Discover the unique beauty and mystique of the California coast with a smart travel guide from Jeanne Sullivan of the California Travel and Tourism Commission:
California’s coast is a land of unforgettable beauty and amazing diversity. Travelers from afar are seduced by its siren’s call merely by glimpsing its images in movies and television. From majestic mountains presiding over wild, soul-stirring beaches and rustic vineyards to rolling emerald-green hills and vast agricultural lands, the scenery inspires wonder in all. Throw chic urban landscapes and quaint small towns into the mix and travelers can experience everything they can ask for in one destination.Pacific Coast Highway — or PCH, as the locals call it — is your ticket to this amazing show. The PCH, a.k.a. Highway 1, starts in Orange County and runs several hundred miles north to Mendocino. Although the highway doesn’t officially extend south to San Diego or north to Eureka and Crescent City, there are coastal roads worth exploring there as well; San Diego offers spectacular beaches, hip Gaslamp Quarter and world-renowned San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld. The Eureka and Crescent City areas boast charming coastal villages and redwood parks by the sea.Starting in Orange County, PCH takes you to famous spots such as luxurious Laguna Beach or Huntington Beach, known to the locals as “Surf City USA.” A detour will take you to the Disneyland® Resort and Knott’s Berry Farm, but those sticking to the coast will find plenty to amuse them, including Bolsa Chica State Beach, where you can worship the sun or dip your toes in the water. Or cross the street to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a wetland preserve where you can marvel at many species of birds.Those looking to star-gaze will feel the gravitational pull of Los Angeles, home to quirky urban beaches like Venice and Santa Monica, or celebrity havens like Malibu. Of course, no trip to L.A. would be complete without detouring to hot spots like Hollywood, West Hollywood and Universal Studios. Stopping in Beverly Hills is a must if you’d like to tour celebrity homes or shop like a star. Visitors hoping to be dazzled by real stars can see them at Griffith Observatory inside L.A.’s largest park, alongside its famous zoo and miniature railroad. Before leaving the county, visit the Queen Mary in Long Beach or take a ferry to Catalina Island.Once leaving L.A.’s orbit, travelers heading north into Ventura can wander into Point Mugu State Park, located in the Santa Monica Mountains. The park features five miles of stunning coastal shoreline and more than 70 trails by the beaches, rugged hills, two major river canyons and wide grassy valleys dotted with sycamores and oaks. If time permits, venture off PCH for a side trip to Ojai, a renowned spiritual and spa sanctuary.Santa Barbara beckons with its charming Mediterranean architecture, cloistered mission, airy art museum and posh State Street shops. It’s a stone’s throw from the Santa Ynez Valley, a leading wine region in the state. Spend some time exploring the Danish-inspired city of Solvang — a popular stop for traditional bakeries featuring Danish pastries, breads and foods plus more than 200 European-style shops, antique stores and museums.The San Luis Obispo area offers some of the most eye-popping sights, such as Hearst Castle, the palatial estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Rent an ATV on Pismo Beach or navigate hairpin turns in Big Sur north of the county, passing state parks with cliffside waterfalls, lookout peaks and hot springs. Peek at Point Sur lighthouse, which stands atop a dramatic volcanic rock just offshore, or try to catch a glimpse of the California condor. Those looking for thrills of a culinary sort can detour to nearby Paso Robles wine country.Carmel-by-the-Sea offers upscale boutiques and galleries and the Carmel Mission, founded in 1770 and considered one of the most beautiful missions on the Central Coast. Take scenic 17-Mile Drive to Monterey’s historic waterfront district, Cannery Row, which was once the heart of a thriving sardine-packing industry, a time immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel. There you can shop or discover life in Monterey’s bay without leaving dry land at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Watch seals try to steal a meal at Fisherman’s Wharf while you sip local wines and savor fresh seafood. Heading north from Monterey takes you to Santa Cruz, home of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which celebrates its centennial this year. The nearby Santa Cruz wine region offers a great variety of wines and quaint villages just west of San Jose, home to the world-famous Winchester Mystery House, and of course, Silicon Valley. North of Santa Cruz is Año Nuevo State Park, featuring peaceful coastal trails and the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Northern Elephant Seal. Head up to Half Moon Bay, featuring great seaside restaurants and views of surfers riding the waves. Several miles north of Half Moon Bay is the famous surf area, Mavericks, where pro surfers challenge waves over 50 feet.The PCH temporarily ends as you head into San Francisco, which rivals L.A. as cultural ground zero. Stroll Fisherman’s Wharf, famous for its clam chowder served in humongous sourdough rolls. Take a ferry to hike in Angel Island State Park or fight the willies on Alcatraz Island, previously home to some of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century. Shop Union Square or enjoy trendy restaurants. No tourist can resist stopping at rest areas on either side of the Golden Gate Bridge for pictures before heading into Marin County, home of artist colony Sausalito, Muir Woods National Monument and Point Reyes National Seashore, where you can hike mountain and coastal trails.Sonoma offers idyllic seaside towns such as Bodega Bay and Jenner, where you can hike or enjoy a gourmet meal overlooking the sea. Just to the east is home to one of California’s most award-winning wine regions — the Russian River Valley, just west of California’s famous Napa Valley.Romantic Mendocino begs travelers to linger in its 19th-century New England-style village, now a bohemian enclave with art galleries and B&Bs along the bluffs. Nearby Anderson Valley wine region offers a great chance to explore vineyards less traveled. To the north, coastal redwood country calls. On the way to Eureka, stop at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Visitors who haven’t gotten their fix of the forest giants can head up to Redwoods National Park, just south of Crescent City.
For more information on visiting California and discovering the sites and coastal drives along the Pacific Coast Highway, call 877-CALIFORNIA to order an Official State Visitor’s Guide or visit the