The Most Underrated Stops Along the Pacific Coast Highway

Wine, ocean views, and wildlife on America’s most beautiful coastal drive.

pacific coast highway
Find some hidden gems amongst the hits. | Black Eagle/Shutterstock
Find some hidden gems amongst the hits. | Black Eagle/Shutterstock

Plenty of things have happened during the past year to convince us we’ve entered some kind of bizarro, Matrix-adjacent simulation. But one of the strangest occurrences? Road repairs in California finishing ahead of schedule. 

After the Pacific Coast Highway saw a series of unfortunate road closures this winter, it somehow got fixed two months ahead of schedule and reopened on April 30—conveniently, just in time for road trip season.

Now you’re probably ready and raring to embark on America’s most beautiful coastal road trip—but we guarantee you’re not the only one with that idea. Luckily, while slow-moving cars are unavoidable, crowded wineries, parks, and otter-filled pit stops don’t have to be. 

Pick up a rental car from LA, roll back the sunroof, and get ready to enjoy these less-traveled PCH highlights—all of which are just as fantastic as the world-famous ones.

The scenic way out of Southern California

From Los Angeles, jump on the city’s fabled 101 Freeway and ride until the road starts looking less like a freeway and more like the scenic drive you signed up for. Just past Santa Barbara, you’ll find the turnoff to California 1.

If you’re dead-set on making this an all-PCH trip, you won’t hate the views as you cruise through Lompoc and past Vandenberg Air Force Base. But to see the best of Southern California wine country and the Danish-reminiscent town of Solvang, stay on the 101 and roll through Santa Ynez. There, you’ll spot ample soft hills lined with meticulously manicured vineyards and plenty of options to stop off for a tasting.

Rancho Sisquoc Winery
Hidden gems in the Santa Maria Valley | Rancho Sisquoc Winery

The Santa Maria Valley

Resist the temptation to start your wine odyssey until you get to the Santa Maria Valley, whose boutique wineries rarely teem with the crowds you’ll find in other regions nearby. The most notable of the bunch is Foxen, a rambling ranch with tables set on a breezy hillside where you can sip Pinot Noirs. You’ll also find some excellent rural wine tasting down the road at Rancho Sisquoc, whose barnyard tasting room sits at the base of a green slope dotted with tasting-friendly picnic benches. 

If beer is more your speed, Santa Maria’s not lacking. Blast 825 Brewery has a massive taphouse in Orcutt with a pour-your-own beer bar, where you try what you want and pay by the ounce. Wander into downtown Orcutt and you’ll find the Wine Stone Inn, a cozy boutique hotel with rare bottles from the area’s top wineries. Even if you don’t stay overnight, it’s worth stopping in to try a bunch of local pours without having to drive all over the valley.

Along with A+ beer and wine, Santa Maria is also home to the Hitching Post—but before you start brushing up your Paul Giamatti impression, know this isn’t the one from Sideways. That one is in Buellton, but the Casmalia original is just as memorable. Walk inside and you’re hit with the smells of a modern restaurant and a backyard barbecue, an earthy blend of smoke and garlic that makes the hour-long wait tolerable. The food holds up, too, and will make you appreciate the smoky intricacies of a fine, flame-broiled piece of beef.

The Luffa Farm

Moving out of the valley and back towards the coast, you’ll pass through the town of Nipomo. If you’ve ever wondered where loofah sponges come from—or, for that matter, what they actually are—here’s where you’ll find your answer. At the Luffa Farm, among colorful signs and mismatched sculptures, you’ll find one of the world’s largest producers of the luffa plant, which grows on vines—not near the ocean, despite its resemblance to coral.

Kayak out to the Point San Luis Lighthouse | Point San Luis Lighthouse - Avila Beach

Point San Luis Lighthouse

After filling your brain with invaluable sponge knowledge, it’s time to fill your lungs with some salty sea air. Less than half an hour up the 101 is the calming seaside town of Avila Beach. Venture past the main beach to the marina and Avila Beach Paddlesports, where you can rent a kayak and explore the bay. You’ll paddle past adorable sea otters and slightly-less-adorable elephant seals sunning themselves on makeshift docks. Paddle for about 30 minutes, and dock on the rocky beach at the base of the Point San Luis Lighthouse, the last Prairie Victorian lighthouse left on the West Coast. Take a 15-minute trek up the cliffs and you’ll be treated to views as picturesque as the lighthouse.

Oceanpoint Ranch

Meandering back up the coast, take in stunning views of the Pacific Ocean as you descend from the hills of San Luis Obispo down into Morro Bay. Continue along to the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, which you’ll smell before you see. Along the beach, hundreds of blubbery, belching elephant seals relax on the sand while you stand closer to them than you can at any other publicly-accessible rookery in the world.

Assuming your legs have gotten a little stiff along the drive, head through town to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. This 437-acre park is crisscrossed by smooth, easy trails, all of which offer panoramic views of the ocean and the hills beyond. You can even take a class with Tula Yoga, a nice way to decompress that doesn’t involve a tannin hangover.

See lazy elephant seals lounging at the Rookery | randy andy/Shutterstock

Once you’re good and rejuvenated, head to Downtown Cambria, a welcoming mix of small restaurants and local bars. The best among them is Robin’s, where Indian, North African, Asian, and Californian cuisine are served in an indoor-outdoor garden. Forego dessert and grab a slice of Olallieberry pie at Linn’s, instead. It’s kind of like a cross between raspberry and blueberry—and even if you don’t like either fruit, the small-town café atmosphere is worth the cost of the slice.

Cambria has no shortage of waterfront lodges, but the one you’ll want to call home is Oceanpoint Ranch. The sprawling, eight-acre ranch sits right on Moonstone Beach and offers rooms with fireplaces and s’mores for their guests. You can also roast your dessert at the outdoor fire pits right off the parking lot, where you’ll be especially popular with fellow travelers if you show up with a local wine you grabbed at the front desk.

Tour the eccentric Nit Wit Ridge property | Flickr/Joseph Francis

Nitt Witt Ridge

Traverse the windy streets of Cambria and you’ll pass what looks like a ramshackle Bourbon Street hotel set atop the lost city of Atlantis. This is Nit Wit Ridge, the former home of local garbage collector-slash-artist-slash-recluse Art Beal, who fashioned his hillside estate out of...well, a bunch of stuff. The odd home is constructed from beer cans, shells, tires, and rocks, along with some objects Beal allegedly lifted from his other job as a tour guide at Hearst Castle. Daily tours of “The Poor Man’s Hearst Castle” are run by Mike O’Malley, the property’s current owner, who’s nearly as eccentric as the man who built the place. If this seems like the kind of tour you’d want a beer for, stop at 927 Beer Company at the bottom of the hill before you go.

Hearst Ranch Tasting Room

San Simeon
Heading out of Cambria, nobody’s going to blame you if you want to tour Hearst Castle. But if the crowds and dusty tour bus rides leave you a little bit frazzled, San Simeon has just the place to decompress: the Hearst Ranch Tasting Room, where you’ll taste wine with a front-row view of the Pacific. 

Stretch your legs at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. | Blaine Harrington III/ The Image Bank/Getty Images

The road to Big Sur

Big Sur is certainly a tourist focal point of the Pacific Coast Highway, thanks to Instagram-friendly Bixby Bridge and postcard hikes in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. But, heading into the less-traveled and similarly-named Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park can be just as magical. You’ll be dwarfed by towering redwoods for miles, with far fewer people around than you’d encounter visiting them in their namesake national park.

If you want a drink with a view, avoid the masses at Nepenthe and instead kick back at Coast Big Sur, a combination art gallery and restaurant fashioned out of old redwood water tanks along the side of the highway. The sunny rooftop is magnetic, and you’ll find yourself savoring the craft beer you bought downstairs for a lot longer than you meant to.

Pull over at Coast Big Sur for booze and views | COAST Big Sur

Carmel Valley

Carmel-by-the-Sea is often used synonymously with Carmel, which is a little like referring to all of Miami as South Beach. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a lovely, artsy boutique community that’s popular among people who can afford $1,000 hats. If that’s your scene, go for it. But if you want something a little more rustic, head inland to Carmel Valley. It’s equally as scenic, surrounded by mountains and hillside wineries. 

Amble into the Western-themed Cowgirl Winery and sample their stuff on a gravel patio while trying to lasso a metal bull. Then head over to Albatross Ridge’s tasting room less than a mile away; the chardonnay and pinot noir might be your favorite of the trip.

Elkhorn Slough

Moss Landing
If you didn’t get enough of those adorable sea otters in Avila Beach, you’ll get another fix about a half-hour north of Monterey in Moss Landing. Here, you can rent a solo kayak or join a guided trip at Kayak Connection and head through the wetlands of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Be warned: Once you see the site’s otters chowing down on slimy fat innkeeper worms, you may never look at them the same way again.

From Moss Landing, it’s an hour of coastal beauty up CA-1 to Santa Cruz and all its boardwalk-and-Mystery Spot glory. And from there, it’s only another hour to San Jose, and on to the Bay Area. You’ll certainly come back from any PCH road trip to hear of dozens of other things you could have done, but you’ll also have stories most people don’t. Because even on one of America’s most traveled roads, you can still find a road less traveled.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.