20 'Secret' Spots Along California's Pacific Coast Highway

A local's twist on the classic coastal road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Houses along the canal in Venice, Los Angeles, California
Photo: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

California's iconic Highway 1 has many natural and historic attractions along the Central Coast, famous for its beaches and migrating whales. But there are also numerous "secret" spots along the approximately 440-mile coastal drive between San Francisco to the north and Los Angeles to the south (where Highway 1 becomes Pacific Coast Highway).

Have grippy shoes and cameras ready for a new perspective on a classic road trip.

Stow Lake, San Francisco

The quiet place in the morning next to the Stow Lake.
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Paddle on a manmade lake dating to 1893 in Golden Gate Park. Stow Lake Boathouse rents rowboats and pedal boats ideal for cruising by the lake's stone bridge, waterfall, and Chinese pavilion. See ducks, turtles, birds, and other wildlife.

Batteries to Bluffs Trail, San Francisco

Leave the city behind for a short hike that follows the Presidio's wild western shoreline. Seasonal native dune plants and wildflowers attract butterflies and birds. Consider a sunset hike for majestic views.

Devil's Slide Trail, Pacifica

Rugged coastal cliffs by the Devil's Slide trail in California at sunset and silky ocean from long exposure
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Walk on the only stretch of Highway 1 closed to cars. The easy 1.3-mile paved trail has signage, benches, and ocean views. Devil's Slide was part of Highway 1 for many years but was dangerous because of falling boulders. In 2014 a tunnel was built for cars and this portion of Highway 1 was transformed into a pedestrian trail. Look closely to see a railroad bed in the hilly terrain, the only remnants of an ill-fated railway.

Sea Horse Ranch, Half Moon Bay

Horseback riding on the beach is sure to be a trip highlight. The one-hour scenic Equestrian Trail ride ($100) has beach and ocean views but skips the sand. Book the 90-minute Trail and Beach tour ($110) to ride on Poplar Beach. The Early Bird Special offers a two-hour trail and beach ride for $85.

Shakespeare Society of America Headquarters, Moss Landing

To stop or not to stop? That is the question — and the answer is yes. Moss Landing, a tiny fishing port best known for its catch, is also home to the Shakespeare Society of America headquarters containing thousands of artifacts, some dating back 500 years. Peruse the rare book and reference collection, museum and memorabilia, visual art, and theater arts archive.

Public Art Walk, Sand City

Grab a coffee at a local bakery and download this map to find murals, a dino sculpture, and painted bee boxes on a self-guided public art walk in Sand City, a 2.9-square-mile town on the Monterey Peninsula. The quirky, Instagram-worthy public art and murals in the West End are created by local and visiting artists.

Hidden Beach and Waterfall, Ragged Point

McWay Falls may be the most photographed waterfall on the Central Coast, but it's not the only one. At Ragged Point, the steep, half-mile Black Swift Trail leads to a tiny black sand beach with a waterfall. Heads up: the trail can be slippery.

Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon

Built in 1875, the still operating light station is named for the unique white rocks offshore, home to seabirds, sea lions, and elephant seals. Soak up lighthouse history on a two-hour tour to the Fog Signal Building and the bottom level of the lighthouse. Bring binoculars for wildlife sightings. Reservations are necessary.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, Cambria

The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, a 436-acre park with bluff and forest trails is viewed from one of its many vistas on in Cambria, California.
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Take a walk on the wild side at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, a protected open space with over 150 different native plants and 430 birds. Miles of hiking trails and a coastal bluff with views of migrating whales and birds make this a must stop — and it's free.

Marley Family Seaweeds, Cayucos

Hunt vegetarian style and munch on kelp (it's nutritious!) on a private seaweed foraging tour with the Marley family. Learn about sustainable and respectful harvesting and how to forage edible seaweed. Then enjoy a seaweed ramen treat on the beach.

Cayucos Tide Pools, Cayucos

There are many turnouts between Estero Bluffs (shortest walk to shore) and Harmony Headlands for easy access to tide pools brimming with sea stars, anemones, spiny urchins, purple shore crabs, and more. Plan your visit for low tide when marine life is more visible. Find more marine life at a beached boat in Point Estero.

Morro Bay National Estuary, Morro Bay

Pelicans swimming in the Morro Bay National Estuary Preserve with a sailboat and Morro Rock in the background
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You may have seen huge Morro Rock (it's hard to miss!) but check out the secluded estuary and wetland inhabited by hundreds of animals and plants. Hike coastal trails or rent a kayak (from A Kayak Shack) and paddle in calm water to Sandspit Beach.

Swinging Bridge, Arroyo Grande

Balance on a swinging bridge 40 feet above the Arroyo Grande Creek, and 171 feet across. It was built in early 1875 by the Short family, whose land was divided by the Arroyo Grande Creek.

Dunes Center, Guadalupe

For nearly a century, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes held a secret about the 1923 film "The Ten Commandments." After filming, director Cecil B. DeMille had the set buried in the dunes. There it sat until archaeologists excavated it in 2017. See the huge sphinx head, prohibition-era liquor bottles, makeup, and tobacco tins at the Dunes Center.

Llama Farm, Santa Barbara

Spend a night "glamping" in El Capitan Canyon, where resort guests can hike to a nearby llama farm, interact with animals, and chat with farmers. You can also see llamas by the side of the road just south of the campground. Park at the El Capitan surf spot overlook.

Rancho La Patera and Stow House, Goleta

Learn about California's railroad and lemon history at this historic site and ride a miniature train at the adjacent South Coast Railroad Museum (open weekends). Plus, enjoy lush Victorian gardens and free concerts (the first Sunday of each month).

Ventura Botanical Gardens, Ventura

A fire that scorched the ocean-view Ventura Botanical Gardens in 2017 revealed a secret: hidden terraces and long stone walls from the late 1700s. They're now an integral part of the 107-acre Mediterranean-themed gardens, which have since grown back.

Self-realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, Pacific Palisades

The Lake Shrine park retreat on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles.
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Find your zen at the hilltop nature and spirituality sanctuary, housing a temple, a meditation garden, and a lake with duck, swans, fish, and turtles. Founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, the facility's Gandhi World Peace Memorial contains a portion of Gandhi's ashes sent from India.

Annenberg Community Beach House, Santa Monica

Exterior of the beach house

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Hang out at the public beach house featuring the Marion Davies Guest House, a historic swimming pool with marble decking, volleyball courts, and more. Built in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst for actress Marion Davies, the property was sold to the state of California in 1959. It's operated by the City of Santa Monica.

Venice Canals, Venice Beach

Venice Canals

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Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, the Venice Canals (built in 1905 by Abbot Kinney to resemble Venice, Italy) are surrounded by lovely homes with private docks for non-motorized boats. Stroll along sidewalks and bridges to photograph the pretty canals.

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