20 Things to Do: Pacific Coast Highway – Northern California Road Trip

In late March 2017, Taylor and I decided to drive up the coast of California for a mini getaway.  We both had the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) road trip on our bucket list took advantage of the opportunity.  Unfortunately,  Big Sur State Park suffered from several mudslides due to the recent rain and we were unable to see the entire state park because of the road closures.  Instead, we drove all the way up to Crescent City (20 minutes from Oregon) and made our way down the coast.  We covered roughly 2,000 miles in four days starting from Huntington Beach, Ca.  Below is a breakdown of the places we explored and are some of the highlights of the trip (ignore the yellow icons – gotta love California traffic).

One thing to note, we didn’t go into the heart of San Francisco, as we plan to have a dedicated trip there soon.


The Top 20 Things We Did on Our PCH Road Trip

1. Pebble Beach Dr to Point St. George – Crescent City, CA

Our first stop was a breathtaking lookout at Brother Jonathan Park in Crescent City.  Brother Jonathan Park is right along Pebble Beach Drive and very easy to access.  This park was named after a paddle steamer struck an unseen rock killing almost all of the passengers aboard.  Brother Jonathan Park was previously used as a resting place for those who lost their life during this shipwreck.  Since then most of the graves have been moved but the memorial still remains.

You can also see Battery Point Lighthouse from Brother Jonathan Park as well.

Battery Point Lighthouse
View of Battery Point Lighthouse from Brother Jonathan Park

Pebble Beach Drive has great views of the rocky coast and the beachfront properties that overlook the breathtaking cliffs.  Be sure to check out George’s Point right off Pebble Beach for a secluded overlook of the northern pacific.

Point St. George
View of Point St. George Beach

2. Stout Grove Hiking Trail – Jedediah State Park, Redwood National and State Park

A few miles outside of Crescent City there is a short but sweet hike called Stout Grove located in Jedediah State Park.  To get to the hike, you have to drive through the redwood forest, on a dirt road, we advise a high clearance vehicle and expect your car to get covered in mud!  The hike itself is a 1-mile loop, alongside the Smith River.

Driving past fallen Redwood on road to Stout Grove Trail
Driving past fallen Redwood on road to Stout Grove Trail
Route to Stout Grove Trail
Route to Stout Grove Trail
Standing on fallen Redwood
Standing on fallen Redwood – Stout Grove Trail
Smith River - Stout Grove Trail
Smith River – Stout Grove Trail

Stout Grove is known as one of the most scenic areas to view the Redwoods.  The grove is not home to the largest of the Redwoods but it is densely packed with Redwoods throughout its entirety.

3. Wilson Creek Black Sand Beach

As you make your way south of Crescent City down Rt. 101 you will run into Wilson Creek Black Sand Beach.  This beach is known for its black sand, rocky shore, and driftwood.  Plenty of people park on the side, and take a few moments to admire the scenary.

Wilson Creek Black Sand Beach
Wilson Creek Black Sand Beach off Rt. 101

4. Klamath Overlook

Klamath Overlook offers close to 180 degrees of fascinating views and an opportunity for some whale watching.  It is here where the Klamath River can be viewed meeting the Pacific.  Located between the Klamath River and the Pacific Ocean is a small beach/sandbar (could be covered with a high tide) that can be seen in the photo below.

Klamath Overlook
Not a bad view from Klamath Overlook

5. Gold Bluffs Beach

Off Highway 101 you can find camping and hiking areas at Gold Bluffs Beach.  Some awesome perks of this campsite include listening to the waves crashing on the beach, personal fire pits, picnic tables, and restrooms with running water!  Gold Bluffs Beach is also known for its elk population and it is common to find elk grazing along the beach!

To get to the beach and campsite, campers have to drive through the Redwoods on a rocky, beaten down dirt path, expect a bumpy but beautiful ride (we thought we were in a rain forest).

Gold Bluffs Beach Campsite
Gold Bluffs Beach Campsite

If you have a high elevation vehicle and/or water shoes, you can make your way to Ferns Canyon which is about a mile from the campsite.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have either and missed the opportunity, but if we did it would definitely be on our top 20 list!

Trail to Ferns Canyon
The trail to Ferns Canyon, unfortunately, we didn’t make it across the stream.
Elk Gold Bluffs Beach
Elk at Gold Bluffs Beach

6. Drive-Thru Chandelier Tree

Chandelier Tree is about three hours south of Crescent City; if you are taking Rt. 101 be sure to detour off along the Avenue of the Giants to drive through more of the Redwood Forest on your way to the Chandelier Tree.  As you approach the intersection of Rt. 101 and Rt. 1 you will come across Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree.  It costs $5 to drive your vehicle thru and snap a neat picture.  The Drive-Thru tree is open seven days a week from 8:30 am to 8:00 pm.

It is definitely a tourist trap but a check off the bucket list!  Luckily we made it to the tree just a few minutes before it closed for the night, so we had the place to ourselves.  Make sure when driving through the tree to bring in your mirrors, it is a tight fit!

Drive Thru Chandelier Tree
Drive Thru Chandelier Tree

7. Fort Bragg – Glass Beach

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg got its name from the abundance of sea glass washed up on the beach. The abundance of sea glass is caused from folks consistently dumping garbage into the ocean just north of the town over the years.  Luckily the disposal of garbage in the ocean has come to an end, and ironically mother nature has found a way to turn this negative action into a beautiful place to visit.

Fort Brag Glass Beach
Fort Brag Glass Beach

Glass Beach also has scenic views of the blue ocean crashing on the rocky terrain.

View up the coast from Glass Beach Fort Brag
View up the coast from Glass Beach Fort Brag

8. Point Arena Lighthouse

Miles passed Fort Bragg (45.5 miles to be exact) is the Point Arena Lighthouse.  Point Arena Lighthouse is a beautiful lighthouse where many go to have picnics and spend the afternoon.

The lighthouse is free for those who want to walk up to it and take pictures.  However, for travelers who choose to climb to the top, it costs $7.50 per adult and $1 for children 12 and under.  Found next to the lighthouse are lodges were families and tourists can spend the night.

View of Point Arena Lighthouse
View of Point Arena Lighthouse from the cliffs
Point Arena Light House
Point Arena Light House

9. PCH Drive – South of Point Arena

Gualala River Mouth - Harbor Seals
Gualala River Mouth – Harbor Seals
PCH Southbound View
PCH Southbound View
PCH North Bound View
PCH North Bound View

10. Golden Gate Bridge – Vista Point

Before crossing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge stop at Battery Spencer lookout.  A majority of the postcard photos of the Golden Gate Bridge are shot here.  To get to Battery Spencer you must walk through the former military infrastructures once used to protect the bridge from attack, but once you get there you will see the views are totally worth the walk!

Hawk Hill is another popular lookout just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Hawk Hill is also a former military lookout only this lookout offers panoramic views of both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Area which you will not get at Battery Spencer.

Golden Gate Bridge
View of the Golden Gate Bridge between Battery Spencer and Hawk Hill

When crossing the Golden Gate Bridge take note that they DO NOT have toll collectors, so remember to go online within 48 hours of crossing the bridge to pay your toll fee!

11. Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point

Check out a less crowded viewpoint of the Golden Gate Bridge and get a chance to see some surfers riding the waves at Fort Point.  Fort Point allows you to see the bridge from below and it is probably the closest viewpoint of the bridge without actually being on it!

Golden Gate at Fort Point
Golden Gate at Fort Point

12. Golden Gate Bridge at Marshall’s Beach

Marshall’s Beach is a great location for a sunset happy hour, as well as checking out a different perspective of the Golden Gate Bridge.  You can find this trail on the south side of the bridge along Lincoln Blvd.  After parking, visitors must walk down flights of steep steps and past Battery Crosby.  This deters many tourists so those who do make it all the way down commonly have the place to themselves.

Golden Gate from Marshall's Beach
Golden Gate from Marshall’s Beach

13. San Francisco – 16th Avenue Tiled Steps and Grandview Park

If you have limited time in San Francisco and simply passing through, check out 16th Avenue Tiled Steps and Grandview Park.  The local neighborhood helped create the tiled steps to bring beauty and tourists to a part of the city that was not frequently visited.  Now it is a great place to grab a photo and make your way up to Grandview Park for better views.

16th Ave Tiles Steps
16th Ave Tiled Steps

If you trek all the way up the Tiled Steps you are a short walk to Grandview Park where you can find panoramic views of San Francisco.

Grandview Park
View at the top Grandview Park

14. Gray Whale Cove State Beach

Devil’s Slide Bunker, a bunker built during WWII, overlooks Gray Whale Cove State Beach.  This is a great place to stop, rest, and take in the scenery.  At Devil’s Slide Bunker we were able to see whales migrating north and surfers in the water beneath.  The views from Devil’s Slide Bunker are breathtaking and we definitely recommend.

Gray Whale State Beach
Overlooking Gray Whale Cove State Beach

15. Mavericks Beach Half Moon Bay

Mavericks is home to the biggest wave in California with waves up to 80ft in the winter.  This surfing spot generates large waves due to a unique rock formation underwater and is the location of an invitiation only competition each winter.

View of Mavericks from the beach of Pillar Point. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a swell when we were there, but waves ranging from 15-20ft were breaking against the rocks.


16. Santa Cruz – Steamers Lane

Steamers Lane is a popular surf spot in Santa Cruz that is right in front of the Santa Cruz Surf Museum.  You will find a consistent point break.  Along the coast of Santa Cruz you will also find multiple surf spots including Pleasure Point and others.  There is a good chance you will see sea otters out in the water feasting on fish and crab.

17. Monterey, CA

Heading south from Santa Cruz along the cost of Monterey Bay you will come up to Monterey where you can check out the different shops at Cannery Row.  There’s everything from breweries, breakfast shops, to nice restaurants.  There is also a shop to purchase salt water taffies.

Cannery Row Monterey
Cannery Row Monterey

18. Pebble Beach – 17 Mile Drive

Continuing south through Monterey will lead you to Pebble Beach.  In Pebble Beach, you can drive along 17 Mile Drive.  It costs $10 per vehicle but offers beautiful views of the coast.  There are plenty of mansions to admire along the drive as well.  I think this is a one and done, so if there’s nothing you need to cut from your list, this may be an option.  It was simply a bucket list item for us and we checked it off!

17 Mile Drive Pebble Beach
17 Mile Drive Pebble Beach

19. Carmel By The Sea – Ocean Ave

If you stop in Carmel, check out Ocean Ave between Monte Verde St and Junipero St.  There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and a few wineries to grab a bite to eat and enjoy the day.

20. Big Sur State Park

Big Sur State Park is absolutely breathtaking.  The drive along PCH is one to remember and there are plenty of hiking trails to trek through.  You can also find plenty of campsites and pitch up for the night and enjoy some of California’s natural beauty.

Big Sur Bixby Creek Bridge
Big Sur Bixby Creek Bridge

If you have any other recommendations, please drop a comment below!

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