The central coast portion of Highway 1 has a little bit of everything. At its northern boundary, San Francisco provides a plethora of urban eateries and attractions. Highway 1 then follows the coast past Half Moon Bay, where you can find quiet beaches and long stretches of open road reminiscent of northern California. At Monterey and Santa Cruz you’ll find luxurious hotels, amazing breweries and wineries, and plenty of opportunities for hiking, kayaking, and surfing.
South of Carmel-By-The-Sea, the mountain encroaches on the ocean along the stunning Big Sur section, arguably the most scenic part of the entire pacific coast. Wildlife abounds south of Big Sur at the elephant seal rookery of San Simeon and pristine estuary of Morro Bay. Finally, the highway heads inland around Point Conception until it reaches the Santa Barbara Channel.
If you only have time to drive one section of the pacific coast, I would make the Central Coast the one.
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The Devil's Slide area of Pacific Coast Highway used to be an actual part of the road that was rather dangerous for drivers. They have since moved the road into a tunnel that is much safer and have opened the old Devil's Slide as a biking / hiking path. It is a beautiful spot to get out and enjoy views of the coast while being active.
Located in Half Moon Bay, Sam's Chowder House is one of the most popular stops for food along the drive and it is pretty much always crowded. The go to item is the lobster roll which has been on a few "best sandwiches in America" lists. The restaurant overlooks the water and it's a great spot for a nice meal.
This state park, located in the North part of Santa Cruz is a beautiful spot to just sit and enjoy the beach. The highlight though is the massive rock arch that stands about 20 feet out in the water. The park is called bridges because there used to be two but since the other one collapsed it is just the one main arch out in the water.
One of the most iconic stops on the entire drive is the beautiful McWay Waterfall that cascades directly onto the beach. This is an easy 5-minute hike that leads to the overlook for the waterfall. No trip down PCH is complete without taking a few minutes to observe it.
Probably my favorite meal on PCH is the clam chowder in a bread bowl from Splash Cafe. This decadent soup never ceases to amaze me, and it is easily the best clam chowder I have had. The actual restaurant in Pismo Beach is a fun historic spot as well, and you can take your soup to go and eat it on the beach if you would like.
Josh McNair is the creator of CaliforniaThroughMyLens.com, a website that is dedicated to exploring and cataloging the beauty of California. Everything from restaurants and hikes to road trips and strange attractions are explored on the site. Check it out for even more great ideas to explore the pacific coast.