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.
Established by Spanish Franciscans in 1786 and nicknamed Queen of the Missions, Old Mission Santa Barbara perches above the town, fronted by a glorious swath of lawn that practically screams ‘Picnic’. No wonder plein air painters prop their easels out front, capturing the elegant mission towers. 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 practising mission, with Franciscan friars in residence.
If you want to learn more about the mission, 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.
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 vintage beach town hugging the shore. Work your way towards the sands, through streets of beach cottages, surf shops and clam chowder joints.
Don’t miss the historic 1,200-foot-long Pismo Beach Pier. Built in 1928, the pier is the closest thing to a town square for Pismo Beach. Take a walk out over the waves to watch the surfers, or maybe try your hand at fishing (no license required) for red snapper, ling cod or even the occasional thresher shark. From the pier, stroll along the oceanfront boardwalk, or just hike along the hard-packed sands; the broad, flat expanses make this one of the most walkable beaches in all of California.
The broad, flat expanses at Pismo Beach make this one of the most walkable beaches in all of California.
Pismo Beach’s gorgeous setting means that there are all sorts of ways to connect to nature. Saddle up for horseback through the dunes just south of town and all the way to the surf on guided outings with Pacific Dunes Riding Ranch. Tours with Central Coast Kayaks take paddlers into dramatic sea caves tucked into the craggy coastline north of downtown. Or, rent a ‘dune buggy’ or an ATV to ride the dunes at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. And while you might spot 35-ton grey whales from the shores, tiny creatures that weigh less than a gram put on unforgettable displays when the thousands of monarch butterflies arrive at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove from late October to February.
An iconic beach town deserves some traditional beach food and in Pismo you’ll find all sorts of timeless favourites. Spoon up some of the silky, award-winning chowder at Splash Café. Or bite into the black Angus burgers at Wooly’s Beach Bar & Grill, where the deck overlooks the sand.
As the gateway to the nearby Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley wine regions, Pismo Beach also has a sophisticated side to its culinary scene. Discover an outstanding selection of local wines without leaving town at Tastes of the Valleys, which earned honours as one of the top 20 wine bars in America from Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Pair gorgeous ocean views with fresh seafood at Oyster Loft (above Wooly’s) or Latin-inspired entrees at the Ventana Grill, two of the best sunset spots in town.
Speaking of sunsets, stay at one of Pismo Beach’s oceanfront resorts or hotels and you won’t even have to leave your room to watch the sky come aglow over the Pacific. At the pet-friendly SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel, open up the balcony door of your airy, contemporary room and fall asleep to the sound of the waves. Or spoil yourself at Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, where the indulgences include hot-stone massages and the five-course chef’s tasting menu at its Lido restaurant.
From flittering monarch butterflies as light as a feather to elephant seals that tip the scales at more than 5,000 pounds/2,268 kilograms, 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 (Spanish for “white rocks”), alongside Highway One roughly 7 miles north of San Simeon. Here, some 17,000 elephant seals, once hunted to near extinction, haul up on the rocky sands to breed, have their young, malt and rest. From observation areas above the sands, watch bellowing bull elephant seals as large as mini-vans battle for territory, while quieter, smaller females nurture their plump, cigar-shape pups. Knowledgeable docents are usually on site.
From late October into February, visit the remarkable monarch butterfly groves at Pismo State Beach to see these orange-and-black beauties as they congregate in great numbers during the winter. Recently, the population has averaged around 25,000 butterflies but more than 100,000 monarchs have gathered during peak seasons.
At Morro Bay, listen for the banging sound of sea otters using little rocks as tools to open shellfish. Scan the skies and waters for herons and egrets (there’s a lively rookery along the shoreline, near the natural history museum at Morro Bay State Park), as well as a huge number of migratory waterfowl and peregrine falcons (a pair often nests on Morro Rock). Join a guided kayak trip to paddle across the bay with a knowledgeable guide to see diving cormorants and basking harbour seals as well as sea otters, and to learn about local oyster farming. Paddle across the bay to climb tall sand dunes, a great place to look for migrating blue, grey and humpback whales.
Charming Cambria is a village by the sea—not a beach town. Most people know it as the gateway to Hearst Castle, just 11 miles up the San Luis Obispo County coast. But even without its famous neighbour, Cambria’s creative vibe and its setting—beautiful pine forests and open space along a craggy stretch of the California coast—make it an irresistible destination in its own right.
For such a small community (just 6,000 residents), Cambria has many moods. On the inland side of Highway 1, Cambria’s commercial area is divided into two distinct sections along Main Street. With some buildings dating to the 19th century, its East Village is the oldest part of town.
In the former Bank of Cambria building, The Vault Gallery showcases the art of leading plein air painters, as well as contemporary works by the likes of Billy Zane, co-star of Titanic. Plenty of people stop in Cambria just for a slice of the famous olallieberry pie at Linn’s Restaurant, while the eclectic global cuisine and historic adobe setting have made Robin’s restaurant a Central Coast dining landmark for more than 30 years. A few blocks away, the seasonal menu at the Black Cat Bistro and its intimate warren of dining areas set it apart as a favourite of couples looking for a romantic night out.
Nearby in the West Village, Madeline’s Restaurant & Wine Tasting Room pours top Central Coast wines by day and, in the evening, serves such favourites as lamb shank and a pan-seared duck breast. You can also browse through several galleries in this area—including Ephraim Pottery, where you’ll find pieces by owner Kevin Hicks, as well as handcrafted furniture and lamps.
Across Highway 1, Moonstone Beach is lined with hotels, many offering ocean-view rooms. Walk across the road and you can stroll above the surf on a bluff-top boardwalk that runs for about 1.5 miles—with beautiful views the entire way. For dinner along Moonstone Beach, go to the Sea Chest, which draws long lines (there are no reservations), thanks to an outstanding oyster bar and the popular calamari steak. And nearby, at the 437-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, an extensive trail network follows the coastline and climbs into serene pine forests 400 feet above the ocean.
Make a stop along Highway 1 to visit Limekiln State Park, where you’ll discover a piece of 19th-century history while hiking trails through towering coastal redwoods. At this Big Sur park two miles south of Lucia, camping, swimming (in Limekiln Creek and at a beach), and spotting marine life carries huge appeal, but it’s undoubtedly the historic kilns that are the park’s signature attraction.
As the name suggests, Limekiln State Park was once the site of a booming limekiln operation (more on that below, if you’re scratching your head), and short walks let you not only explore the limekiln ruins but also visit the aforementioned beach and Limekiln Falls.
History explains how, in the late 1880s, limestone was harvested from a nearby slope, then fed into the hulking kilns. Intense heat—with kiln fires fuelled by felled redwoods—extracted pure lime, a key ingredient in construction cement, which was used in buildings in San Francisco and Monterey.
Once all the nearby reserves of limestone and redwoods were used up, the kilns were abandoned. Slowly, the forest recovered, and the second-growth redwood stands in this park today make for a pleasant and shady escape (not to mention one with an interesting past). In the midst of this intensely naturalistic setting, the four iron-and-stone kilns rise, scarred and imposing, like monuments to some bygone civilization. It’s a dramatic contrast that’s likely to spark even the most seasoned sightseer’s imagination.
Pitch a tent—car and RV camping is not accommodated for—in one of the 29 campsites located creekside, on the beachfront, and in the forest. You can reserve a site up to six months in advance.
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. Locals and visitors to the area alike flock here, drawn to the ultra-relaxed vibe first created by Lolly and Bill Fassett in 1949 (perhaps not coincidentally, the restaurant is still owned and run by the same family today).
At dinner, try the famous Ambrosia Burger, or the roast chicken with sage stuffing—Lolly’s signature dish—or a variety of vegetarian entrees. And, of course, there’s that sweeping view. Take it in from a seat on the patio—a wide-open space that is the epitome of unfussiness—or step inside the main building, which was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright’s and hints at the master architect’s style of creating structures that are striking, yet at one with their environment.
The legacy of Big Sur’s Beat Generation and the hippie era live on at Nepenthe too—hang around the handsome bar or outside by the fire pit and keep your ears peeled for names like Kerouac and Miller and stories that start with “I remember when…” You can even take home a bit of Big Sur style: The Phoenix at Nepenthe gift shop, located just below Nepenthe and atop another establishment well worth a visit, Café Kevah, features handmade jewellery, ceramics and even instruments for that perfect drum circle.
Welcome to 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 at numerous turnouts to get amazing views, particularly from the bridge’s south end at sunset.
Completed in 1932 for just over $200,000, the concrete span, one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world, soars 260 feet above the bottom of a steep canyon carved by Bixby Creek. One look at the canyon’s steep and crumbling cliffs, and it’s obvious that building the bridge wasn’t exactly a piece of cake. First, a massive wooden framework had to be built, with materials brought by truck on what was then a narrow, one-way road riddled with hairpin turns. A staggering 45,000 individual sacks of cement had to be hauled up the framework—and this is before advanced heavy machinery could help do the lifting. Each bag was transported via a system of platforms and slings suspended by cables 300 feet above the creek. Curiously, the span was completed before the road, and it would be five more years before the route linking Carmel (about 15 miles to the north) to San Luis Obispo would even be opened.
Today (as always) the bridge is a favourite attraction for photographers, from professionals to those in search of the ultimate depth-of-field selfie. But whether you are snapping away or not, be sure to take advantage of the multiple viewpoints; they are key for revelling in 360-degree views instead of just the direction you are going.
Want a short hike with a huge reward? The ½-mile/1-km 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 an oceanfront overlook with flawless views of McWay Falls, a favourite spot of Big Sur pioneer woman Julia Pfeiffer Burns, for whom the park is named. Let’s just say Julia had good taste. The plume of water drops some 80 feet/24 meters from the top of a granite cliff to a sandy cove below (not even footprints on the sand mar the perfection, as this beach is closed to the public).
If you’re up for more of a leg stretch, also hike the 1-mile roundtrip 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 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 travelling.
If there was only the beach, that would be enough. It’s a lovely beach, a crescent of pale sand that gives way to turquoise Pacific, backed by Monterey cypress, their foliage flattened into wide fans by the coastal wind. But Carmel Beach isn’t the only star of the petite Monterey County city. Rather, it’s an ensemble cast of charms that make Carmel-by-the-Sea such an enchanting destination.
Officially incorporated in 1916, Carmel has long exerted a magnetic pull on artists and authors. Today Carmel Village is home to nearly 100 art galleries, and some of its earliest residents included writers Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis and Jack London, who fled post-earthquake San Francisco for the enclave’s bohemian appeal. Poet Robinson Jeffers, arriving with his wife in 1914, called the town “our inevitable place”, and built his stone Tor House overlooking the ocean, now open on weekends for tours.
The tradition of naming homes endures in Carmel, where garden cottages that look plucked from the Brothers Grimm sit next to Mediterranean estates and modern ranches. Builder Hugh Comstock created the fairy tale aesthetic in the 1920s, and 21 of his originals remain, including the Tuck Box, a quaint café that specializes in afternoon tea.
For those in search of heartier fare, there’s Cultura Comida y Bebida, where Oaxacan dishes like smoked pork mole and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers seasoned with lime and salt) are best paired with one of 39 mezcals. At La Bicyclette, the vibe is pure French bistro, while special occasions merit Aubergine, a tasting-menu splurge inside L’Auberge Carmel resort.
Along with restaurants, Carmel Village is stocked with wine-tasting rooms and boutiques. Sip a Pinot Noir from Central Coast Wine Country or browse fancy pens at Bittner, a shop dedicated to the art of writing.
But it’s the raw environment that best defines this stretch of California, and that means venturing out. Navigate 17-Mile Drive by car or bike, stopping to contemplate the Lone Cypress that’s clung to a patch of rock for centuries. Play a round at Pebble Beach, the No. 1 public golf course in the country, book a surf lesson, or make for Point Lobos State Reserve, where scuba divers and kayakers share the water with harbour 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.