Take a road trip this summer and see some unforgettable sights in California. The Pacific Coast Highway, more formally known as State Route 1, offers some of the state’s most scenic routes. This region is truly a must-see if you’re traveling anywhere near the California coast. A winding 655-mile road, you’ll enjoy the ride whether you’re a nature lover or not. If you’re up for a road trip along some of the most idyllic, curving roads, there are tons of sights to see and exciting Pacific Coast Highway attractions if you’re looking to rent a van in California.
California State Route 1, The Pacific Coast Highway
Built in 1934, the Pacific Coast Highway spans hundreds of miles along most of the state’s coastline from Carmel to Morro Bay. Many travel guides recommend going from north to south, allowing you to take in the ocean-side views throughout your journey. In particular, a 123-mile portion located along the central California coast boasts a breathtaking experience with unsurpassed views.
The road twists and turns while nestled in the cliffside, overlooking craggy vistas and aquamarine waters that crash onto boulders below. Along the highway’s southern portion, once you rent a van in California you’ll pass through beautiful oak hills on your way to the legendary Hearst Castle.
Redwood National and State Parks
Five miles south of Crescent City, is the Redwood National and State Parks. Since they are some of the tallest and oldest trees in existence, they’re world famous for their longevity and size. These ochre-colored trees can live to be well over 2000 years old and have lived to see over 4,500 years of human inhabitants.
The Lost Coast
If you are seeking an undeveloped Californian destination, then The Lost Coast is definitely one stop you will not want to miss. A short drive off of The PCH in your rented van in California, the land experienced a lot of depopulation in the 1930s due to the difficult living conditions and steep hills.
Follow Route 211 for 23 miles to the coast to the virtually pristine coastline where stunning views and varying marine life awaits you. While the cliffs are steep and difficult to climb down and the shoreline is rocky, there are still gorgeous turquoise swells that will leave you stunned. This Pacific Coast Highway attraction is relatively secluded and perfect for surfers who are seeking unforgettable waves.
In Fort Bragg, along the coast in Mendocino county, you’ll discover a California Historic Landmark. Built before the American civil war as a garrison, as opposed to a fortification, Fort Bragg features more than just military wonders.
Rent a van in California and drive down to the glass beach, a shoreline made up of smooth pieces of seaglass. While this area fell on hard times during the 1960s and was used by many to discard their unnecessary trash, over the years the waves have cleansed the area and turned the broken pieces of pottery and glass into the tiny, beautiful pieces strewn across the shore today.
Mendocino is a charming coastal town in Northern California and it’s the only one designated as a historical landmark. Established in the 1850’s and maintaining much of its Victorian charm with quaint, classic buildings, it was also the fictional home of popular Murder She Wrote TV character Jessica Beatrice Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury.
Famous for its world-class dining, extraordinary art galleries, and picturesque bed and breakfasts, this region is also graced by classic Californian ocean views. Take a hike, visit a winery, or explore the circus in the historic town.
San Francisco and its bridge are the next stop on your Pacific Coast Highway adventure. For the best views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll need to rent a van in California, and once you reach San Francisco, exit Highway 101 at Alexander. This outlook offers an up close and personal encounter with the burnt orange bridge, as well as views of Alcatraz Island.
While you’re in town, have some of the city’s famous Dungeness crab at a street cookout, ride the trolley, and check out the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39.
If you are looking for the quintessential summer California boardwalk experience, visit Santa Cruz. It is home to one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the country, the Giant Dipper. Built in 47 days in May of 1924, this coaster is in the midst of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park. With lots of music, games, cotton candy, and other classic Pacific Coast Highway attractions, you’ll need more than one day to explore this location.
After you’ve journeyed through Santa Cruz and the Redwood forests, it’s time to visit the Año Nuevo State Park. The park’s rich variety of natural and cultural resources draws visitors from around the world and offers an extraordinary wilderness experience, as every year, up to 10,000 elephant seals return to the area to breed and give birth among the sand dunes.
Featuring the Marine Education Center which boasts a natural history exhibit, bookstore, and theater, the complex is housed in a historic 19th-century dairy ranch, formerly owned by the Dickerman/Steele family.
If you turn away from the ocean, you’ll see plenty of natural plants and animals, including the rare and endangered San Francisco Garter Snake, as well as the California Red-legged Frog. Take a hike along the ocean bluffs and try to spot as many frogs, snakes, and birds as you can.
Big Sur is another iconic location situated along California’s central coastline. Fitting snugly between Carmel and San Simeon, this scenic region is known for its extremely rugged and scenic coastline and its name comes from the Spanish “el sur grande” or "el país grande del sur,” meaning “the big south” or “the big country of the south” respectively.
Within this region, the PCH whittles down to a simple two lane road the winds in and out of cliffs. Driving along the route in your rented van in California, the views are truly breathtaking and there are many incredible coves, vistas, and beaches to explore.
Imagine looking down a cliff with desert-like succulent plants, dotted with yellow blossoms and watch as the ocean waves crash against a boulder strewn lagoon. The mist from all of the crashing rises up the cliffside to create a cooling and rejuvenating mist. Take in all this natural beauty at this Pacific Coast Highway attraction with Big Sur’s numerous state parks along the route that offer opportunities to camp and hike.
The Central Coast
The Central Coast is a region of California spans from Point Mugu to Monterey Bay. This region is one of the most fertile in the United States and is famous for its vineyards and strawberries. Carmel-by-the-Sea, on the Monterey Peninsula, famed for its white sand beaches and fairytale cottages, has been described as an artist’s colony because of the many painters and sculptors that reside there.
The culture of the town has inspired many world-class galleries to open their doors in this coastal location. Rent a van in California and wander the wineries, go strawberry picking, and visit world-renowned galleries across the central coast.
Partly known because Clint Eastwood was once its mayor, Carmel-by-the-Sea also hosts Hearst Castle in San Simeon, a National Historic Landmark, an incredible attraction in this region.
Hearst Castle is a legendary estate whose history began in 1865 when George Hearst purchased about 40,000 acres of ranchland. When George died in 1919, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst inherited what had grown to more than 250,000 acres. He dreamed of transforming the land into a retreat he wanted to call La Cuesta Encantada, or “Enchanted Hill” in Spanish.
Hearst had the castle modified by architect Julia Morgan and by 1947 the manor was a modern-day castle. With 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways, the house exemplified Hearst’s dream of enchantment and showcased his extraordinary art collection. The invitations to the stunning estate were rare and often coveted by some of the biggest stars of the roaring 20s. It wasn’t unusual to witness Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, and Franklin Roosevelt hosted at extravagant parties on the estate.
Not only does the Mediterranean Revival property boast over 90,000 square feet of living space, incredible views of Rocky Butte and Pine Mountain, but the property is home to some incredible historic relics including many ancient Egyptian Artifacts that were once a part of Hearst’s private collection. Other amazing artifacts include The Continence of Scipio, a tapestry dating back to 1550 and The Nine Muses Sarcophagus, a marble piece from approximately 230 AD.
As you drive up in your rented van in California, you’ll be greeted by a stunning, 10-foot tall iron and gold leaf entry that leads you into the heart of the castle. Explore the rooms, pools, gardens, and zoo on your journey of Pacific Coast Highway attractions.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Near the delightful city of Carmel-by-the-Sea is the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named for a respected area resident, Julia Pfeiffer Burns who passed away in 1928. The park offers exceptional recreational opportunities within its 3762 acres, and 12 miles south of Big Sur, the park is also home to McWay Falls. These falls encompass an 80-foot waterfall that flows directly onto the beach and into the Pacific Ocean when the tide is high. The falls are clearly visible from Highway 1.
The park also provides the opportunity to explore more California Redwoods, as they are dotted all around the park. Camp in the two hike-in camping areas with excellent views of the coast and enjoy some scenic scuba diving in the refreshing ocean waters. Because the waters of the park are designated as Big Creek State Marine Reserve and Big Creek State Marine Conservation Area, it’s not unusual to witness an excellent array of ocean wildlife if you decide to go diving.
Santa Ynez Mountains
Continuing along the Pacific Coast Highway attractions to the Santa Ynez Mountains, you’ll find them located within the Traverse Ranges of Southern California. These monoliths are unusual, as they run entirely east to west, while most other mountain ranges run south to north.
The relatively young mountains, only about five million years old, begin to become apparent just north of the Los Angeles basin. The mountain range is primarily located in Santa Barbara County and there are many interesting things to see and places to visit in the Santa Ynez Mountain Range.
There is a park that lies within the Los Padres National Forest and houses some of the finest remaining cave drawings created by the Chumash Native Americans which date back to the 1600’s and amidst the mountains, lies Lake Cachuma. Nestled within 9000 acres of wilderness, the lake offers lots of fishing, camping, and hiking opportunities.
This area is also famous for its wine-tasting rooms and art galleries. If you are an enthusiast for any of these activities, rent a van in California and drive along PCH to this location.
Malibu and Santa Monica
Once you’ve left Northern and Central California behind, it’s time to drive along the Santa Monica mountains all the way down to Malibu. Santa Monica, located just a few miles from Hollywood, is home to the famous Santa Monica Pier, a seaside amusement park with classic carnival amusements. With a solar powered Ferris wheel turning 130 feet above the ground, you’ll get an amazing view of the pier, the water, and the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu.
Since Malibu is just south of Santa Monica along the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll be able to drive by the many celebrity homes, perched on the mountainside. If you’d like to stop for a dip in the water and some celeb spotting, check out Malibu Lagoon State Beach.
At the most southernmost end of the California state is San Diego. San Diego is a beach lover’s paradise, with the beautiful Coronado Beach as its hub. Widely known as the best beach in the United States, the Coronado offers plenty of watersports, as well as a chance to roam among shallow tide pools searching for ocean wildlife.
Rent a Van in California and Drive On
The Golden State offers endless opportunities for exploration for everyone. If you’re searching for an eco-getaway filled with secluded beaches and the wonder of California’s national parks, the northern part of the state has exactly what you are looking for. Would you prefer a great bed and breakfast along with a tour of an art gallery and the perfect glass of California merlot? Then the cliffs of the Central Coast are for you. If you proclaim yourself a sun worshipping beach bum, then SoCal should be the focus of your road trip.
Chances are, you want to explore all the activities and adventures California has to offer. Rent a van in California and visit the best Pacific Coast Highway attractions.
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