10 Must-See Attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway

10 Unique Attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast of California remains one of the most colorful and enjoyable destinations for motorcyclists. Despite the frequent road closures due to landslides the famous SR 1, also known as the Coast or Hwy 1, never fails to entice.

Although SR 1 technically starts much farther south, its real charms begin in Santa Monica and extends all the way to the Oregon border.

10 Unique Attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway

Santa Monica Pier

Officially the start (or end) of the legendary Route 66, the Santa Monica Pier stands as a living postcard. With the picturesque Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica Mountains as backdrop, this icon plays host to surfers and tourists, with dynamic changes of character as the day passes.

Sunrise paints the massive wood structure with beautiful morning light, transitioning through usually sunny days, ending with brilliant sunsets and deep silhouettes of the roller coaster. Finally, the lights of the Pacific Wheel sparkle in the evenings.

The enclosed carousel and open air boardwalk have all the trappings of a carnival, with the cacophony of bells and music, screams of joy, and pops of air guns. Take your pick for time of day to visit.

10 Unique Attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway

Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove

Plan your coast ride to coincide with the migration of the monarch butterflies, which make their appearance each year near San Luis Obispo from late October to February. The grove is south of San Luis Obispo, half a mile south of Pismo Beach, with access available from SR 1.

The vibrant orange and black monarchs, capable of traveling 200 miles per day, make their annual escape from the cold climes of the north and settle here among the Eucalyptus trees that fill the grove. Forming clusters in the branches of the trees, the monarchs’ numbers can range anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 butterflies, creating an interesting tapestry of subtle movement with their flapping wings while nesting.

When in flight, the monarchs create a dynamic play of shadows. The butterflies return to the grove every year like clockwork, following an internal radar to find their winter home.

Hearst Castle

A little farther north from Pismo Beach, at the gateway to the craggy coastline of California that is the bay of San Simeon, sit the striking, perhaps somewhat notorious digs of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst, having inherited a fortune in his youth, expanded it further with the dubious practice of sensationalizing news, inventing tabloid journalism to fuel the success of his newspapers, magazines, and radio shows. Hearst's castle—unabashedly depicted in Citizen Kane as Xanadu—is an audacious indulgence, sitting on 40,000 acres of rolling hills, which Hearst populated with rare animals from Africa.

The castle, which became an often raucous retreat for the rich and famous, was notorious for its wild parties and more than a few controversies—even supposedly a murder. If your ride takes you past San Simeon, consider taking one of the guided tours. Allow for plenty of time, as the tour bus ride up the hill itself takes a full hour.

It’s a good idea to plan on staying the night in nearby Cambria, which then gives you an early morning start for the trip north on SR 1.

Big Sur

Personally, my favorite motorcycle road is the stretch of SR 1 that passes through Big Sur. Starting at San Simeon and ending at Carmel Village, the beautiful redwoods of Big Sur are situated roughly between those two points.

The route is the most enthralling 90 miles of road I know in terms of turns, flow, surface, and scenery. Catch it off-season, when the road is fairly empty, and you will be rewarded with an amazing ride.

There's very little along the route in terms of development, save for the road itself, leaving a somewhat pristine landscape of rocky coast and tree-covered mountains. Big Sur isn’t really much of a town, more of a spot where there happens to be a gallery, the Henry Miller Memorial Library, two gas stations, some lodges, and the famous Nepenthe Restaurant, where you can sip coffee or eat pricey hamburgers on the deck with stunning views of the Pacific.

It's difficult to describe, but there's definitely something about the air in Big Sur. I have done the ride perhaps 100 times over the past 20 years. As a testament to its beauty and fun, I still get excited when it’s time to do it again.

Carmel Village

Continuing with this trajectory north on SR 1, shortly after you cross the famous Bixby Bridge, you will arrive into the quaint enclave of Carmel Village. Quiet, with a very mellow pace, the village plays host to a small crosshatch of streets filled with restaurants, shops, hotels, and galleries.

Surprisingly, in this rather exclusive neighborhood, off-season actually presents reasonably priced lodging. The town closes up early, but walking the after-hour streets is a pleasant way to enjoy the evening lights, with plenty of small taverns to ward off the notorious chill with a warm drink.

Walk the white sandy Carmel Beach at sunset, morning, or dusk and watch the waves crash on the rocks, and you'll understand why people are willing to pay the exorbitant prices to live here. Catering to an appreciation for cars and motorcycles, nearby Pebble Beach hosts the annual Concours d’Elegance, and the Quail Lodge in nearby Carmel Valley hosts the annual Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

10 Unique Attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway

Greyhound Rock Beach

Traipsing north, a few miles out of Santa Cruz, you’ll find Greyhound Rock Beach. A Santa Cruz County-managed beach facility, Greyhound Rock creates a dynamic coastal backdrop for beachcombing.

Just a short hike down off of SR 1, the trailhead drops you at the foot of the rock. You are free to roam the sand or take a walk to Waddell Creek Beach to the north.

At low tide, you can access the rock itself and, if you are so inclined, climb it for exceptional views. Be aware that tidal shifts are swift, so be wary to not get caught out by the surf cutting you off from getting back to your bike.

Located almost literally across the highway from Devenport, a tiny quaint enclave, there are food and shops nearby, but no gas. You’ll have to top up in Santa Cruz before venturing north as there are no stations for some distance.

10 Unique Attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway

Golden Gate Bridge

As corny as it sounds, in all its potential to paint me as a typical tourist, I love riding over the Golden Gate Bridge. I've crossed it in dense fog at noon, the chill of a clear sunrise, and in slippery rain.

On one especially ethereal occasion, the very last remnant of sunset cast the bridge in such strong magic-hour light that it virtually glowed orange. The travelers lucky enough to have been caught in the momentary tempest of light, slowed down as they wallowed in the beauty of it all.

It was a glorious moment, collectively shared with hundreds of strangers, which has stayed with me for years.

The Golden Gate is a marvel of engineering. Being motorcyclists, it's usually safe to say we're interested in mechanical things. At both ends of the bridge, as well as on it, are various plaques of information about the bridge's construction and actual life-size mock-ups of the coiled cables that famously suspend the bridge.

It's rumored that by the time the paint crews get finished applying a new coat of paint, it's time to start over again at the other end.

10 Unique Attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway

Bodega Bay

A charming little fishing port town, Bodega Bay is whimsical and colorful. There are restaurants spaced out along its shores, with harbors where fishing boats dock in the evenings and fishermen dry out their nets.

Perhaps best known as the location for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, it's hard not to eye the crows and seagulls nested here with a little more suspicion than you would in other places.

There's a timelessness to Bodega Bay, the small range of mountains to the west protecting it from the full force of Pacific winds. As a result, the place seems beautifully muffled, with a quiet that is difficult to articulate.

Allow plenty of time to course along the winding road that edges the bay. It’s slow-going, despite looking like a choice route on a map for some sporting fun.

I'm not a fish eater, but my friends say some of the best seafood is to be had at the restaurants here, most with picture windows granting views of the bay.

10 Unique Attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway

Fort Bragg Glass Beach

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In this case, we’re talking quite literally about the trash accumulated throughout the years at dumps at the northern end of the town of Fort Bragg.

Dumping on the beach was stopped in 1967, which by then had acquired the nickname Glass Beach for all the broken glass. Clean-up programs removed the scrap metal and, over the years, the biodegradable refuse degraded away.

However, the pounding surf tumbling the shattered shards of glass transformed them into thousands of smooth, colorful pebbles that cover the beach.

After years of restoration and changing hands, Glass Beach was acquired by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The 38-acre stretch was incorporated into MacKerricher State Park and has become a tourist attraction.

It’s against the law to collect any of the little gems of waste transformed into beauty, but visitors are allowed to look all they want and walk among this strange representation of garbage.

Shrine Drive-Thru Tree

Continuing north to Myers Flat, just four miles south of Humbolt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center and situated in the aptly named Avenue of the Giants, is the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree.

Although the tree is, without question, a cheesy and touristy attraction, it is kind of cool. For a nominal fee, you can ride through the opening in the massive redwood tree that was struck by lightning over 100 ago and burned up through its center.

Ironically, the calamity actually saved the tree from being cut down by loggers who felt there wasn’t enough wood left in it to warrant the effort. Along the way, an entrepreneur opened up the gaping hole, making it large enough to drive a car through. A popular tourist attraction and photo op was born.

The name’s origin is in question. Some believe it is the result of a former owner paying honor to his freemason membership in Shriners International, while others think he named it simply because it was like a redwood shrine.

Either way, it’s one of those kitschy roadside attractions we all succumb to, like the nearby Bigfoot store.