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Highway 1: Must-sees on California's Pacific coast road trips

Highway 1: Must-sees on California's Pacific coast
Credit: Susan B. Barnes
Elephant seals at rest in SLO CAL.
Credit: Susan B. Barnes
Elephant seals at rest in SLO CAL.

One of the most iconic road trip routes in the USA may very well be down California’s Highway 1 that hugs the rocky Pacific coastline and passes through some of the state’s most popular destinations. The 600-plus-mile route is so popular with road trippers, in fact, that the team at VisitCalifornia.com has developed an itinerary that highlights the must-sees and must-dos, the Highway One Classic itinerary. We took our time traveling down the coastline from San Francisco to San Diego, and made several stops on our journey to make the most of our time in the Golden State. Here are a few of our favorite coastal towns and highlights along the way to inspire you to take your own road trip on the California highway.

Note: Although a portion of Highway 1 is closed near Big Sur due to ongoing highway repairs as a result of a mudslide, road trippers can still enjoy the beauty of the area’s famed coastline and detour inland to discover wine country, Spanish missions and national parks before rejoining the route on their north- or southbound journeys.


About two and a half hours from the buzz of San Francisco is the slower pace of Monterey County and its rugged coastline, quiet coastal villages and pristine state parks. We suggest stretching your legs at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Garrapata State Park, or Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. These parks’ hiking trails, Pacific Ocean overlooks and quiet beaches are terrific introductions to the county that lays claim to the picturesque 17-Mile Drive and its Lone Cypress; Pebble Beach Golf Links; and Monterey Bay Aquarium. Continue south towards Big Sur and snap a few photos of the Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the most photographed spots along Highway 1. We enjoyed watching the sunset over the ocean and the bridge at the Rocky Point Restaurant, just off of Highway 1.

Stay: Life is sweet with a stay at La Playa Carmel, the “Grande Dame of Carmel” that was built in 1905 by artist Christian Jorgensen as a gift to his wife Angela, a member of the Ghiradelli family.


As tempting as it was to stop when we passed through the Paso Robles wine country en route from Carmel (about three hours) via the 101, we arrived in San Luis Obispo County, or SLO CAL as it’s affectionately known, and made a beeline for the Piedras Blancas Rookery near San Simeon and Cambria to see the elephant seals. There must have been hundreds of seals snoozing on the beach in the warmth of the sun, playing in the waves, and simply enjoying some quiet time before heading back into the cold ocean waters. On the other end of the spectrum, we also visited the opulent, 165-room Hearst Castle, built by William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan in the early-twentieth century. The stunning views from the hilltop estate reach to the Pacific Ocean, not to mention surrounding farmlands and hillsides.

Stay: The country meets the beach at Oceanpoint Ranch, across the street from Moonstone Beach in Cambria. Play a game of horseshoes or cornhole, then sip a glass of local wine fireside in your room or at the outdoor fire pit.

Santa Barbara

After one last visit to the elephant seals, we hopped back into the car and continued along Highway 1 for about two and a half hours until we reached Santa Barbara, known for its art scene, wine scene (there’s even an urban wine trail) and laid-back vibe. To get a lay of the land, we hopped on a pair of bikes and toured the city with Santa Barbara Adventure Co. guide and local artist Matt Rodriguez. As we tooled along the quiet streets past the Pacific Ocean, historic architecture and the emerging Funk Zone – filled with museums, art galleries, restaurants and an exciting energy – it was easy to see why the city calls itself The American Riviera. There’s a bit of something for everyone here, and everyone can easily be themselves in Santa Barbara.

Stay: Overlooking West Beach, the Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf, Hotel Milo is perfectly situated for exploring the city by foot, or on one of the hotel’s bikes, which are available for complimentary use.

San Diego

Because of our schedule – and tickets to a San Diego Padres game – we didn’t have time to spend much time in LA or Orange County en route from Santa Barbara to San Diego, but we vowed to get to these spots on our next visit. Speaking of the Padres, one of the cool ways to get to the ball game from Coronado Island is by ferry – we hopped aboard and rode across the bay to the outskirts of the Gaslamp Quarter, filled with restaurants and shops and plenty to see and do to keep you occupied for hours. Time spent in Old Town San Diego provided terrific insight into what was California’s first settlement, when it was only a mission and a fort. It’s amazing to see what California’s first settlement has grown into, not to mention the state.

Stay: Celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, Hotel del Coronado has long been a popular destination along San Diego’s coastline. Make your own history during a stay at The Del.