Photograph by KYLE JOHNSON, The New York Times/Redux
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The Pacific Coast Highway cuts through the coast in Big Sur, California.

Photograph by KYLE JOHNSON, The New York Times/Redux

Must-See Stops Along California's Route 1

Road trippers will find sun, sand, and surf along the Pacific Coast Highway.

The southernmost stretch of fabled coastal Route 1 strings together everything that makes Southern California, well, “SoCal”: surf breaks and seaside mountains, offbeat beach towns and sprawling suburbs, old Spanish history and modern megalopolises.

Popular with young surfers, traveling families, and retirees, the beach town of Pismo Beach is famous for the monarch butterflies that arrive by the fluttering thousands for the winter during their long migration. During the rest of the year it’s Pismo’s seaside dunes that draw human crowds.

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The wooden Pismo Beach pier reaches out from the Pacific coastline into the ocean.

To experience them in their most natural state, take a short drive south of town to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, where 18 miles of coastline are protected in a series of parks, preserves, and recreation areas. Start at the Dunes Center, a restored 1910 Craftsman-style home in the tiny burg of Guadalupe, with information on hikes, guided walks, and some of the 1,400 species of plants and animals that call the dune-wetland ecosystem home. Among the exhibits are artifacts from the sandy set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic The Ten Commandments; the largest set in movie history, it was buried and lost until determined film buffs literally unearthed it in 1983.

For travelers with some extra time around Pismo Beach, there are excursions along this picturesque portion of Route 1 that are worth the special stop. Head north to Avila Beach for a day of sun and sand, southeast to enjoy the equestrian-friendly Trout Creek Trail in Arroyo Grande, or northeast for a winery tour at one of the many vineyards in Edna Valley.

As the home of Vandenberg Air Force Base, one of the test sites for the national Missile Defense Program, Lompoc has one foot in the future. The other remains firmly in the past at La Purisima Mission, one of a series of Spanish missions built up and down the coast. Founded in 1787, La Purisima once administered close to 500 square miles grazed by 24,000 sheep and cattle. It fell into disrepair before being fully restored by local, state, and WPA workers in the 1930s, using historical techniques and tools as much as possible. It’s now the most extensively restored mission in California, from the foot-packed adobe bricks to living history exhibits that demonstrate weaving, blacksmithing, potterymaking, and other period activities.

Though not on Route 1 proper, the town of Buellton is worth a quick side jog up U.S. 101 for a handful of classic Americana attractions. Chances are you’ve already seen ads for Pea Soup Andersen’s up and down the coast. The restaurant has its roots in a café opened in 1924 by Anton and Juliette Andersen near Hearst Castle. Her French pea soup recipe was such a hit that they’re still serving over two million bowls of it a year. Try some with a glass of their homemade fruit wine inside the wood-beamed dining room or in the pavilion room overlooking the garden.

More roadside history fills Mendenhall’s Museum of Gas Pumps and Petroliana, a private collection of vintage gas pumps, gas globes, racing memorabilia, and neon signs. (Call ahead to book a tour.) Finally, OstrichLand USA is a working ostrich ranch with about a hundred birds, plus the odd emu. You can feed the “original” Big Bird—watch those fingers!—and peruse a gift shop full of all things ostrich, from feather dusters to jerky.

Wedged between picture-perfect beaches and the scrubby Santa Ynez foothills, Santa Barbara has an almost Andalusian appeal, all palm trees, red-tile roofs, and white stucco. It’s a good place to break up the drive along Route 1, whether it’s to soak up another hour of sun on the sand or browse the ritzy boutiques on State Street. (Check out El Paseo, a Spanish Colonial shopping arcade based around an 1826 adobe complex, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.) If you’d like to spend the night, the Harbor House Inn is close to the beach, with free bikes and beach chairs to use. Some rooms have full kitchens, and the owners welcome guests with delicious homemade banana bread.

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Mountains rise behind rooftops in Santa Barbara, California.

Surfing is an integral part of the cultural identity of Southern California, and Huntington Beach has a good argument for claiming it’s the sport’s launching pad on the West Coast. In the early 20th century, land developers, it’s said, brought in surfers from Hawaii to lure people to settle along the shore. (Granted, this was back when land was so cheap that an encyclopedia company was offering free lots with every $126 set customers purchased.) Today surfers still slice the waves around Huntington Pier, and two blocks away the International Surfing Museum traces the sport’s history from heavy 15-foot wooden planks to today’s foam-core boards. Surf music performances happen regularly in the summer.

More water sports of a kind await at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, 12 miles north. From penguins to seahorses, sharks to jellyfish, the giant aquarium showcases the incredible diversity of the world’s largest ocean. The tropical coral reef display alone holds 350,000 gallons of water, and workers nurse injured critters back to health in the Molina Animal Care Center.

On the curved exterior of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, what was until recently the world’s largest mural depicts whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other sea life indigenous to Southern California—all at life-size. The 116,000-square-foot work by artist Wyland took 7,000 gallons of paint. At the other end of the size spectrum, the world’s skinniest house stands three stories high at 708 Gladys Avenue. Once listed in Ripley’s, it was built on a bet that the 10-foot-wide lot was too small for a habitable dwelling.

Barely 40 miles as the crow flies south of downtown L.A., Crystal Cove State Park preserves one of the largest sections of natural California coastline left in Orange County. The 3.2-mile beach is lined with tide pools and popular with surfers, snorkelers, and everyday wave-splashers. (There are rich reefs offshore for scuba divers, too.) Hikers and bikers can head inland to another 2,400 acres of scrub-covered hills, ridges, and canyons. Primitive hike-in campsites offer a taste of isolation that is frankly astonishing, considering some 19 million people nearby live within about an hour’s drive. If you’d rather go with the vintage SoCal lodging theme, Crystal Cove Beach Cottages are a small collection of rustic beach bungalows dating to the 1930s and ‘40s, part of a restored historic district at the mouth of Los Trancos Creek.

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The sun sets over Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Beach, California.