The ultimate guide to the best coastal road trip in the world

McWay Falls being a "must stop" while in Big Sur.
EMMA ORCHARD

McWay Falls being a "must stop" while in Big Sur.

The unforgettable journey along California's coast begins with the US Pacific Coast Highway (also known as State Route 1 or Highway 1) from Los Angeles through Big Sur to San Francisco, then picks up again on the less-traversed Shoreline Highway that curves cliffside around wildflower-specked green bluffs, over river inlets and through the ancient redwood forests all the way to Oregon.

Here's 38 stops you shouldn't miss.

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California road trip

The sun sets over the Pacific Ocean behind Bixby Bridge.
REUTERS

The sun sets over the Pacific Ocean behind Bixby Bridge.

 

Santa Barbara

Wearing its Spanish influence on its sleeve, this palm-tree covered coastal town is the largest between LA and San Francisco. Wine rules this city; save yourself a trip to its famed wineries in the surrounding countryside and follow the Urban Wine Trail through town before feasting on Spanish-style tapas at its famed restaurants Loquita and The Lark in the hip Funk Zone.

Worth a detour: a five-star pub-style lunch awaits at Los Olivos' beautiful new restaurant The Bear and Star. A 45 minute sojourn from town, this is the region's best-kept secret - but not for long. It's three top-notch chefs aim to turn fine-dining on its head by making it affordable, with the food sourced directly from farmlands around famed local winery, Fess Parker.

The Lost City of Cecille de Mille at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes

You may not stop of the dunes themselves, but as you drive past it's interesting to note that somewhere under all that sand lies a 'lost city'. The early 20th century director filmed The Ten Commandments here, and could not afford to move the set - so here it remains, dismantled and buried. Actor Peter Brosnan was so fascinated by the story, he's been battling to dig it up - see his 2016 documentary. There's also a small museum dedicated to the site in Guadalupe. dunescenter.org

Pismo Beach ​

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A beautiful, wide bay with huge sandy beach marks Pismo. A surf town at heart, with a brightly coloured, art deco centre, from which you can stroll the pier and be rewarded with seals barking excitedly from the water among the surfers. Along the cliffs that follow the bay there's another coastal walk from which the odds are very good of seeing migrating grey whales.

Worth a stop: Located near the pier, Splash Cafe sell over 30,000 gallons of their clam chowder a year, so you might want to see what the fuss is all about.

 

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San Luis Obispo

Kitsch reigns supreme at inland San Luis Obispo. Skip the stomach-churning bubblegum wall, and head to the flamboyant Madonna Inn, a bright pink hotel whose individually designed rooms are carved from rock. Even if you don't stay you can dine in its equally ostentatious restaurant, the Copper Cafe, which is filled with red-cushioned booths, a unique horseshoe bar and chandeliers dripping from the ceiling. The cakes here are equally decadent, with one slice enough to satisfy a baby elephant. Other notable aspects include a waterfall which doubles as a men's urinal.

Worth a detour: During March/April, the surrounding hills of Carrizo Plain National Monument are covered in wildflowers which were particularly spectacular during California's 'superbloom' this year.

Morro Bay

A small seaside town with a big heart, its quiet bay is shadowed by the huge haystack, Morro Rock. Officially the beginning of the Pacific Coast Highway, it's pleasant to while away an hour at its sheltered inlet and watch seals and otters play between boats bobbing in the harbour over salt water taffy, fresh seafood, or for breakfast, the decadent cinnamon scrolls heaped with cream cheese icing, all available all along the Embacardo. crills.qpg.com

San Simeon*

Hundreds of these huge, noisy, stinky seals bask in the sun of San Simeon's Piedras Blancas beach, an otherwise unremarkable strip of sand. A large carpark and viewing platform gives first-time viewers easy access to ogle these monstrous creatures.

Worth a detour: Hilltop Hearst Castle is nearby - but you'll need to book a tour and allow an extra half-day to see it.

Ragged Point*

Some days it can be wild and windy, others misty, or perfectly sunny and mild-mannered. Either way, the views both north and south of this 400 foot high bluff are dubbed million-dollar for a reason, and give you a real taste of what's to come over the next few hours' drive towards Big Sur.

McWay Falls*

Huge numbers of cars parked by the roadside marks the entrance to the iconic McWay Falls in Julia Burns State Park, a fairytale-like cove where a waterfall tumbles onto an inaccessible beach to a small gathering of seagulls. Bonus points if you get here at sunset for the best photos.

Partington Cove*​

One of the many enjoyable, yet also testing, parts of the Big Sur coast is finding the gems, such as Partington Cove, which you'll find off one of many unmarked paths along Highway 1. A short hike passes through a 60 foot tunnel, leading to a secluded cove where its churning, kelp-filled waters were rumoured to be used by pirates during Prohibition. These days, its mostly just otters and seals, which is more than enough excitement for me.

Nepenthe and Post Ranch Inn* ​

These are the destination restaurants that attract the more well-heeled visitors to Big Sur. Nepenthe sits cliff-top offering famous burgers and breathtaking views to its day-tripping visitors. Post Ranch Inn has five star accommodation, a spa and renown restaurant Sierra Mar. It's currently flying guests in via helicopter to avoid road closures.

Note: One of Sierra Mar's head chefs and several other key staff members recently defected to The Bear and Star in Los Olivos, so if you want to experience Post Ranch without the hefty price tag, the detour out of Santa Barbara is your best bet.

Pfeiffer Beach*

I had to drive past the entrance to Sycamore Canyon Road about six times before I found it: the locals want this beautiful and iconic piece of Big Sur's coast to remain secret for a good reason, and continually remove the signs. It's a narrow, windy 3.5 kilometre drive to Pfeiffer Beach, which is known for its purple sand and a huge rocky arch which photographers love to catch the sun peeking through at sunset.

Hurricane Point View*

One of Big Sur's greatest viewpoints looks over a number of green bluffs that bounce back towards Bixby Bridge, a few miles to the north. Cameras at the ready.

Bixby Bridge*

Perhaps the most iconic Pacific Coast stop, monumental Bixby Bridge will take your breath away. A glorious concrete archway over an enormous crumbling canyon, it is one of the most photographed points in California. It's also one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world. Built in 1932, it was completed five years before the road to San Luis Obispo actually opened.

Point Lobos State Park

Just outside of the quaint seaside town of Carmel is this tiny state reserve, worth the US$10 admission fee for the short hike at the park's end to the icky white-coated rocks of Bird Island. Watch out for seals that frolic in turquoise waters of the secluded China Cove.

Monterey ​

An excellent overnight stop, known for its famous aquarium where sea otters are the stars of the show. This is where you'll find the now very touristy Cannery Row, of John Steinbeck fame, plus a good choice of hotels, pubs and restaurants. This was also where HBO's Big Little Lies was filmed, the opening sequence of which also features Bixby Bridge.

Moss Landing

This sheltered inlet isn't terribly picturesque and you would otherwise drive straight past if it wasn't for the fact it is one of the best places in the world to see otters in the wild. Which you must do here, unless you have a heart made of cold, hard stone. They're getting pretty common in spots along the Pacific coast, but here there's a 100 per cent chance of seeing them - we even witnessed them walking - rather comically - along the beach.

Tip: This is also where you'll find seafood institute philsfishmarket.com - there's always a line but it moves fast and servings are huge, so be warned.

Seacliff State Beach in Aptos ​

One of California's beloved quirks can be found in the seaside town of Aptos. Head to State Park Drive for the best views of the shipwreck Palo Alto, a retired WW I ship, towed here and left at the end of the pier as an amusement ship with dance floor, swimming pool and cafe. Until 1931, that is, when things went pear shaped and the ship was deserted, leaving the weirdest fishing pier, ever. Which happens to look amazing at sunset.

Home restaurant, Soquel

Foodies may want to save their appetites for this top secret (to tourists, anyhow) restaurant located in the small town of Soquel, just outside of Santa Cruz. It's in an old bungalow, hence the name, focussing on local ingredients for mediterranean-inspired, Californian cuisine. Chef Brad Briske not only butchers the meat but was also spied sweeping out the kitchen at the end of the night. We loved it. homesoquel.com

Santa Cruz ​

This is a buzzing coastal town worth a few nights if you can spare them, with great spots to eat, and lots of local breweries. Fans of the Lost Boys will want to explore its famous pier, which houses the oldest wooden roller coaster in the USA. (Tip: watch your neck if you decide to ride it.) Monday nights in the summer is one dollar night, and all rides will cost you a mere buck. The beach is fantastic and the coastal walk to the city's north leading to Natural Bridges State Beach is worth the stroll (but you can drive it if you don't have the time).

Shark Fin Cove ​

At unique bay north of Santa Cruz houses an island the shape of a shark fin. Hailed as one of the best beaches in northern California, and not one known to tourists, where you can hike down to the bay and explore a sea cave which you can walk right through at low tide.

Ano Nuevo Island

It's a two hour hike round trip, but this sandy walk through scrubland will take you through to a beach which views Ano Nuevo Island - a renown breeding ground for elephant seals, which you'll hear and smell before you see. It also houses a spectacularly abandoned, but frustratingly unreachable, 19th century lighthouse.

Pidgeon Point lighthouse

This New England style lighthouse sits on a rocky outcrop a stone's throw from the highway and its restored lighthouse keeper's houses have been converted into a youth hostel. This is also a great spot to view migrating grey whales.

Grey Whale Cove State Beach and Devil's Slide Bunker

A derelict World War II bunker sits atop a hill and offers some of California's best views down the coast where you can bid au revoir to the central coast and the Pacific Coast Highway before a tunnel drops you into the outskirts of San Francisco.

Marin Headlands and Point Bonita Lighthouse

It's hard to fathom that this stunning headland is just over the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Here, you'll wage war with cyclists along the one lane Conzelman Road, which meanders over the headland offering the best views of the Bridge, with San Francisco behind it. The road leads to the picturesque Point Bonita Lighthouse, on the headland's other side; to get there you'll need to take the rocky tunnel across to the annexed piece of land which is only open between 12.30 to 3.30 from Saturday to Monday.

Tip: Conzelman Road has been known to close on weekends, leaving it free for cyclists; plan accordingly, otherwise you'll have to utilise the Golden Gate viewpoints to the north and south of the bridge, sharing it with busloads of tourists.

Stinson Beach

Say hello to the Shoreline Highway, which shoots off the 101 after Sausalito, thus marking the beginning of the northern Californian coastline drive. Unless you're visiting on a public holiday, the road is welcomely quiet compared to its central Californian equivalent. Diverting through forests, over river inlets and out again to soar over the sea, its hairpin turns make it slow going in some places but the endless rewards are worth it.

Stinson Beach is one place where you're ejected from forest to overlook a huge sandy spit that marks the mouth of the Bolinas Lagoon, offering jaw-dropping views of this popular swimming beach.

Bolinas

A classic, charming old Californian surfer-meets-Haight-Ashbury town that its protective locals would like to remain secret, and therefore cheekily remove the road sign directing you from the Olema Bolinas Road, which follows the opposite side of the lagoon off the Shoreline Highway. Try as they might, it does not stop the hordes of day trippers coming out here, taking up all the parking spaces, so avoid weekends if you can. Rooms are available at smileyssaloon.com.

 

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Point Reyes National Seashore

Probably the most spectacular and necessary detour you'll make off Highway 1, this national park has four of the most instagrammable attractions in California. From the cypress tree tunnel to the Point Reyes shipwreck near Inverness, to the Alameda Falls hike and finally the lighthouse, which sits atmospherically on a rocky outcrop at the end of a long set of stairs. You'll also find the park's best viewpoint here, over the wild South Beach. There's all manner of wildlife, too - elephant seals and sea lions, whales and elk.

 

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Bodega Bay

Enter Sonoma County, which is renown for its wine, laid back atmosphere and stunning countryside. Bodega Bay is a quaint seaside hamlet known for its seafood; join the queues at Spud Point Crab Company for its famous chowder. Slightly inland is the township of Bodega where Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was filmed - look for The Potter School and St Theresa's church, which were both used in the movie.

Jenner ​

Oh Jenner, you are so spectacularly cut off from the world you don't even have phone service. Sitting on the mouth of the Russian River, it's a prime position for watching the Pacific's blood red sun dipping into the horizon, setting the coastland on fire. Locals perch themselves along the coast with a bottle of good Sonoma county wine to watch, but visitors can get front row seats from the River's End cabins where there is also a casual, friendly restaurant serving top notch Californian cuisine.

Detour: It's at this point where the road starts to get really interesting; give yourself a few days off the road to embrace the Sonoma spirit. Base yourself at an authentic, beautiful farm in the lush Sonoma countryside such as Beltane Ranch and use this as a base while exploring some of the area's famous wineries.

Alternatively, take the 45 minute detour from the coast to savour the unforgettable Single Thread restaurant at Healdsburg, one of the most ambitious, high-end farm-to-table experiences one could have, and recently voted one of the US's best restaurants by Bon Appetit. singlethreadfarms.com

Gualala

Mark this town down for lunch; the road from Jenner is very windy and you'll need a break to chill in this artists' enclave which is just north of Salt Point State Park, excellent for wildlife and wildflowers - grey whales have been known to come in so close you could almost high-five a fin. Stop and eat at Trinks Bakery and Cafe, which makes very decent burgers and pies. trinkscafe.com

Bowling Ball Beach ​

This beach is another Californian oddity of epic proportions. A short hike from the road, hundreds of huge ball shaped rocks, uniform in size and spacing, have settled onto the beach, like a random art installation. Photographers love coming at low tide and capturing the boulders, which disappear at high tide - make sure you arrive at the right time of day.

Point Arena ​

The San Andreas fault juts out into the sea here, leaving the US continent and creating this marvellously messed-up landscape. The Point Arena lighthouse,the tallest in the west, sits at the end of this jagged peninsula, among islands of rocky arches which house families of seals.

Mendocino ​

I'm calling it - the prettiest town in California is filled with saltbox cottages, wildflower-strewn gardens and white picket fences. The whole village is delightfully nestled into the side of the Mendocino Headlands National Park and threatens to fall straight into the turqouise-coloured sea. If that wasn't pretty enough, in the mornings the whole town is often enveloped in mist.

Stroll around the headlands at sunset, before dropping into the hugely popular Irish pub for a pint before enjoying fine French cuisine at Cafe Beaujolais in a 1893 Victorian farmhouse, before relaxing in a spa carved from a huge old Californian redwood at Sweetwater Inn and Spa.

During the day, hike to the 36-foot waterfall in Russian Gulch State Park or through the peculiar Pygmy Forest, where trees reach no higher than your knees.

Fort Bragg's Glass Beach ​

The town's greatest attraction was gleaned from a dump. For years trash was thrown off the coast near here, which produced a beach full of rainbow-coloured shimmering 'sea glass', creating the world's most beautiful rubbish tip. Tip: watch out for the old historic trestle bridge over Pudding Creek, just north of the town.

Humboldt Redwoods and the Lost Coast

The Shoreline Highway veers off the coast and snakes its way through 32 miles of coast redwood forest named Avenue of the Giants, one of the most beautiful places in all of California, if not the world.

These woods will take your breath away. Even if you don't have a lot of time, stop and linger at Founders Grove, take in the fresh smell and the pleasant soft crunch of the canopy soil underfoot, while wandering around the trees whose size needs to be seen to be believed. This is the largest remaining old-growth forest in the world, where the tallest tree is 346 feet tall.

Perhaps even more mysterious and alluring is the parallel shoreline of the 'Lost Coast'. There's only one road that will take you there which ends at a black sand beach - the rest is only accessible to hikers.

Trinidad

A beautiful spot whose tiny, red-capped lighthouse will make photographers swoon with delight has been moved to a higher, central position where you can overlook the entire bay, its bobbing boats and huge bluff.

Redwood National and State Parks

Lady Bird Johnson Grove is a 1.5 mile round trip of redwood forest on top of a mountain, an entirely different beast to the one further south at Humbolt, which is off a busy highway. These majestic trees are a world away; maybe it's the forest moon of Endor, shrouded in mist and for the most part, free of passing cars and tourists.

Fern Canyon

Eight miles off the Shoreline Highway is a mile long hike through a lush fern-filled gully lined with mossy wallpaper, hanging gardens and waterfalls. The narrow corridor will escort you over fallen logs and across slow-moving streams of water, which house critters such as salamander. This was a location for several movies including, unsurprisingly, Jurassic Park 2.

* Due to the heavy rains in California over their last winter, it is currently not possible to drive all the way through Big Sur to the north of the Pacific Coast Highway. The rains caused landslides that destroyed roads and the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, and the only way to access the north from the south and vice-versa is via bus service. You can find the details of the bus service here.

Your best bet, if travelling from the south, is to head to Ragged Point, and then backtrack to the (rather mundane) Highway 101, and then veer left on the G16 to Carmel-by-the-Sea and work your way back down to  Big Sur where you can get a bus to sights such as McWay Falls and Partington Cove.

Pfeiffer Canyon's Sycamore Canyon Road is unfortunately also closed for the forseeable future.

But the good news is roads may reopen by the end of September, so keep your eyes on California Department of Parks and Recreation website for updates parks.ca.gov. Also check Google Maps for information before you go. Don't do what hundreds of Australian travellers have been doing, and just turning up - only to be disappointed to find they cannot drive all the way through.

The writer was a guest of Visit California, Visit Sonoma and Visit Santa Barbara

 

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