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

To think that there could still be places in California considered “underrated” seems almost outrageous—and yet, there they are in all their Golden State glory. And while the Pacific Coast Highway—one of America’s (and arguably, the world’s) most iconic scenic drives—isn’t one of them, there are plenty of stops along the 655-mile route that are.

You’re probably ready and raring to embark on the country's most beautiful coastal road trip now that it’s reopened after last year’s closures—but we guarantee you’re not the only one. Luckily, while slow-moving cars are unavoidable, crowded viewpoints, 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 the countryside and the Danish-reminiscent town of Solvang, stay on the 101 and roll through the ample soft hills of Santa Ynez.

The Santa Maria Valley

The Santa Maria Valley teems with all the sunny Southern California charm you could hope for...minus the crowds you might expect. On a cruise through the region’s rolling hills, consider checking into the cozy boutique Wine Stone Inn for a night.

You might also want to stop by 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

Nipomo
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

Avila
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

Cambria
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.

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 watering holes. 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, plus an outdoor fire pit where you can roast your own dessert.

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

Nitt Witt Ridge

Cambria
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 Nitt Witt 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.

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 meal 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. You're almost certain to linger on the sunny rooftop for a lot longer than you meant to.

a library covered in art in the forest
The Henry Miller Library is a mecca for book nerds. | Photo by Nick Hilden

Big Sur
Concealed by a grove of redwood trees just a five-minute drive from Coast Big Sur, the Henry Miller Library deserves a spotlight of its very own. Opened in 1981 inside the former residence of its namesake author, good reads cover every inch—including the ceilings—of this hidden bookstore.

Aside from selling works by renowned authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Haruki Murakami, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, and more, the library hosts regular events in the forest, including film screenings, author readings, dinners, and live performances by acts just as famous as the authors whose books fill the halls; artists including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Flaming Lips, Philip Glass, the Pixies, and Patti Smith have all made appearances. And if all the art that surrounds you compels you to create something yourself, they’ve got an outlet for that, too: visitors are more than welcome to add to the colorful mural that covers the building.

a small village surrounded by mountains
Carmel-by-the-Sea isn't all there is to the Carmel Valley. | Ken Lund/Flickr

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 lush hillsides.

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.