Locals may refer to it as the PCH, but the Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1) has been dubbed America’s Most Beautiful Drive and America’s Best Free Attraction. Whatever you want to call it, the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most stunning road trips you can take. Technically, Route 1 extends from Tijuana to Olympia, Washington, but the most beautiful portions can be found through Big Sur, California where the two-lane road twists and turns along high cliffs with the Pacific Ocean crashing against the rocks.
If you do get to pick a direction to drive, make it from north to south so the Pacific Ocean is unspoiled to your right and the best views of the scenery are to your left. We suggest starting in Monterey, once the capital of California under the flags of Spain, Mexico and the United States. While you’re there, stop by historic buildings such as the Royal Presidio Chapel, Monterey State Historic Park, Custom House, Casa Soberanes, Larkin House and other adobe buildings. For more touristy attractions, try Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row, where you can find the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It should take about two days to drive the California coast, but there are plenty of stops along the road if you're looking to extend your trip.
Explore the Route
Three miles south of Monterey is Carmel-by-the-Sea with its colorful cottages snuggled next to romantic restaurants and inns. Art galleries and shops splay out in front of a beach protected by Monterey pines. Here you can find Mission San Carlos Borromeo del RÌo Carmelo founded by Padre JunÌpero Serra in 1770. The home of poet Robinson Jeffers, the Tor House, was built in 1919. Or relax with the pelicans and kingfishers along the mile-long Carmel River State Beach.
Just about four miles from Carmel sits Point Lobos State Reserve, a 550-acre park filled with coves, headlands, meadows, tide pools and the nation’s first undersea ecological reserve. Here you can see 70-foot-high kelp forests. Look for wildlife such as gray foxes, sea otters, sea lions and black-tailed deer among the Monterey cypresses, which grow naturally only here and in Pebble Beach.
Slow down while you’re driving through Carmel Highlands to glimpse houses perched on cliffs before you reach Big Sur, a 90-mile stretch of coastland filled with redwood groves and the Santa Lucia Range plunging into the ocean. The waves here crash against the jagged rocks with ferocious force.
Two miles south of Carmel Highlands is one of the easiest beaches to reach on your route. Garrapata State Park is a great place to watch the sea otters at play. Next come to the Bixby Bridge, a 700-foot-long single-span concrete arch meant to be photographed. Or stop at Hurricane Point with its windy views of the ocean. At the mouth of the Little Sur River, you can see the 3,709-foot-high Pico Blanco with its lime deposits. Once you see sand dunes next to the ocean, look for Point Sur Lighthouse built in 1889 and its historic state park. At Andrew Molera State Park, find a beach, oak trees and redwood forests and part of the Big Sur River, all accessible on foot.
When you hit the town of Big Sur, you can find Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park for views of Big Sur River and its redwoods, sycamores and ferns. For a short side trip, head to Pfeiffer Beach to see the ocean crashing through arched rocks. Save your appetite for Nepenthe, a restaurant sitting 800 feet above the sea for a relaxing lunch or dinner with a view. You can also take in a little literary culture at the Henry Miller Memorial Library sitting among the redwoods. Find books and memorabilia from the novelist, who spent 18 years in Big Sur. At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, you can discover ridges reaching 3,000 feet plummeting to an underwater preserve. A short walk takes you to McWay Falls making their way 100 feet down into a picturesque cove.
At the southern end of Big Sur, only three towns - Lucia, Plaskett, Gorda and Ragged Point - dot the road for 40 miles. The landscape changes to hills and pastures on your way to Piedras Blancas Light Station with its rocks stained white by bird droppings. The highway moves away from the ocean before hitting San Simeon, where you can take a five-mile bus ride to Hearst Castle. The 127-acre estate of William Randolph Hearst sits in the Santa Lucia Range. You can tour the 115-room main house and guesthouses with their blends of classical and Mediterranean Revival styles and decked out in antiques and art collected by the newspaper magnate.
Six miles from San Simeon is Cambria, where you can collect California jade and moonstones at Moonstone Beach. A short four miles later sits Harmony, an artists’ colony. Stop in Cayucos on Estero Bay for views of pelicans and cormorants.
End your journey in Morro Bay marked by a turban-shaped, extinct volcanic cone that dates back 23 million years. Peregrine falcons find a home on the 576-foot Morro Rock. A stop by Morro Bay unveils geat blue herons and, from October to March, monarch butterflies in eucalyptus trees.