Picture it: Driving up the scenic California coast, windows (or top) down, blasting your favorite tunes—sounds like the perfect road trip, right? The Pacific Coast Highway, formally known as California State Route 1, is the ultimate road trip route. It’s designated an All-American Road for its scenic views, and it packs one amazing path that takes you past awe-inspiring attractions and places. Here’s a guide to the must-see spots while roadtripping the PCH.
Starting at San Diego in the south, this is classic Southern California. The beaches, the museums, the food scene, and more make it the perfect vacation city. Explore the Gaslamp District for the nightlife and Balboa Park for the culture.
The Children's Pool is the best place on the Pacific Coast to get up close and personal with seals. Back in the 1930s, a seawall was built in the ocean at this beach to make it safer for kids to swim without the danger of strong waves. As it turns out, the beach proved to be even more popular with harbor seals than human kids. Today’s visitors are allowed on the beach, but they are discouraged from getting into the water or from getting too close to the seals. Observing wild seals from this vantage point is an unforgettable experience.
Then, get a taste of California at MARKET Restaurant and Bar in Del Mar. From local grapefruit and avocado salad to flash seared local wahoo tortellini, the fresh fare here will please just about any palate.
Only in California would you find something like "artisan water" from a historic site. Whether you visit Carlsbad Mineral Water Spa for a soak in the mineral water baths, or you're just picking up some water (it's 70 cents per gallon), it's definitely a unique place to stop. The mineral water is alkaline, and it is said to be the most healthful mineral water in the world (actress Shailene Woodley is a fan).
After getting refreshed, pull over at Laguna Beach's Moro Ridge. This hike along a canyon ridge has picnic areas and epic views of the coast (on a good day, you can see clear to Catalina Island). Plus, the canyon is home to plenty of wildlife.
When you're hungry, grab dinner at Ruby's Diner. This local chain restaurant sits right on the Huntington Beach Pier, which means epic views of the Pacific while you nosh on burgers, milkshakes, and fries in a fun, 1940s-style atmosphere.
The next stop is Rancho Palos Verdes and the Wayfarers Chapel. Built by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, named Lloyd Wright, this chapel is a great example of the "organic architecture" for which both the Wrights were so well known. It complements the already-stunning landscape of the California coast with the use of wood and glass.
If you're hungry, head to Manhattan Beach's Fishing With Dynamite restaurant. Whether you go for the raw bar, a massive platter, or just something off the regular menu, you're sure to enjoy the fresh seafood here. The menu is divided into "old school" and "new school" dishes, depending on how adventurous you feel. Don’t miss the great cocktails and tasty desserts.
Finish up your day at the historic Santa Monica Pier. Take a spin on the vintage carousel, sit at the soda fountain, see marine life at the aquarium, or just enjoy the beach and the people-watching. This is one of the most iconic piers along the West Coast. From the roller coaster and Ferris wheel to the arcade, there's tons of old-school fun to be had here. Look around for the signs noting this as the official end of Route 66.
Once you reach Malibu, pull over at Point Dume State Beach. Here you can spot dolphins, explore tidepools, and swim in the relatively calm water—or just sit on the beach and soak it all in.
The next town you'll reach is Oxnard. The harbor at Channel Islands Beach has a marina, shops, attractions, and more. You can just hike along the shore, find a place to rent kayaks, or book a tour out to the stunning Channel Islands National Park.
Nothing says PCH quite like fish tacos. Beach House Tacos in Ventura has a walk-up window by the pier that serves cheap meals and mimosas and beer.
117 Harbor Way Ste A, Santa Barbara, CA, US
From old ships, the fishing industry, and lighthouses to displays on sailor tattoos, scuba diving, and surf artists, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum covers every aspect of beach living. Plus, it's right on the marina, so the ambiance is perfect.
Forget In-N-Out. The Habit Burger Grill makes a truly crave-worthy charburger. The toppings are even more unique than the burger. Order yours "Teriyaki Style" with pineapple and grilled onions, or "Santa Barbara Style" with cheese and avocado. Don't forget sweet potato fries, onion rings, and a rich malt to complete the meal.
10 Refugio Beach Rd., Goleta, CA, US
While in Goleta, visit Gaviota State Park. The consistently mild weather and lovely beach make this park worth a visit. It also offers hiking, boating, camping, and plenty more to see and do. And, it was a filming location for the movie Sideways.
Once you reach Lompoc, prepare for some serious wine tasting. The laid-back vibes at Palmina Wines make the experience of tasting some outstanding varietals (paired with cheese, charcuterie, bread, and olive oils) even more incredible. The winery produces dozens of European (mostly Italian) wines using grapes from vineyards across Santa Barbara County.
135 E Clark Ave, Orcutt, CA, US
You won't find a better place for breakfast/lunch along the route than Kay's Orcutt Country Kitchen in Santa Maria. This quaint cafe serves scrambles and omelettes as well as burgers, sammies, and more, along with alcohol and refreshing beverages.
364 N2nd St, Pismo Beach, CA, US
During the winter, majestic monarch butterflies come to Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove to wait out the cold weather. Scientists aren't sure what keeps the beautiful butterflies returning to this location each year, but between November and February, the place is filled with hibernating monarchs.
1001 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA, US
If you're not tired of eating fish tacos, make a stop at Firestone Grill in San Luis Obispo, which serves up BBQ ribs, tri-tip sandwiches, burgers—and yes, fish tacos, too.
Off Highway 1, South on Windsor, Cambria, CA, US
Next you'll reach Cambria. The PCH bisects the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, which features some of the best hiking in the area. At this hidden gem, you can see wildflowers, forests, and dramatic ocean views from the 400-foot bluff. Several well-maintained and easy trails offer plenty of ways to experience the ranch.
The best time to travel the Pacific Coast Highway: It should be noted that June, July, and August are particularly foggy months. If you're looking for a time of year with the clearest views and best weather, October is generally the best time to roadtrip the PCH. Notably, the summer months can get crowded at many of the attractions along the route. Since it's high tourist season, you'll experience higher rates at hotels and longer waits at restaurants (many of which are also seasonal and closed in winter).