The 12 Best Stops To Make While Driving on California's Highway 101

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K Santos

Driving on the open road is an American tradition. For those looking to travel through California on the US-101, here are 10 stops that can make your all-American road trip an unforgettable experience.

The coastal US Highway 101 (or “the 101”) runs the length of the entire West Coast, spanning 1,540 miles of open road from the southernmost part in East Los Angeles to the northernmost part in Tumwater, Washington. The highway cuts through most of the state of California and at times merges with the Pacific Coast Highway. Although the highway isn’t the best option if you’re crunched for time (Interstate 5 runs parallel through farmland further inland, which can shave off a few hours of driving depending on your route), Highway 101 is a beautiful way to see beaches, coastal towns and unique attractions, ten of which are featured on this list.

1. Tour the opulent Hearst Castle


Hearst Castle, Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA, USA
@mphphoto / Unsplash
Around the year 1919, eccentric businessman William Randolph Hearst began constructing Hearst Castle – a mansion that (by the time he left in 1947) contained 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens. Designed by Hearst himself, alongside master architect Julia Morgan, the architectural details are unbridled. Now a California State Park, the Hearst Castle welcomes guests from around the world. Brimming with paintings, antiques, and carved ceilings, the mansion offers a variety of different tours, including a reservation-only night tour that allows visitors to explore the castle under the night sky.

2. Drive over the Golden Gate Bridge


The golden gate bridge at sunset
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You won’t even need to stop to see this California landmark – the six lanes on the Golden Gate Bridge are actually part of the 101. Famous around the world, the architectural marvel constructed in 1937 is a must-see if you’re heading into San Francisco. The Bridge Pavilion, a gift shop and visitor center adjacent to the parking lot, sells maps, books on Northern California history, and gives historical details of the construction of the bridge. While driving on the bridge, be on the lookout for Karl, the nickname for the city’s fog that rolls through the hills and sometimes over the bridge during the day. There is a toll for southbound drivers on the bridge, which is payable online.

3. Stroll Through the Palace of Fine Arts


The Palace of Fine Arts in San Fransisco
@zahidlilani / Unsplash
Originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts is a popular tourist attraction in San Francisco. The structure, which was rebuilt in 1965 to be a permanent structure, is the place of art exhibitions, weddings and other events. Built in the Beaux-Arts style around a man-made lagoon, the palace is an iconic structure in the city and can be seen in myriad films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

4. Experience the ornate Madonna Inn


madonna inn, san luis obispo, california, usa
© MARKA / Alamy Stock Photo
The Madonna Inn is a landmarked hotel located in San Luis Obispo in California’s Central Coast region. Known for its colorful and quirky decor, it was originally built as a motel. However, the Inn burned to the ground in 1966 and was rebuilt in an overly ornate and unique style spanning all 110 rooms. The Inn attracts tourists, art-lovers and photographers from around the country. Each room is unique with its own off-the-wall decor. A celestial room called “Just Heaven” features golden cherubs and a spiral staircase. A room modeled in the style of cave room called “Caveman” features animal print and rock walls. If staying the night isn’t an option, the Madonna Inn also features restaurants, a café and a cocktail bar. Reservations can be made online.

5. Immerse yourself in the natural wonder of Monarch Butterfly Grove

Botanical Garden, Natural Feature

Monarch Butterflies Perched on Monterey Cypress Tree. Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, Pacific Grove, California, USA.
© Yuval Helfman / Alamy Stock Photo

It is not uncommon to spot the beautiful Monarch butterfly (orange with black stripes) in California. But at the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach, visitors have a chance to see thousands. Collecting to cluster on Pismo Beach’s eucalyptus trees, the butterflies draw visitors to the park to celebrate their natural wonder. Because these butterflies cluster seasonally, the park is only open from late October until February. Historic counts show that more than 100,000 butterflies at a time have made their way to the grove.

6. Drink your way through the Eberle Winery


Stainless steel barrels at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles, California
© Lee Foster / Alamy Stock Photo

Known for its award-winning wine and olive groves, the Central Coast city of Paso Robles features more than a dozen wineries. Over the 40,000 vineyard acres in the city, Eberle Winery is one of the vineyard estates that features educational tours, tastings, and events. The 38-acre estate also features sweeping views of the Santa Lucia Mountains – a perfect background to enjoy a glass of Central California red. The winery produces a diverse selection of varietals including Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

7. Patrick's Roadhouse

Diner, American

Pacific Coast Highway-California-USA
© Culture Trip

Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, it is impossible to miss the bright green exterior of this unique retro American diner. The kitschy interior of this roadside stop creates a casual beachside atmosphere suitable for any time of the day. Patrick’s is the perfect stop for a sizeable breakfast before a long distance road trip, or as a hub for a midday stopping point. Either way, make sure to bring an appetite as portions are as huge as the menu offerings. Leaving for the next destination will be made easier after a stop at this eccentric PCH hideaway. Recommended by Dominic Bertolami

8. Take a dip at the Arroyo Burro Beach


Arroyo Burro Beach, Santa Barbara, California, Usa.
© Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

Whether you’d like to stop off to catch some waves on a surfboard or want to take a picnic break, Santa Barbara’s Arroyo Burro Beach is a great place for the entire family (dogs included). The beach, called Hendry’s Beach by locals, also features beachfront restaurants and a more relaxing alternative to the roadside diner. Enjoy a morning whale watch or sunset cocktail year-round at this local California haven.

9. Learn California's history at San Miguel Mission


California officially became a state in 1850, but the history of the land spans centuries prior. A historic preservation project that hopes to promote ancestral education, the San Miguel Mission has become a popular place for tourists to visit. The foundation for the San Miguel Mission was laid over two centuries ago, built by the Spanish in order to convert Salinan Native Americans. Since then, the Mission has withstood earthquakes and a fire that burned a church. A visit to the adobe Mission, which features a church and a museum, is a great way to learn about California’s varied past.

10. Hike through the Cerro Alto Trail

Hiking Trail

Los Padres National Forest near Ojai Southern California, United States of America
© nik wheeler / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s nothing better to break up a long road trip than an outdoor hike and time spent in nature. The Cerro Alto Trail, located on the Northern tip of the Los Padres National Forest, is a five-mile loop trail that is considered moderately difficult by hikers. The trail takes about three hours total and features a summit with broad views of greenery, taking you through a variety of plant life, including oak, sycamore and willow trees. Keep your eyes peeled for views of the ocean in the distance.

11. Pet some giant birds at Ostrichland USA

Amusement Park

Ostrichland USA sign on a fence
@karurosux / Unsplash

Road trips are synonymous for fast food stops and license plate games. Yet, a road trip down the 101 can be defined by stopping to pet nine-foot-tall ostriches. Definitely not the most conventional roadside stop that drivers can make, Ostrichland USA is a farm in Buellton that welcomes visitors to see ostriches up close. An ideal stop for families, Ostrichland USA gives people of all ages the chance to feed one of the most rarely seen birds in the world. No stop to Ostrichland is complete with purchasing an ostrich egg or ostrich feather duster, just a few of the items available at the farm’s gift shop.

12. El Matador State Beach

Natural Feature

Pacific Coast Highway-California-USA
© Culture Trip
This hidden gem is a must-see summertime stop along the Pacific Coast Highway. Limited bluff-top parking means this beach is never overcrowded. Get lost among the massive sandstone rock towers with arches large enough to stand underneath. The hidden beach caves and tide-pools add to the mystique of this exclusive Malibu destination. Pack a lunch and explore or stop the car for a spontaneous golden hour photoshoot. This stop offers a chance for an authentic adventure in a premier location that is free to explore with cheap parking. Checking this stop off on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary will be easy on the budget and fun. Recommended by Dominic Bertolami

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