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Cypress trees and sea stacks. Lighthouses and bridges. Oh, and I can’t forget those epic sunsets over the Pacific Ocean. There’s real magic along the Pacific Coast Highway – that’s part of why I loved living in the San Francisco Bay Area (and Seattle before) and exploring the coast on my weekends.
I’ve already written extensively about how to plan a PCH road trip and the Pacific Coast Highway stops in each of the states that comprise the Pacific Coast (Washington, Oregon, and California). I still get a lot of questions though, particularly ones like “where should I go to see Redwoods/wildlife/coastline along the PCH?” and “what are the best Pacific Coast Highway stops?” I’m writing this post to tell you the exact stops I think you can’t miss along the PCH.
Okay, all that said, here we go: these are the best Pacific Coast Highway stops you should be sure to make on your road trip!
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of many First Nations peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in March 2020, and was updated in January 2023.
Basics of the Pacific Coast Highway
In case you’re in the early stages of planning your Pacific Coast Highway road trip, the PCH starts in Seattle, follows US-101 around the Olympic Peninsula, and continues down the Washington and Oregon coasts until it meets up with California Highway 1. Highway 1 is the Pacific Coast Highway in California from Crescent City (in the north) to San Diego (in the south). In this post of the best stops along the Pacific Coast Highway, I’ve organized it from north to south.
This is the opposite direction that I drove during my own PCH road trip in 2014 – but as I explained in my big PCH guide, I think southbound is a better direction for a number of reasons. (Click here to read that guide.)
1. Hurricane Ridge
Located in the heart of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Hurricane Ridge is an iconic spot to stop and stretch your legs on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. There are a number of epic hiking trails in the area, ranging from a 0.5-mile loop to 16-mile out-and-back trails.
If you’re starting your PCH drive from Seattle, it takes three hours to reach Hurricane Ridge. The nearby town of Port Angeles is home to one of my favorite accommodations along the PCH, too!
2. Cape Disappointment
Located near another of what I consider the best hotels along the Pacific Coast Highway (the Adrift Hotel in Long Beach), Cape Disappointment is a stunning example of what makes the Pacific Northwest one of my favorite parts of the country.
It’s a great place for a hike – especially after the 5-hour drive from Port Angeles. You can make your way out onto this point of land to explore along the 8 miles of hiking trails and to the lighthouse which helps ship captains begin the treacherous navigation up the Columbia River.
3. Ruby Beach
Ruby Beach is one of the most photogenic beaches in Washington. In all honesty, the scenery here is simply captivating. The landscape dotted by rocky outcroppings, oddly shaped driftwood, scattered tidal pools, and imposing sea stacks creates a poetic setting that seems straight out of a Terrence Malick movie.
Besides the endless photo opportunities, Ruby Beach is a wonderful place to stretch your legs and enjoy the breezy air. Get lost in the pathways while the murmuring of the ocean and the colors of the greenery delight your senses.
4. Haystack Rock
Along the Pacific Coast Highway, you’re going to see a lot of sea stacks. What’s a sea stack? It’s a rock formation off the main coast, usually something like a column of stone, which is created by wave erosion.
One of the most famous sea stacks along the Pacific Coast is Haystack Rock, located near Cannon Beach, Oregon. It’s a short drive from Long Beach to Cannon Beach (just one hour), so this is a good midday excursion on your PCH trip.
Depending on the timing and tides of when you make a road trip stop you may be able to walk right up to the base of this 235-foot rock formation that appears ‘out at sea’ during high tides. If so, keep an eye out for sea stars and anemones clinging to the sides of Haystack Rock.
5. Devils Punchbowl
Sort of the “opposite” of sea stacks like Haystack Rock, Devils Punchbowl is another beautiful natural rock formation along the Oregon Coast. It was also formed by wave erosion, and now the huge hole is a beautiful vista or hiking spot.
Similar to Haystack Rock, your experience stopping at Devils Punchbowl will depend on the tides. At low tide, you can hike down into the hole or go tidepooling; at other times you can have a picnic while trying to spot whales off the coast.
6. California Redwoods
As you drive from southern Oregon into northern California, the Pacific Coast Highway turns inland for a bit, and takes you through one of my favorite landscapes in California, the forests of Coastal Redwoods. (I also love the Giant Redwoods along the Sierra mountain range!)
Along the PCH between the Oregon-California border and San Francisco, there are some amazing spots to see Redwoods: Redwoods National and State Parks, Humboldt Redwoods (including the Avenue of the Giants, which is where you can find the trees pictured above), and Muir Woods. (I’ve also got a guide to other redwoods near SF here.)
If you can time it, I recommend planning an overnight stop along this part of the Pacific Coast Highway so you can have an evening and/or morning to enjoy time among the trees.
7. Shrine Drive-Thru Tree
Is it just me or do the redwoods always seem to find another way to amaze us? Nestled along the Avenue of the Giants is the Shrine Drive-thru Tree. This redwood tree was hollowed out by fire more than 100 years ago. It didn’t take long until it became one of the most popular roadside attractions in California, drawing visitors who wanted to walk or drive their cars through its narrow gash.
There is a small admission fee and other sights, including the Drive On Tree, Tree House Village, and Cathedral Tree.
Oh, and don’t forget to stop by the gift shop. They have a lot of nice wooden bowls, clocks, wooden art, plus other random gifts.
8. Fort Bragg Glass Beach
So far, all of the best stops along the Pacific Coast Highway are natural wonders: big trees, big rocks, and epic views. From here on, you’ll see a mix of natural sights, man-made points of interest, and a mix of the two.
The first of these is the Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. Formed of glass debris from a nearby past trash dump, you can find more sea glass here than many places on earth. It’s easy to miss the right beach, so be sure to follow the crowds when you arrive; if you want extra options during your PCH stop, check out the rest of MacKerricher State Park (which Glass Beach is part of).
9. Point Reyes Lighthouse
Would you believe I’ve never actually seen Point Reyes Lighthouse? When I drove the PCH in 2014, it was closed that day – and every time I’ve tried to go back since moving to the Bay Area too!
Located out on Point Reyes (which is divided from mainland California by the San Andreas fault), the landscape around the lighthouse is otherworldly and beautiful – and definitely worth the 42-mile detour.
10. The Golden Gate Bridge
Fully in the ‘man made’ category of awesome sights along the Pacific Coast Highway, there is perhaps no more iconic sight than the Golden Gate Bridge. Since its construction in 1933, the ‘international orange’ towers and suspended roadway is a must-see sight for PCH road trippers and San Francisco visitors alike – actually, if you’re driving the Pacific Coast Highway, you have to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are plenty of epic viewpoints of the bridge; three of my favorites:
- The Marin Headlands – On the north end of the bridge, with city views in the background.
- Land’s End – There’s some cool hiking in the area, and beautifully framed views of the bridge.
- Battery East – Where the photos above were taken; trails at eye level and at water level.
11. Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay, a picturesque enclave located 45 minutes away from San Francisco, is a magnet for surfers. The city is home to Mavericks, a surfing location where waves can be as tall as buildings.
But, before you think surfers are the only ones that can pin Half Moon Bay on their map, let me tell you that this place combines the best of both worlds, boasting small-town charm and laid-back Cali vibes paired with endless outdoor activities.
It has everything you need to escape the city’s hustle and bustle, or take a perfect break from driving the Pacific Coast Highway. There are numerous shops and art galleries, tons of mouthwatering restraints and spirit houses, and yes, beaches, beaches, and more beaches.
12. Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Lighthouses punctuate the Pacific Coast, guiding ships and helping them avoid major obstacles as they traverse the waterways off the coast. Pigeon Point is one such lighthouse, built in 1871. Even today – 150 years later – it is the tallest on the U.S. west coast and the Coast Guard continues to use it as a navigational guide.
It’s an easy hour’s drive from San Francisco to Pigeon Point Lighthouse, so this is a good place to stop, stretch your legs, and snap a few photos before you continue on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip.
13. The Lone Cypress
Technically, the Lone Cypress is not along the Pacific Coast Highway (California Highway 1), but it is along the Pacific coast and has an epic view, so I’m including it on my list of the best stops to make. There’s plenty of parking at the Lone Cypress, but it’s mostly a photo stop.
To reach the Lone Cypress, you detour off Highway 1 in Monterey to roll along 17 Mile Drive. This is technically a private drive (and you have to pay a toll to drive the route), but it winds along a variety of stunning scenes and offers a peak at the 1% who call this part of the coast home.
14. McWay Falls
marvelous falls flow year-round from McWay Creek and cascade 80 feet down the coastal cliffs and straight onto the picturesque beach.
There are numerous trails in the park, but the McWay Waterfall Trail is the one you’re looking for. This trail takes you the closest you can get to the waterfalls and also awards you both southern and northern coastal views.
Make sure you check out the weather – it’s hard to spot the falls when it’s foggy – and try to schedule your visit near sunset so you can catch the best scenery.
15. Bixby Creek Bridge
All Death Cab for Cutie songs aside (they have a song called “Bixby Canyon Bridge”), Bixby Creek Bridge is a truly iconic stop along the Pacific Coast Highway. Most people pull over into a parking area at the north end of the bridge and admire the view. There’s no photo at the south end of the bridge, so if you do want to stop here be sure to plan it so you stop at the north end – no matter which direction you’re driving.
Bixby Creek Bridge is a rough starting point for the north end of Big Sur – and that too is iconic as the landscape you probably imagine when you picture the PCH in your mind. From here, there aren’t many Pacific Coast Highway stops, but there’s plenty of scenery to enjoy during the drive.
16. Elephant Seal Beach
While there is plenty of wildlife that calls the Pacific Coast Highway, in most cases, you need to stop for a while to try and spot them – such as at the Whale Watch Bar in Little River or at the Monterey Aquarium. Elephant Seal Beach is one great wildlife spot, as you can often spot big blubbery elephant seals snoozing on the sand – or posturing with one another to see who’s the biggest, baddest seal on the beach.
Be aware: there’s a big parking area and an equally big smell – elephant seals have a very particular odor that may make you want to cut your stay a little short!
17. Hearst Castle
As you reach the end of Big Sur – which is mostly undeveloped rugged coastline – you’ll begin to enter small seaside communities. One of these is San Simeon, home to Hearst Castle. It’s a little inland, but worth the detour especially if you plan an overnight in San Simeon.
Hearst Castle was conceived by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his architect Julia Morgan (who also built an iconic structure in the Women’s Grove of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, mentioned above) and constructed between 1919 and 1947. Today you can stop and explore the epic property – the famous swimming pool was refilled in 2018 after two years of repairs.
18. Morro Rock
I think it’s safe to say that there’s no lack of peculiar rock formations along the PCH. Adding to out list of geological attractions we have Morro Rock, a volcanic plug on Morro Beach in the City of Morro Bay.
Thanks to its impressive 576 feet high (amazingly, it’s the shortest volcanic plug in San Luis Obispo County), the rock didn’t go unnoticed by anyone who inhabited the area in its more than 23 million years of existence. Back in 2000 B.C.E., it was considered a sacred site by the Chumash and Salinan tribes. 21-first century locals are still well aware of how special Morro Rock is and come daily to walk their dogs and play with their children near it.
Do as the locals and plan a relaxing afternoon getaway at Morro Rock.
19. Pismo Beach
Slowly entering Central California, you’ll notice that the coastline changes – Big Sur’s rocky outcroppings and cliffs are replaced by sweeping sand beaches and dunes. One such worth a stop is Pismo Beach, where you can stop and stroll along the coast to feel the sand between your toes.
Pismo Beach is a great spot for a lunch picnic one day during your Pacific Coast Highway road trip. You can watch windsurfers and intrepid surfers enjoying the combo of wild Pacific wind and waves.
20. Stearns Wharf
On my Pacific Coast Highway road trip in 2014, my favorite stop was in Santa Barbara. I was delighted by the city’s combo of history, small-town vibe (the city is home to over 90,000 people but it feels deceivingly cozy), and amazing food. Stearns Wharf is the top tourist attraction in town, and a necessary Pacific Coast Highway stop.
You can stretch your legs by walking out onto the pier, watching the fishermen, and then heading back onto land for happy hour of fresh oysters and other seafood. SB is also a great overnight stop before you head into the greater Los Angeles area.
21. Venice Beach
It’s pretty much impossible to pick the best Pacific Coast Highway stop in Los Angeles – there’s just so much! The Hollywood sign? The Walk of Fame? You could spend a few days in L.A., easily.
If you aren’t spending a night in Los Angeles and don’t want to get sucked up into the city’s notorious traffic jams, stick to California Highway 1 and pull over for a break near Venice Beach. You’ll see bodybuilders pumping iron alongside weed-smelling artists selling their wares – and a whole lot of tourists –, but this gorgeous beach is an epicenter for sunsets and people-watching.
22. Huntington Beach
Last but not least, I recommend making a stop in Huntington Beach even if just to stroll along the pier and admire the surfers taking advantage of the city’s epic waves.
Mr. V and I spent a weekend in Huntington Beach back in 2017 and fell in love with the way Surf City, USA combines seaside charm and upscale lifestyle. There are fantastic hotels and restaurants to enjoy, but it’s not uncommon to see a portion of the population strolling in bodysuits to and from the beach.
Did I miss any of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops you recommend? Which ones are on your PCH itinerary? Let me know in the comments!