Road Trip: Wildlife, Mystery and Hidden Treasures Along Pacific Coast Highway

Built more than 80 years ago to connect California's coastal towns, Pacific Coast Highway hugs the edge of the Golden State as it passes through busy cities, beaches and abandoned relics of the past.

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John Fellner
The Laguna Beach tower, known by locals as "Pirate Tower" was built by California Sen. William E. Brown in 1926 to provide his family with beach access. Park on PCH at Victoria Beach and watch closely for a stairway that leads to the tower at Sunset Terrace and Victoria Drive. Once you're at the bottom of the stairs, head right toward a group of rocks to find the tower.
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Natalie Balladarsch
Just across the San Diego Bay, the Hotel del Coronado is a historic beachfront hotel in the city of Coronado. It is one of the few surviving examples of a wooden Victorian beach resort and a popular destination for vacationers.
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The Gaslamp Quarter is a roughly 16-block historical neighborhood in Downtown San Diego, and is the site of several entertainment and nightlife venues, as well as scheduled events and festivals like San Diego Comic-Con.
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Whaley House
The Whaley House is in the Old Town of San Diego. Built in 1857 for the Whaley family, it was designated the most haunted house in America by the television show "America's Most Haunted."
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Dana Point Harbor
With its marinas and boutiques, Dana Point Harbor in Orange County is a jumping off point for dolphin and whale-watching cruises.
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California State Parks
Mussels cover a cliff next to a tide pool in Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach, one of the largest protected beach areas in California. The 3.2 mile beach extends into 2,400 acres of wilderness and hiking trails, and the Historic District has preserved seaside cottages that were built in the 1930's and 1940's.
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Creative Commons: Don Ramey Logan
Take a ferry from Newport Beach to Balboa Island to try chocolate-covered bananas from the famous banana stand featured in "Arrested Development." Adventurers can try their hand at The Wedge, a surfing spot known for its massive, 30-foot wedge-like waves.The tiny island also features a Fun Zone for children's activities, dolphin watching, and a short ferry ride to Catalina Island.
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The Queen Mary is a retired ocean liner that sailed primarily on the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936 to 1967. The ship serves as a tourist attraction in Long Beach featuring restaurants, a museum and hotel.
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Russ Allison Loar
The Korean Bell of Friendship in Angel's Gate Park was presented by the Republic of Korea to the American people to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States and symbolize friendship between the two nations. The effort was coordinated by Philip Ahn, a Korean American actor. It was dedicated on October 3, 1976, and declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1978.
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Watch bodybuilders compete against each other or even get a workout in yourself at the beachside outdoor gym off the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles.
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Visit the iconic oceanfront skatepark featuring a sunken pool & a street-inspired area with stairs, ledges and rails.
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Set at Santa Monica’s westernmost point, the pier is a Los Angeles landmark. Packed with family-friendly activities, restaurants and shops, the pier has stunning views and over a century's worth of history.
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The Third Street Promenade's outdoor shopping mall attracts customers to shop, eat and enjoy the ocean breeze blowing inland from Santa Monica beach.
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Creative Commons: Carol M. Highsmith
Lloyd Wright, the son of renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, completed the Wayfarer’s Chapel in 1951 on the coastline of Palos Verdes. The form was built with Redwood Trees and glass, in a style known as organic architecture. The Swedenborgian church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and regularly hosts weddings and special events.
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Creative Commons: PKM
Now a ghost town in Pico Canyon, Mentryville was one of the first oil towns to pop up in California. The town has a restored home, barn and Felton schoolhouse. The California Star Oil works company, predecessor to Standard Oil Company, was founded here. The protected area is a quick detour off of the Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles County.
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California Beaches
Point Dume State Beach features headlands, cliffs, rocky coves and vast beach access. Visitors are known to enjoy swimming, surfing, scuba diving and fishing at the Malibu beach.
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California Beaches
El Matador State Beach, known for its caves and arches in its seaside rocks, is a popular spot to photograph swimsuit models and stunning sunsets.
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Instagram user @glitter.bloom (Ashley Snively)
Beloved and legendary, this sweet spot offers a selection of custom-made flavors, crafted from local ingredients and packed into house-made cones and cups.
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Pictographs show evidence of religious ceremonies dating back 1,000 years, by both Chumash and Yokut Indians at the sacred Painted Rock in the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
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Local surfers walk into the waves as the sun rises in the picturesque central coast beach community of Pismo Beach. Located just below San Luis Obispo, the small town has a population just over 8,000 with a focus on surfing, recreation, seafood and nature preservation.
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Pismo Beach
Each year thousands of vibrant orange and black Monarch Butterflies flock to a butterfly grove in Pismo Beach, seeking shelter from the freezing northern winters.
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Natalie Balladarsch
Minutes from historic downtown San Luis Obispo, the Madonna Inn redefines unique with 110 whimsical guestrooms. The décor and resort amenities, including a spa, horseback riding, boutique shopping and a terrace pool and bar make it one-of-a-kind.
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Natalie Balladarsch
Disgusting as it may be, an alley in downtown San Luis Obispo invites people to stick their already-been-chewed gum on its now colorful and sticky walls. Locals believe the wall hasn't been cleaned since the 1970s.
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At almost 600-feet tall, Morro Rock is a volcanic plug located just offshore from Morro Bay, at the entrance to Morro Bay Harbor.This park and beach is often used for commercial shoots, weddings and festivals.
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Featuring a terrace, colonnades with four Italian bas-reliefs on the sides and a temple pediment with sculptures of Neptune and Nereid, the iconic Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle in San Simeon is one of the most famous swimming locations in the world. The pool has been under construction so check ahead.
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Creative Commons: King of Hearts
An 80-foot waterfall drops into an untouched cove on the California coast in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur.
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Angelique Little
Homey, country-style rooms, cabins and houses with antique furnishings and scenic wood views characterize this Big Sur inn. To add to the experience of a true getaway, none of the rooms have televisions, internet access or phones, and there's no cell phone coverage on the property. After landslides isolated the area in 2017, the hotel was only accessible through a small, dirt footpath. Owners currently hope that PCH access will reopen at the end of September.
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Visit California / Alex Farnum
Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in California due to its unique architecture and breathtaking setting on the coast.The bridge arches over Bixby Creek in Monterey.
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Creative Commons: Celeste Davison
American poet Robinson Jeffers built the Tor House in Carmel-by-the-Sea, following the melancholy, celebratory lines of his poems. Construction began in 1918 and Jeffers designed the house after a Tudor barn in England. After the house was completed, Jeffers built the adjacent Hawk Tower by himself using bricks and stones. In the poem "Ghost," Jeffers said he would haunt the house he built, and visitors say they have felt the spirits of the Jeffers family wandering the grounds 60 years after Jeffers' death.
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The non-profit aquarium’s mission is to inspire conservation of the oceans. Located in Monterey, California on a rocky coastline, the popular destination features exhibits ranging from otter habitats to touch pools.
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Half Moon Bay is a small, seaside community with golf courses and expansive beaches. The town houses a sea horse ranch, a pumpkin farm, and several restaurants with boat-to-table seafood options.
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Flickr user georgus78
The Moss Beach Distillery in Moss Beach was once a hot spot for celebrities looking for bootleg liquor during Prohibition. According to legend, the restaurant and hotel is home to the famous "Blue Lady" ghost, a socialite who used to frequent Moss Beach for an affair with her lover. During Halloween, fans of the blue lady host seances in the distillery to conjure up her spirit, and several people say they have experienced unusual events during their stay.
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California Beaches
Hundreds of years of erosion created Natural Bridges State Park, located next to Panther Beach in Santa Cruz. There were originally three arches, but only the middle arch remains.
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The Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk amusement park in Santa Cruz attracts kids and grown ups alike for its range of games, rides and activities.
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Mystery Spot
Opened in 1941, the Mystery Spot is a visual illusion–based tourist attraction near Santa Cruz. Visitors experience gravity-defying demonstrations on the short but steep uphill hike.
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Egor Shitikov
Located in San Jose, California, the Queen Anne Style Victorian mansion is renowned for its size, architectural curiosities, and lack of any master building plan. The owner of the estate, Sarah Winchester, added on to the building in a haphazard fashion, so the home contains numerous oddities such as doors and stairs that go nowhere and windows overlooking other rooms.
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National Park Service
Once the largest indoor swimming establishment in the world, the Sutro Baths is now an eerie ruin, located in a beautiful setting in San Francisco.
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One of the most famous structures in America, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is a popular tourist destination, showing off the city's expansive bay.
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Creative Commons: Piotrus
Now located at the western tip of San Francisco, the Musée Mécanique is one of the world's few hands-on collections of coin-operated arcade games and mechanized musical instruments.
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Admire the Greco-Roman style rotunda and colonnades, and watch swans drift across the peaceful lagoon of this San Francisco treasure. The iconic Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most photographed sites in the city, featured in numerous film and TV productions.
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Waterfront marketplaces and the Wharf's famous fishing fleet make for a seafood-lover’s dream in San Francisco. Souvenir shops and historic ships line the famous area known for sea lions basking in the sun, seafood stalls and sourdough French bread bakeries.
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The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary is quarantined on an island in the San Francisco Bay within view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The high-security building used to house dangerous criminals, including Al Capone, but closed in 1963. It is now part of a state park, and visitors can walk through passages where inmates once dwelled.
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Creative Commons: Frank Schulenburg
This quiet cove, beach and lagoon tucked into the coastline three miles west of Muir Woods is a favorite spot among locals in Marin County.
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Coastside State Parks Association
This park, whose name means “New Year,” attracts visitors who come between April and the end of August to see elephant seals go through a molting period where they shed their winter skin in San Mateo County. Visitors can also witness the seal's aggressive and alarming mating rituals.
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Creative Commons: Grace Kelly
The old Potter Schoolhouse in the tiny hamlet of Bodega was among many of the local landmarks filmed in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 thriller "The Birds."
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Creative Commons: Don DeBold
The historic Point Reyes Lighthouse in Point Reyes, California warned mariners of danger posed to them from the Point Reyes Headlands for more than a century.
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Creative Commons: Kevin Lam
A scenic tunnel of Monterey cypress trees lies on the Point Reyes Peninsula. The driveway through the trees leads to an old building that houses the Point Reyes National Seashore North District Operations Center and the KPH RCA Radio Station.
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California Department of Parks and Recreation
Bowling Ball Beach is located along Highway 1 near Schooner Gulch. The Mendocino Coast, located along the rugged Northern California coastline three hours north of San Francisco, attracts visitors from all over the world. The "bowling balls" were created after years of oceanside erosion.
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Creative Commons: Matthew Roth
The Point Arena Lighthouse is located within the new National Monument on the southern Mendocino County coast. After being destroyed by an earthquake in 1906, the lighthouse was restored and housed the families of lightkeepers through World War II. The tower has been featured in several movies, like Mel Gibson's 1993 film "Forever Young," and sees approximately 30,000 visitors every year.
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Glass Beach is a beach in MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg that is adorned with sea glass created from years of dumping garbage into an area of coastline near the northern part of the town.
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Creative Commons: Benjamin Zingg
The Carson Mansion is a large Victorian house located in Old Town, Eureka. Regarded as one of the most elaborate uses of American Queen Anne Style architecture, the house is considered by some the most grand Victorian home in America.
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Creative Commons: Ramakrishna Gundra
The drive-thru opening of the ancient coastal redwood known as the Chandelier Tree in Leggett attracts visitors to Underwood Park, a 305-acre property 182-miles north of San Francisco.
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Visit the Redwood National Park to gaze up in awe at the famous giant trees that surround you. The park is located at the northern tip of California in Tulare County, approximately 15 miles south of the California-Oregon border.
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Creative Commons: Frank Schulenburg
Built in 1865, this lighthouse is located at one of the northernmost points of California in Crescent City. Paranormal enthusiasts believe the lighthouse is haunted by at least one friendly spirit, while others say they have felt the presence of one child and two adults. The active alert system is still in use and a lightkeeper lives inside the building.
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