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

McWay Falls, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, is a stunning stop on the Big Sur coast
McWay Falls, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, is a stunning stop on the Big Sur coast | © Jordan Whitfield / Unsplash
Photo of Juliet Bennett Rylah
13 August 2020

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 12 destinations to pack into your California road trip.

Lotusland, Montecito

Botanical Garden
Map View
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

Hiking Trail
Map View
Beautiful sand dunes of the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve in Central California.
© Jamie Pham / Alamy Stock Photo

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, yet instead of removing the set pieces, the crew buried and abandoned them. Some pieces remain buried; others can be viewed at the Dunes Center.

Atmosphere:

Accessible (Deaf), Family Friendly, Dog Friendly

Madonna Inn

Hotel
Map View
Dining room, Restaurant Kult-Motel Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo, California, USA
© imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
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

Building
Map View
Nitt Witt House in the town of Cambria, California. Image shot 2016. Exact date unknown.
© Dimitry Bobroff / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Bixby Creek Bridge

Bridge
Map View
ethan-dow-uCguIj7WSZQ-unsplash
© Ethan Dow / Unsplash
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.
These recommendations were updated on August 13, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.