Southern California is one of the best places to travel in the United States as far as attractions, weather, and scenic views. Walking trails, surfing spots, and dramatic views of the Pacific coastline can be found all along the Pacific Coast Highway. Step back in time at a 200-year-old Spanish mission or even further at a Roman-style villa. Whereas central and northern California offers the dramatic, rocky coastlines, this Southern California Itinerary is all about surf and sun. The Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip along California State Route 1, runs north to south along the Pacific coast. This Southern California Itinerary starts in Santa Barbara and glides down the Pacific Coast Highway towards Dana Point, California.
How long? The length of the trip can vary, depending on traffic and the time of year. Traffic along the Pacific Coast Highway in the summer can be stop and go, mainly stopping. It’s best to pre-plan precisely what you wish to see and plan to see it in segments. A solid seven days wouldn’t be out of the question to visit even the significant towns, much less all of the attractions.
When to go? Spring and Fall are your best bets when visiting Southern California. Winter, especially December, is the rainy season and you may run into mudslides, especially near Malibu. (That said, nothing beats standing on a misty Malibu beach with no-one else around in December). Summer brings the crowds, hotter weather, and higher risks for wildfires. Prices are also lower in the Spring and Fall months.
This itinerary will start in Santa Barbara. Although flying into LAX is the cheapest way to get into Southern California, you can also fly directly into Santa Barbara and then rent a car. This Pacific Coast Highway Southern California style starts up north and heads south along the highway so that you are driving closer to the ocean.
Coming from the Bay Area? Take Rte 1 down from Monterey for the Big Sur part of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Either way, have fun!
A great place to start exploring Santa Barbara’s Spanish roots, the Mission Santa Barbara was founded in 1786. Founded by the Spanish Franciscans, the Mission is the only California mission continually occupied and used since its founding. To learn more about the Spanish history of Southern California, visit the El Presidio Historic Park, which was founded in 1782. The town of Santa Barbara is often called the jewel of the American Rivera. Slightly different in tone than greater Los Angeles County, Santa Barbara’s Spanish style architecture, indie boutiques, and beaches make the town a must-stop. Feeling sunburned from all of the sun-drenched beaches?
Here are a few other Santa Barbara stops:
- Santa Barbara Harbor (132-A Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, CA 93109) allows you to walk from beach to beach and experience many of Santa Barbara’s sites such as shoreline park and Stearns Wharf.
- Head down Historic State Street, which is lined with a variety of big-name shopped and boutiques. Think of it like a mini-Rodeo Drive, just much less expensive.
- Ready to visit one of the local beaches? Try East Beach (1400 E Cabrillo Blvd, Santa Barbara, CA 93108-2880), West Beach (State St and W Cabrillo Blvd, Santa Barbara, CA 93103), Leadbetter Beach (Shoreline Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93101)
- Shoreline Park (Shoreline Dr & Santa Rosa Place, Santa Barbara, CA 93109), is a popular 14.6-acre that offers sweeping views of the coastline, the city, and the Santa Ynez mountains.
- Stearns Wharf (217 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA 93101) is California’s oldest working wharf and is a great place to go for a walk or a ride on the water taxi.
- Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center (211 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA 93101) is an interactive marine education facility located on Stearns Wharf.
- To finalize your first stop, go to the Santa Barbara Courthouse (1100 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101), and take in the views from their clock tower.
Malibu & Pacific Palisades
I know that Malibu is most commonly known for its beautiful beaches, but they also have one of the state’s best museums on Grecian and Roman history and art. Visit the ancient world by seeing beautiful gardens, architecture, historic statues, and a killer view of the Pacific Ocean from the authentically re-created first-century Roman gardens. One cool tour that they have is an audio tour from the World of Pearcy Jackson as you walk through the different exhibits. Located at the easterly end of the Malibu Coast, the Villa, one of the two J. Paul Getty Museums. The museum itself is free, but parking is $20 and is well worth it.
- Point Mugu State Park (9000 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265) is a bit of a ride off the Pacific Coast Highway into the mountains. The stunning ride offers five miles of ocean shoreline with rocky bluffs, sandy beaches, sand dunes, and over 70 miles of a hiking trail.
- El Matador State Beach (32215 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265-2529). Not your average sandy beach—this one offers cliffs, boulders, rock formations, and a taste of the beaches Central California.
- Zuma Beach (30000 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265-3601). A more traditional beach, Zuma is the quintessential beach with long vast sands, clean water, and perfect surf.
- Malibu Lagoon State Beach (Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265-4937). Walk around the lagoon for a great view and an entrance into the Pacific Ocean Beach. It’s also not as crowded as some of the other beaches in the area.
- Adamson House and Malibu Lagoon Museum (23200 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265) is a historic house and gardens within Malibu Lagoon State Park.
- Malibu Pier (23000 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265-4936). Malibu Pier is a lot quieter than many of the other piers in Southern California, but it’s a great place to grab a bite to eat while watching the sea and the surfers.
- Charmlee Wilderness Park (2577 Encinal Canyon Rd, Malibu, CA 90265). It’s currently closed due to the Woolsey Fire. Once it opens, 532-acre park and nature center is a great place to explore the canyon and wilderness of Western Malibu.
- Will Rogers State Beach (17000 CA-1, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272) is near the intersection with Temescal Canyon Road and is one of the most popular swimming and skin-diving beaches. It is one of the filming locations for the original Baywatch and is excellent to walk and job on during the early morning hours. (Parking also isn’t heinous).
- Tuna Canyon Park (2802 Tuna Canyon Rd, Topanga, CA 90290) gives you a great view of the ocean, Malibu, San Fernando Valley and of the mountains.
Founded in 1905, Venice Beach has humanmade canals, gondolas straight from Italy, and is a place to see everything from an amusement pier, boutiques, art galleries, and a miniature steam railroad. The Venice Canals and walkways are beautiful in the morning or the evening, and you’ll avoid the largest of the crowds. Walk along the boardwalk to see a variety of restaurants, spas, and places to shop. You’ll also find plenty of street entertainers and skateboarders along the pier.
- Venice Oceanarium (330 Market St, Venice, CA 90291) is an outdoor museum that hosts various educational about wildlife along the boardwalk. It’s often called a “museum without walls.”
- Mosaic Tile House (1116 Palms Blvd, Venice, CA 90291) is a 1940s home that has been covered inside and out with colored tile and splintered-glass mosaics.
- Muscle Beach (1800 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, CA 90291). Once the home of bodybuilders, Muscle Beach is steps from the Venice Beach boardwalk. It’s a piece of living history and has an outdoor weight room.
- Abbot Kinney Boulevard (Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291) is a mile-long stretch of fashionable shops, fashion houses, art, and food just minutes from the beach.
One route is to
- From Venice Beach or Abbot Kinney Boulevard, take Venice Way down to Ocean Avenue, and down to Admiralty Way. This will take you around Marina del Mar and down to Fiji Way. Head east on Fiji Way to Lincoln Boulevard.
- Lincoln Boulevard turns into Highway 1, take it down to W. Jefferson Boulevard and then turn right (west) towards W Jefferson Blvd.
- As you head west, Jefferson Blvd turns into Culver Blvd. Culver will take you south down to onto Vista Del Mar.
You’ll then pass on to the Playa Del Rey Beach (7313-7351 S Marine Ave, Playa Del Rey, CA 90293). This gets you back near the ocean and helps you avoid LAX traffic (yes, I’m double stressing it). Vista Del Mar turns into Highland Ave and heads down towards Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach.
With over 150 acres of land and water area, the Redondo Beach Pier and King Harbor is a great place to walk along the waterfront. You can swim, fish, boat, or visit any of the shopping and restaurants along the pier. It’s one of the oldest piers in Southern California and retains some of the quirky shops. The arcade is also fun, and you can still take a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Nearby you can find:
- Torrance State Beach (201 Paseo De La Playa, Torrance, CA 90277) is a small beach tucked at the south end of the strand that is often quieter and allows you to sit and enjoy the views.
- Seaside Lagoon (200 Portofino Way, Redondo Beach, CA 90277) is a large saltwater lagoon open for public use starting in May through September.
- SEA Lab (1021 N Harbor Dr, Redondo Beach, CA 90277) is a public aquarium and marine-life rehabilitation center with a native plant nursery and environmental outreach program.
- Hopkins Wilderness Park (1102 Camino Real, Redondo Beach, CA 90277). With a forest, meadows, pond, an amphitheater, the Wilderness Park offers a little bit different view of Orange County.
Once you start going south on Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll veer into city territory again through Long Beach and a few internal towns. (You’re not lost, there’s just no water view for a while). It will start curving down south towards the beach.
It’s off the beaten path a little, but if you have a short time, stop in Long Beach to visit the Queen Mary (1126 Queens Hwy, Long Beach, CA 90802) or the Korean Friendship Bell (3601 S Gaffey St, San Pedro, CA 90731) near the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (3720 Stephen M White Dr, San Pedro, CA 90731).
Just down the street from Huntington Beach and the Huntington Dog Beach is the International Surfing Museum, which captures the town’s love for surfing by offering exhibits on longboards and other surf memorabilia. On Sundays, stop by to listen to surfing music in town while strolling along the beach.
- Just down the street is the Huntington Beach Pier (Main St. and Pacific Coast Highway; Huntington Beach, California). The Pier was first built in 1904 and then rebuilt over time with much of the current pier using the 1914 design.
- Huntington Beach State Park (21601 Pacific Coast Hwy, Huntington Beach, CA 92646-7600) is a 121-acre clean beach with soft sand (no burning your feet on rocks…), swimmable water, built-in fire pits, and a variety of restaurants.
- Huntington Dog Beach (100 Goldenwest St F, Huntington Beach, CA 92648). Forget people watching, this is the perfect beach to dog watch and take your pup for off-leash exploring.
- Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (18000 CA-1, Huntington Beach, CA 92648) is a great place to see wildlife, take long walks, and view many marine animals. Be sure to wear shoes due to snakes; leave the flipflops for the beach.
Not your typical Southern California beach, Crystal Cove State Park is a quiet beach where you can reconnect with nature. It is a little bit of a walk from the car park (walk down a path), but it is worth it once you start walking along the beach, hidden by the rock walls. The parking spot also has a tunnel to help you access the historic district in Laguna Beach. Other beaches in Laguna Beach:
- 1,000 Steps Beach (31972 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651) is famous for surfing, sunbathing and volleyball. Like with Crystal Cove, it also has steep stairs down to the beach.
- Main Beach (107 S Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651). A 1929 lifeguard tower rests over this historic, centrally-located sandy city beach. This beach is one of the most well-known beaches on the planet due to its popularity in television shows and movies.
- Table Rock Beach (31681 Sea Bluff Ln, Laguna Beach, CA 92651). Tucked away in South Laguna Beach, this sandy beach is one of the most beautiful as the north and south ends are capped with cliffs. Like most of the beaches in the area, it’s a steep climb with over multiple steps (195 on one side) to get there.
- Treasure Island Beach (Wesley Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651). Treasure Island is a sandy beach with high cliffs surrounding it where you can walk to Middle Man Cove and Goff Cove. Scuba diving, swimming, tide pooling, and sunbathing are favorite activities.
- Heisler Park (375 Cliff Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651) is also a great outdoor place with access to a marine refuge with tide pools, tide pools, walking trails, and gardens. Beautiful Picnic Beach is located at the northern branch of the Park.
Doheny State Park is a smaller beach surrounded by a multitude of beautiful sandy beaches, including Salt Creek Beach and Baby Beach. It’s a smaller beach that is used a lot for concerts and events. The nearby pier has places to eat and view the sunset. Take a moment also to visit:
- Dana Point Bluff Top Trail (34342 Street of the Amber Lantern, Dana Point, CA 92629) is a short and easy walk that offers beautiful views of Dana Point Harbor along with a commemorative plate.
- Dana Strands Beach (34001-34099 Selva Rd, Dana Point, CA 92629) is a sandy beach that is popular with surfers. There’s a boardwalk that allows you to walk north or south to other spots in town. For example, walking north will take you to the main part of Salt Creek Beach.
- Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area (34558 Scenic Dr, Dana Point, CA 92629) is part of a public trail system that links the conservation parks, the Nature Interpretive Center, and public areas.
- Dana Point Hilltop Park (34392 Street of the Green Lantern, Dana Point, CA 92629) is a short trail that leads to panoramic views of Dana Point from the top of the hill.
- The Catalina Express (34675 Golden Lantern, Dana Point, CA 92629) departs from this area to Catalina Island.
Finally, What to Pack?
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Ready to hit the road? Be sure to pack along some must needed items for your road trip.
Road Trip Essentials
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