Here's a cherry-picked selection of spots to see along the PCH, an excerpt of the thorough itinerary of the area in our California Trips book.
Start at the bottom of the state map, just outside San Diego, where the pretty peninsular beach town of Coronado is connected to the mainland by a long, narrow spit of sand called the Silver Strand. You can't help but feel a thrill while speeding over the 2-mile-long Coronado Bridge as it snakes its way across San Diego Bay.
Further along the track, head down toward the sea and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, harboring the rarest pines in North America and a lagoon frequented by migrating seabirds. This stretch of coast is astonishingly wild. On to Long Beach and the often overlooked Long Beach Museum of Art, sitting pretty on an ocean bluff. Exhibits focus on California modernism, with surprisingly cool contemporary art. In an early-20th-century mansion, the museum's gourmand café has killer weekend brunches and postcard-perfect views.
Next stop, Pismo Beach. A classic California beach town, Pismo once laid claim to being the 'Clam Capital of the World'. Turn up for the clam festival every October, also when monarch butterflies return to their seaside grove. Head on to the elaborate hilltop mansion of Hearst Castle, then plunge into the big trees scenery of the Big Sur coast. Known for its counter-cultural tendencies, Big Sur feels like a rural mountain community with an arty, hippie bent. Book a spot at the natural hot-springs baths of the Esalen Institute, with au-naturel pools perched on an ocean ledge and stormy moonlit surf crashing below.
From there, the highway rolls gently downhill toward Monterey Bay and the mesmerizing Monterey Bay Aquarium. All kinds of aquatic denizens are on display here, from sea stars and sea dragons to pot-bellied seahorses and comical sea otters. Stop briefly by Santa Cruz, where the flower power of the 1960s lives on, and bumper stickers protest 'Keep Santa Cruz weird.' Built in 1907, the Santa Cruz Beach boardwalk has a glorious old-school Americana vibe, with the smell of cotton candy mixing with salty sea breezes.
Head up to San Francisco, driving straight into big, green Golden Gate Park, then on to Mendocino. More like Cape Cod than California, this too-quaint town blooms with rose gardens, while white picket fences surround New England-style cottages with redwood water towers. At long last the highway reaches Redwood National & State Parks. Commune with the coastal giants on their own mossy turf. Feels good, doesn't it?