Best Places to Visit on the Central Coast

It could easily take a week to explore the do-not-miss highlights of California’s Central Coast. The 350-mile-long slice of coastal beauty between San Francisco and Los Angeles is known for its epic Pacific views, charming towns, quirky surfer beaches, and one remarkable castle. Observe migrating whales and elephant seals and anticipate estuaries, vineyards, and mountains. Best of all, the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1, is a destination in itself, designated as an American National Scenic Byway.

Featured Photo Credit: Visit California

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Photo: Courtesy of Visit California

17-Mile Drive

17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach
800.654.9300

In the hills above the fairytale-like town of dog-friendly Carmel-by-the-Sea (take a walk on Carmel Beach, three blocks from downtown), the one-and-only 17-Mile Drive — founded 1881 — is a must-see for nature lovers and photographers. Five gated entrances give access to the private estate nestled among Monterey cypress and pines of the Del Monte Forest, home to the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links. Admire outstanding ocean views at every turn; peek at multi-million dollar mansions; pull over at the lookout framing the iconic windswept 250-year-old tree, the Lone Cypress. Tip: Keep your $10.75 (per vehicle) admission ticket stub to redeem it against a meal (over $35) anywhere within the gates. pebblebeach.com/17-mile-drive

Central-Coast-Highway-1-Big-Sur-Visit-California _ Blaise-800
Photo: Courtesy of Visit California

Big Sur and PCH

Highway 1, Big Sur
831.667.2100

Driving south from San Francisco, the Highway 1 vistas become increasingly dramatic along a stretch approaching Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Continue to Big Sur, featuring craggy  cliffs, towering redwoods, and the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, a graceful arch 260 feet high above a steep canyon overlooking mountains and ocean. One of California’s most photographed spots, the image is recognized globally. It’s not a pedestrian bridge and the parking lot fills up fast. Weekend crowds can be overwhelming, especially at sunset. Pick a weekday and go for sunrise instead. Tip: Roll your wheels indefinitely south for increasingly unpopulated turnouts with vistas to rival any of the more famous. bigsurcalifornia.org

Ventura Channel Islands.
Photo: Courtesy of Travels with Darley/Visit California

Channel Islands National Park

1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura
805.658.5730

At the southern border of California’s Central Coast, where Santa Barbara County is tucked in between San Luis Obispo and Ventura County, the Channel Islands are accessible to visitors. Five of the eight islands within 160 miles offshore are designated as a national park and marine sanctuary. Worlds away from life on the mainland, one must fly in or arrive by boat; the islands are vehicle-free. The National Park Service suggests, “This is a place to hike, camp, snorkel, kayak, birdwatch, take photographs, sketch, or just relax to the soothing sounds of the natural world.” Tip: There are full-day and half-day trips for whale watching year-round. nps.gov/chis/index.htm

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Photo: Courtesy of Blaise/Visit California

Hearst Castle

750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon
800.444.4445

Make a reservation, you won’t regret it. A century ago, if your name was William Randolph Hearst, you inherited thousands of acres and money was no object, “America’s Castle” was the vision you could make into a mountaintop reality. A private architect, Julia Morgan, is credited with the project. Hearst called it “the ranch,” more obvious when you see wild zebras that still roam in the distance. Set on 127 acres of landscaped grounds, La Casa Grande has 115 rooms containing 25,000 artifacts, including colonnades gracing the outdoor Neptune Pool and sculptures surrounding the mosaic indoor Roman Pool. Tip: Don’t miss the IMAX presentation with actual footage from the castle’s construction between 1919 and 1946. hearstcastle.org

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Photo: Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

886 Cannery Row, Monterey
831.648.4800

One of the world’s best known aquariums perches on the edge of Monterey Bay, a mile-deep body of water that’s comparable to the Grand Canyon. Affiliated with a research institute dedicated to ocean preservation, sustainable fishing, and education, the aquarium is also highly respected. One of California’s most-visited institutions, Monterey Bay Aquarium displays 35,000 animals in massive walk-through displays containing 2.3 million gallons of filtered, pumped-in seawater to support naturalistic exhibits. If you believe that mesmerizing jellyfish and cute sea otters should rule the world, you’ve come to the right place. Tip: Plan on (at least) a full day to explore adjoining Cannery Row and nearby Old Fisherman’s Wharf. montereybayaquarium.org

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