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Gorgeous Trips: Pacific Coast Highway Trip Guide to Southern California

March 1, 2017

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Running along the California’s State Route 1 from San Francisco to San Diego, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) ranks among the most scenic drives in the country—if not the world. If you were simply going from point A to B, you’d be looking at about 10 hours with a few stops for food or bathroom breaks. But to truly appreciate all that is perfect about PCH, we recommend more leisurely half-day, full-day and weekend trips with a focus on particular stretches. Here are a few favorites.

Sunset in Santa Monica, California, USA

1. Santa Barbara to Santa Monica (approximately 100 miles)

If you’re pressed for time but want to get a true sampling of coastal views and architecture, take the 100 or so miles between Santa Barbara and Santa Monica.

Nicknamed the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is rich in Spanish culture, as is most evident in the number of red-tile clay roofs, street names and dramatic edifices. Take time to pick up souvenirs at Stearns Wharf and soak in some sun while you bury your toes in the sand at SunsetBeachWRany of the beaches.

Next, head south along the PCH to Oxnard, where you can hit up one of the local wineries before strolling on Silver Strand Beach. Boat lovers will want to make time for the Channel Islands Maritime Museum, which boasts ship-related art and artifacts rivaling some of the best in the world.

Wrap up your trip with a stop in Santa Monica, an oceanfront city that prides itself on farm-to-fork restaurants, art galleries and the famous Muscle Beach. You can’t visit Santa Monica’s Pier without hitting up the Pacific Park amusement park or solar-powered Ferris wheel.

2. Pismo Beach to Los Angeles (approximately 180 miles)

Billing itself as “classic California,” Pismo Beach is all about ocean dunes, wineries and the award-winning boardwalk adjacent to the pier. The wine cafes lining “Restaurant Row” on Price Street offer some delicious samplings from local vineyards.

Head down to Oxnard, where there are 40 eateries to choose from, including plenty of fresh seafood and waterfront dining. Pick up a few bottles of wine from Herzog Wine Cellars, the largest producer of Kosher wines on the West Coast, before heading to the Carnegie Art Museum.

Famous for its celebrity homes and stunning beaches, Malibu is also known for its fun, quirky shopping. Plan to hit the Malibu Country Market and the Malibu Lumber Yard for your retail fix.

Time to continue on to Los Angeles? Be sure to check out Universal Studios, downtown walking tours, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, sporting events, Venice Beach, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Museum Row and shopping on Rodeo Drive, if you’ve got days to spare.

3. San Jose to San Diego (approximately 460 miles)

Perhaps best known as part of Silicon Valley, San Jose has plenty of interesting stops beyond being part of the tech capital. It’s home to the largest open air market in the country and the Winchester Mystery House—165 rooms of curious dead ends and staircases leading to nowhere.

Jutting half a mile into Monterey Bay, the Santa Cruz Wharf is full of shops and restaurants to keep you busy. There’s also a fun surfing museum inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, and the legendary Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with a vintage wooden roller coaster is great for families.

If you’ve got the time, the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is worth the effort, as is the Monterey Bay Aquarium with its underwater and interactive exhibits. The former sardine-packing factories of Cannery Row are now filled with quaint shops, bars and seafood bistros.

Whether you’re looking to do some whale watching off the coast or take a cruise aboard the Scarlett Belle, an authentic Riverboat Paddlewheeler, Oxnard is a must-see for the PCH traveler. Families can also rent four-wheel surreys to take in the views along a coastal bike path or visit The Mullin Automotive Museum.

Continue on to Long Beach, where nature lovers will want to stop at the Aquarium of the Pacific or the 105 acres that make up the El Dorado Nature Center before heading on to San Diego for the final leg of your trip.

The age of your travel companions will play a big role in your choices in San Diego. While families may want to make a day of it at the San Diego Zoo or SeaWorld, there are also seal tours, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the beaches of La Jolla Cove, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum and the San Diego Natural History Museum, among many other options. Be sure to get a photo with the humongous “sailor-kidding-nurse” statue on North Harbor Drive at the USS Midway Museum.

No matter what trip you take, be sure to pack a camera and be ready to soak up a little sunshine along the PCH.

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