref E)
Something of a miniature version of Big Sur, Cambria’s coastline of low-rise cliffs is matched by its idyllic, squat cottages, huddled around the bay. Call into Nitt Witt Ridge, a house built into the rocks made of wood, car parts, shells and other assorted junk – a striking foil to the grandeur of Hearst Castle – and head along the coast to watch hundreds of elephant seals basking in the California sun. Read our guide to the best place to see Seals on the Pacific Coast Highway.
6. Hearst Castle (Click here for Map ref F)
A staggering collection of Mediterranean Revival mansions located in San Simeon, Hearst Castle was designed after a Spanish cathedral by America’s first licensed female architect. Today, it’s opened its doors to tours that take guests back to its Roaring Twenties heyday when Randolph Hearst – the first media magnate of our times – threw extravagant parties to show off his European antiquities and statues placed around the castle’s expansive pools and fountains.
7. Morro Bay (Click here for Map ref G)
Termed the Gibraltar of the Pacific, the bay’s glorious sunsets are dominated by Morro Rock, an anomalous volcanic peak that rises unbidden from the ocean bed. It’s also home to some of the West Coast’s best trails with beach, boardwalk and cliff top walks offering spectacular coastal views.
8. Pismo Beach (Click here for Map ref H)
At Pismo, the otherwise rugged coastline gives way to a stretch of golden sands, broken only by a rickety wooden pier, jutting 1,200 foot out to sea. With its 50s diners and oceanfront hotels, it’s a perfect pit stop on your drive. You’ll also have a chance to try your hand at surfing and visit its vineyards, which you’ll find just a 30 minutes’ journey inland.
Pier at Pismo Beach
9. Santa Barbara (Click here for Map ref I)
Stop off to see the terracotta roofs and the Spanish Mission churches of Santa Barbara. A coastal city, known as the jewel of the American Riviera, it’s perfect for romantic evening walks past whitewashed walls and swaying palm trees. Head to the wonderful Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, located at the end of the pier, to try tasty lobster tacos, steamed clams and black mussels with crispy pancetta. As with many Californian seaside towns, it also fronts an excellent wine country.
Dusk, Santa Barbara
10. Santa Monica (Click here for Map ref J)
Just down from Malibu’s famed coast, Santa Monica is much more than a vestigial limb of Los Angeles. Its laid-back beaches attract surfers and Hollywood producers alike while restful evenings are spent in its fine dining restaurants, casual wine lounges and sipping lattes in its beachfront cafés. However, its greatest claim to fame is its clam chowder; served on the pier, it’s among the best in the world.
Feeling inspired? Have a look at our sample California self-drives below – of which any aspect can be tailored by our expert USA consultants: