Probably the most famous of the legendary USA road trips, there’s nothing quite like a trip down the California Coast. Unless you have months, you won’t be able to see everything, but we can try to narrow it down. I spent 2 weeks visiting the coastal areas and while we had to cut some things from our trip (sorry, Santa Barbara), overall, we spent the perfect amount of time in the places we most wanted to visit. Here’s a list, from North to South, of 11 Things to see and do on a California Coast Road Trip.
What would a visit to the Golden State be without visiting the Golden Gate Bridge? One of the symbols of America, you can’t miss this stunning piece of historical architecture. Of course, San Francisco has much more than a bridge. There’s the infamous Alcatraz Prison, yelping seals on Pier 39 and THE Full House, house. San Fran isn’t a bad spot to start your California Coast Road Trip. Check out my post on 10 Things to do in San Francisco to learn more about where to explore.
Whales are some of the most magnificent creatures on Earth. Despise their size, whales give off a majestic feeling anytime you’re around them. I could have spent this entire California coast road trip watching whales. While we didn’t do that, we did have an amazing day with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Consistently ranked as the best Whale Watching tour in Monterey, we had to try it. On our 5 hour tour we saw everything from small porpoises to Killer Whales. Check out my larger review of our day at the link below and you’ll know why this is a can’t miss activity when traveling down the coast.
Widely known as one of the top Aquariums in the world, Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-see on a California coast road trip. Not only did I leave there in awe of the aquatic animals, but also left much more knowledgeable on how to help our planet. Mixed in with the beautiful oceanic life are teachings about how we can make small changes to our daily habits to help these magnificent creatures survive. A first-time trip to the aquarium is really a once in a lifetime feeling and experience. I’ve been to a fair amount of them in other cities and none come close. Don’t miss this and set aside at least half a day to really take in all of the exhibits.
Big Sur has hit its share of rough patches in the last year. With a major landslide that poured a million tons of rocks on the road, tourism has been lagging. However, there’s always a silver lining. Less tourists, means a better, more genuine atmosphere. Arguably the most beautiful piece of coastal land in the USA, who wouldn’t want more of it for themselves? And if you’re willing, you can even bike or hike an unimpeded 45 mile stretch for the first time since the roads were built. Big Sur will make your jaw drop. The legendary Bixby Bridge has become an Instagram icon and is worth a stop. Other stunning and popular locations include McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach. This is the kind of place where it seems you just can’t have enough pictures.
A California coast road trip wouldn’t be complete without some wine. When you hear California wine country you probably think of Napa Valley. However, the secret experience lies in Paso Robles. With 200+ vineyards and 40,000 Acres of planted land, you’ll have options galore. Since it isn’t Napa Valley, it’s less touristy and cheaper. Some say Paso Robles is what Napa was 20 years ago. I wouldn’t know, but I’ll take their word for it. I can tell you, if you love wine and value the vineyard experience, this is the place to go. You’ll get to visit supreme vineyards, taste award winning wine and do it all in a much more intimate and affordable setting. We tasted and toured two beautiful vineyards, J. Lohr and L’Aventure. I highly recommend visiting them both when you’re there. Check out my review of each vineyard at the links below to learn more.
Millions of people each year come from all over the world to visit the former home of the legendary News Magnate, William Randolph Hearst. Construction began in 1919 and took nearly 30 years and countless millions of dollars to finish. Spread over 127 Acres, Hearst Castle features stunning architectural feats such as the Neptune & Roman pools. There are 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, gardens, tennis courts, a movie theater, an airfield and even a private zoo. It’s hard not to think you’re in another world. It’s also impossible to imagine anyone calling this home . Maybe this is why the Hearst Corporation donated it to the state of California. We aren’t complaining, since it’s a pretty amazing place to visit.
I know you might not be thinking a California coast road trip would include stops at Presidential Libraries. However, after visiting, I really think these are must sees whether you’re a fan of history or not.
The Richard Nixon Library & Museum is located at the site of his birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. The library went through a large renovation in the past year and looks fantastic. You start your self guided tour with a short video that reviews the history of Nixon’s political career. After the video, you enter into the museum. The museum is interactive, visually captivating and informative. We could have spent all day here. Each section is dedicated to a specific event in Nixon’s history, from his record setting election victory, to his legendary visit to China and of course, Watergate. The modeling of each room is so detailed, however, the near exact replica of Nixon’s Oval Office stands above the rest.
After the museum you head out into the gardens where the burial plots are for President Nixon and his wife. Their headstones lay feet from the President’s birthplace, where the original house still stands today. After walking through the family home, there’s one last site you have to see, the helicopter that picked up Nixon the day he resigned office. The Watergate scandal overshadowed a lot of what Nixon accomplished during his years in office. This museum however, really made us appreciate all of the great work he did.
Ronald Reagan is one of the more popular President’s in modern history and his library reflects this. After winding up a huge driveway which showcases Presidential history, you’re greeted by a rendition of The Gipper. The museum begins with a short video and takes you through a tour of his history. Everything from Reagan’s life as an actor to his famous “Tear Down That Wall” speech. After the museum, you’re brought into one of the most magnificent rooms I’ve witnessed. A 90,000-square foot hangar, with glass windows, overlooking Simi Valley is home to THE Air Force One that Reagan used while President. The best part, you get to walk through the plane. Afterwards, you can check out the Marine One Reagan used, as well as some automobiles that were in use during his service. After, head outside where you can pay your respects to President Reagan and his wife.
I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not the biggest fan of Los Angeles. However, it would be hard to advise someone who’s never visited California to not at least check it out during their California coast road trip. There’s something for everyone, from visiting celebrity stars and hand prints, to walking along Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Most people relate California to Hollywood and with a glimpse of the sign, you can say you’ve been. Check out my full article on 10 Things to do in Los Angeles.
Southernmost, but not least, is the San Diego Zoo. Ranked among the best zoos in the world, you won’t want to miss visiting here. You have two options; the Zoo or the Safari Park. Unfortunately, we were crunched for time, so had to choose one and chose the Zoo. Set on 100 acres of land and home to over 3,700 animals, the San Diego Zoo is massive. Grab a map and make a game plan upon entering. Most animals are active in the morning or later afternoon. The most popular exhibit are the Pandas. However, everyone’s favorite animals are here; Lions, Bears, Koalas, Elephants, Giraffes, Sharks, etc. It can be overwhelming, but if you have a full day, you can see everything. Most importantly, your money spent here is going to great use. San Diego Zoo funds one of the largest conservation research efforts in the world.