On the Road: a Nature-Lover's Guide to California's Pacific Coast Highway

Epic views around Big Sur are just one reason to drive the Pacific Coast Highway
Epic views around Big Sur are just one reason to drive the Pacific Coast Highway | © lucky-photographer / Alamy
Photo of Nick Dauk
13 September 2021

Meet the Golden State’s marine life on this coastal adventure, which curves by sandy beaches and surfer-roamed waters via upscale motels and cool campsites.

With its switchback twists and turns, past deep-blue ocean and sky-high redwood forests, California’s Pacific Coast Highway is a road like no other in the United States. Officially known as State Route 1, this nearly 700-mile-long thoroughfare stretches along the California coastline from San Francisco in the north to Los Angeles in the south. Due to the scenery and side of the road you’ll be driving on, it’s best tackled in that direction, too – its legendary status elevated with each passing mile. Conquer this iconic road trip and see some of California’s serene sites with this nature-lover’s guide to the PCH.

If you’re going to San Francisco…

Phoenix Hotel, San Francisco

Boutique Hotel
4.1/5 (975 Reviews)
The Phoenix Hotel_h_540a7421
Courtesy of The Phoenix Hotel / Hotels.com
Price Drop
Now from $207 per night

Before you gas up and hit the road, take a minute to refuel your energy at Phoenix Hotel. This rock’n’roll motel is rumored to have housed Neil Young for a spell and crisscrosses many other chapters of musical history. Your room beside the artfully decorated pool is a perfect spot to map out your Pacific Coast Highway journey. Toast the start of your trip at Chambers restaurant with grilled Mount Lassen trout, a local IPA and an irresistible phyllo tart.

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Farallon Islands

Natural Feature, Park
Map View
Farallon Island Common Murre flock in flight off the Farallon Islands in the San Francisco Bay area, California, USA.
© scott sady/tahoelight.com / Alamy

After an obligatory snap at the Golden Gate Bridge and an extraordinarily fresh meal at the game-changing vegetarian restaurant Greens, discover an underrated spot just outside of the city: Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. You can catch a boat tour from San Francisco and sail out to these rugged islands where you’ll spot a boatload of wildlife – puffins, orcas, sea lions and even great white sharks visit this sanctuary.

AutoCamp Russian River, Sonoma

Budget Hotel
4.8/5 (57 Reviews)
Courtesy of Autocamp Russian River / Expedia
Price Drop
Now from $210 per night
Before you head south, detour from San Francisco to the Sonoma winelands and trade the typical hotel stay for a luxury tent or air stream at AutoCamp Russian River. You’ll be a happy camper no matter which you choose – each morning you’ll wake up to coffee surrounded by Sonoma’s redwood trees. Dive into the Russian River for an afternoon of swimming, fly fishing or kayaking. If hiking is on the agenda, the Armstrong Nature Trail – just five minutes away – will immerse you in a grove of 1,000-year-old redwoods.
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Russian River Vineyards

Map View
© Craig Lovell / Eagle Visions Photography / Alamy

Follow the water deeper into the valley and you’ll reach the Russian River Vineyards. While a few minutes from the Pacific Coast Highway, this estate is a wonderful stop to take in more natural views with a side serving of food and wine. Any opportunity for a tasting is sublime, though gourmet food boards aren’t the only pairing on the menu. Local musicians fill the vineyard on the weekend nights, while calm guitar music and yoga classes strike a chord on weekend mornings.

Head south down Monterey bay

Monterey Tides

3.8/5 (1767 Reviews)
Courtesy of Monterey Tides / Expedia

The private beachfront of the Monterey Tides hotel is the ideal place to catch all of the marine life populating the Pacific. From the restaurant to your room, you’ll never be without ocean views. Rent a bicycle to pedal down the shoreline – the 17-Mile Drive to classy Carmel-by-the-Sea is a must – or watch the glow of the hotel’s nightly bonfire light up the night when the sun finally sets.

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  • Monterey Bay Aquarium

    Map View
    Visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium view a kelp forest with its associated variety of fish and sharks.
    © Jim Cole, Photographer / Alamy

    There’s a sea of things to do on the waterfront street of Cannery Row in Monterey, but nature lovers who prefer wildlife viewing to people watching should visit the Monterey Aquarium – basecamp for the BBC’s Big Blue Live natural history program. More than a dozen underwater exhibits showcase the sea life that lives between the shoreline and the deep. Wander through a kelp forest on the lookout for leopard sharks and wolf eels. They’ll be easier to spot than the giant Pacific octopus, who’s a master of disguise. Emerge to the top decks to snap photos of humpback whales and sea otters swimming up to say hello.

    The twists and turns of Big Sur

    Cambria Beach Lodge, Big Sur

    Hotel, Lodge
    Map View
    Courtesy of Cambria Beach Lodge / Expedia

    Cambria Beach Lodge was literally built with classic California road trips in mind. From its beach house bungalow with panoramic ocean views to complimentary bicycles and adventure tools, this hotel wants to help you make the most of your stopover. They won’t throw any shade if you desire a down day – they’ll just hand you a cup of HoneyCo Roasters coffee and tell you where to find the most relaxing spot on nearby Moonstone Beach. It’s a key stop in the scenic Central Coast road of Big Sur, which stretches for ​​70 miles via Hearst Castle and the elephants seals of Piedras Blancas Rookery.

    Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

    Natural Feature, Park
    Map View
    Pfeiffer Falls. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California. EGJMRT
    © joseph s giacalone / Alamy

    Among the many trails at must-see Pfeiffer State Park is a self-guided nature walk, where you may spot bobcats, skunks and black-tailed deer. You won’t notice any absence of wildlife as you get lost in the beauty of the redwoods, maples, sycamores and willows, either. Stroll the banks of the Big Sur River or watch the gorge from above as the river cuts its way through the park.

    Refuel in sunny Santa Barbara

    The Goodland, Santa Barbara

    3.9/5 (941 Reviews)
    Kimpton Goodland
    Courtesy of the Kimpton Goodland / Expedia
    Price Drop
    Now from $243 per night

    If you haven’t adopted the Golden State of Mind yet, one night at the Goodland will get you in the right headspace. Surf-inspired guest rooms are steeped in SoCal style with an in-room yoga mat, gourmet honor bar and a choice selection of vinyl to play on the turntables. You may think you’ll spend hours at the pool – Santa Barbara is a centerpiece of the American Riviera, after all – but you’ll probably be planted inside the VNYL record shop thumbing through albums. A complimentary social hour and bicycle rentals are icing on the cake.

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    The Lark

    Restaurant, American, $$$
    Map View
    chefs working in the kitchen, The Lark in the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara, California, United States of America
    © Chuck Place / Alamy

    You’ve seen what California’s natural beauty has to offer – but have you tasted it? The Lark, a cucumber-cool affair in Santa Barbara’s buzzy Funk Zone district, is the ideal place to sample the bounty of Cali’s Central Coast. Locally sourced, responsibly grown, seasonal ingredients dominate the menu with dishes like crispy pork belly, west coast oysters and field-fresh green beans making appearances. If you’re lucky enough to snag a bowl of house-made, sweet-corn ice cream, you won’t regret leaving space for dessert.

    The final stretch to LAX

    The Kinney, Venice Beach

    Boutique Hotel
    4.4/5 (660 Reviews)
    The Kinney Venice Beach
    Courtesy of The Kinney Venice Beach / Expedia
    Price Drop
    Now from $127 per night

    Is there a better place for the sun to set on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip than Venice Beach? The Kinney is close to LAX, so you’ll have no worries about catching your flight on time. Reserving a Crash Pad Suite is a must: Pop-art decor, upscale bath toiletries and a separate living area will help you settle in for one last night in coastal Cali. Join the Breakfast Club in the morning for an overloaded burrito or a sweet parfait, and share your favorite memories of the trip over pingpong in the Quad.

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    Angeles National Forest

    Natural Feature, Park
    Map View
    Beautiful narrow hike path alongside the creak at Santa Anita Canyon, Angeles National Forest, San Gabriel Mountain Range near Los Angeles, California- P7DN08
    © Lstock / Alamy

    Wave goodbye to the ocean to gaze at one last vista of the Golden State at Angeles National Forest before you hop on your flight. Though less than a half-hour away from the city, the wilderness views – with not a skyscraper in sight – are a breath of fresh air. Fishing, hiking, swimming and even skiing are on the table, making the diversity of activities alone worthy of a trip during any season. The dense, pine-covered slopes and quiet lakes beat photos of the Hollywood sign any day of the week.

    These recommendations were updated on September 13, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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