Drive, Dine, Walk, and Gawk. Find joy by following the ultimate guide to the 735 gorgeous miles of California’s Highway 1.
Laguna Beach to Santa Monica
Miles: 60 | Number of boats in Newport Harbor: 9,000 | Surf shops in Huntington Beach: 13 | Lights on Santa Monica Pier’s Pacific Wheel: 160,000
Highway 1 begins unceremoniously, emerging from a tangle of freeway ramps in Orange County’s Dana Point. There’s a glimpse of ocean, but it isn’t until Laguna Beach that Highway 1 becomes Pacific Coast Highway in more than name. In the O.C., the luxe life is everywhere—pastel villas, yachts, and the requisite Ferrari dealer—while Huntington Beach delivers the simpler pleasures of 10 miles of beachfront. Then the road veers from the ocean, even going underground beneath the runways at LAX. All of which makes it that much sweeter when Highway 1 escapes the darkness of the McClure Tunnel to bask in the Santa Monica sun.
Most beautiful stretch of sand, Laguna Beach
Catch Aliso Beach Park on a balmy day when the water turns a translucent turquoise, and you’ll think you’ve been transported south to the tropics. Backed by low hills and cliffs topped by dream homes, the beach looks out on Santa Catalina Island, with low-tide access south around a rocky point to a long, curving stretch of sand. There may be better-known beaches in Orange County but certainly none more beautiful.
A soulful surfing superstore, Huntington Beach
Wannabes and serious surfers alike wander the warren of rooms at Huntington Surf & Sport, browsing the latest surf fashions, as well as boards crafted by leading shapers. You can hang with locals at Java Point Coffee, the store’s cafe, then honor the sport’s titans at the Surfers’ Hall of Fame, a shrine with hand- and footprints of such wave-riding icons as Laird Hamilton and Kelly Slater.
A stay at the shore, Santa Monica
Poised along the margin between Santa Monica’s downtown and the oceanfront, Shore Hotel combines a contemporary look with casual coastal cool. The sustainably designed (it earned LEED Gold certification) boutique hotel’s 164 rooms and suites are compact (and pricey), but the rich turquoise and orange hues and the balconies, many with views of Santa Monica Pier and the pool, bring a beachy ambiance inside.
Malibu to Lompoc
Miles: 119 | Malibu’s most expensive home sale: $75 million | Year Stearns Wharf built: 1872 | Size of Santa Rita Hills wine region: 100 sq. mi.
In Malibu, Highway 1 opens up and achieves escape velocity from greater Los Angeles. It is the Southern California of beachfront celebrity homes, towel-wrapped surfers shimmying out of wetsuits by the roadside, and lyrically named beaches: Zuma and Surfrider and El Matador. Soft light makes the Pacific shimmer and paints Santa Barbara’s mountains with oranges and violets. Beyond Santa Barbara, Highway 1 turns inland as it crosses Gaviota Pass. You’ve left the ocean behind. But the final run toward Lompoc has its own appeal, as Highway 1 winds through the golden hills of the 13,000-acre Rancho San Julián—a working cattle ranch for 200 years.
Secluded sands, Malibu
Like Zuma Beach, its famous neighbor just to the north, Westward Beach has ample parking and powerful waves. But bordered by sandstone bluffs instead of PCH’s pavement, it feels more unspoiled. The headland of Point Dume forms the beach’s southern boundary, and if you want even more privacy, hike up and over the point, then down a staircase to secluded Dume Cove.
Miracle burgers, Jalama Beach
Yes, Jalama Beach is a 14-mile detour off the highway, a twisting journey through rolling ranchlands. But there’s a reward at the end of the road. The Jalama Burger is a paper-wrapped miracle, perfect in every bite. The beach setting adds to the allure, but Jalama Burgers would taste great anywhere.
The new wine country, Lompoc
The rolling hills around Lompoc are producing some of California’s best wines—heady stuff for a town formerly known as flower-seed capital of the world. And while it may be short on romance—it’s located in an industrial park—the improbably named Lompoc Wine Ghetto is a collection of 20 tasting rooms where you can sample some of the best the Santa Rita Hills region has to offer, including Fiddlehead Cellars and Flying Goat Cellars.
Cayucos to Point Lobos
Miles: 110 | Weight of Male Elephant Seal: 5,000 lbs. | Length of Bixby Creek Bridge: 714 Ft. | Years of Construction at Hearst Castle: 28
When William Randolph Hearst called the hilltop site of his castle “the loveliest spot in the world,” he could just as easily have been describing the Central Coast that spreads out along Highway 1. It’s a big country of giant sea stacks, massive elephant seals, and in the case of Hearst Castle itself, 165 rooms and 90,000 square feet. But SUV sized seals and legendary moguls seem dwarfed by Big Sur, the separate realm to the north. Here Highway 1 earns its status as one of the world’s greatest drives. Mountains plunge straight into the Pacific. Veils of fog drift into redwood canyons, then retreat offshore, blurring the boundaries between continent, ocean, and sky.
The magic castle, San Simeon
Of course you want to see Hearst Castle—no trip up Highway 1 would be complete without a tour of William Randolph’s fabled hilltop estate. If you’ve visited before, we suggest getting a more intimate glimpse of the press baron on the Upstairs Suites Tour. Afterward, head down the hill to San Simeon, the tiny port that gave the castle its official name. Sebastian’s Store serves superior burgers (made from Hearst Ranch beef); across the street, San Simeon Pier and W.R. Hearst Memorial State Beach are both fine places to soak up a little sun with your views of the Pacific.
A bend in the redwoods, Big Sur
On a coast that prizes eccentricity, Deetjens Big Sur Inn lifts it to art form: 20 rooms and cabins crafted by Norwegian immigrant Helmuth Deetjen between the 1930s and ’60s, scattered beneath redwoods. Doors creak, floors creak; you build your fire in your fireplace and think this is magical, or this is hell. Probably the former, because Deetjens is beautiful and because its restaurant serves some of the best food along Highway 1.
Pebble Beach to Half Moon Bay
Miles: 96 | Number of U.S. Opens held at Pebble Beach: 5 | Year people first surfed at Santa Cruz: 1885 | Top speed of Giant Dipper roller coaster: 46 mph
After the untamed drama of Big Sur, Highway 1 makes a calmer approach to the sweep of Monterey Bay. The pleasures here are civilized: Pebble Beach’s fairways, Carmel’s galleries, and Pacific Grove’s narrow streets of tiny Victorian cottages. But along the Santa Cruz waterfront, the refined gives way to the endless summer pursuits of roller-coaster rides at the beachfront boardwalk and surfing the perfect waves at Steamer Lane. It can get big at Steamer but nothing like at Half Moon Bay, 50 miles north, where the Mavericks Invitational doesn’t even take place unless the wave faces reach 20 feet or more. So much for civilized pleasures.
Lunch on the links, Pebble Beach
Pebble Beach Golf Links may have an exclusive rep, but anyone can enjoy The Bench, a relaxed restaurant overlooking the 18th Green and Carmel Bay. Even if you don’t know a sand trap from a green, you’ll like the artisanal salad with wood-grilled salmon.
Thrill rides, Santa Cruz
Take a scream-stirring ride on the Giant Dipper, or test your courage on the new Undertow, a roller coaster with spinning cars. Amusement parks don’t get more amusing than the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Need a place to recover from the Dipper’s curves? Spend the night at sleek Santa Cruz Dream Inn.
Hidden beaches, Half Moon Bay
The San Mateo County stretch of Highway 1 is its most underrated. Unjustly. North of Pescadero, you’ll find magical pocket beaches: Pomponio, San Gregorio, and—most secluded of all—Cowell Ranch State Beach. A half-mile walk leads to the stairway down to the deserted sands; for a longer hike, turn south onto the Cowell-Purisima Trail, a 3-mile path tracing the cliffs.
San Francisco to Jenner
Miles: 82 | Golden Gate Bridge Toll: $6 | Miles of trails at Point Reyes National Seashore: Nearly 150 recorded | Shipwrecks off Marin County: 100+
Highway 1’s route through San Francisco isn’t lovely. Downgraded to 19th Avenue, it’s 4 miles of red lights. But wait. Soon it pulls you across the Golden Gate Bridge, then on the Marin side twists west to bring you back to the Pacific. Here beside Tomales Bay is Northern California keeping nature and civilization in equilibrium: the $20 locally sourced salad balanced by the beach you stroll for free. The highway runs up the Sonoma Coast, following the San Andreas Fault, which has shaped the cliffs and coves it bends to. The world is wilder—steep green bluffs, coffee brown rocks, cold blue ocean with distant sprays from a whale’s spout.
A perfect point of view, San Francisco
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Lands End Lookout opened to rave reviews last summer. If it’s foggy, you can duck into the polished redwood-and-concrete visitor center to learn about the Ohlone people who once lived here, see photos of the old Playland park, or buy a cup of clam chowder. If it’s sunny, the ocean views are the best in S.F.
Heaven on the half-shell, Inverness
Our tip to people heading to or from Point Reyes National Seashore—pull over when you see Saltwater Oyster Depot’s spiffy shack. At least, if you’re interested in sparkling fresh mollusks from the bay across the street. There’s also a half-dozen interesting California wines on tap.
A private pocket of the coast, Jenner
It’s not as well known as Salt Point State Park to the north, but Stillwater Cove Regional Park is a gem in its own right. Stroll down from the parking lot through what feels like primeval rain forest, cross Highway 1, and voilà … your own private inlet. Or head a quarter-mile north to explore glorious seaside meadows.
Sea Ranch to Rockport
Miles: 90 | Most recent value of year’s catch from Fort Bragg: $6.8 million | Number of B&Bs in Mendocino Village: 46 | Steps up Point Arena Lighthouse: 145
The northernmost stretch of Highway 1 is moody. One hour it’s fog-wrapped and brooding. An hour later, a gentle sun gives highway, forest, and ocean a brilliant sparkle. The road skirts coastal towns that hug cliff tops (Elk) and pose tidily on bluffs (Mendocino). Rivers—the Navarro, the Little, the Big—curve beneath bridges as they meet the sea. This remains a working coast. Fort Bragg’s still a fishing port, and you may share the road with a logging truck. Above Rockport, Highway 1 bends inland toward its terminus at U.S. 101 at Leggett. Before that, linger among the redwoods that line its final miles: They’re stunning, unforgettable, like Highway 1.
High light, Point Arena
At 115 feet, Point Arena Lighthouse ties with San Mateo County’s Pigeon Point as tallest lighthouse on the West Coast. Even cooler, you can climb to the top for views of the Mendocino Coast.
A classic renewed, Sea Ranch
Sea Ranch Lodge is looking fresher than ever. A recent facelift brought the 19 guest rooms into the 21st century (rainfall showerheads and pillow-top mattresses) while leaving intact the weathered cedar paneling, the 1960s oak built-ins—and the soothing peace and quiet. (Read: no TVs or clock radios, and limited cell service. Truly timeless.) Electric kettles and refrigerators in each room mean you can brew a cup of whatever beverage you need first thing in the morning, and wake up slowly with the Pacific as a companion.
Big trees, Rockport
Mendocino County is where Redwood Country begins. Tucked into the Coast Range, the Redwood Grove & Picnic Area is a misty little grove you’ll likely have to yourself.
Source: Sunset Magazine