Mention to anybody from California that you plan on driving down the Pacific Coast Highway for the first time and you’ll see their eyes light up in an instant—they know that you are in for an experience that will heighten your standards for beauty. No matter how many times you may get in the car and venture out onto Highway 1, the stunning coastal drive that awaits will never disappoint.
The road that stretches between Monterey and San Simeon Bay features the pinnacle of West Coast landscape: green hills, desert plains, and rugged mountain cliffs alongside an endless blue ocean. But along the path, small local treasures will entice you to relax your foot’s steady pressure on the gas and embody the motto of SLO Cal: “Slow is good for the soul.”
Lean into the twists of the road, turn your music up, and fade into a dream-state as you coast along America’s most famous highway—just make sure not to miss these breathtaking locales.
This small town overlooking the ocean is more fairytale than reality. Voted one of the world’s most romantic destinations, walking through Carmel is like taking a step back in time. Filled with secret gardens and whimsical hidden passageways along with well-known spots like Carmel Bakery and Carmel Beach, exploring this enchanting getaway will satisfy the childlike curiosity that lies in the heart of every traveler.
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean from a forested hilltop, Ventana’s upscale cabin hotel gives Golden State visitors a bit of privacy high in the mountains of Big Sur. Rustic and luxurious, the 160-acre property is brimming with scenic views, as well as plenty of spa, yoga, and poolside moments to set you at ease. When you aren’t digging into coastal cuisine at The Sur House or relaxing in one of the hotel’s social rooms—including a library, game room, and bar—head back down the mountain to check out all that California’s iconic coastline has to offer, including one of the state’s most popular beach destinations.
At the point where the Big Sur River Gorge meets the Santa Lucia Mountains, the camping grounds at Pfeiffer State Park are an incredible place to take in Highway 1’s landscape. Hike through the Californian Redwoods, tube down the river, or venture down to Pfeiffer Beach to catch some waves—then, when you’re ready to see things from a slightly different angle, the equally stunning Andrew Molera and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parks are only a few minutes’ drive away.
Escape to media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s European-inspired dream house. Once used by its owner to throw weekend retreats for some of the most famous names of his day—Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, and Winston Churchill to name a few—the castle now brings a taste of Spanish, Italian, and Ancient Greek architecture to the West Coast. With some singular pieces of art on the grounds valued at over 40 million dollars, a home of this size and grandeur would be impossible to maintain today. Allegedly, it takes over eight hours to see the estate in its entirety, but a quick tour of just a few of its many rooms should be enough to make you feel move-in-ready.
At the midway point on your journey down Highway 1, make time to stop in Cambria, perhaps one of the most sought-after central coast destinations for adventurers, nature lovers, and wine enthusiasts alike. Summertime, in particular, brings out a special beauty in the area. To ease into the cool summer climates and easygoing attitude, stop to see the famed elephant seals relaxing seaside, stroll down the beach to the dreamy Piedras Blancas lighthouse, and pop by local Stolo Family Vineyards on a breezy evening to sample some of the world’s most celebrated Syrah.
In Cayucos, visitors can experience the classic California they always imagined. The surf town is a rare find—a quiet hidden gem along the highway. Walk to the edge of the pier, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by Estero Bay with surfers and families filling the water and a long strip of sandy beach spotted with colorful homes and businesses on the hillside. For one of the city’s sweetest treats, stop at the Brown Butter Cookie Company, regularly featured in travel magazines for its notoriously irresistible brown butter sea salt cookies.
Just off the winding roads of Highway 1, the enormous volcanic boulder known as Morro Rock reaches high above the fog of the surrounding seaside city. Popular with sailers, surfers, and kayakers, Morro Bay’s local market and a number of gorgeous state parks nearby also invite tourists to enjoy the area’s small town charm. Take advantage of the tranquility by posting up at the Estero Inn for cozy in-room fireplaces and balconies that offer views of boats floating through the bay on misty mornings.
The official SLO Cal namesake, San Luis Obispo is a small, charming town with a rapidly growing art scene. Peruse a number of free exhibitions, museums and galleries, and explore eclectic icons like Bubblegum Alley, the art-deco-style Fremont Theatre and the history of the San Luis Obispo Missionary. The town manages to tie together a number of time periods and cultures in a way that creates a unique and welcoming experience for both locals and visitors. Want the full SLO Cal experience? Start the weekend early on a Thursday night, when the roads shut down for a market that brings hundreds of vendors, food trucks, and artists to town. Then stick around for Friday, when a free concert series in the city’s central plaza fills the air with music and the streets with thousands of listeners.
Just outside the city of San Luis Obispo, check into the Madonna Inn, an experience that is nearly impossible to forget. Marked by a large, neon pink sign, the muted colors of the building against the background of the nearby mountains disguise what visitors encounter inside: an ornate, all-pink first floor; pink and blue tennis courts; a pool with a 45-foot tall waterfall; and 110 unique guest rooms each with a different theme, including the Crystal Room, Safari Room, and the ever-popular Caveman Suite.
One of the central coast’s best-kept secrets, Old Edna is a perfect getaway for those who love a little privacy, a little romance, and a lot of wine. The lovely mountain village—made up of only a few homes and buildings—invites guests to take a break from the busy beaches and bustling streets of other Pacific Coast Highway destinations. Although the township is only 40 minutes from other SLO Cal spots and less than two hours from Santa Barbara, passing a few days in town is no difficult feat. One evening stroll through Old Edna’s scenic vineyards and a sip of one of Sextant Winery’s incredible variants—some of which are exclusive to the township and available nowhere else on earth—and you’ll be content to maintain the simple, laid-back lifestyle.