On its pathway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the sinewy Pacific Coast Highway offers access to a vast outdoor-recreation amusement park. This route beckons road-trippers with sandy surf breaks, dense redwood forests, impressive viewpoints and a seldom-visited island chain. Interested? Let’s plot a weeklong itinerary from north to south:
Why Go: Located about an hour’s drive northeast of Gilroy—which is itself about an hour southeast of San Francisco—Henry Coe State Park is the largest state park in Northern California. It’s home to 400 kilometres of hiking trails, many of which are accessible year-round. Start with China Hole Loop, a popular path that wanders for 16 kilometres through rolling terrain and past a picturesque swimming hole, and branch out from there. (parks.ca.gov)
Good to Know: Garlic has been used as an athletic performance enhancer since the Olympics of antiquity. While in Gilroy—the Garlic Capital of the World—follow the Garlic Trail to sample a variety of pungent dishes at local restaurants. Then, hike on! (gilroywelcomcenter.org)
Why Go: The city’s famous aquarium is lovely, but, really, the entire Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is like one massive au naturel aquarium. Explore it by kayak or paddleboard right from the touristy epicentre of Cannery Row. Harbour seals, sea otters and biodiverse kelp forests await. (adventuresbythesea.com)
Good to Know: Pay a pre-paddle visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium to learn about what you’ll see on the water, as well as about their renowned Seafood Watch program, the gold standard for identifying sustainable seafood.
Why Go: Carmel Beach is the nicest stretch of sand in NorCal. A picture-perfect shore break of emerald waves rolls in year-round and surf lessons and rentals are readily available in the adorable oceanside town. The beach is dog friendly, so Fido can roam sans leash, and regulations even allow picnickers to pop a cork—it’s booze friendly too. (carmelchamber.org)
Good to Know: Head to nearby Point Lobos State Park for a 90-minute interpretive walk through its coastal splendor, led by volunteers from the Point Lobos Foundation.
Why Go: Gorgeous Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a Central Coast highlight. Book at least one night at historic Big Sur Lodge—an idyllic jumping off point to day-hike trails like Buzzard’s Roost (nine kilometres) or Oak Grove (five kilometres). Or pitch a tent at one of the park’s 175 serviced campsites. (bigsurlodge.com)
Good to Know: Schedule a side-trip to McWay Waterfall Trail, located in adjacent Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Culminating with a vista of a famous 25-metre falls, which cascades directly onto a sandy beach, it’s one of Cali’s most Instagrammable locales.
Why Go: Running in front of its namesake city, expansive Pismo State Beach offers an accessible shore break for surfers of all levels. Seven local operators rent boards and/or offer lessons and the whole area exudes a California surf-bum vibe, which is a large part of its chilled-out charm. (classiccalifornia.com)
Good to Know: If you visit between late-October and February, stop by the Pismo Monarch Butterfly Grove to view these amber-coloured beauties as they overwinter on the temperate California coast. (monarchbutterfly.org)
Why Go: These two off-radar towns are set in the centre of one of California’s top wine-producing regions—which is best explored by bicycle. With a warm and dry climate, ample vineyards and scenic topography, it’s easy to spend a day or more on a pedal-powered wine tour. (winecountrycycling.com)
Good to Know: Head east of Solvang to impressive Los Padres National Forest, home to a staggering 2,000 kilometres of hiking trails and rugged peaks topping 2,700 metres of elevation. (fs.usda.gov)
Why Go: Another set of twin cities, and the last stop before the megalopolis of L.A., this area is the gateway to a gem of the Central Coast: Channel Islands National Park. Accessed by ferry from Ventura Harbor, visitors to this remote park can paddle, scuba, hike and camp within the diverse ecosystem of an ethereal island chain. (nps.gov/chis)
Good to Know: Channel Islands Harbor, in Oxnard, is a fun and family-friendly stand-up paddleboard location. Watch for sunbathing sea lions as you meander through this bustling maritime labyrinth. (channelislandsharbor.org)