The coasts of the US are undoubtedly some of the best options when it comes to putting together the perfect road trip. This time, we’re looking at the West Coast and the Pacific Coast Highway. If you have the time for it, this itinerary skips over a lot the sun, sea, and sand you expect of California because you won’t have any trouble finding that. Instead, we’re looking at the other gems well worth taking a stop for. Whether you’re after thrills, spills, stunning natural beauty, or the odd curiosity here and there, keep reading.
Before heading down to sunnier parts, let’s start at the north with one of the most impressive and recognizable sights of San Francisco Bay. There are few if any prisons quite as famous as Alcatraz. The abandoned prison is still open for tours that explore the island itself, the prison, and even the coast around it. If you want a trek full of discovery and more than a little spookiness, the night tours might just be the thing for you. Besides the prison, Alcatraz Island is also home of the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast that’s still in operation as well as some military fortifications that you can walk across. Nowhere else in the country has such a spot.
The Winchester Mystery House
If Alcatraz isn’t mystifying enough for you, then there’s another spot just as curious a short drive south from the Bay Area. San Jose is the next stop and here you can find the Winchester Mystery House. It’s not only one of the most famous supposedly haunted spots in the US, it’s a gargantuan maze with a fascinating history. Sarah Winchester built the home and, at the advice of her medium, continued to build and build until the house featured 165 rooms, with a host of staircases and hallways that lead to nowhere. New rooms have been discovered as recently as two years ago, and the Mystery House recently opened its doors for its first set of daytime tours. It’s not much less spooky in the day.
Happy Hollow Zoo
If you’re in the mood for something a little lighter, then you should stick around in San Jose a little longer. Happy Hollow Zoo has been standing for over 57 years, and even though it’s a relatively small zoo (16 acres large in total) it has a wonderful charm that makes it one of the more family-friendly zoos on the route down the West Coast. There are over 140 animals and growing, including lemurs, jaguars, meerkats, red pandas, and much more. The zoo is undergoing expansion, too, offering new attractions like the alligator exhibit and a greater focus on educational efforts. If you’re looking for a more casual stop with the kids, then there are few better places for it.
Not all gems are hard to find. The legendary Big Sur is one of the coast’s most famous attractions. It’s one of the most scenic stretches of completely undeveloped coastline in the whole country, with plenty of great spots for hiking and camping. Many of the trails are closed for the moment following fire damage, but Big Sur still has plenty to offer. The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is a testament to the location’s importance during the “New Age” movement of philosophy and spirituality. Hit the scene at a few key points during the year and you might even be able to take part in the Big Sur International Marathon. With seven state parks, there’s enough to see here to keep you occupied for the whole duration of a vacation, so choosing just a few spots to hit on your way south might be more difficult than you think.
From natural splendor to a more man-made variety. Overlooking San Simeon, Hearst Castle looks like something from a dream, nestled high up in the clouds as it often is. Nestled on The Enchanted Hill, this mansion is open for tours, allowing visitors to explore an absolute extravagance of art and antiques, suites, gardens, and much more. If you want to learn more, stop by the Hearst Castle Theater, a movie produced showing the origins of the mansion and how it grew to be one of the most treasured stops in all of California.
Hitting up the West Coast without stopping at a theme park would be criminal, so why not stop at the best one? Legoland is an excellent family spot in Carlsbad with over sixty rides, show and attractions. There’s nothing the kids will love more than the latest NINJAGO ride, an interactive ride that has them shooting fireballs and controlling lightning and ice. If you prefer to make more of a splash, the resort is also home to the Legoland Water Park. If you’re in the area when it’s in bloom, don’t forget to check out the Carlsbad Flower Fields. It will easily be one of the most colorful stops on your journey, with fifty acres of gorgeous walking paths.
Santa Monica Pier
It’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the moment when you arrive under the classic and iconic lights of the Santa Monica Pier entrance. If you’re stopping here, seeing it in the evening is an absolute must. That said, there is plenty to be done all throughout the day on the Pier. A romantic walk across the boards and a stop at one of the many seaside eateries can make for the perfect mid-road trip date. There are few views you will find on the coast quite like those at the top of the red and white Ferris wheel, which has become an icon for the whole city. What’s more, the wheel is fully solar powered, making it an even more unique attraction.
The Pacific Coast Highway has a lot more treasures than just those named above to go exploring. Give yourself a week, or even longer, and make one of the most memorable summer drives you’re ever likely to experience.