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28 Places You HAVE To Stop On A Highway 1 PCH Road Trip

Everyone loves a good road trip but with so many things to see and do, where should you ACTUALLY spend your time?

This post will tell you the places you just HAVE to stop on a Highway 1 road trip up California’s coast.

Highway 1 (CA-1) starts in Dana Point in the south and ends in Leggett in the north.

We’re going to be following the route all the way up the coast and reveal the places you just CAN’T MISS.

This trip’s great for EVERYONE – whether you love nature, history, or just want a relaxing time with good views.

There are even some places that will make you feel like you’re in Europe!

So, pack up, start your car, and get set for an adventure discovering the best of California on Highway 1!

1. San Juan Capistrano

Ok so before we actually get on the PCH going up the coast we’re going to take a very quick detour up to San Juan Capistrano.

Visit San Juan Capistrano to explore its historic mission, a key site for California’s early history. 

san juan capistrano california

The mission is famous for the annual return of the swallows, a natural event that attracts visitors. 

Besides the mission, the town offers charming shops and cafes to enjoy.

2. Dana Point Harbor

Dana Point Harbor is a bustling marina where you can go sailing, fishing, or join a whale watching tour. 

dana point harbor

It’s surrounded by shops and places to eat, making it perfect for a leisurely day out. 

The harbor also provides beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean, ideal for sunset watching.

3. Crystal Cove State Park

Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County offers miles of beaches, undeveloped woodland, and underwater parks for snorkeling and scuba diving. 

crystal cove state park california

Hikers and bikers can explore trails that offer breathtaking views of the coast. 

The historic beach houses and tide pools add a unique touch to the beach experience.

4. Huntington Beach Pier

The Huntington Beach Pier is one of the longest piers on the West Coast, offering stunning ocean views. 

huntington beach pier aerial

You can watch surfers catch waves, fish off the pier, or enjoy a meal at the diner at the end. 

It’s a key spot in “Surf City USA,” especially during surf competitions.

Related Reading: SoCal Beach Towns You CANNOT Miss

5. Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Pier is a classic destination with an amusement park, an aquarium, and family-friendly restaurants. 

santa monica pier

The Ferris wheel and roller coaster offer great views of the ocean and the city. 

It’s a fun place for people of all ages, whether you’re riding the rides or just enjoying the beach.

6. The Getty Villa

The Getty Villa in Malibu displays art from ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria. 

getty villa

It’s designed to resemble a Roman country house, complete with gardens that are as stunning as the art. 

Admission is free, but you need to reserve tickets in advance.

You’ll really feel like you’ve been transported to Europe when you come here.

7. El Matador State Beach

El Matador State Beach is known for its striking rock formations and hidden coves, perfect for photography or a romantic stroll. 

el matador state beach

Access to the beach involves a bit of a hike down steep paths, but the views are worth it. 

Remember to check the tide schedule before you visit, as high tide can limit beach access.

Insider tip: If you want a slightly quieter hidden gem you can visit El Pescador State Beach instead which is only about 1 mile further down the road.

8. Ventura Harbor Village

Ventura Harbor Village is a vibrant spot where you can shop, eat fresh seafood, and take part in water sports like kayaking and paddle boarding. 

ventura harbor

The village hosts events throughout the year, including festivals and live music. 

It’s also the gateway to the Channel Islands National Park, with boats leaving daily.

If you’re in the area for a longer period of time you can also visit the charming town of Ojai (only 20 minutes drive), Lake Casitas, or the Casitas Water Adventure (good for kids).

Related Reading: Ojai Valley: Ultimate Guide To SoCal’s Best Kept SECRET

9. Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands, each offering unique adventures, from hiking to snorkeling. 

channel islands national park , smugglers cove

The park is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including seals, sea lions, and rare plants. 

Visiting requires a boat trip, and it’s a great way to experience California’s natural beauty away from the crowds.

You can get a boat from Ventura Harbor.

💡Fun Fact: There are around 150 species of plants or animals not found anywhere else and the place has been dubbed the ‘North American Galapagos’.

10. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is known for its beautiful Spanish-style buildings and lovely beaches. 

santa barbara mission california

You can walk along the waterfront, visit the famous Santa Barbara Mission, or explore the shops and restaurants on State Street. 

The city also offers great wine-tasting tours in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley.

11. Solvang

Speaking of the Santa Ynez Valley, this is where you’ll find the magical town of Solvang.

Solvang is a unique town with Danish-style architecture, windmills, and bakeries that make you feel like you’re in Europe. 

windmill in solvang california

It’s a great place to try Danish pastries, shop for European goods, and visit local wine tasting rooms. 

Don’t miss the Hans Christian Andersen Museum for a taste of Danish culture.

Related Reading: Places in California that feel like Europe

12. Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes is the only California State Park where you can drive on the beach. 

Some people also know this place as Pismo Beach Dunes.

It’s popular for off-roading, camping, and enjoying the beach. 

Make sure to respect the area’s wildlife and natural habitat while you have fun in the sand.

13. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach offers wide beaches for sunbathing, surfing, and fishing off the pier. 

pismo beach pelicans on cliffs

The town is famous for its clam chowder and beautiful sunsets. 

And if you’re lucky you can even spot pelicans on the cliffs by the shore.

Nearby, you can also explore caves and rock formations by kayak.

14. Morro Rock

Morro Rock is a massive volcanic plug that stands at the entrance to Morro Bay Harbor. 

morro rock morro bay

It’s a nesting ground for peregrine falcons and a landmark for photographers. 

You can’t climb the rock, but the beach and park around it offer great views and picnic spots.

Sizing up at a whopping 581-foot (177 m), it’s one of those places that feel a lot bigger in person so you have to see it to really get a feel for it.

💡 Fun fact: It’s also a sacred site for both the Chumash and the Salinan tribes.

15. Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle, perched on a hill overlooking the Central Coast, was the extravagant home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. 

hearst castle california

You can tour the grand rooms, pools, and gardens of this historic estate. 

The castle houses an impressive collection of art and antiques, with stunning views of the surrounding area.

💡 Fun Fact: The place was frequented by Hollywood and political elite including the likes Calvin Coolidge, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, and more.

16. Elephant Seal Vista Point

Elephant Seal Vista Point near San Simeon is the best place to watch elephant seals, especially from December to March when they come ashore to breed. 

elephant seal vista point

The viewing areas allow you to safely observe these amazing creatures up close. 

It’s an educational and unique experience for wildlife enthusiasts.

17. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is home to the iconic McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that drops into a cove of the Pacific Ocean. 

mcway falls

The park offers scenic trails through redwood forests and along the coast. 

It’s a must-see for its breathtaking views and serene hiking paths.

McWay Falls is only 1 of 2 tidefall waterfalls in all of California with the other being Alamere Falls.

18. Bixby Creek Bridge

Come on now.

You can’t do the PCH and not stop here.

Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in California, offers stunning views of the coastline. 

bixby bridge

This architectural marvel is a highlight along the Pacific Coast Highway, especially at sunset. 

There’s a viewpoint where you can stop and take in the scenery.

19. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a paradise for nature lovers, with trails leading to hidden coves, tide pools, and forested areas. 

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

It’s known for its rich marine life, including sea otters, seals, and sea lions. 

Photographers and artists often visit for its dramatic ocean views and wildlife.

20. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming small town with fairy-tale cottages, art galleries, and white sandy beaches. 

carmel by the sea duo

It’s dog-friendly, with plenty of places to eat and shop. 

Don’t miss the scenic 17-Mile Drive (in Pebble Beach just north of Carmel), which offers spectacular coastal views.

21. Cannery Row and Monterey Bay Aquarium

Cannery Row in Monterey was once the sardine packing heart of the area, now transformed into a lively waterfront street. 

At one point it was one of the most productive fisheries in the world.

cannery row california monterrey

It’s filled with shops, restaurants, and attractions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. 

The area is also great for sea kayaking and exploring marine life.

22. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a classic seaside amusement park with rides, games, and food. 

santa cruz beach boardwalk california

It’s home to the historic Giant Dipper roller coaster and offers free concerts on the beach in the summer. 

The boardwalk is a fun place for families, with something to do for all ages.

23. Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic symbol of San Francisco and a marvel of modern engineering. 

golden gate bridge flowers in foreground

Visitors can walk or bike across it for stunning views of the city and the bay. 

Don’t forget to visit the nearby parks and viewpoints for the best photo opportunities.

While you’re in San Francisco you can also visit the oldest restaurant in California.

Related Reading: The OLDEST Restaurant In California Is Older Than California! 😱

24. Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore offers rugged coastline, scenic hikes, and the chance to see wildlife like elephant seals and tule elk. 

Point Reyes National Seashore- Lighthouse and Descending Staircase

The historic Point Reyes Lighthouse is a must-visit for its dramatic views. 

The area is also known for its cheese, with local farms offering tastings.

25. Bodega Bay

Bodega Bay is a small coastal town famous for its fresh seafood, beautiful beaches, and as the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” 

bodega bay california

It’s a great spot for kayaking, bird watching, and enjoying the peaceful coastal scenery. 

The area has several hiking trails with views of the Pacific Ocean.

26. Bowling Ball Beach

Bowling Ball Beach, part of Schooner Gulch State Beach, is known for its spherical sandstone concretions that resemble bowling balls. 

Bowling Ball Beach mendocino county

The best time to visit is at low tide when the “bowling balls” are visible. 

It’s a unique geological feature and a photographer’s dream.

27. Glass Beach

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg is famous for its sea glass, created from years of dumping garbage into the coastline. 

glass beach fort bragg 2

Now, it’s a colorful beach where visitors can see smooth pieces of glass mixed with the pebbles. 

While collecting glass is not allowed, it’s a beautiful spot to explore and take photos.

28. Drive-Thru Tree Park

Drive-Thru Tree Park in Leggett allows you to drive your car through a giant Redwood tree, a unique Northern California experience. 

The park has other giant trees and a gift shop. 

It’s a fun stop that highlights the majesty of the Redwood forests.

And you’re done!

Highway 1 ends in Leggett but you can always keep driving up Highway 101 to see more of Northern California.

Related Reading: 60+ Things To Do: Highway 101 Road Trip 🚗

Sophie Davis

Born and raised in the Bay area of California, Sophie is a California native. She joined our team in 2023 to create travel guides on California.

Learn more about the Traveller's Elixir Team.

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