The top 10 things to do on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip along Route 1 in California

An aerial view of Bixby Canyon Bridge in Big Sur, California

You can’t go wrong in the scenery department along the California coast. 

Ideally you’d have the time to drive all of it, from the Tijuana estuary to the redwood rainforest up at the Oregon border. For a bowl-you-over sampler, though, it’s hard to beat State Route 1’s reach between Malibu and Monterey, which gives you not only stunning front-row seats to one of the world’s great oceanfronts but also a taste for the subtle transition between Southern California and the Central Coast.

A map of California Route 1 between Malibu and Carmel

Our recommended route

California State Route 1—certain portions of which are officially called the Pacific Coast Highway, more broadly treated as a rough synonym for all of Route 1—covers some 660 miles between Interstate 5 in Orange County and U.S. 101 in Mendocino County in the north. Our suggested 1- or 2-night road trip from Malibu north to Monterey accounts for about 320 miles, or roughly half the total length.

When to drive it

Given the Mediterranean climate on the route, there’s not really a bad time to cruise the Pacific Coast Highway. Summer’s the dry season with frequent fog, while a winter drive might see some rain, but the beauty of this coast shines through no matter what.

In late winter, by the way, you’ve got a good chance of spotting migrating gray whales from coastal overlooks.

Things to see & do

Exterior of the Mission San Buenaventura.

Ventura gets its name from the Mission San Buenaventura, founded in 1782. Today, you can tour the mission for free, and enjoy lunch across the street at El Zarape Cafe.

1. Ventura

Enjoy one of the coast’s iconic beachfronts, a springboard to Channel Islands National Park (which has its mainland headquarters here), and check out the historic Mission San Buenaventura (1782) and Olivas Adobe (1837).

The mission is one of the original 21 established by Franciscan priests in California. Today, the church and a small museum are open for visitors, with the museum containing Chumash Indian artifacts as well as vestments, sacred vessels, books, and other items from the early mission days. The Olivas Adobe is a two-story, 1837 Monterey-style adobe house displaying period furnishings and handicrafts reminiscent of the early California rancho period. Max Fleischmann, known for Fleischmann's Yeast, was the house's last owner. 

2. Santa Barbara

Sample fabulous wines from the Santa Ynez Valley and other Central Coast appellations in the tasting rooms of Santa Barbara, the gorgeous and sun-splashed “American Riviera.” The city—dreamily nestled between the bold front of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific—also includes a signature Route 1 historical landmark, Mission Santa Barbara, as well as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and a famously wide-spreading Moreton Bay fig.

If you’ve got some extra time, use Santa Barbara as a launch pad for the Santa Ynez Valley wine country on the other side of the mountains, and soak up the Danish Charm of Solvang.

The Pismo Beach Pier.

The Pismo Beach Pier reopened in 2018 after renovations and is a great spot to watch surfers.

3. Pismo Beach

Stroll or cast a line from the Pismo Pier, watch the surfers, and—if the season is right—marvel at the thousands of monarch butterflies that overwinter at Pismo State Beach. From late November through February, thousands of migrating monarchs alight on Pismo Beach's Butterfly Trees, a grove of Monterey pines and eucalyptus right next to Highway 1. 

If you have some extra time, consider a visit to nearby Avila Beach to tour the historic Point San Luis Lighthouse and visit the farmers market in the spring and summer. A free trolley service runs between Pismo and Avila on Fridays and weekends from May to early September.

4. San Luis Obispo

Fall under the charm of downtown San Luis Obispo, centered on the Mission San Luis Obispo De Tolosa. The nearby Mission Plaza, a developed wooded creek and urban oasis, offers events throughout the year, including a free concert series every Friday at 5 p.m., mid-June to early September. Just steps away, if you can stomach it, is Bubblegum Alley, an urban canyon of dried gum that dates to at least the 1950s.

Farther north, visitors can take a guided tour of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo or hike the scenic peaks that overlook it.

Morro Rock with seagulls and boats in the foreground

Morro Rock towers over Morro Bay and can be seen from miles away.

5. Morro Rock

(Morro Bay)

A defining landmark of the Central Coast, this 580-foot haystack rock overlooking the Morro Bay beachfront is the last in a line of volcanic cones and buttes marching seaward from Islay Hill: the evocative Nine Sisters, also called the Morros.

Head to Morro Bay State Park to climb Black Hill, one of the other Nine Sisters; go bird watching in the marshes; and visit the park's Museum of Natural History. Later, see Morro Rock in a new light with a sunset boat tour of the bay.

On your way north from Morro Bay, stop into the charming town of Cayucos to sample the Brown Butter Cookie Company's famous shortbread cookies, an excellent culinary keepsake to bring home. 

6. Hearst Castle

(San Simeon)

Check out the grandiose mansion of bigwig publisher William Randolph Hearst, designed by architect Julia Morgan and host in its heyday to a who’s-who of Hollywood elite, including Charlie Chaplin, Greto Garbo, and Clark Cable. And heads up, movie buffs: Hearst Castle served as inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu estate in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Visitors can make reservations to visit the castle through California State Parks system, which offers a variety of daily tours that focus on different parts of the castle's history.

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.

Elephant seals gather at Piedras Blancas year-round, with the number of seals depending on the time of year.

7. Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery

(San Simeon)

Enormous and eccentric-looking elephant seals gather here to rest, mate, and raise their young. Seals are present year-round, but more of them can be seen in these key seasons:

  • December to February: Pregnant females give birth to pups, while older males fight for dominance in impressive (and loud) displays.
  • April to May: Adult females collect on the beach to molt, shedding their old skin and hair for a new layer while basking in the sun.
  • September to November: Known as the fall "haul-out," this period sees lots of younger seals return to the beach after months at sea.
McWay Falls in Big Sur. The Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Beach.

8. Big Sur

Easily among the most celebrated seacoasts in the world, Big Sur sees steep mountains—the Santa Lucias—plunge dramatically to surf-licked headlands and coves. Cross the iconic ravine-spanning Bixby Bridge, see McWay Falls dive directly into the brine, wander Sand Dollar and other world-class beaches, and hike into the interior backcountry of the Ventana Wilderness.

Camping in Big Sur is a classic vacation, but be aware that reservations for campsites typically require reservations that are booked up months in advance. Inns like the Big Sur Lodge also book quickly.

RELATED ARTICLE: 3 wonderful days on a Big Sur road trip

The Butterfly House in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Carmel-by-the-Sea boasts many architecturally significant homes, including the famous “Butterfly House” built in 1950.

9. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Dig into the history of this fabled arts colony—not least at the dramatic stonework of poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House and Hawk Tower—and get your boutique- and gallery-hopping on.

To soak in the sights, take a walk down Scenic Road, which boasts the broad white sand Carmel Beach on one side and some of Carmel's most beautiful homes on the other. More rugged vistas are available to the south at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, home to the iconic Monterey cypress. 

Fish and kelp in an aquarium at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A walking path along the beach in Pacific Grove.

10. Monterey

End your road trip with a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the world’s best, where you can learn about the unique kelp forests that line much of the coast you’ve just driven along. Another good place to stretch your legs after all that driving is Pacific Grove, just north of Monterey, where you can go for a romantic stroll along the rugged shore.

Possible detours/add-on destinations

If you’ve got some extra time, use Santa Barbara as a launch pad for the Santa Ynez Valley wine country on the other side of the mountains, and soak up the Danish charm of Solvang.

Channel Islands National Park, only accessible by boat, presents stunning offshore scenery and unique ecology.

Where to stay

  • Mar Monte Hotel (1111 E. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara)
    Recently renovated and located across from the beach, this upscale Spanish Colonial-style hotel with a AAA Three Diamond designation offers ocean- and mountain-view units, many with private patios or balconies. 
  • Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa (2727 Shell Beach Rd., Pismo Beach)
    This AAA Four Diamond hotel enjoys a ravishing bluff-top setting; some units offer direct beach access.
  • Wayside Inn (7th Ave & Mission Street, Carmel-by-the-Sea)
    Kick back in downtown Carmel with AAA Three Diamond accommodations at the Wayside Inn, which treats its guests to daily homemade biscuits and breakfast delivered to their rooms.

Where to eat

  • Stella Mare’s (50 Los Patos Way, Santa Barbara)
    This Three Diamond bistro, built in 1879, has attractive decor and provides diners with delicious and creative cuisine. Sit outside on the shady patio, which provides views of a bird sanctuary and walking path. 
  • Madeline’s Restaurant (788 Main Street, Cambria)
    This warm, welcoming Three Diamond restaurant serves up everything from garlic mashed potatoes to Louisiana seafood gumbo.
  • Nepenthe (48510 CA-1, Big Sur)
    This casual clifftop restaurant has become its own Big Sur landmark, beloved for its unbeatable backdrop.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks AAA map cover

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