The 100 miles of coast stretching south from San Francisco hold numerous remnants of the Spanish and Mexican eras, plus a number of quaint towns, prime surfing spots, and one of the most popular state parks in California.
Just south of San Francisco and opposite Silicon Valley lies the farming community of Half Moon Bay, worth visiting for its all-American Main Street. From there to Santa Cruz you will find dozens of state parks and over 50 miles of rocky tide pools and driftwood-strewn beaches. Stop in Pescadero for a quick bite before a photo op at Pigeon Point Light Station.
With its laidback beach-town vibe, Santa Cruz is home to surfers and students alike. Ride the historic wooden rollercoaster on the boardwalk or check out the Mystery Spot, a section of redwood forest where the usual laws of physics don’t appear to apply.
Further south are some truly gorgeous miles of coastline. Originally the capital of California under the Spanish and Mexican regimes, Monterey is an excellent stop for well-preserved historic sites, spending time with sea lions, and the state-of-the-art Monterey Bay Aquarium. Carmel is notoriously upscale but scenic, packed with dozens of delightful restaurants. Don’t miss Carmel Mission, which was the home, headquarters, and final resting place of Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest who established Carmel and many of the 20 other California missions.
Beyond Monterey and Carmel is another stretch of wild coastline: the rugged country of Big Sur. Big Sur Village, consisting of little more than three gas stations, a couple of roadside markets, and a number of lodges and restaurants, represents the only real settlement between Carmel and Hearst Castle. The real attraction is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a 1,000-acre riverside forest that’s one of the most pleasant and popular parks in the state. Hike the three-mile loop to see stately redwoods, a 60-foot waterfall, and a grand vista down the Big Sur Valley to the coast.
As you cruise closer to Southern California, where the coastline evolves into rolling open-range ranchland, you will encounter the opulent Hearst Castle, home to famed newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Finally, stop in San Luis Obispo for a look around the 18th century Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. For an unforgettable (and offbeat) experience, book a room in the Madonna Inn—Roadside America lists it as the best place to spend a vacation night in America.