Mike and I just returned from a fabulous roadtrip up the California coast. The Pacific Coast Highway is an amazing drive filled with stunning coastal views & fantastic attractions for the entire 600+ mile distance. From the beaches, to the ocean views, to the redwood trees, everything was fantastic! We will definitely be planning a longer trip the next time around.
The Pacific Coast Highway, officially named Highway 1, is frequently rated amongst the best drives in the country. This comes at no surprise as the entire drive is breathtakingly beautiful. The drive starts in Orange County near Dana Point and continues up the coast until you reach Hwy 101 near Legett, California in Northern California. This is a leisurely, picturesque drive which should be enjoyed over a long week at the shortest. Plan extra time to stop at various attractions along the way. Below is just a sampling of a few of the must see scenic sights along the way. There’s much more to see and do along America’s most scenic drive.
We drove portions of both the PCH and Hwy 101, as the 2 roads frequently merge. After reaching Fort Bragg (on Northern California’s Mendocino coast), you will need to drive on Hwy 101 to continue up the coast. Hwy 101 runs from Los Angeles all the way up to Olympia, Washington.
The PCH is the more scenic drive of the 2. I recommend driving the PCH until you reach Ft. Bragg. Then you can switch over to the 101 to see the gorgeous redwoods! Below, I have listed a few of the highlights along both routes.
Top attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway
Laguna Beach is one of Orange County’s most photographed beaches. The dramatic cliffs and mansions of the area lead way to fabulous photo opportunities. This charming coastal town offers 20 miles of public beaches along its’ 7 miles of coastline. Laguna is well known for its’ thriving art community. Be sure to take a walk around town after your visit to the beach. Here, you will find art galleries, unique shops, and plenty of enticing restaurants.
Crystal Cove State Park
Perhaps one of the most beautiful and hidden secrets in Orange County is Laguna Beach’s beautiful Crystal Cove State Park, home to 2400 acres of pristine nature and 3.2 miles of gorgeous coastline. Hiking trails offer tremendous views of the Pacific coast and beautiful views of the natural hilly terrain. If you want to get a great workout in for the day, this is the place to do so!
The hills here are really tough and definitely not for beginners, but for those looking for an intense lower body workout, Crystal Cove will fit the bill! Watch out for mountain lions – they have been spotted on the El Morro trails! For this trail, you really need a hydration backpack and a quality hiking stick. The stick provides better traction for the downhill portion (and extra protection in the rare event of a mountain lion encounter), and the hydration backpack is necessary for the dry desert climate and harsh hiking conditions.
Huntington State Beach
Huntington Beach, one of Orange County’s most beautiful & active beaches, offers a little something for everyone. Whether you enjoy surfing, biking, jogging, volleyball, or just relaxing…Huntington Beach has it all! Did you know that Huntington Beach is the “Surf Capital of the World?” On any given day, you are bound to see dozens of surfers out perfecting their skill. The beautiful pier is a great place to catch all the action. Or, you can always sign up for a lesson yourself!
Be sure to check out the 8 mile beachfront pedestrian path, a great place to jog, bike, or walk. On this stunning oceanfront path you will be treated to endless incredible views of the Pacific. A great workout and great views at the same time? – I’m in!
Manhattan is one of L.A.’s best beaches. This gorgeous beach has several advantages over others in the area, namely less tourist crowds, a gorgeous pier, and plenty of opportunities for all types of fitness including playing and/or watching volleyball games. The wide, sandy beaches combined with a year-round comfortable climate draws many athletes to the area.
Both the Manhattan Beach Open Volleyball Tournament and the International Surf Festival are held here each year. From here, you can also easily access the gorgeous Strand bike path, a 22 mile beachfront ride which will take you past all of L.A.’s great beach towns.
Santa Monica Pier
A drive up the California coast would not be complete without a visit to the historic Santa Monica Pier, one of the most iconic attractions in all of Southern California. Amusement rides, crazy shows, restaurants, carnival games…you just have to see it. The rollercoaster ride is a great time, not to mention the fantastic views! On an interesting side note, the pier marks the official end of Route 66, “The Mother Road.”
Seaside State Beach
Seaside State Beach is a stunning beach located in Monterey County, California. Being an avid SeaGlass collector, I just had to stop at this beach as it is ranked as one of the best in the country! Not only did we find plenty of beautiful SeaGlass, we also enjoyed the beautiful scenery and a quiet atmosphere. What a relaxing beach to take a break from driving. With barely any crowds, clean sand, and nice soothing waves, Monterey really is the perfect escape from it all!
Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most unique ways to experience the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge is to take a walk across it! Walking across one of America’s most iconic landmarks is quite a unique experience, not to mention an amazing photo opportunity. You will also have great views of the San Francisco skyline, the ocean, and the surrounding landscapes. The bridge itself is even more stunning in person than in photographs. In addition, the parking lot by the bridge is an excellent spot for taking gorgeous photography of the bridge.
If you have time, plan a visit to Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation area. From these hiking and biking trails, you’ll enjoy incredible views of the bridge from a variety of angles.
There is a really unique beach in Northern California’s Ft. Bragg, known for its’ abundance of SeaGlass, which is referred to as SeaGlass Beach. In fact, it is one of the top beaches in the US for avid SeaGlass collectors. The former location of an old dump, SeaGlass Beach is now shining with hundreds of thousands of pieces of the tumbled frosted glass.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with SeaGlass, here is the story: SeaGlass is simply the term used to describe old pieces of glass which have been transformed into gem like pieces from plenty of time and tumbling. Old bottles and other forms of glass are tumbled smooth over time from years of tumbling along the rocks.
Even if you have never heard of Seaglass, you should still plan a stop here. Walking along this beach is a truly memorable experience as all the glass shimmers in the sun; it feels as though you are walking across jewels! It’s also a hotspot for photography and seal sightings.
Top attractions along Hwy 101
Redwood National Forest
The most beautiful and worthy stop along Hwy 101 is the Redwood National Forest in Northern California. Located in Crescent City, this national park is a fantastic place for photography, hiking, and simple relaxation. The Redwood Trees are a truly magnificent sight – many are 100’s of feet tall! The coast redwoods found in this park are the tallest on Earth.
Redwood National Forest is a great place to stop and picnic and hike before getting back on the road. I recommend staying overnight somewhere in Humboldt county to allow yourself enough time to see everything.
Trees of Mystery
Taking a gondola ride through the Redwood Trees is a once in a lifetime experience that should be added to everyone’s to do list! Trees of Mystery is a tourist attraction located in Klamath, CA, near the Oregon border. It’s one of those tourist attractions that is actually not a rip off as it is quite affordable and the views are incredible. You’ll also get to learn a lot of interesting facts about these incredible trees.
It’s a bit cheesy, however, a fun experience that barely costs anything. For only $15, you can take a scenic gondola ride 1500 feet up above the redwoods. It’s amazing to gaze down at these gorgeous trees. From the observation deck, you will be able to take in more gorgeous views of the redwoods.
The walking trail is an excellent way to learn more about the various Redwood Trees. This is also the location of the famous 49 foot tall statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
Other points of interest
Big Sur – Big Sur is the name for a gorgeous stretch of California coastline known for its’ dramatic cliff scenery and gorgeous coastal views. It’s a very unpopulated area with not much business. This portion of the drive is a bit scary as you will be driving along a very narrow 2 lane road, but also the most beautiful. For those who have the extra time, a day hike is recommended.
The drive-thru redwood tree – The Shrine drive-thru tree is located on the gorgeous Avenue of the Giants scenic drive which is loaded with towering redwood trees. Entrance is just 5 bucks a vehicle, so it may be worth the small detour. Another drive thru tree called the Chandelier tree is located in Legett.
The Santa Cruz Beach boardwalk – This historic oceanfront amusement park is the oldest in California (founded in 1907). If you want to stretch your legs and enjoy some old-fashioned entertainment, then plan for a stop on the historic wooden coaster featured in films such as The Lost Boys (I love this movie!) and the Looff Carousel, a National Historic Landmark. For classic California beachside fun, the Santa Cruz boardwalk is a must!
Attraction Address & Pricing Info:
Address: Coast Hwy and Broadway Laguna Beach, CA 92652
Crystal Cove State Park
Address: 8471 N Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Huntington Beach State Park
Address: 21601 Pacific Coast Hwy, Huntington Beach, CA 92646
Address: 2 Manhattan Beach Blvd Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
Santa Monica Pier
Address: 100 Santa Monica Pier Santa Monica, CA 90401
Price: Free to enter the pier, various prices for amusements.
Seaside State Beach
Address: Hwy 218 Seaside, CA 93955
Golden Gate Bridge (pedestrian walk)
Address: 201 Fort Mason San Francisco, CA 94123
Price: Free! (to walk across – parking meters will run a tiny fee)
Address: Elm Street & Old Haul Rd. Ft. Bragg, CA 95437
Redwood National Forest
Address: 1111 Crescent Street Crescent City, CA 95531
Trees of Mystery
Address: 15500 US 101 Klamath, CA 95548
Price: $15 per adult