Santa Barbara marks the threshold to the southern California section of the pacific coast. From here on south, it’s miles-upon-miles of beautiful sand beaches, palm-lined streets, and thriving coastal cities. The best way to enjoy southern California is by diving straight into the beachside culture. Here are some ways to do it:
Of course, there are also some spectacular hikes (most notably along the Malibu coast and at Torrey Pines), interesting attractions (like the Getty Villa), and unique breweries (don’t miss Stone Brewing!) to round everything out.
There is truly something for everyone here.
Between the years of 1769 and 1833, Catholic priests of the Franciscan order established 21 missions along the California coast from San Diego to Sonoma. These sites were a northern extension of the already established missions located in Baja California. Spain’s purpose in creating the mission system was manyfold, including:
San Diego and Monterey were the first missions established. From there, a mission site was designated according to the distance someone could ride in one day via horseback (about 30 miles). The road that linked the missions was called El Camino Real (“The Royal Highway”). Today, Highway 101 follows a significant portion of El Camino Real. In 1892, a series of 450 bells were placed along Highway 101 as road markers. This tradition of bell markers is still used today.
From 1769 to 1823, the mission system slowly worked on converting native people. Once baptized, they were forced to work and live on the mission. Over the 50 year mission period, an estimated 53,000 natives were converted and 15,000 died from disease. The missions never succeeded at become entirely self-sufficient, so they relied on continued financial support from Spain. When Mexico became an independent nation in 1821, the financial supply was cut off and many missions fell into disrepair and abandonment.
When California because a part of the United States in 1850, the missions were officially disbanded. The native tribes were stripped of their lands and most were moved into designated reservations.
These California missions are the furthest northern expansion of Spanish colonization. The original plan was to continue their progress further north and more inland, but due to funding and other foreign affairs, this plan was never realized.
The surviving missions are the oldest buildings in California, offering insight into the history of Spain’s colonization more than 300 years ago. (1)
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The Pacific Coast Highway hugs the seaside edge of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area – the country’s largest urban unit of the National Park System. A patchwork of public and private lands provides unparalleled outdoor opportunities for Southern Californians.
Most of these trails stay cooler than their inland counterparts but summer and fall heat can be brutal. Hike early in the morning or in the evening, or wait for the winter and spring when they trails explode with native wildflowers.
Here are five great day hikes you can do without having to go too far off the PCH.
A tough climb to a prominent coastal peak, with options to explore extensive meadows in Point Mugu State Park. (2 miles RT to peak. Meadow loop 5.2 miles)
A longer lollipop loop from the beach to a series of hidden meadows and ephemeral ponds overlooking the Ocean and Boney Mountain. (6.9 miles)
An extensive system of easy trails on a coastal bluff overlooking Malibu. Great views of the Channel Islands and an excellent nature center. (2.8 miles, length may vary)
The tallest waterfall in the Santa Monica Mountains – with an easily accessible lower tier and a more challenging upper for experienced scramblers. (4 miles)
A classic SoCal hike to the ruins of a burned down mansion next to a trickling cascade. (3.2 miles to the house and back, with longer options)
Casey Schreiner is the founder and editor in chief of Modern Hiker, the number one hiking blog on the West Coast. Since 2006, Modern Hiker has provided hundreds of trail descriptions for hikes from Canada to Mexico and Colorado to Hawaii.
Start your morning with a cup of coffee, and a stroll down the Santa Monica Pier. You'll get a fresh perspective on the city, and an amazing view of the Santa Monica Mountains... As well as some great angles to snap pics of the surfers!
Next up, get your shopping fix on the 3rd Street Promenade, and Main Street. Both venues offer different shops and vibes, from a traditional mall in an outdoor setting to small boutiques and mom and pop shops on Main Street.
Heading south, check into your hotel along the World Famous Venice Boardwalk. We recommend either the Venice Beach Suites and Hotel, or Breeze Suites. Both offer amazing views of the ocean, and a rooftop deck for taking in the rays.
After check in, rent a Segway or tandem bicycle (don't forget your helmets) and head down the bike path just a short 3 miles to Marina Del Rey. On your way, stop off on Abbot Kinney for some window shopping in the coolest neighborhood in the US.
Just south of Santa Monica & Venice Beach is another LA gem, Marina Del Rey! Get yourself over to Fisherman's Village for amazing views of the many sail and motor boats that fill this area. Then, push your ticket for a fun filled ride 75 feet in the air under a parasail!
This trip up the beach (over the water) will take you north back to the Santa Monica Pier, and then back to Marina Del Rey... just in time for a sunset drink at the Venice Whaler! With views of the Venice Pier, and a stellar dinner and drink selection, you'll be good to go!
A short walk back to the hotel of your choice, then before you leave town don't miss a bloody marry at the Terrace Restaurant with perfect view of the beach and early morning surf clubs!
Enjoy your trip!
Evan White, CEO of the Venice Boardwalk App where you can find all of the amazing offerings from Marina Del Rey to Santa Monica. From local murals, bars, restaurants, famous attractions, and more.
Each Orange County coastal community has their own very distinct personality, landscape, flavor, and offerings. If you only had to visit one, here’s how I would describe each city in one word to let you decide the best destination for yourself: Seal Beach: charming; Huntington Beach: laid–back; Newport Beach: sophisticated; Laguna Beach: eclectic.
Driving on PCH from one end of Seal Beach to the other takes just three-minutes, passing through three stoplights. Seal Beach is everything you want a SoCal surf community to be - casual and sleepy with plenty of sand and surf. Beach cruisers and drying wetsuits are outside almost all the beach bungalows and charming Main St. has mature trees lining the sidewalks giving ample shade to stroll leisurely into one mom and pop shop, café and local business after the next.
The go-to destination for surf lifestyle, Huntington Beach has 10 miles of uninterrupted coastline with plenty of spots to surf or just watch the pros. With the most consistent waves on the West Coast and surfing as a way of life, this is the only place that can be called Surf City USA.
Newport Beach is where sophistication, luxury and SoCal beach lifestyle all meet to form one idyllic seaside city. Newport Beach is widely celebrated for its vibrant yachting community alongside stylish accommodations, coastal cuisine, and upscale shopping. PCH travels straight through the heart of Newport Beach, but if you blink you could miss some of the area’s most popular and pristine beaches. Balboa Peninsula and Corona del Mar beaches are accessed by traveling a very short distance off PCH.
Laguna Beach was established as an artists' colony in the early 1900’s, and much of its artistic past has remained in the present. There are more than 75 art galleries today and is home to many celebrated art festivals. In addition to its art scene, this bohemian-meets-affluent city also has more beachfront hotels than any other city in California and 20,000 acres of wilderness perfect for hiking and biking. Quaint, walkable downtown pours right into more than 30 scalloped beach coves along PCH, all with public access.
Pepe Avila is Visit Anaheim’s Tourism Director, promoting tourism to Anaheim, Garden Grove and the greater Orange County. A local industry expert for nearly 15 years, Pepe travels around the world educating the tourism industry on what makes Anaheim and Orange County the ultimate vacation destination.