The most underrated stops along the Pacific Coast Highway

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Wine, ocean views and wildlife on America’s Most Beautiful Coastal Drive.

A lot has happened in the past year or so to convince us that we’ve entered some sort of bizarre simulation adjacent to the Matrix. But one of the strangest events? Road repairs in California are ending sooner than expected.

After the Pacific Coast Highway experienced a series of unfortunate road closures this winter, it was fixed two months ahead of schedule and reopened on April 30, which is convenient, just in time for road travel season.

Now you are probably ready and eager to embark on America’s most beautiful coastal road trip, but we guarantee that you are not the only one with this idea. Thankfully, while slow cars are inevitable, crowded wineries, parks, and otter-filled pit stops don’t have to be.

Take a rental car from LA, roll the sunroof back and get ready to enjoy these less traveled PCH highlights, which are all as fantastic as the world famous ones.

pacific coast highway

The Southern California Scenic Tour

From Los Angeles, hop onto the city’s legendary 101 Freeway and ride until the road looks less like a freeway and more like the scenic route you signed up for. Just after Santa Barbara, you will find the junction towards California 1.

If you’re determined to make this trip entirely PCH, you won’t hate the sights as you pass through Lompoc and pass Vandenberg Air Base. But to see the best of the Southern California wine country and Danish-style town of Solvang, stay on 101 and drive through Santa Ynez. There you will spot vast, gentle hills fringed by meticulously manicured vineyards and plenty of options to stop for a tasting.

Rancho Sisquoc Vineyard
Hidden gems of the Santa Maria Valley | Rancho Sisquoc Vineyard

The Santa Maria Valley

Resist the temptation to begin your wine odyssey until you reach the Santa Maria Valley, whose wine cellars rarely fill the crowds you’ll find in other neighboring areas. The most notable of the group is Foxen, a rambling ranch with tables set on a windy hill where you can sip Pinot Noirs. You will also find excellent tastings of rural wines on the road to Rancho Sisquoc, whose backyard tasting room is located at the foot of a green slope dotted with picnic benches that are friendly to tasting.

If beer is more your speed, Santa Maria is not lacking. Blast Brewery 825 has a huge beer bar in Orcutt with a do-it-yourself beer bar, where you try whatever you want and pay by the ounce. Stroll through Orcutt town center and you will find the Pierre de Vin Inn, a cozy boutique hotel with rare bottles from the best vineyards in the region. Even if you don’t stay overnight, it’s worth stopping to try out a bunch of local pours without having to drive the entire valley.

Besides beer and A + wine, Santa Maria is also home to the Hitch post-but before you start to refresh your impression of Paul Giamatti, know that it is not that of Next to. This one is in Buellton, but Casmalia’s original is just as memorable. Step inside and you’re struck by the smells of a modern restaurant and backyard barbecue, an earthy mix of smoke and garlic that makes the hour’s wait tolerable. The food also holds and will make you appreciate the smoky subtleties of a thin, flame-grilled piece of beef.

waterfall hike

Luffa farm

Nipomo
Leaving the valley and returning to the coast, you will pass through the town of Nipomo. If you’ve ever wondered where loofah sponges come from or, for that matter, what they are– this is where you will find your answer. At Luffa farm, among colorful panels and mismatched sculptures, you’ll find one of the world’s largest producers of loofah, which grows on vines, not near the ocean, despite its resemblance to coral.

Kayak to Point San Luis Lighthouse | San Luis Point Lighthouse – Avila Beach

San Luis Point Lighthouse

Avvila
After you’ve filled your brain with invaluable sponge knowledge, it’s time to fill your lungs with salty sea air. Less than half an hour from the 101 is the soothing seaside town of Avila Beach. Venture past the main beach to the marina and Paddle sports on Avila beach, where you can rent a kayak and explore the bay. You’ll pass adorable sea otters and somewhat less adorable elephant seals basking in the sun on makeshift docks. Paddle for about 30 minutes and moor on the rocky beach at the foot of the San Luis Point Lighthouse, the last Victorian prairie lighthouse on the west coast. Take a 15 minute hike up the cliffs and you’ll be treated to views as picturesque as the lighthouse.

Oceanpoint Ranch

Cambria
As you travel up the coast, take in breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean as you descend from the hills of San Luis Obispo into Morro Bay. Continue along the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony, which you will feel before you see it. Along the beach, hundreds of belching elephant seals relax on the sand as you stand closer to them than at any other publicly accessible colony in the world.

Assuming your legs got a bit stiff along the way, make your way through town to the Fiscalini Ranch Reserve. This 437-acre park is crisscrossed with easy and easy trails, all of which offer panoramic views of the ocean and the hills beyond. You can even take a course with Tula Yoga, a nice way to decompress that doesn’t involve a tannin hangover.

Watch lazy elephant seals basking at the Rookery | Randy Andy / Shutterstock

Once you’re well and rejuvenated, head to downtown Cambria, a welcoming mix of small local restaurants and bars. The best of them is Robin, where Indian, North African, Asian and Californian cuisine is served in an indoor-outdoor garden. Forgo dessert and take a slice of blueberry pie at by Linn, rather. It’s kind of like a cross between raspberry and blueberry – and even if you don’t like either fruit, the small town cafe atmosphere is worth the cost of the slice.

Cambria has no shortage of waterfront lodges, but the one you’ll want to call home is Oceanpoint Ranch. The sprawling eight-acre ranch sits directly on Moonstone Beach and offers rooms with fireplaces and s’mores for their guests. You can also roast your dessert in the outdoor fireplaces right next to the parking lot, where you’ll be especially popular with fellow travelers if you show up with a local wine you picked up at reception.

Visit the eccentric property of Nit Wit Ridge | Flickr / Joseph François

Nit Wit Ridge

Cambria
Walk through the windy streets of Cambria and you’ll pass what looks like a run-down Bourbon Street hotel atop the Lost City of Atlantis. This is Nit Wit Ridge, the former home of Art Beal, local garbage collector-artist-slash-recluse, who fashioned his hillside estate with … well, a bunch of thing. The strange house is built from beer cans, seashells, tires and stones, as well as some items that Beal would have gotten from his other job as a tour guide at Hearst Castle. Daily tours of ‘Poor Hearst’s Castle’ are arranged by Mike O’Malley, the current owner of the property, who is almost as eccentric as the man who built the place. If this seems like the kind of visit you’d want a beer for, stop by 927 Beer company at the bottom of the hill before leaving.

Hearst Ranch Tasting Room

Saint-Simeon
When you leave Cambria, no one will blame you if you want to visit Hearst Castle. But if the crowds and dusty tour bus rides leave you a little tired, San Simeon has the perfect place to kick back: the Hearst Ranch Tasting Room, where you will taste wine with a breathtaking view of the Pacific.

Stretch your legs at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. | Blaine Harrington III / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The Big Sur road

Big Sur is definitely a tourist focal point on the Pacific Coast Highway, thanks to Instagram-friendly Bixby Bridge and postcard hikes in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. But, heading towards the less traveled and bearing the same name Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park can be just as magical. You’ll be overshadowed by towering redwoods for miles, with far fewer people around than you would encounter visiting them in the national park of the same name.

If you want a drink with a view, avoid the crowds at Nepenthe and instead relax at Big Sur Coast, an art gallery and restaurant fashioned from old redwood water reservoirs along the road. The sunny roof is magnetic, and you’ll find yourself enjoying the craft beer you bought downstairs for much longer than you expected.

CTE Big Sur
Stop at Coast Big Sur to drink alcohol and take in the views | CTE Big Sur

Carmel Valley

Carmel-by-the-Sea is often used synonymously with Carmel, which is a bit like referring to all of Miami as South Beach. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming community of artistic shops that is popular with people who can afford $ 1,000 hats. If this is your scene, go for it. But if you want something a little more rustic, head inland to Carmel Valley. It’s just as scenic, surrounded by mountains and hillside vineyards.

Stroll through the western theme Cowgirl Vineyard and sample their stuff on a gravel patio while trying to lasso a metal bull. Then head to Albatross Ridge’s tasting room less than a kilometer and a half; chardonnay and pinot noir might be your travel favorite.

Elkhorn Marsh

Foam landing
If you don’t have enough of those adorable sea otters at Avila Beach, you’ll have another solution about half an hour north of Monterey at Moss Landing. Here you can rent a solo kayak or join a guided excursion to Kayak connection and cross the wetlands of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Be warned: once you see the otters on the site feeding on big slimy innkeeper worms, you may never look at them the same way again.

From Moss Landing it’s an hour of coastal beauty all the way to CA-1 to Santa Cruz and all of its boardwalks-and-Mysterious place glory. And from there it’s just another hour to San José, and to the Bay Area. You’ll definitely come back from any road trip to PCH to hear about dozens of other things you could have done, but you’ll also have stories that most people don’t have. Because even on one of America’s busiest roads, you can still find a road less traveled.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @ meltrez1.


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