The great American road trip is a rite of passage for any traveler. It can be the perfect romantic getaway or a family vacation that will evoke nostalgia for years to come — and few roads inspire awe like the Pacific Coast Highway. If you're looking for mountains, beaches, wine country and vibrant cities, this trip delivers all of these and so much more.
You could spend weeks or just a few days winding your way down the coast. No matter how long you have, here are five must-see stops along the way.
1. The San Francisco Bay Area
If you’re starting your trip in Northern California, try to take a day or two in the Bay Area. Indulge in culinary nirvana at the wineries and restaurants in the rolling hills of Napa and Sonoma. The natural grandeur of Yosemite National Park is just a three-hour drive from the city and suits either a day or overnight trip.
You can also get your nature fix closer to the city with a 20-minute drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to visit the grand redwoods of Muir Woods. Hikes through the woods vary from ten minutes to two hours. Grab a pint on your way out at the charming Pelican Inn, a reconstructed British tavern and inn right off of Muir Beach.
2. Big Sur
It’s a relatively uneventful three-hour drive from San Francisco to Big Sur, but you should definitely take your time to linger once you get there.
Find a spot to pull over soon after passing through Carmel by the Sea to take a picture of the scenic Bixby Bridge. Enjoy lunch at the famous Nepenthe Restaurant, perched on the side of a soaring cliff overlooking the Pacific. Pick up some reading material and a coffee at the Henry Miller Memorial Library nestled within the fairy-tale-like forest, and hike out to McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to take in the eighty-foot waterfall. And don’t leave the region without a stop at the Big Sur Bakery for one of their melt-in-your-mouth homemade pastries.
If you’re looking to splurge on an overnight stay, book an ocean-side cottage at the Post Ranch Inn. For something a little more eclectic, head to the Treebones Resort where you can sleep in a nest or cliffside yurt. There are also plenty of campsites and smaller cabins, but even these fill up early, so check availability before you go.
3. San Ynez Valley
Don’t worry if you didn’t make it to Sonoma and Napa up north — there's always wine tasting in the less-visited San Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.
Home to more than 120 wineries, many of them quaint and small-scale boutique makers, the Valley is quieter than its northern counterpart, which means you can spend quality time with the actual people making your wine. You’re also much less likely to be ushered quickly in and out for the next tour bus.
The tiny town of Los Alamos is the perfect jumping off point for the valley. The historic Victorian-style Union Hotel offers a cozy spot to lay your head for the night, and the picturesque main drag offers plenty of dining options to compliment a day full of wine.
4. Los Angeles
Indulge your inner child on the Santa Monica Pier, hike up to the Hollywood sign, or ride a bike around Venice during a day or two in Los Angeles. If you're traveling with the family, take a behind-the-scenes tour of Universal or Warner Brothers Studios for a few hours — but make sure to book early because these tours often fill up quickly.
A more refined option for an afternoon is a free stroll through the renowned Getty Museum.
5. San Diego
Finish your trip in sunny San Diego. Adults and children alike will adore a visit to the world-class San Diego Zoo. But if you want to chill out after all that time on the road, spend a relaxing day on Coronado Beach or get out on the water for a whale-watching cruise.
More adventurous visitors can opt for stand-up paddle-boarding, kayaking or snorkeling along La Jolla Cove and take some snapshots of the sea lions and seals.
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