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Incredible Stops Along the Pacific Coast Highway

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Established in the 1930s, the Pacific Coast Highway (or Highway 1) offers unparalleled views of the West Coast. This highway first began as a series of smaller infrastructure projects. Now, nearly 100 years after it first opened, the highway is still a popular destination for eager road trippers.

Officially a National Scenic Byway, Highway 1 offers panoramic views of diverse ecosystems. If you're planning to travel on this gorgeous coastal highway, don't miss these four incredible stops along the way.

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Shrine Drive-Thru Tree

Road through redwood trees on the Avenue of the Giants in California
Credit: ventiviews/ Unsplash

Redwood trees are an awe-inspiring sight, stretching over 370 feet — an incredible five stories taller than the Statue of Liberty. However, these redwood forests aren't just natural wonders. They're also a critical factor in promoting biodiversity. In fact, the forests host an entire ecosystem of animal life, such as pine martens, bears, steel-head trout, Pacific giant salamanders, and red-bellied newts. And, an acre of redwood trees can remove more carbon dioxide from the air than any other place on earth — including rainforests!

Needless to say, the redwoods of California are a must-see on any West Coast road trip. Sometimes referred to as the Redwood Highway, the northern stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway offers several spots where you can explore these majestic forests. You can hike, camp, or even ride horses among the giant trees. Or, for a unique road trip experience, just drive right through a tree.

In fact, there are three drive-through redwood trees located near the quaint seaside town of Eureka, just off the highway. The closest is the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree, which is located on the Avenue of the Giants. Unlike the other two drive-thru trees, the cleaved opening in the trunk of this redwood is fully natural. Driving through the enormous trunk is a one-of-a-kind experience — and when you're done, you can explore the nearby Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the largest redwood forest in California.

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City of Solana Beach

Aerial view of coastal cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach and Torrey Pines
Credit: ianmcdonnell/ iStock

If you're up for a little adventure, an area just outside San Diego offers secluded beaches located at the bottom of a rugged stretch of cliffs. To access the beaches, you'll need to look for the small staircases dotted along the cliff. Because of the hidden entryways, these beaches are almost never crowded. Most visitors of this beach-town are residents of the local area.

If you decide to stop in Solana Beach, there are five main beaches you can explore: Seaside, Tide Beach, Fletcher Cove, Seascape Beach, and Del Mar Shores. Fletcher Cove, Tide Beach, and Seaside all have year-round lifeguards, so you can feel more confident going for a swim.

Surfers, in particular, may enjoy Seaside, which has waves that break over the beach's outer reef. It's worth noting that this beach has rip currents, as well. So, be mindful if you take to the waters here. When the tide is low, you can walk south from Seaside to Tide Beach. As the name suggests, this beach is home to several tide pools you can explore during low tide. And, there's always something new to see in these pools. The most commonly spotted aquatic animals are crabs, mussels, sea anemones, and starfish.

And, when you've had enough of the beach, head to Solana Beach's famed Cedros Design District. This world-famous shopping destination boasts upscale boutiques, art galleries, retail shops, spas, and restaurants. Get in a spot of retail therapy and then stop by Claire's on Cedros to savor delicious California-style comfort food. With classic Wild Alaskan cod & chips, grass-fed Angus steak tacos, classic cheeseburgers, and luscious salads on the menu, your taste buds will be singing.

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Bodega Bay

The ocean waves crashing at Bodega Bay Head, California
Credit: Michael Overstreet/ iStock

Movie buffs driving through the tiny town of Bodega may find the area strangely familiar. After all, it was the setting for Alfred Hitchcock's famous film The Birds. Sure, you'll see flocks of birds gathering in town. But, they aren't anything like the ferocious avian hordes in the movie.

If you're driving, it's worth knowing that this former fishing village overlooks the rugged Sonoma Coast. The views will be spectacular. Secluded and stunningly tranquil, the region will also leave you feeling connected to nature. Your first stop may be Bodega Head, a cliff offering the ideal vantage point for stunning ocean views. This is also the perfect spot to watch for migrating whales. You'll be able to catch glimpses of them all year long, but whale appearances typically peak between January and May. As a coastal species, grey whales are the easiest to spot — they grow up to 45 feet long and can weigh as much as 75,000 pounds each.

While you're in Bodega Bay, you can also take surfing lessons, explore the public beaches, or even head over to Fisherman's Cove to get some fresh seafood or chowder. And, if you're a Hitchcock fan, don't miss the Bay View Restaurant & Lounge, where the house specialty is "Grilled Filet Hitchcock." This is filet mignon stuffed with Dungeness crab, served alongside mashed potatoes and baby spinach.

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Hearst Castle

The pool at Hearst Castle from above
Credit: gnohz/ Shutterstock

Most of the beauty along the Pacific Coast Highway is natural — but, there are a few structures created by humans that are definitely worth a visit. Hearst Castle was built by Julia Morgan, the first female architect in California. She completed the massive project in 1947, and it became the residence of publisher William Randolph Hearst.

This historical monument is colossal in structure: it sits on 127 acres and has 165 rooms, two swimming pools, and multiple fountains. The striking castle — and its original occupant — were the inspiration for Citizen Kane, which is often listed as one of the greatest films ever made. Although Hearst initially despised the film for its negative depiction of him, his family has since embraced it — so much so that they have even allowed screenings of the film at Hearst Castle itself.

Thinking of visiting? Visitors to the castle can enjoy daily tours of the main house and grounds. Of particular focus during these tours are the two swimming pools, which are lavishly decorated with statues, glass tiles, and mosaics. When you're done exploring, take some time to relax in the surrounding region of San Simeon — the area has beautiful coastal views, a wide selection of lodging options, and a vibrant dining scene.

If you'd like to make a last stop for the day, consider a trip to Hearst Ranch Winery. Co-founded by Hearst's great-grandson, the tasting room is conveniently located right along the Pacific Coast Highway. Here, you'll be able to take in some absolutely stunning views, all while enjoying the hearty wines the Hearst Ranch has to offer.

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