California is the third largest state in the country after Alaska and Texas. It is one of the most popular states to visit along the Pacific Coast of the USA. The state is home to almost 40 million people and several hip and trendy cities.
The state’s original settlers were the Native Americans. Then the western explorers landed at San Diego Bay in the early 16th century. The Spanish built 21 missions along the coast and colonized large areas of the state. When Mexico gained independence from the Spanish in 1821, California would become a Mexican territory. Later the Republic of California was established and the Gold Rush brought mass migration and fortune to California. It joined the Union in 1850 as the 31st state and became a part of the USA.
California is known for its diverse landscapes and ethnicities; it is also known for its farmlands, Hollywood, and vineyards. The state has a Mediterranean climate and beautiful sandy beaches and is one of the most visited states in the country.
Best Places to visit in California
California is home to coastal cliffs, sandy beaches, hidden coves, tall redwood trees, deserts, and the mountains. It has a wide variety of attractions and landscapes for visitors to select from. California is also home to world-class cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and has diverse attractions for foodies, cultural travelers, and party lovers. Here is a list of best places to visit in California:
San Francisco or ‘the City’ was once the only big city in Northern California. It is famous for its microclimates, hipster vibe, and for being the innovation and technology hub of the country. San Francisco is extremely touristy and one of the most popular cities to visit in the USA. No visit to California or anywhere along the West Coast of the USA can be complete without visiting Frisco.
It is known for its cultural attractions such as museums, architecture, thought-provoking murals, and public artwork. It is also popular for its touristy attractions such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. The city also has parks and gardens including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Japanese Garden, and the Beaches. And of course, no one can forget the famous Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge, two of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge is the iconic bridge that connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County. It deserves a special mention as it is one of the best places to visit in California. The length of this bridge is 1.7 miles and it is the most photographed bridge in the US. Almost 112,000 cars drive across the bridge every day and over 10 million people visit it every year. The bridge’s distinctive orange-red towers have become synonymous with San Francisco and California.
The Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center located near the south end of the bridge has many educational exhibits about the engineering and history of the bridge. It is also a great place to collect cool souvenirs. Visitors can experience the bridge by driving across it, walking all the way to Marin county, biking over the bridge to Sausalito, or taking a cruise under the bridge and appreciating it from the water. There are multiple bike rentals near the bridge if you plan to go biking.
If you are planning a trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, then you have to know about Big Sur. It is located 150 miles away from San Francisco. Big Sur is the undisputed gem of California’s vast coastline. The region is 90 miles long and can be accessed only via the Scenic Highway One. The drive along Big Sur is one of the breathtaking drives along the West Coast of the country.
Big Sur offers visitors many adventures and promising places to visit. Bixby Bridge is one of the most famous photo spots. McWay Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls along the coastline. From state parks and national forests including Point Lobos to hiking and camping destinations, Big Sur has it all. People who want to experience California’s wide range of coastal and outdoor attractions should visit Big Sur. Big Sur Village has luxury hotels and motels for its visitors. Ripplewood Resort and Fernwood Resort are the most renowned luxury accommodations in the area.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the oldest natural treasures in the world as well as a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is home to stunning geological formations and diverse flora and fauna. The area was designated as a national park in 1890 and since then it has grown in popularity – the park currently attracts almost 3 million people annually.
Visitors love Yosemite for its beautiful waterfalls, granite rock formations of El Capitan and Half Dome, clear streams, alpine meadows, wildflowers, rich wildlife, and the giant Sequoia trees. The most popular park attractions lie in the Yosemite Valley. The park also has many scenic drives and overlooks from where visitors can experience the beauty of Yosemite National park. The park also offers hiking, rock climbing, and camping to visitors. The Yosemite Valley is open for the whole year while some areas of the park are inaccessible in winter.
Los Angeles is the largest city in California and home to four million people. Los Angeles is famous for its ethnic diversity, the Hollywood industry, and posh city life. The city has many museums, fine dining restaurants, theme parks in the city of Anaheim, and is basically the highlight of a trip to California for many visitors.
Families and kids of all ages love visiting Disneyland and California River Adventure in Anaheim. Venice Beach and Santa Monica Pier are also family-friendly. Hollywood lovers can have a blast visiting Hollywood themed attractions including the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the iconic Hollywood signs on Mount Lee, Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, and the movie studio tours.
The city has amazing museums and art galleries for cultural travelers. Some of the best art museums including the Getty Villa and Center, the Broad, and the Los Angles County Museum of Art (LACMA) are located in Los Angeles. The city also has great natural history and automotive museums. In short, Los Angeles is a complete vacation package for all types of travelers.
Lake Tahoe is one of the largest alpine lakes in the country and is famous for its freshwater reserves. It is also the second deepest lake in the states. Lake Tahoe is partly in California and partly in Nevada and the ultimate outdoor destination for many visitors. The scenic Lake Tahoe loop drive goes all the way around the lake and is a great way to see the lake in a short time. There are many state parks and natural areas located along the lakeshore.
During the summer, visitors can enjoy water sports on the lake, go on nature walks and hiking trails, and bike along the shoreline. During the winter, Lake Tahoe is America’s favorite cold-weather holiday destination. You can go alpine skiing at Lake Tahoe Ski resorts, sleigh ride, and snowshoe on the trails at Emerald Bay State Park along South Lake Tahoe.
San Diego in southern California is known for its perfect sunny weather. The city has a very mild winter and is a popular holiday vacation destination for families. The city has over 70 miles of beautiful coastline and is known as California’s Beach City. This city is the oldest on the West Coast and to know it’s history, you need to visit the beautiful Cabrillo National Monument and the nearby Point Loma lighthouse.
There are many amazing things to do in San Diego for visitors of all types and ages. The nightlife in San Diego is quite good with many premium nightclubs and rooftop bars. For art and culture lovers, Balboa Park is a must visit. This urban park in San Diego is home to beautiful Spanish Colonial style architecture and many well-known museums including the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, Natural History Museum, and Museum of Art. The park is also known for the Japanese Garden and San Diego Zoo. Balboa Park and the surrounding area have countless performance venues and art galleries.
Disney Theme Parks
The Disneyland Park in California opened in 1955 and since then has been attracting visitors to its many fantasy lands and cartoon characters. The park has its own charm for kids as well as adults and is one of the most visited theme parks in the world. The construction of the park was supervised by Walt Disney himself. Disneyland, along with Disney California Adventure, has become a prime California tourist destination.
The theme parks offer fun and thrilling rides, a chance to meet your favorite characters, and numerous photo ops with Mickey Mouse himself. The parks are also famous for their great food, amazing shows, fireworks, parades, and special events. Christmas at the parks and Mickey’s Halloween Party are some of the busiest times of the year when thousands of people visit the park in a single day.
Lying in the Sonoran Desert, Palm Springs is a wonderful resort city in Southern California. It is famous for its luxury hotels, hot springs, golf courses, upscale shopping, and spas. Party lovers enjoy the many pool parties in the city while food connoisseurs love the fine dining experiences that Palm Springs has to offer. The city’s museums are also great cultural destinations while mid-century architecture can be seen on a guided tour.
While Palm Springs is more known for its luxe vibe, the city is also great for those who love the outdoors. Because of its location in Coachella Valley, there are several hiking trails in close vicinity to Palm Springs. Visitors often go in 4WD vehicle tours to see the San Andreas faultline. The Joshua Tree National Park is an easy day trip away from Palm Springs and should also be on the top of your bucket list.
Monterey is a pretty and charming city located on the coastline of California. It is located south of San Francisco and is an easy day trip from the Bay Area. Monterey is also the gateway to exploring Big Sur along a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. The most renowned tourist attraction in Monterey is the Monterey Bay aquarium which lets visitors experience the diverse aquatic life of the West Coast.
While today’s Monterey is a charming coastal destination, the city had humble beginnings as a center for the sardine fishing industry. The site of the sardine canning industries, the Cannery Row, has now been transformed into a waterfront area packed full of bars and restaurants. Another highlight of the city is the scenic 17 miles drive. This amazing road trip has views of the coast, golf courses, mansions, and other amazing sites of Monterey. Monterey also has many events for visitors including the California International Airshow, Spartan Race, and Monterey Wine festival.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park covers an area of almost 1000 miles and is the largest national park in the country. The park is closer to Las Vegas in Nevada than major California cities and is often seen as a part of the eastern California road trip. The park has a hostile environment and is the lowest, hottest, and driest place in the USA. The park is known for the Badwater Salt Flats, where visitors can see unique shapes of salt crystals.
Visitors come to Death Valley’s remote location for sightseeing, hiking the desert landscape, camping, backpacking, and the panoramic vistas. Death Valley National Park has a unique environment of badlands, colorful hills, rugged peaks, sand dunes at Mesquite Flats, and the scenic Golden Canyons, making it significantly different from other national parks. This park is also a popular filming locale and most famous for Star Wars.
Sacramento is the capital of California and it is the most diverse city in the United States. The origin of its name comes from its location on the banks of the Sacramento River. This city has its own hipster vibe but in the past, it was a Wild West Town and settled during the California Gold Rush. The riverfront area is great for a stroll and has many attractions for families and kids.
Visitors can see the city’s history at Old Town Sacramento. This area has historic architecture and quaint features. The city also has many museums and art galleries and is a culturally rich place. The California State Capitol and its grounds are also a popular tourist attraction and receive many visitors.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park are located near to each other in the Sierra Nevadas and together considered one national park. Known as the ‘Land of Giants’, these parks are home to some of the world’s largest trees, the Sequoias. The parks have diverse geographical features and are frequented by many visitors.
The towering mountain ranges, deep canyons including the Kings Canyon, white water rapids of the Kings River, and the General Sherman Tree are some of the most popular attractions inside the park. Both of these parks have a variety of different hiking trails for all difficulty levels. The hike to the Giant Forest Grove of Sequoia trees is one of the most awe-inspiring hikes in the state. Other outdoor activities preferred by visitors include a drive along Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and a tour of the underground Crystal Cave.
Mendocino is popular for its coastline and unique location along California’s Lost Coast. The name of the area comes from the fact that no major highway passes parallel to the coast here. Mendocino is one of the most romantic cities in California and attracts visitors who love solitude. The city has Victorian architecture, art galleries, amazing boutique stores, and local restaurants. The city attracts artists and is a very popular artist colony.
Dense and tall coastal redwood forests surround the city of Mendocino. The outdoor attractions include 3 amazing state parks of Russian Gulch State Park, Mendocino Headlands State Park, and Van Damme State Park. Mendocino County is also home to many wineries that offer refreshing and intimate wine tasting experiences.
Avenue of the Giants
The famous scenic byway known as the Avenue of the Giants is located along the coastline in northern California. The byway is almost 30 miles long and passes through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This route passes through tall redwood trees that reach up to the sky, hence the name. The road was previously part of California’s Old Highway 101.
It is easily the finest drive in the world and is a popular destination for road trippers. The avenue has many redwood tree groves on its edges and passes through many picnic areas and attractions where visitors can get up close with the giant trees. There are many small quiet towns located along the byway like Myers Flat and Pepperwood.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park boasts of some of the most unique landscapes in Southern California. It is popular for its diverse rock formations and the bare desert landscape. The park consists of two desert ecosystems: the Mojave desert and the Colorado desert. The park name comes from the twisted Joshua trees that grow abundantly in the Mojave desert section of the park.
The park is famous for its starry skies and remote beauty. There are many things to do in the park for visitors. One of the best ways to explore the wilderness of Joshua Tree is to hike in the park. Visitors can also camp at the many campgrounds in the park. Rock climbing is another popular attraction. The park also has many ranger-guided hikes and programs for visitors.
Mono Lake lies at the edge of the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada Mountains. The saltwater lake covers an area of almost 70 square miles. Mono Lake is an ancient lake and estimated to be almost a million years old. That makes it one of the oldest lakes in America. This lake has extremely high salt content and is almost thrice as salty as the ocean.
The salinity creates a unique ecosystem and Mono Lake is home to many alkali flies and brine shrimp. Every year, hundreds of migratory birds stop at Mono Lake while flying south. The lake is also home to nesting land birds and water birds.
Mono Lake’s high alkalinity has resulted in the deposition of limestone in the form of tufas that rise out of the lake. Mono Lake Scenic Area Visitor Center is the primary place to learn more about Mono Lake, the tufas, and tourist activities in the area. The rangers can guide you towards the South Tufa Reserve, which has the highest concentration of tufas and is the highlight of this lake.
Santa Catalina Island belongs to the 8 Channel Islands of California but is not a part of the remote Channel Islands National Park. The island is located in the Gulf of Santa Catalina. The island is a popular day trip and weekend destination from Los Angeles. The island is a popular resort city in California and hosts many events. It offers year-round fun for visitors. The resort towns of Two Harbors and Avalon lie in the north and south respectively and make great bases to stay on the island.
The island has many options for water lovers. Catalina Island has rich fishing, scuba diving, jet-skiing, and other water sports services. Visitors to the island also get to enjoy its amazing weather and natural resources. It has diverse wildlife and you can see everything from California bison to foxes on the island. The island also has rich marine life including whales, dolphins, seals, and orcas. Hiking is also popular on the island.
Located in the Owens Valley, Alabama hills are a range of rock formations. They lie on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas and can be reached via Highway 395 which is parallel to the eastern border of California. Alabama Hills are accessible and open to the public throughout the year but can be unbearably hot in the summer.
The Alabama Hills are known for their colorful hills and rock formations. They have been a popular destination for filming Westerns since the earliest times. The weathered rocks and rounded hills look amazing at twilight. Alabama Hills is one of the most popular landscape photography destinations in California.
Visitors can hike or take a scenic drive to the most popular geological landforms in the area. The Mobius Arch, one of the biggest naturally formed arches in the area, is a popular hiking destination. Another popular photo op is the Face of Alabama Hills which is a painted rock in the barren landscape. Alabama hills attract people who seek outdoor activities like rock climbing, mountain biking, camping, and more.
From huge ocean breakers and exquisite sand beaches to green grasslands and cypress tree-lined drive, Point Reyes National Seashore has it all. The area is home to more than 1500 different species of plants and animals. It is a popular attraction for nature lovers, whale-watchers, and hikers from all over the world. Point Reyes Lighthouse located on the cliffs can be seen on a guided tour.
Point Reyes has a rich and interesting history. This cape was originally settled by the Coast Miwok Indians before the Europeans arrived here in the 1500s. The park preserves historic sites belonging to the Native people and visitors can even see a replica of a Coast Miwok Village, Kule Loklo, near the Visitor Center. Point Reyes can be extremely windy, so be cautious while venturing near the cliffs and carry a warm jacket.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Pigeon Point Lighthouse is a magnificent lighthouse in Pescadero near Half Moon Bay in central California. Its height is 115 feet and it is the tallest lighthouse on the Pacific Coast of the USA. Built-in 1871, it is extremely photogenic and one of the most photographed lighthouses on the western coast of the country. Unlike many old decommissioned lighthouses, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse is still operational.
The area surrounding the lighthouse comprises a state park and is popular to visit on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. The state park has many hiking trails and picnic spots. Pigeon Point Lighthouse is extremely romantic and is a famous spot for proposals and weddings. Visitors love the park for the beautiful coastal scenery and stunning sunset views. You can go down to the beach or spot the wildlife including migrating whales from the viewing platforms.
Mount Shasta is an active volcano in Siskiyou County of Northern California and is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire. The volcano last erupted in 1786. Ice covers the peak of Mount Shasta year-round, making it extremely photogenic. Mount Shasta City is located on the slopes of Mount Shasta and the volcano is visible from almost anywhere in the city.
Mount Shasta City enjoys an altitude of 3,600 feet above sea level and is a great destination for outdoor adventurers. It sees visitors year round for biking and hiking trails, water sports, skiing, and snow activities. The nearby Lake Siskiyou is a gorgeous reservoir that has a beautiful loop trail, a bridge, and campground on its shores.
Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands National Park lies off the coast of Southern California and consists of the 5 islands of Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel. All of the channel islands are well-known for their rich natural resources. The islands have a range of diverse experiences for visitors. The national park can be reached via a plane or a boat from the coast. Boat cruises depart from Ventura, north of Los Angeles.
The islands are home to sea caves, a lighthouse, and pine forests. The caves on Santa Cruz Island are best explored with a kayak while hiking to the lighthouse and Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island is a popular activity. The islands are also famous for their marine life and whale watching and birding are quite popular activities to do on the Channel Islands. The sea kelp forests surrounding the islands are a haven for snorkelers and scuba divers.
Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Planner
Pacific Coast Highway 4 day Itinerary
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