While most people know the West Coast of the USA for its sprawling cities, charming coastal towns, universities, the tech industry, and theme parks, it is also home to some of the most striking natural attractions in the country.
Mountains, impressive rock formations, awe-inspiring forests, sand dunes, and exquisite beaches like Rialto Beach or La Jolla Cove are just some of the impressive natural attractions found along the West Coast of the USA.
The states of California, Oregon, and Washington have a variety of gorgeous landscapes to offer for all types of visitors. Most of these natural marvels are easily accessible on a Pacific Coast Highway Road trip.
On a trip to the West Coast, visitors are spoiled for choice in finding a bevy of activities from hiking among wildflowers, looking for tidepool creatures, spotting marine life, looking for songbirds, and other wonders of nature.
Best Natural Attractions along the West Coast
From the picturesque Natural Bridges of Oregon to the purple-hued shores of Pfeiffer Beach, here are our favorite natural attractions along the West Coast.
Bioluminescent beaches in Southern California
Few people associate bioluminescence with the coast of California, but you would be surprised to know that this natural phenomenon can be frequently seen along the coast, especially in the southern part of the state. They are most common in the spring and hard to predict, making them a rare treat for visitors to the Pacific Coast.
Visitors can see bioluminescence along the beaches near San Diego, Los Angeles, and even as far north as Monterey. During bioluminescence, a bloom of phytoplankton causes the waves to glow a neon blue at night. This results in spectacular displays as the waves form and crash on the coast.
Torrey Pines State Reserve, California
Located in Southern California, near San Diego, the Torrey Pines State Reserve makes for an exciting attraction along the Pacific Coast Highway 101. The landscape here is stunning and dramatic and seems far away from the busy city life of San Diego.
At Torrey Pines, you will find an interesting juxtaposition of southern California’s desert landscape with the sweeping ocean views. The cliffs and bluffs here have been carved by erosion to create colorful sandstone canyons and rock formations. The Torrey Pine trees grow all over the reserve, hence the name.
There are several hiking trails in the reserve to enjoy its striking beauty. You can see gray whales migrating in the winter and colorful wildflowers blooming over the cliffs in spring. The Torrey Pines State Beach can be reached by 1.5 miles round-trip Beach Trail and is one of the most popular spots to visit in the reserve.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California
Located south of Monterey on California’s central coast, Point Lobos is one of the highlights of a Highway 1 Road Trip. At Point Lobos, you can see sharp and craggy rock formations extending all the way into the Pacific. The water here is astonishingly blue and sheltered beaches reward those who hike at Point Lobos.
Point Lobos is also excellent for watching marine life and bird watching. Here you can find a variety of marine creatures and seabirds including sea lions, sea otters, ospreys, etc. The preserve is also a habitat for the rare Monterey Cypress trees. The most popular thing to do in Point Lobos is hiking along the many trails.
Pfeiffer Beach, California
This amazing beach located in Monterey County is a highlight of Big Sur and the central coast of California. Inspite of its popularity, Pfeiffer Bexah remains a hidden gem along the California coastline because of its unmarked access road. To reach the beach, you need to go south past Big Sur Ranger Station and turn right at the Sycamore Canyon Road. It is really easy to miss the entrance.
The beach is an easy hike from the parking lot. The beach is famous for its striking rock formations in the ocean, sweeping views along the coast, and purple colored sand. Visitors often wonder, why is the sand purple at Pfeiffer Beach. The answer is pretty interesting and intriguing: the color of the sand comes from the manganese garnet mineral that is found in the cliffs.
McWay Falls, California
McWay Falls is one of the best natural attractions on the West Coast of the USA. This 80 foot tall waterfall is a tidefall because it empties directly into the ocean at high tide. At low tide, you can see a pretty secluded beach near the base of the falls. McWay Falls is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and is a must visit along the Pacific Coast.
Due to the rocky cliffs surrounding the falls, the base of the falls and the cove at the bottom is not accessible. The best way to view the falls is from the 0.5 mile long trail inside the park that takes visitors to an observation platform from where you can get an extremely picturesque view of the McWay Falls.
Avenue of the Giants, California
Located in Northern California, Avenue of the Giants, is a scenic byway in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Avenue of the Giants runs parallel to California Pacific Coast Highway 101. The byway is 31 miles long and takes about half an hour to drive. The byway is so named because of the towering coastal redwood tree groves that surround the byway.
On the scenic byway, visitors can see so many of the towering redwood trees that are iconic to northern California. There are many exciting attractions and interests along the byway. Visitors can see the One Log House and go hiking to see even more trees. It is fascinating drive through the tall trees and fog that often envelops this road.
Fern Canyon, California
Located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the Fern Canyon is a fascinating place. It is most popular as the filming locale for the movie Jurassic Park 2: the Lost World. The canyon, which is created by the Homer Creek, has 50 foot high walls of fern. The ferns are dense and big and have a prehistoric feel. Fern Canyon almost feels magical and is a must visit while in this part of the Pacific Coast.
To make the most of your visit to Fern Canyon, be sure to complete the hike. This easy 1.1 mile hike is family friendly and great with the kids. It is especially essential for any dinosaur fans. You walk through the bottom of the canyon and cross Homer Creek several times. You can take a close look at the five different species of ferns that grow on the canyon walls and take magical photographs.
Devil’s Punchbowl, Oregon
Devil’s Punchbowl State Natural Area, located in Otter Rock, Oregon is a striking hollow rock formation. The waves slam into the bowl shaped structure with tremendous force, especially during a storm. It is fascinating to see the water froth and churn inside the Devil’s Punchbowl and create a fascinating natural phenomenon.
Along with surf watching, other popular things to do at Devil’s Punchbowl include hiking, surfing, whale watching, and tidepooling. Geologists estimate that the Punchbowl was created due to the weakening and subsequent collapse of the roof of two sea caves due to continuous wave action.
The Devil’s Punchbowl can be easily accessed from the Pacific Coast Highway 101 and makes an excellent stop on the West Coast road trip.
Devil’s Churn, Oregon
Devil’s Churn, south of Yachats, Oregon, is a narrow inlet. It is located in Cape Perpetua Scenic Area in the Siuslaw National Forest. It is easily accessible on Oregon Highway 101. During high tide, waves gushing inside the inlet can spray water several hundred feet into the air creating an interesting spectacle.
To access the Devil’s Churn, you need to hike along the aptly named Restless Waters Trail. Hikers can’t get too close to the Devil’s Churn as it can be dangerous. If you don’t want to hike, you can also watch the violent wave action from the overlook. It is mesmerising to watch and for many, one of the favorite stops along the Oregon Coast.
Spouting Horn, Oregon
To see the most unique wonders of the Oregon Coast, visit the collapsed sea cave of Cook’s Chasm. Here you will find Spouting Horn, a natural attraction created due to wave action. At high tide, the wave action bursts from the deep hole periodically in the form of an ocean geyser.
The almost mile long Cook’s Chasm Trail will take you down to the Cook’s Chasm and Spouting Horn formation. Spouting Horn looks especially dramatic during a storm or at an especially high tide.
Thor’s Well, Oregon
Oregon’s wild rocky coast is strewn with hundreds of unique rock formations and natural attractions but few of them are as photogenic as Thor’s Well. Also located in Cook’s Chasm, Thor’s Well is a deep and narrow sinkhole on the Pacific Coast.
Over thousands of visitors come to visit Thor’s Well every year. The sinkhole is 20 feet deep. The water initially shoots up from the sinkhole and then sinks down into the hole creating beautiful photo opportunities. The best time to see this natural phenomenon is one hour before and after high tide.
Haystack Rock, Oregon
Haystack Rock is an iconic attraction of Cannon Beach in Oregon. This 235 feet tall sea stack creates wonderful photo opportunities especially at sunset. While the rock is inaccessible at high tide, visitors can walk right up to it over the sand at low tide.
At the base of the Haystack Rock, you will find several tidepools filled with low tide creatures such as starfish, crab, shells, and sea urchins. This is also an excellent area for birding. The nearby city of Cannon Beach makes an exciting place to stay and explore the attraction of Haystack Rock.
Natural Bridges, Oregon
Located in southern Oregon near Brookings, Natural Bridges are a wonderful series of rock formations on the Pacific Coast. The Natural Bridges are located just off Pacific Coast Highway 101 on the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor and are easily seen from the Natural Bridges Overlook.
Visitors can hike along the 0.5 miles long trail to see the two Natural Bridges and take Instagram worthy shots. These natural rock arches look even more beautiful at sunset. The water here is a pretty turquoise shade and provides a beautiful backdrop to the rock arches.
Kalolach’s Tree of Life, Washington
Kalolach’s Tree of Life, located in Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula, is also known as the Tree Root Cave. The tree is one of the most fascinating wonders along the Pacific Coast of the USA.
This sitka spruce tree is immensely tall and wide and has a sprawling system of tangled roots. The coastal bluffs that the tree grew on has almost completely eroded and visitors can see the roots hanging in the air. It is almost mysterious that the tree has managed to stay green and alive and continues to support itself.
Under the roots of the tree is the Tree Root Cave. A stream empties into this cave and continues to erode the soil underneath the tree, creating this natural wonder. The tree is located just south of the town of Forks along the Pacific Coast Highway 101.
Ruby Beach, Washington
Located 27 miles to the south of Forks, Ruby Beach is a wonderful beach on the Olympic Peninsula. It is located inside the Olympic National Park and easily accessible from Highway 101. Ruby Beach is located near the mouth of the Hoh River and visitors can hike 3 miles up to the river to see wildlife.
Visitors to the beach will have access to a vast stretch of coastal wilderness filled with sandy shores, sea stacks, driftwood, tidepools, and rocky coastal bluffs. Beachcombing is a popular activity at Ruby Beach. Abbey Island, a large sea stack, can be reached from Ruby Beach at low tide.
Hole in the Wall, Washington
The Hole in the Wall is an interesting rock formation at Rialto Beach on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. This is a naturally carved sea arch in a sea stack off the coast. While the beach has amazing views down the coast and the landscape is just stunning here, on the hike to the Hole in the Wall, you will find even more gorgeous views and a memorable outdoors experience.
The beach is located inside Olympic National Park and can be easily accessed from the Highway 101. Take the drive to the parking lot and from the beach, you can hike 1.6 miles to the Hole in the Wall rock formation at low tide. The trail is inaccessible at low tide, so remember to consult the tide charts before you go. On the hike you can spot marine life, birds, and intertidal creatures.
Cape Flattery, Washington
Cape Flattery is the northenmost point in mainland USA. Located on the Olympic Peninsula, the Cape is a significant detour from the Pacific Coast Highway but is totally worth the trip. It is located on the Makah Reservation.
The hike to Cape Flattery is 1.5 miles long. It follows the coastal bluffs and has stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. From the end of the trail, you have incredibly clear views of Tatoosh Island. There are 4 observation decks along the trail from where you can spot seabirds and migrating whales.
Hoh Rainforest, Washington
Washington’s Hoh Rainforest is one of the most beautiful natural attractions along the West Coast. This is an enchanting and magical place located in the middle of the Olympic Peninsula. This is one of the rainiest places in the country and receives over 140 inches of rainfall every year.
Because of the climate, a different ecosystem exists within the Hoh Rainforest. The trees here grow immensely tall and wide. Ferns and mosses grow on the trees creating a green canopy so thick that sunlight can hardly penetrate the ground. On the forest floor, you will find unique flora and fauna that thrives in the wet environment.
Hurricane Ridge, Washington
Hurricane Ridge is the mountainous region of the Olympic Peninsula. Here you will find snow capped mountain peaks, valleys, and meadows close to the Pacific Coast. Hurricane Ridge is popular year round. During summer visitors can enjoy hiking and wildflowers while winter activities include skiing and snowboarding.
The landscape at Hurricane Ridge is just stunning in every reason. There are a variety of short and long hikes suitable for all difficulty levels to explore the area. This is definitely one of the best places to visit on the West Coast.
Puget Sound, Washington
Puget Sound is an inlet of the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Seattle. Here you will find an interesting collection of islands and waterways that make the region a must visit for nature enthusiasts. Scenic destinations like the San Juan Islands, Deception Pass, and Orcas Island are spread across the sound.
There are many things to do in Puget Sound and it’s islands. The area is excellent for hiking, biking, camping, boating, kayaking, birding, and whale watching. The wildlife here is rich and varied, making Puget Sound one of the best places in the USA for wildlife and outdoor lovers.
Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
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Pacific Coast Highway 5 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 7 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 10 Day itinerary
All PCH Itineraries
Best Places to Stay along the Pacific Coast Highway
Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops