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10 places you need to see when driving the Pacific Coast Highway

10Best logo 10Best 9/20/2018 Aimee Heckel, Special to USA TODAY 10Best

California’s Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most famous, scenic drives in the world. Stretching along a large chunk of the Golden State and hugging the shoreline the bulk of the way, from Malibu southward, makes this road trip one of the most flexible. Nearly anywhere you start, stunning views are guaranteed.

Pull off a quick weekend trip by just hopping through the smaller beach towns near San Diego, or plan the mother of all road trips along Cali’s coast from San Francisco to the southern tip of California and stop at as many cities, parks, overlooks and attractions as you have days for.

Because so many points on this highway are famously fantastic, it can be hard to narrow them down. We’ve picked our top 10 favorite stops along California’s coastline, from top to bottom, to help you plan your way.

1. Muir Woods

a tree in a forest: Muir Woods' ancient redwoods © Jason Toff / flickr Muir Woods' ancient redwoods

San Francisco packs big amusement in its hilly neighborhoods, lined with great shops, restaurants and bars, and, of course, the famous Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. But our favorite part of this region is beyond the city and into Muir Woods, where you can find 500-plus-year-old redwood trees in an otherworldly forest. Ancient trees stretch farther than seems possible and lunge skyward at hundreds of feet tall. 

After you find your way out of the forest, head to the hidden, charming Stinson Beach. It's a small town with a peaceful strand, a historic lighthouse on a cliff and a 308-step walkway with panoramic views that will leave you breathless, in more ways than one. 

2. Half Moon Bay

a rocky landscape with a body of water: Gray Whale Cove State Beach in Half Moon Bay © iStock / yhelfman Gray Whale Cove State Beach in Half Moon Bay

About half an hour south of San Francisco is a history buff’s beachy paradise, Half Moon Bay, formerly Spanishtown. The city has made it a priority to preserve its history, as one of the oldest settlements in San Mateo County.

Walk through the historic downtown, ride bikes through the bluffs and enjoy stretches of sand that you'll often have all to yourself. The luxurious hotels and romantic restaurant options here offer a different experience, following the small-town simplicity of Stinson Beach (although Half Moon Bay is far from presumptuous).

3. Big Sur

a rocky island in the middle of a body of water with McWay Falls in the background: McWay Falls cascades 80 feet down to the beach © iStock / lucky-photographer McWay Falls cascades 80 feet down to the beach

This is one of the most well-known areas of Highway 1 and it’s considered a destination in and of itself. Big Sur is a designated American National Scenic Byway and the views explain why. Wildlife-watching is big here; expect to see anything from whales to elephant seals. Stop to hike the stunning cliffside waterfall in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

4. Hearst Castle

a group of people in a pool with Hearst Castle in the background: Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle © HarshLight / flickr Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle

Ideally located right in the middle of San Francisco and San Diego – four hours either way – and just past the Los Padres National Forest is the Hearst Castle. This residence, built by newspaper bigwig William Randolph Hearst in 1919 and overlooking San Simeon, is filled with art, gardens and water features.

Take a tour through the various buildings on the castle’s 127 acres and feel like you’ve traveled back in time. This is a museum like no other.

5. Santa Barbara

a horse is eating grass in a fenced pasture: Stunning Santa Barbara vineyard © iStock / Ron_Thomas Stunning Santa Barbara vineyard

Santa Barbara offers plenty for visitors: great shopping, stunning mountain views and outdoor adventures galore.

But it’s the dining and wining scene that stops our car every time. Santa Barbara has earned a reputation for its award-winning wineries. Take tours, sign up for special wine dinners or, if you’re lucky, be in town for a wine fest.

If that's not enough to convince you, the movie Sideways was filmed here, too. Take a self-guided tour of the various locations seen in the movie (and grab a glass along the way).

6. Venice Beach

a group of palm trees next to a body of water: Venice Beach at sunset © E+ / Xavier Arnau Venice Beach at sunset

Venice Beach is one of the quirkiest, most creative beaches in California (and that’s saying something). Stroll along the lengthy beach promenade and watch people exercising outside at Muscle Beach, breakdancing, skateboarding, selling crafts, playing street basketball and painting.

The urban art is colorful, the surfing here is great and there are more tourist shops than you could visit in a day. 

7. Dana Point

a body of water: Set off from Dana Point Harbor for whale watching © iStock / hmlCA Set off from Dana Point Harbor for whale watching

Dana Point is a must-visit along the highway, whether you want to get into the water or just look at it.

Dana Point is considered the "Whale Watching Capital of the West" for its endless opportunities to view the marine mammals in their natural habitat. And the high bluffs here provide stunning coastal views. Surfers love the waves, fishermen like to cast out and thousands of boats set off from here.

Watch ships in the harbor before visiting the shops and waterside restaurants. Don’t leave without visiting Doheny State Beach, the Salt Creek Beach or Baby Beach.

8. Solana Beach

a giraffe standing next to a tree: Solana Beach cliffs © Aimee Heckel Solana Beach cliffs

Solana Beach may not be one of California’s most famous beaches – you do have to earn an oceanside seat on the sand by climbing down often lengthy and steep staircases carved through the high cliffs – but the scenery here is stunning and memorable. Solana is rocky, with some cliffs dropping right off at the edge of the ocean.

Find one of the handful of beach access points and you’ll be at one of the most secluded beaches in a bustling California town. Many art galleries, restaurants and home decor stores, all walking distance to the water’s edge, fill the downtown.

9. Ocean Beach

a sunset over a body of water: Surfing is a favorite activity at Ocean Beach © iStock / roman-photography Surfing is a favorite activity at Ocean Beach

This small community, not far from San Diego, feels like it’s still in the '60s and '70s. Expect to see VW buses, shirtless beach regulars, taco stands, antique shops, dogs everywhere and tattoo parlors.

Ocean Beach is arguably the most laid-back, surfer town on the coast. No fishing license needed to cast a line. Prices are more moderate than other San Diego communities, too. Walk all the way to the end of the lengthy pier and get a full view of the OB. The entire town feels vintage in the best way.

10. Point Loma

a house with trees in the background: Old Point Loma Lighthouse © iStock / lucky-photographer Old Point Loma Lighthouse

End your road trip at a historically significant and dramatic landmark: the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. This lighthouse marks the entry to San Diego Bay and is a reminder about the region’s history; it’s one of the oldest lighthouses on the West Coast. Sign up for a tour or just explore it yourself.

Then take time to visit the Cabrillo National Monument on the Point Loma Peninsula. This marks the place where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to land on the West Coast in 1542.

10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network, providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world, in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.

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