Must-Sees on a Road Trip From LA to Big Sur, California

McWay Falls on the Big Sur coastline in California
McWay Falls on the Big Sur coastline in California | © Christopher Crawford / Alamy Stock Photo
Juliet Bennett Rylah

The coastal trek from Los Angeles to Big Sur is undeniably scenic – with dramatic waterfalls, beaches, cliffs and dunes. Yet, the man-made spectacles are just as compelling, from newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s lavish mansion to a castle made from scavenged materials. Here are the destinations to pack into your California road trip.

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Lotusland, Montecito

Located in upscale Montecito, just south of Santa Barbara, Lotusland is the estate of the late Madame Ganna Walska. Nine years after her death in 1984, the estate’s botanical gardens opened to the public for tours. The gardens span 37 acres (15ha) and contain more than 3,000 different kinds of plants.

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes

The Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes complex extends over 18mi (29km) of beautiful coast, which includes Oso Flaco Lake, the Pismo Dunes Natural Preserve and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. An interesting piece of history: in 1923, Cecil B. DeMille shot the silent movie The Ten Commandments here, but instead of removing the set pieces, the crew buried and abandoned them. Some pieces remain buried; others can be viewed at the Dunes Center.

Bubblegum Alley

Bubblegum Alley, a pedestrian alleyway off Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo, is lined with numerous pieces of chewed gum, a tradition that has been going on since the 1970s.

Madonna Inn

The Madonna Inn is a historic and unique hotel where every one of its 110 rooms has a different theme. It’s been around since 1958, though the original building was destroyed in a fire, making way for the quirky rooms such as the Caveman with stone walls that you can stay in today.

Morro Rock

Morro Rock is a volcanic plug – a hill formed from lava reaching the surface – that rises dramatically from Morro Bay Harbor. It is 23m years old, 576ft (176m) tall and serves as a bird sanctuary.

Nitt Witt Ridge

Nitt Witt Ridge was constructed by the artist and garbage collector Art Beal, beginning in 1928. It’s a castle made out of scavenged materials, resting on 2.5 acres (1ha) in Cambria. Although Beal has since died, the property is maintained by Mike O’Malley, who offers tours to visitors.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

The elephant seal, so named for the male seal’s trunk-like snouts, come twice a year to their rookery to breed, birth and hang out. You can watch the seals via free viewing areas at Piedras Blancas during that time.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a magnificent mansion in San Simeon built over a 28-year period by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan. A true monument to opulence, it contains 165 rooms and sits on 127 acres (51ha).

McWay Falls

Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls flows 80ft (24m) into the ocean. It is one of the most gorgeous views along the Big Sur coast. Fun fact: you might recognize this waterfall from the music video for Dr Dre’s I Need a Doctor (2011).

Nepenthe, Big Sur

For a meal with a spectacular view, hungry travelers come to Nepenthe, up in the Santa Lucia Mountains perched over the Pacific. It’s been around since 1949, welcoming notable guests like writer and long-time local Henry Miller along the way. It serves American cuisine and an extensive selection of wine.

Bixby Creek Bridge

Bixby Creek Bridge

The Bixby Creek Bridge, built in 1932, offers coastal views at numerous turnouts along its 714ft (218m). It’s a particularly tall bridge – 260ft (79m) above the canyon below – making it one of the highest single-span arch bridges in the world. Lately, it earned even more fame after appearing in the opening credits of the popular HBO series Big Little Lies.

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