The California section of Highway 1 is perhaps most famous for the rugged cliffs, bridges, and waterfalls of Big Sur. But don’t sleep on the 100-mile section just south of Big Sur, known as the Highway 1 Discovery Route. Stretching from Nipomo in the south to Ragged Point in the north, this area is jam-packed with quaint beach towns, interesting wildlife, roadside attractions, outdoor recreation opportunities, amazing culinary experiences, and spectacular natural beauty.
Here’s what not to miss on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip along California’s Central Coast.
Luffa might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you picture a road trip along California’s coast, but the Luffa Farm in Nipomo makes for a delightful first stop. Take a free and interactive tour to learn how these natural sponges grow and about their different uses. Don’t leave without a visit to the gift shop where you can stock up on handmade soaps, lotions, and—of course—a wide variety of luffas.
The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is a perfect stop for anyone traveling in a Jeep or other four-wheel-drive vehicle, or for RVers who like to bring along dirt bikes or ATVs. This drive-on beach, the only one of its kind in California, also offers primitive beach camping (reservations required) and hiking opportunities within its expansive dune system. Note that off-roading will be phased out here by 2024 after a recent decision made by the California Coastal Commission.
If you travel between late October and February, a visit to the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove will put you up close and personal with thousands of orange and black butterflies, seeking shelter from the cold. The area is also great for hiking, biking, and running, and state park staff is typically available to answer questions.
There is no shortage of chain hotels along the Pacific Coast Highway, but for a more boutique experience, consider staying at Avila Village Inn. The cozy 30-room hotel is situated along the Bob Jones Trail, an easy and scenic 3-mile walking and biking trail. Hotel amenities include bicycle rentals, private patios, and gas fireplaces in every room. For extra luxury, book one of the Hot Tub Deluxe Rooms, which come with a private outdoor hot tub.
Located right on the boardwalk in Avila Beach, a quaint coastal town surrounded by amazing scenery, this French restaurant offers a slightly more upscale experience than some of its more relaxed neighbors. Get a table on the patio, order a bottle of locally produced wine, and enjoy some excellent food with a front-row view of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.
The name of this state park translates to “Mountain of Gold,” which feels accurate since it’s a real gem. The park is popular for its many hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails. Located right on the coast southwest of Baywood-Los Osos, it also features dramatic cliffs, secluded beaches, wildlife, and a dense eucalyptus forest with an enchanted vibe.
Morro Rock is impossible to miss when traveling along the coast through San Luis Obispo County. The 580-foot-tall volcanic plug sits on a tied island just outside of Morro Bay’s harbor. The area surrounding the rock is a state park open to visitors—including RVs up to 35 feet—or you can grab a bite on one of the harbor restaurant patios facing the coast and admire the rock from a distance.
Cayucos is a cute beach town nestled along the coast between Morro Bay and Cambria. Grab some freshly baked goods from local favorite Brown Butter Cookie Company and enjoy a sweet treat on the nearby pier with a view of the Pacific Ocean. You can’t go wrong with the original brown butter flavor—but if you’re feeling adventurous (or extra hungry), we recommend also stocking up on lemon sugar, chocolate chunk, and cocoa cookies.
The population of this tiny hamlet is 18. That number is hard to miss, as it’s displayed on signs and souvenirs all over the adorable tourist town. With a rich dairy industry history, Harmony is full of milk-related puns and businesses. Stop by the Harmony Valley Creamery for a scoop (or three) of some “udderly awesome ice cream.”
What do you know about olallieberries? Genetically a mix between blackberry and raspberry, and developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1940s, it’s the primary berry grown at the Cambria farm owned by the Linn family. At Linn’s Restaurant, you can get a taste of the tart berry in everything from pie to cheesecake to pudding. The bicycle-crazy owner has decorated the place with vintage bicycles—including some famous ones that have appeared in movies. The food is delicious but be prepared for big portion sizes and make sure you save room for dessert.
Known locally as the “Poor Man’s Hearst Castle,” this bizarre house is perched on a hillside in Cambria. Art Beal earned the nickname “Captain Nitt Witt” from his neighbors after buying the lot in 1928 and spending the next five decades building his castle using found objects and trash, including abalone shells and empty beer cans. Current owner Michael O’Malley is a character himself, and gives guided tours of the house—today a California Historic Landmark—for a suggested $10 donation.
No trip to the Central Coast is complete without a visit to Hearst Castle. While it’s currently closed due to COVID-19, and will require advance tickets when it reopens, the opulent mansion can be spotted at its mountaintop location from the Pacific Coast Highway. While traveling through this area, also keep an eye out for zebras—a herd that once lived at Hearst’s private zoo still roams the land below the castle.
Five miles north of Hearst Castle, you’ll find another famous Central Coast attraction: the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Walk out to the accessible viewing area and spend some time observing and photographing the colonies of northern elephant seals that sleep, flop, sunbathe, and swim along the shore. The second largest seal in the world, these slow-moving beasts can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. It’s an enjoyable—albeit smelly—quick stop on your trip north.
As you travel north toward Big Sur, the forest gets denser, the cliffs more dramatic—and your choices for accommodations severely limited. Ragged Point Inn benefits from being the only hotel and restaurant nearby, but that by no means makes it a last resort. Perched between Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean, the views here are hard to beat. The onsite restaurant serves high-quality cuisine and its patio is the perfect place to watch the sunset and relax at the end of a long day of exploring.