By AMANDA BLAKLEY
My first-ever experience riding along the Pacific Coast Highway—California’s longest state route, which hugs most of the coastline—is now just a hazy memory of motion sickness from the rear-facing third row of my parents’ Woody Wagon. Years later, I rewrote that memory with my soon-to-be husband: We rented a compact car with manual windows and a busted CD player, and made our way from Los Angeles up the craggy coastline to San Francisco.
We stopped in quaint towns, stayed in retro motels, and ate delicious burgers at roadside diners. I’ve since had the great pleasure of returning to this epic stretch of California coastline several times, noticing new stop-worthy eats and attractions during each drive. (And since the journey’s even better when done in a sweet ride, check out Silvercar by Audi, a rental service that lets you skip those traditional rental-car-company lines). So, for a fresh take on a classic American road trip, look no further: Here are the best stops along California’s PCH for you to hit on your summer getaway.
From north to south, the following Pacific Coast Highway stops make for the ultimate summer road trip.
1. Do some next-level forest bathing amid the towering redwoods
Just north of San Francisco, find the Muir Woods, better known as the Redwood Forest, which feels like a living fairy-tale setting of ancient conifers. Here you can dance among the flora and traipse along the trails, soaking in their beauty and wisdom. Try the Dipsea Trail for views of the tree canopy, Pacific Ocean, and Mount Tamalpais.
2. Hit the day spa at the Carmel Valley Ranch
After you’ve checked out the adorable town of Carmel and walked its sandy shores, treat yourself to a day at Carmel Valley Ranch’s spa. The Ranch Restorative package ($180) includes a 50-minute massage with head-to-toe rebalancing using inflammation-busting and immunity-boosting extracts like sage and arnica. The package ends with a pedicure to add a little spirit to your step.
3. Dine on top of the world at Nepenthe
This storied stop along the now re-opened stretch of Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur serves major views and familial hospitality. Opened in 1949, the literary meaning of “Nepenthe” comes from Homer’s Odyssey and refers to a fictional happy drug. The view alone will dispense just the right dose of euphoria for any weary road-tripper. Checking out the view from the treehouse perch where you sit, paired with a glass of crisp California Chardonnay and a eats from the vegan-, vegetarian-, and gluten-free-friendly menu, will surely set the right tone for the adventures (and winding roads) ahead.
4. Lay your head at Ventana Big Sur
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this adults-only resort with traditional guest rooms and glamping sites sprawls across 160 acres of stately redwoods and rolling meadows, and the indoor-outdoor spa offers treatments encouraging inner peace and connection. Here, you can get an Essence Portrait (from $295), during which spiritual artist Sofanya brings your essence to life through your unique color patterns. Other healthy activity options include private yoga, tai chi, qi gong, meditation classes, and a personalized astrology reading (from $295).
5. Enjoy hot springs and holistic wellness at Esalen Institute
The nonprofit retreat center and educational institute on the edge of the world (well, the edge of the continent, anyway), was a favorite of Henry Miller, among other familiar names. Dip in the healing waters known as the Source, a freshwater spring that bubbles to the surface and feeds the thermal baths. Public night bathing takes place weekly from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. ($35 per person), by online reservation only. Clothing is optional.
6. Get a Santa Barbara stretch
Atwill Pilates is the perfect studio for road-trippers in need of a little conditioning and a lot of stretch. Book a private session ($100) or schedule a day in Santa Barbara around the studio’s group-class schedule ($35), but regardless, visit its globally curated shop, Beautiful Nomad, full of hand-picked wellness products and goods.
If that feels a little too strenuous, let go-to local masseuse Linnea Villegas knead out steering-wheel-induced muscle tightness ($110 for 60 minutes). With a sweet studio in downtown Santa Barbara, every session is tailored to the individual, blending a wide variety of touch-therapy techniques inspired by her studies and travels abroad.
7. Shuck sustainably in Ventura
The Jolly Oyster Shuck Shack in Ventura at the San Buenaventura State Beach Park is nothing short of shellfish heaven. Born out of a sustainable fishing operation in the Pacific Waters of Baja California, the collection of food trucks now nestles into a sandy cove along the beach, offering diners the opportunity to shuck their own oysters, order them on the half shell, or sample from the extensive shellfish menu. Bring a picnic and/or BYO wine.
8. Have a farm-to-table beachfront lunch
Malibu Farm is situated on an old, vacant pier that’s been transformed into a fetching farm-to-table dining experience. Head straight to the end of the boardwalk for the more casual counter service at the Cafe, and for sit-down-style rosé-all-day dining, be sure to book a table at the restaurant by the entrance to the pier.
Hang ten in Surf City USA
Book a surf lesson in Huntington Beach with the wave-riding legends behind Learn to Surf HB. Offering a personalized experience for any surfers of any level (including total beginner), you’ll learn the basics necessary to get up on that board in as little as a single two-hour lesson ($150, including equipment).
9. Fine and fresh alfresco dining
Corona Del Mar’s answer to London’s beloved Petersham Nurseries is none other than the Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens, a stellar farm-to-table and sea-to-spoon dining experience set within a sprawling nursery just off the PCH. With six acres of foliage, flowering plants, gifts, furnishings and seasonal herbs, it’s hard to know where to start browsing. To plot your plan, head to the back of the nursery for a bite at the magical Farmhouse restaurant. The spot is famous for sourcing quality local ingredients and products—in the spirits in cocktails to the vegetable-forward dishes alike.
10. Sleep under the stars at the Ranch at Laguna Beach
Nestled between canyon and coast, this unique property is part of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection, a group of world-class hotels and rare experiences. Eco-friendliness is practically part of the venue’s DNA, between the expansive vegetable garden at the rear of the resort (ask for a tour!) and the ban on single-use plastic. On the health front, visit the Sycamore spa for Pilates-inspired fitness classes, or join a group hike or bird-watching expedition in the nearby canyon. Kayaking and tide-pool exploring at the beach are also options. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Harvest restaurant for California comfort cuisine, where the motto is “hook to harvest.” Cap off your day by roasting s’mores around the firepit while marveling at the stars.
11. Pamper yourself at the Monarch Beach Resort
There’s really no reason to leave this Dana Point property during your stay—and with seven distinctive drinking and dining destinations, multiple turquoise pools and cabanas, culinary activities, an award-winning golf course, tennis club, and a Drybar on-site, why would you want to? With room rates starting at $799 per night, you’ll want to make the most of your time here—an effort made even easier given that the Miraval fitness center’s offerings—including studio classes like HIIT the Beach or Spin with a (ocean) View—come with your stay.