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Outdoors

11 of the Most Beautiful Stops Along the Pacific Coast Highway

By Marissa Kozma
Read time: 6 minutes

Stretching just over 655 miles from Dana Point in Orange County to the small town of Leggett located deep in the redwood forests of Mendocino County, California Route 1 — better known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) — is one of the most popular road trip routes in the world. From the dramatic cliffs of Big Sur to the iconic Chandler Drive-Thru Tree, California’s famous byway has enough landmarks, state parks, and public beaches to keep you busy for weeks. Luckily, we’ve narrowed it down to 11 of the best stops along the Pacific Coast Highway, heading from south to north. Check out the itinerary below.

Malibu Pier

Malibu Pier extending into Pacific Ocean, illuminated at dusk
Credit: bennymarty/ iStock via Getty Images 

No trip up the Pacific Coast Highway in California would be complete without a stop at the iconic Malibu Pier west of Los Angeles. Standing over the rolling waves of Surfrider Beach since 1938, the historic landmark was once called the “Riviera of America” and became a symbol of Southern California surf culture. The beach is famous for its three-point break that allows surfers to ride the waves for 300 yards or more, but even if you’re not planning on hitting the water it’s a great place to stretch your legs and grab a breakfast burrito and a latte at Malibu Farm Café as you kick off your road trip. Or if you’re getting a late start, opt for a lovely alfresco dining experience at sunset at Malibu Farm Restaurant. Both establishments are right on the pier itself, as are a variety of surf-inspired gift shops. 

Serra Cross – Ventura

Serra Cross overlooking city of Ventura and Pacific coast in California
Credit: Jon Osumi/ Alamy Stock Photo

Less than an hour’s drive north from Malibu, the surf city of Ventura is also a great place to wander. And since many PCH travelers often skip it en route to Santa Barbara, you’ll find it has fewer crowds. Home to antique stores, a gourmet cheese shop, a historic mission, and a stunning park, Ventura’s walkable downtown is an easy place to kill an hour or two. However, one of the most gorgeous spots is a quick drive up the hill overlooking the city. Serra Cross offers a unique vantage point of the PCH you won’t find elsewhere. The cross was erected by Father Junipero Serra in the late 18th century to serve as a road sign for travelers in search of the San Buenaventura Mission. 

Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve

Staircase leading down to beach in Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve, California
Credit: David Diaz/ iStock via Getty Images

Carpinteria is another walkable coastal community located about 10 miles southeast of Santa Barbara. The city is famously home to the “world’s safest beach,” a clean, wide stretch of sand with a gradual incline that produces little or no rip current. Carpinteria is extremely family-friendly, with ice cream shops, souvenir stores, and easy parking everywhere. The city is also a popular stop on the path of the scenic Pacific Surfliner train. After you’ve had your fill of fun downtown, drive to Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve to see native wildflowers, eucalyptus groves, and four harbor seal rookeries. This area has been protected since a 1998 battle with developers, and it’s a beautiful place to appreciate California’s coastal conservation efforts.

Butterfly Beach – Montecito

Wide, sandy Butterfly Beach lined with bluffs in Montecito, California
Credit: Nadia AUDIGIE/ iStock via Getty Images 

Well-known for its lengthy list of famous residents — including Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and Oprah Winfrey — the laid-back town of Montecito is home to some of the most spectacular private residences in the state and gorgeous gardens to match. After driving through the neighborhoods, head to Butterfly Beach, a pristine shoreline where you can sunbathe and watch for celebs, surf, take a midday snooze, enjoy a picnic, and spot the Channel Islands just 20 miles off the coast.  

Montaña de Oro State Park – Los Osos

Yellow flowers blooming on cliff overlooking San Luis Obispo coast
Credit: Logan Bush/ Shutterstock 

A must-stop in San Luis Obispo County is Montaña de Oro State Park, encompassing more than 8,000 acres and seven miles of shoreline. As one of the largest state parks in California, the park has many cliffs with coastal paths, secluded beaches, canyons, and streams. It’s one of the best places on the PCH to catch golden hour, but make sure you dress warmly, as the temperature can drop pretty quickly when the sun sets. 

Morro Bay

Morro Rock off coast of Morro Bay, California, seen from above
Credit: John Nilsson/ iStock via Getty Images

You probably won’t feel like you’re in Southern California anymore once you’ve made it to Morro Bay. With its many seafood restaurants, fish and chip shacks, and seashell stores, Morro Bay almost resembles a coastal hamlet in Maine. Home of the massive Morro Rock, an ancient volcanic mound just off the coast, the fishing community is a great place to spot wildlife, as many otters, sea lions, seals, sea birds, dolphins, and whales often make an appearance year-round.   

Moonstone Beach – Cambria

Wooden boardwalk leading to Moonstone Beach, California
Credit: Tom Grubbe/ Moment via Getty Images 

One of the best boardwalks in California sits adjacent to Moonstone Beach in the coastal town of Cambria. Another surreal spot to watch the sunset, the boardwalk stretches a mile long and meanders past living tide pools and large driftwood logs. Walk the sandy shore to look for moonstone agate and other semi-precious stones. Just be sure to practice the “leave no trace” principle and leave these stunning stones for others to enjoy. 

Bixby Bridge – Big Sur

Bixby Bridge over canyon along coast of Big Sur, seen from above
Credit: Ershov_Maks/ iStock via Getty Images 

Breathtaking Big Sur — one of the world’s most famous stretches of coastline — is surely a highlight on your PCH itinerary. There might be crowds, especially in summer, but don’t let that deter you from experiencing the area’s natural beauty. Bixby Bridge, a concrete arch bridge connecting two cliff faces, is one of the most photographed bridges in the world, and for good reason — there is perhaps no better place to appreciate the ruggedly beautiful California coast in all its glory. 

Capitola Village

Colorful beachfront homes of Capitola Village, California
Credit: Nmccoy722/ Shutterstock 

After Big Sur, you may be looking for more local offerings, and Capitola Village is the perfect place to appreciate architecture, do a little shopping, and people-watch. A small coastal town about five miles outside Santa Cruz, Capitola is beloved for its storefronts and brightly painted homes painted in a rainbow of colors. It’s also California’s oldest seaside resort town, so it’s a must for appreciating the region’s storied past. 

Crissy Field – San Francisco

Crissy Field in San Francisco with buildings and Golden Gate Bridge in background
Credit: Nick Kee Son/ Moment via Getty Images

Once you’ve made it to San Francisco, you’re going to want to see the Golden Gate Bridge. And you won’t be alone — it’s one of the country’s most-visited tourist destinations. Luckily, there are many places to appreciate the architectural marvel throughout the city, but one of the best views is from Crissy Field, where you can witness the entire span from the waterfront. Its green lawn is also a popular place for biking, picnicking, and playing frisbee. If it’s foggy out, grab a coffee (and a bridge souvenir) from the nearby Warming Hut Park Store.

Point Arena Lighthouse

View of Point Arena Lighthouse across cliffs of Mendocino County
Credit: Michelangelo DeSantis/ Alamy Stock Photo

Marking the northern terminus of the Pacific Coast Highway in California is Mendocino County — home to sleepy communities nestled between vineyards, dairy farms, state parks, and cozy bed-and-breakfasts. The quiet town of Point Arena is a beautiful place to take in the bucolic scenery, while Point Arena Lighthouse offers one of the area’s most mesmerizing vistas of the Pacific. Climb the spiraling stairs to the top of the structure, which stands 115 feet above waves crashing against massive rocks, for a view you won’t soon forget.

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