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TOP THINGS TO DO ON A CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP

PACIFIC COAST GUIDE


California's coastline is a road trip paradise. The scenic drive takes you through idyllic seaside towns, historical sites, majestic redwood forests, iconic beaches, and picturesque wine country. There is a never-ending list of things to do along Highway 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway, and Highway 101, so to help you get started, we've compiled a list of the top 22 highlights from north to south.

Top Things To Do in California - Road Trip

 

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REDWOOD NATIONAL AND STATE PARKS

The Redwood National and State Parks are a World Heritage Site, and International Biosphere Reserve and home to the tallest trees in the world. There are many things to see and do in the parks, including walks, bike trails, scenic drives and camping.


The Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway is a 16 km (10 mi) drive off Highway 101. It was named after a man who dedicated 40 years of his life to preserving forests like these. The road weaves through the towering redwoods with many opportunities to stop and admire the scenery or stretch your legs on a walking trail. Along this scenic drive, you will find the Big Tree Wayside. This is a great stop if you only have limited time to explore the park.


Just a 15-minute drive from Big Tree Wayside is the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail. The 2 km (1.5 mi) track is an easy and popular walk dedicated to the former First Lady by Richard Nixon in 1969 for her efforts to preserve public lands.



EUREKA


In Humboldt County, along the Redwood Coast, lies the California coastal town of Eureka. This charming seaside town, featuring giant redwoods, Victorian architecture, beautiful murals, and unique artisanal businesses, is the perfect road trip stop or weekend getaway.


Check out our guide for Top Things To Do in Eureka.

AVENUE OF THE GIANTS


The Avenue of the Giants is a scenic road that runs alongside Highway 101 for almost 50 km (31 mi). It gently winds through the towering redwoods with ample opportunities to pull over and enjoy the scenery. It is hard to believe you are alongside a major highway when you’re engulfed in the tranquillity of the redwood forest.


The Avenue of the Giants is our favourite spot on this road trip - absolutely unmissable.


THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT


Located in Garberville is the famous attraction, the Legend of BigFoot. This roadside gift store is a great pit stop. They sell souvenirs, garden ornaments and large carved sculptures. They also have a public restroom.


The shop is nestled in a bend on the highway, making it easy to miss. Follow your GPS and be prepared to pullover as you approach the location.


FORT BRAGG


The coastal town of Fort Bragg is a California Historic Landmark. Formerly a military post and a lumber town, the town has now become a popular road trip stop on Highway 1. There are many tourist attractions around this seaside town, including the Skunk Train, Pudding Creek Trestle, the Mendocino Coast Botanic Gardens, and Glass Beach.


At the southern end of Fort Bragg is the Noyo River and the Noyo Harbor. Here you can take fishing charters, whale watching tours, hire kayaks, or just watch the fishing vessels return with hauls of fresh seafood, usually followed closely by seals and seagulls.


We recommend having lunch at the Noyo River Grill, with great food, drinks and seal spotting.


RUSSIAN GULCH STATE PARK


Russian Gulch State Park is a very short 10-minute drive north of Mendocino. It offers walking trails, campsites, a beach, a picturesque bridge, a waterfall and a blow hole. There is an entrance fee of $8 per vehicle, which you can purchase at the gate.



MENDOCINO


The quaint town of Mendocino is a popular stop on California's scenic Highway 1 drive. It is known for its cliffside trails, ocean views, Victorian village, wineries, boutiques and beaches. It may be small, but this bustling seaside town has plenty to see and do.


Check out our guide for Top Things To Do in Mendocino.

ANDERSON VALLEY


Anderson Valley lies along Highway 128, a short detour from the coast. There are many great wineries in this region, including Greenwood Ridge Vineyards, Husch Vineyards & Winery, Navarro Vineyards & Winery and Goldeneye. Some wineries require bookings, while others accept walk-ins and provide free tastings. Best to check their websites before arriving.



POINT ARENA


The coastal town of Point Arena has a peaceful small-town vibe. The main street is a historic district with a few shops, cafes, restaurants and bars.


The Point Arena Stornetta Coastal Trail is a scenic cliffside walk offering spectacular Pacific Ocean views. It passes by the Sea Lion Cove State Marine Conservation Area, where you will likely spot a few seals and many sea birds.


The Point Arena Lighthouse has been operating since 1870. In 1906 the original structure was severely damaged by an earthquake that occurred along the nearby San Andreas Fault. The new structure was opened in 1908. The grounds have a small admission fee and there is an additional charge to tour the lighthouse.



BOWLING BALL BEACH


Bowling Ball Beach is located at the northern end of Schooner Gulch State Beach. This site is named after the spherical concretions, or “bowling balls,” that sit in rows on the beach, exposed at low tide. There are only a few places in the world where you can see these types of concretions.


You can only see the balls at low tide, so be sure to check the tide times before visiting.


BODEGA BAY


The seaside town of Bodega Bay has many small boutiques, cafes and restaurants, making it a perfect road trip pit stop. The town is also well known as the set for Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. Information about the filming and sites can be found online or at the Visitors Centre. The most famous of the sites is the Potter School House, located in Bodega. This building is a private residence and closed to the public, but you can drive past and admire the façade.



POINT REYES


An hour’s drive south of Bodega Bay is the Point Reyes National Seashore. There is a lot to see and do in Point Reyes, so a good place to start is at the Bear Valley Visitors Centre, where you can get more information on the park and check out the exhibition space. Also near the Visitors Centre is the Earthquake Trail. This is an easy and accessible loop trail that offers information on the San Andreas Fault and features a reconstructed fence that shows the effect of the 1906 earthquake, where the fence “jumped” 3 m (16 ft).


In the town of Inverness is the Point Reyes Shipwreck. You can stop in town to grab food from the store and check out the shipwreck on Tomales Bay. A 10-minute drive from the shipwreck along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is the Cypress Tree Tunnel. This picturesque road is not just a popular photo spot but also the drive leading to the historic radio station.


At the very end of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is the Point Reyes Lighthouse. This lighthouse was built in 1870 and operated until 1975. You can visit the area at any time, but the lighthouse is only open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.


There is also a lot of wildlife spotting opportunities from this location. From the Observation Deck, we watched pods of whales in the distance and on the path to and from the lighthouse, we spotted many deer and a coyote.



SAN FRANCISCO


Once you’ve spent a day by the bay, it's easy to see why San Francisco is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US. The windy and hilly city is packed with things to do. Whether you are looking for free activities, outdoor attractions, beautiful natural landscapes, shopping or amazing food, beer and wine, The Golden City has it all.


Check out our guide for Top Things To Do in San Francisco.


SHARK FIN COVE


Located in Davenport, one hour south of San Francisco or 15 minutes north of Santa Cruz, is Shark Fin Cove. This beach has become a popular destination for travellers and photographers thanks to the rock in the centre of the bay, which is shaped like a shark fin.


It's also worth stopping at Swanton Berry Farm, a few minutes north of the cove. They sell jams, pies, desserts, coffee, cider and merchandise and on the weekend, you can also go strawberry picking.



SANTA CRUZ


Santa Cruz is the quintessential California beach town, where you feel the laid-back vibe from the moment you arrive. When it comes to the top things to do, Santa Cruz is known for its classic coastal culture, including beaches, surfing, a famous skateboard brand and waterfront tourist attractions.


Check out our guide for Top Things To Do in Santa Cruz.

MONTEREY


Monterey is located along the southern edge of Monterey Bay. From the beautiful coastline to the marine life and the historic district, this seaside city has a lot to see and do.


The heart of the historic district is Cannery Row. Lined with shops and restaurants, this street was once home to the factories that made up one of the world’s largest sardine canning industries. Not far from Cannery Row is Old Fisherman’s Wharf. This pier was originally built for passenger and freight ships before becoming a commercial fishing pier. Once the sardines in the bay began to disappear, this pier took on a new life as a tourist attraction with souvenir shops, restaurants and bars.


Monterey Bay is also one of the largest marine sanctuaries in the country and is the perfect location for wildlife spotting. From the beaches, a kayak or boat tour, keep an eye out for whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and otters. For guaranteed wildlife experiences, head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row or for spectacular views of the coastline, check out 17-Mile Drive.



CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA


A short drive from Monterey is the charming Carmel-By-The-Sea. Entering this town is like entering a fairytale village. Since the 1900s, Carmel-By-The-Sea has attracted artists and creatives, and this charm is still preserved today, seen in the houses, boutiques and galleries. You won’t find chain stores, fast-food joints or even parking meters in this town. Instead, you will stroll down cobblestone streets, explore inviting alleyways, admire the cottages and dine at world-class restaurants and wine bars.


The famous fairytale cottages, constructed by builder and toy maker Hugh Comstock, can be found in several streets around town, including Torres, Santa Fe and Santa Rita. One of the most popular cottages, Tuck Box, is in the heart of the town on Dolores Street.



BIG SUR


Big Sur is a stretch of road along the Highway 1 drive, famous for its unmatched scenic views. If you have limited time for this road trip, Big Sur gives you a taste of it all. The road winds through the mountains and redwood forests, over bridges, along the cliffs and past beautiful beaches. There are stunning vista points, peaceful campsites, great hiking trails, parks, restaurants and hotels.


Our favourite stops along this drive (if we had to limit to just a few) would be the Bixby Bridge Vista Point, the Great Sur Vista Point and the Vista Point near the Seaview School.


PISMO BEACH


The small seaside town of Pismo Beach is known for surfing and seafood, particularly clams and, consequently, clam chowder. The long, wooden Pismo Beach Pier is one of the area's most well-known landmarks, easily found behind the giant Pismo Beach sign.

California Road Trip Itinerary - Pismo Beach

A few minutes down the road from the pier is the Monarch Butterfly Grove. From late October through to February, the Monarch Butterflies migrate to the coast for winter. This place is one of the locations where these butterflies seek shelter in large clusters. It’s a beautiful and humbling experience to stand in the grove and watch the butterflies fluttering above or landing on the trees and paths around you.



OCEANO DUNES STATE VEHICULAR RECREATION AREA


Stepping onto the Oceano Dunes, one of the most extensive coastal dunes in California, feels like you have left the US and jumped onto a different planet. The beach is an off-highway vehicle area open for day use and camping at a small charge. You can rent ATVs, go horse riding or simply walk through the sand dunes.


If you need something to eat after all that trekking through the sand, stop by Slappy’s Chowder House on Pier Avenue.


SOLVANG


Solvang is a charming Danish Village on the west coast of California. This town was established by a group of Danish Americans in 1911, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that it began to turn into the village you see today. The Danish-style buildings, food and shops are what draw visitors to this town.


Our favourite places were Birkholm’s Bakery & Café, The Book Loft, Hans Christian Anderson Museum and Dowdle Gallery.


SANTA BARBARA


Beautifully nestled between the mountains and the ocean is the quintessential California beach town of Santa Barbara. This large seaside city has everything you are looking for in a coastal getaway. It has an esplanade walk along the coast, lined with palm trees, sandy beaches with incredible views of the ocean, historical landmarks, beautiful architecture, shopping streets and great places to eat and drink.


Check out our guide for Top Things To Do in Santa Barbara.


OUR GOOGLE MAPS


When planning our travel destinations, we pin our bucket list of sites to see and recommended places to eat and drink on Google Maps. We are then never lost for ideas when travelling, and can easily share these lists for our friends and family to use too.







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