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.
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
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. 31131 S. Pacific Coast Hwy.; ocparks.com/beaches/aliso
About to make a splash at Laguna Beach.
With seafood, less isn’t more. It’s everything. Thomas Carson, the fisherman owner of Bear Flag Fish Company, gets that. Served on a baguette that balances softness and crunch, Bear Flag’s fish sandwich is a tribute to simplicity: lettuce, tomato, and fish (your choice) with perfect charring that plays off a drizzle of Tommy Sauce, Bear Flag’s blend of mayo and hot sauce. $$; 407 31st St.; bearflagfishco.com
Wannabes and serious surfers alike wander the warren of rooms at Huntington Beach's 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. 300 Pacific Coast Hwy.; hsssurf.com
Famous surfing footprints at Surfer's Hall of Fame, Huntington Surf and Sport.
Surf icon Duke Kahanamoku at Huntington Surf and Sport.
Southern California loves its piers, and none gets more summer lovin’ than Manhattan Beach Pier. With surfers riding the waves, multiple volleyball games along the sand, and tanned and toned locals providing flesh-and-blood evidence of Manhattan Beach’s fitness obsession, the pier gives you an opera-box perspective on SoCal beach culture. It’s also mercifully free of clutter, so you get views that sweep from Palos Verdes Peninsula to Malibu. End of Manhattan Beach Blvd.; ci.manhattan-beach.ca.us
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 ambience inside. From $349; shorehotel.com
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.
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.
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. Westward Beach Rd., off Pacific Coast Hwy.; beaches.lacounty.gov
Three friends savor the sea view.
Along the Southern California coast, you get tantalizing glimpses of islands floating on the horizon. Well, objects out the window are closer than they appear, especially Channel Islands National Park, where both Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands are within an hour’s catamaran ride on trips with Island Packers Cruises out of Ventura Harbor. You can take an island hike or a kayak trip, or you might spot blue whales, massive summer visitors to Santa Barbara Channel. Island Packers: From $59. Channel Islands Kayak Center: From $54/day
Landmark Stearns Wharf has panoramic ocean views. But when you reach the Santa Barbara Shellfish Co., skip them and eat at this no-nonsense seafood shack’s bar so you can watch cooks make such favorites as lobster tacos, a delicacy you shouldn’t miss. Need a good place to stay post-taco? Nearby, the Old Yacht Club Inn is suitably nautical, with knockout breakfasts. Shellfish Co.: $$; 230 Stearns Wharf. Old Yacht Club: From $159.
Surf and mountains near Highway 1 in Santa Barbara County.
The scenic road to Jalama Beach.
Highway 1 rolls through the golden hills of Santa Barbara County.
Secluded sands in Santa Barbara County.
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. Tasting fees vary; 200 N. Ninth St.; lompoctrail.com
Miles: 110 | Weight of male elephant seal: 5,000 lbs. | Length of Bixby Creek Bridge: 714 ft. | Years of construction at Hearst Castle: 28 (1919–47)
You may have enjoyed many fish tacos in your life, but nothing quite like what you’ll find at Ruddell’s Smokehouse. This unpretentious joint serves a changing assortment of smoked seafoods—ahi, salmon, and shrimp among them. The subtle and sweet smoke, plus toppings such as chopped apples, gives Ruddell’s tacos and sandwiches a memorable twist. $$; 101 D St.; smokerjim.com
Of course you want to see Hearst Castle—no trip up Highway 1 would be complete without a tour of William Randolph’s fabled hilltop estate. If you’ve visited before, we suggest getting a more intimate glimpse of the press baron on the Upstairs Suites Tour. Afterward, head down the hill to San Simeon, the tiny port that gave the castle its official name. Sebastian’s Store serves superior burgers (made from Hearst Ranch beef); across the street, San Simeon Pier and W.R. Hearst Memorial State Beach are both fine places to soak up a little sun with your views of the Pacific. Castle: From $25; hearstcastle.org. Sebastian’s Store: $; 442 SLO San Simeon Rd.; (805) 927-3307.
On a coast that prizes eccentricity, Deetjens Big Sur Inn lifts it to art form: 20 rooms and cabins crafted by Norwegian immigrant Helmuth Deetjen between the 1930s and ’60s, scattered beneath redwoods. Doors creak, floors creak; you build your fire in your fireplace and think this is magical, or this is hell. Probably the former, because Deetjens is beautiful and because its restaurant serves some of the best food along Highway 1. Rooms from $160, The Restaurant at Deetjens $$$; deetjens.com
In Big Sur, Highway 1 leads to long, uncrowded beaches made for meditative walks.
Carb lovers flock to Big Sur Bakery.
Nepenthe is known for its striking architecture, good food, and even better views. On a sunny day, the outdoor decks offer Highway 1 bliss.
Big Sur Lodge offers reasonably priced lodging on an often-expensive coast.
Some will question artist Francis McComas’s proclamation that Point Lobos is “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” But not after doing a grand-tour hike along Point Lobos State Natural Reserve’s shoreline trails. The roughly 5-mile loop hike (use the South Plateau Trail as a connector) shows off Point Lobos’s diverse beauty: China Cove’s jade-colored water, wind-sculpted Monterey cypress, and sea otters feeding in kelp beds. $10/vehicle; 3 mi. south of Carmel; pointlobos.org
Point Lobos has some of the grandest views anywhere in California.
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.
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
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. The Bench: $$$, $9.75/vehicle; 17 Mile Dr.; pebblebeach.com
Getting ready to dive Monterey Bay.
Make yourself at home on one of the area's incomparable stretches of sand.
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. Boardwalk: From $3; 400 Beach St.; beachboardwalk.com. Dream Inn: From $279; jdvhotels.com.
When the counter person at The Picnic Basket suggests that a spicy ginger elixir will perfectly accompany the turkey-and-cheddar sandwich’s tangy pickled onion, it’s not foodie fetishism run amok. Instead, it shows the care chef Kendra Baker takes with her sandwiches and salads made with local ingredients. As for the ice cream by Baker’s Penny Ice Creamery, well, that pairs perfectly with everything. $; 125 Beach St.; thepicnicbasketsc.com
A classic Airstream holds cool gifts, including jams, pies, and fresh organic strawberries, at Slowcoast at Swanton Berry Farms.
In tiny Pescadero, Highway 1 Brewing Company is a good old-fashioned roadhouse with good new-fashioned craft beer. Such as A Pepper in the Rye (red ale with, yes, a hint of black pepper) and French Mexican War (a saison-style ale spiked with jalapeños). Order a tasting flight and some chipotle chicken tacos, then watch the sun set over the Pacific. $; 5720 Cabrillo Hwy.; highway1brewing.com
Pigeon Point Lighthouse has been guiding ships since 1872.
A windsurfer tests the waves (and his skill) along the San Mateo County coast.
Highway 1 along the San Mateo County coast is one of the least known but most beautiful roads in the state.
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. 3 mi. south of Hwy. 1 and State 92; openspacetrust.org
A dramatic stretch of coastline near town begs you to pull over and get out the camera.
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.
Miles: 82 | Golden Gate Bridge Toll: $6 | Miles of trails at Point Reyes National Seashore: Nearly 150 recorded | Shipwrecks off Marin County: 100+
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. Cafe: $; 680 Point Lobos Ave.
You can find serenity walking the elegant labyrinth off San Francisco's Land's End Trail.
The bill of fare at Sir and Star at The Olema couldn’t be more West Marin: A warm cabbage-and-bacon salad is crowned by a poached Bolinas duck egg; the ingredients for a vegetable “bouillabaisse” are “gathered from local gardens.” But the building itself has been turned into Highway 1’s most stylish haunted house. Taxidermied birds perch in vitrines, and spooky candelabra flicker at dinner. $$; 10000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.; theolema.com
You climb down 308 steps to visit Point Reyes Lighthouse, which opened in 1870.
Highway 1 takes a straight course alongside Tomales Bay, a nice change of pace after the dramatic (albeit supremely scenic) hairpin turns further south in Marin County.
St. Theresa of Avila church has been a Bodega Bay landmark since 1862.
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. $7/vehicle; 22455 Hwy. 1, 15 mi. north of Jenner; parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov
Along the Sonoma County coast, every bend in teh road leads to an amazing view.
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.
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
Point Arena Lighthouse is one of the few that lets you climb to the top.
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. $7.50; pointarenalighthouse.com
Logging port turned artists’ colony, Point Arena boasts a rehabbed picture palace, a stellar bakery, a hopping wine bar, and the funky Uneda Eat, an “occasional” cafe. (Meaning dinner only, Thursday through Saturday.) “Ambitious” applies too: They cure their own charcuterie. $$, no credit cards; 206 Main St.; unedaeat.com
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. From $239; searanchlodge.com
Highway 1 clings to the bluffs along a northern stretch of the Sonoma Coast.
Highway 1's the main street of tiny, pretty Elk.
Blooms and views grace the Mendocino Coast.
Mendocino Village hugs a beautiful coastal blufftop. Most of the town's charming wooden buildings date from the 1800s.
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. Mile marker 88.71, 1/2 mi. north of Rockport.