California’s coast-hugging Highway 1 is what dream drives are made of. The iconic roadway—which extends for more than 650 miles from Dana Point north to Leggett—offers endless vistas overlooking the Pacific, with plenty of redwood trees and wildlife sightings along the way. The most well-known (and photographed) stretch runs along California’s Central Coast from Santa Barbara to Monterey, passing by the unspoiled coastline of Big Sur.
Regardless of where you start and end your Highway 1 journey, be sure to pull over at these must-see spots along the way, listed in order of south to north—which keep the panoramic ocean views on your left.
Santa Barbara Mission
Old Mission Santa Barbara, established in 1786 by Spanish Franciscans and nicknamed “Queen of the Missions,” is a serene retreat from downtown Santa Barbara. Take time to stroll through the mission’s lovely gardens, including a collection of plants important to native Chumash Indians, and visit the historic cemetery. But do it quietly: this is still a practicing mission, with Franciscan friars in residence. For more background, consider taking a guided tour to learn more about the mission’s art and architecture. Another tour lets you visit the Huerta Historic Garden, which contains plantings that mimic those of the Mission Era (1769-1834). Plants here were gathered from those found at other mission sites, then cloned, grafted, or planted from cuttings and seeds. (More: Santa Barbara Mission)
Whether you’re driving from the north or south on U.S. Highway 101, there’s an unforgettable moment as you reach Pismo Beach. The coastal hills open up to reveal shimmering turquoise waters and long stretches of the San Luis Obispo County coastline, with glimpses of this classic beach town hugging the shore. Work your way toward the sands, through streets of beach cottages, surf shops, and clam chowder joints. Once you get there, the historic 1,200-foot-long Pismo Beach Pier beckons; built in 1928, it serves as a kind of town square for the community. Take a walk out over the waves to watch the surfers, or maybe try your hand at fishing (no license required) then stroll along the oceanfront boardwalk. Or just make tracks in the sand along what is one of the most walkable beaches in all of California. (More: Pismo Beach)
Wildlife Watching In San Luis Obispo County
From flittering monarch butterflies as light as a feather to elephant seals that tip the scales at more than 5,000 pounds, San Luis Obispo County has an incredible variety of wildlife—and ways to see it. For starters, head to the rugged strip of coastline known as Piedras Blancas, roughly seven miles north of San Simeon. From observation areas above the sands, watch bellowing bull elephant seals as large as minivans battle for territory, while quieter, smaller females nurture their plump, cigar-shape pups. Knowledgeable docents are usually on site.
From late October into February, monarch butterflies migrate to the groves at Pismo State Beach; at Morro Bay, watch busy sea otters. Also in Morro Bay, scan the skies and waters for herons and egrets while also keeping one eye on the water for migrating blue, gray, and humpback whales. (More: Wildlife Watching in San Luis Obispo County)
Mansions are a dime a dozen in California, but nothing comes close to Hearst Castle. Completed in 1947, this extraordinary temple to opulence served as the private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Now one of California’s most visited state historical monuments, the 165-room castle is an eye-popping extravaganza with 127 acres of terraced gardens, sparkling fountains, and wraparound views of the sunny Central Coast. Start your visit with one of Hearst Castle’s daily tours of the main house, or special tours of the cottages; come in November or December to see the estate dressed up in its very-festive holiday decor. Every tour provides visitors with an opportunity to spend time marveling at the residence’s two lavish pools. (More: Hearst Castle)
Just 11 miles down the San Luis Obispo County coast from Hearst Castle, charming Cambria is an irresistible destination in its own right. The village’s commercial area is divided into two distinct sections along Main Street. With some buildings dating to the 19th century, Cambria’s East Village is the oldest part of town; in both West and East Villages you’ll find art galleries and eateries such as Linn’s Restaurant (get a slice of the famous olallieberry pie) and Madeline’s Restaurant & Wine Tasting Room, where Central Coast wines are poured by day and, in the evening, are paired with such favorites as lamb shank and a pan-seared duck breast. Across Highway 1, Moonstone Beach is lined with hotels; walk across the road and you can stroll above the surf on a bluff-top boardwalk.
Limekiln State Park
As the name suggests, Limekiln State Park was once the site of a thriving limekiln operation, and short walks let you not only explore the ruins of four towering limekilns but also visit the park’s adjoining sandy beach. Fueled by felled redwoods and an integral part of cement production, the 19th-century kilns were eventually closed. Slowly, the forest around them recovered, and the second-growth redwood stands that thrive in this park today make for a pleasant and shady escape. Enjoy a hike to Limekiln Falls, take the easy jaunt to the park’s sandy beach, or pitch a tent in one of the 28 campsites—you can reserve a site up to six months in advance. (More: Limekiln State Park)
With Big Sur views that can only be beaten if you’re a seagull, this cliff-topping restaurant rightfully makes it onto everyone’s bucket list. At Nepenthe, located on Highway 1 between Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and Castro Canyon, the views stretch down the coast and the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge in fog-cloaked majesty to the deep blue Pacific. Take it in from a seat on the patio, a wide-open space that is the epitome of unfussiness (one of their Famous Ambrosiaburgers makes for the perfect accompaniment). Linger to also admire the main building, which was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, and hints at that master architect’s style of creating structures that are striking, yet at one with their environment. (More: Nepenthe)
Welcome to Bixby Bridge, Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate—a must-see road trip spot for many and probably the most Instagrammed feature along the Highway 1 coastline. And rightly so. Pull over only at legal turnouts to get amazing views. From the bridge’s south end at sunset, the mind reels at not only the natural beauty, but the engineering feat in front of you. One of the highest bridges of its kind in the world, the concrete span soars 260 feet above the bottom of a steep canyon. A staggering 45,000 sacks of cement had to be hauled up the framework during its construction—and this is in 1932, before advanced heavy machinery could help do the lifting. Today (as always), the bridge is a favorite attraction for photographers, from professionals to those in search of the ultimate depth-of-field selfie. Use proper pullouts for photo ops and respect private property. If the turnouts north of the bridge are full then drive a couple minutes more to the turnouts on the southern side. (More: Bixby Bridge)
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Want a short hike with a huge reward? The half-mile round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park could be the biggest-bang-for-not-much-work hike on the planet. The almost-flat stroll ends at an oceanfront overlook with flawless views of McWay Falls, a favorite spot of Big Sur pioneer woman Julia Pfeiffer Burns, for whom the park is named. If you’re up for more of a leg stretch, also hike the one-mile round-trip Partington Cove Trail. The steep but short hike leads over a wooden bridge down to a 60-foot tunnel. Walk through and emerge onto the rocky beach. A few of the trails at this picturesque state park are closed due to erosion—check the trails section of the park’s website for the latest information before traveling. (More: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park)
The charms of this diminutive Monterey County town are many: Carmel Beach, a crescent of pale sand that gives way to turquoise Pacific, is only the beginning. Garden cottages here look plucked from the Brothers Grimm; they sit next to Mediterranean estates and modern ranches. Exceptional dining, wine-tasting rooms, boutiques, and nearly 100 art galleries line the town’s orderly grid of streets, and a Spanish mission sits at the southern end of it all. But it’s the greater environs that best represent this stretch of California, and that means venturing out. Navigate 17-Mile Drive by car or bike, play a round at Pebble Beach, book a surf lesson, or make for Point Lobos State Reserve, where scuba divers and kayakers share the water with harbor seals and sea otters. When the day is almost done, hit the sand to admire the sunset over the Pacific with your canine companion, and ponder why it is you don’t live here. (More: Carmel-by-the-Sea)