Road Trips

Buckle Up and Hit the Road on 3 Epic Coastal Drives

The best road trips are made with good company, great music and beautiful scenery. Set out on one of these three amazing coastal drives for an unforgettable experience:

Pacific Coast Highway: San Francisco to Los Angeles

One of the most popular coastal routes in the nation, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) stretches from San Francisco to Los Angeles and offers plenty of attractions. Here are just a few, can’t miss highlights:

Half Moon Bay

About an hour outside San Francisco is this stunning, moody cliffside beach town that feels straight out of Game of Thrones. Hop out, stretch your legs and feel the salt air in your face before snapping a few Instagram-worthy shots.

Swanton Berry Farm

About 45 minutes south of Half Moon Bay is Swanton Berry Farm. Buy fresh berry pies, or sign up to pick your own fruit when it’s in season. The property is beautiful, and has a comfy hangout spot with bookshelves, toys and games so you can relax while you digest.

Santa Cruz

About another hour down the coast is Santa Cruz, home to redwood forests, beautiful beaches and a very 1960s vibe.

best coastal drives
(Photo: Getty Images)

Wander the old-school boardwalk, check out the lighthouse and then grab a bite at the Wharf. There’s vintage shopping on Pacific Avenue and The Mystery Spot, a self-described “gravitational anomaly,” is worth a look.

Big Sur

An hour and 40 minutes south of Santa Cruz, you’ll cross the Bixby Bridge, one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world, and arrive at Big Sur, perhaps the most beloved spot along the PCH.

The Santa Lucia Mountains rise dramatically from the ocean, creating a truly breathtaking landscape at the edges of the Los Padres National Forest. Campgrounds abound and it’s hard to drive more than a short distance without seeing something amazing. Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls and Ragged Point are just a few spots that will inspire you.

San Simeon

Two hours south of Big Sur is the town of San Simeon, home to the famous elephant seals. Free viewing is open to the public on Elephant Seal Boardwalk. Although the seals are there all year round, the best months for viewing are January, April and October.

After you’ve had your fill of the adorably ugly animals and more breathtaking coastal views, head to Hearst Castle. William Randolph Hearst’s entrancing retreat in the hills boasts 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens and promenades and an incomparable collection of art and objects.

Santa Barbara

This upscale, Spanish-style beach town, about two-and-half hours south, feels straight out of a Nancy Meyers movie. The Spanish Franciscans in the 18th century established the town’s mission, which has acres of gardens and a surprisingly beautiful cemetery. Stroll past the Santa Barbara courthouse before heading over to the Deep Sea Tasting room at Stearns Wharf to sip a glass of local wine while gazing at the ocean.

Malibu

An hour and 15 minutes south of Santa Barbara, this beachside community and celebrity playground boasts some of Southern California’s most beautiful beaches, including Zuma Beach and Point Dume. Swing by Neptune’s Net for some fresh seafood, or grab a bite at the Malibu Farm Pier Cafe, an organic cafe and wine bar on the end of a dock.

Chesapeake Country National Scenic Byway

The Chesapeake Country National Scenic Byway is one of the East Coast’s off-the-beaten-path treasures, perfect for travelers interested in American maritime history. Begin in Newark, Del., and cross the Maryland state line, heading south along a coastline that was one of the nation’s earliest commercial waterways.

Chesapeake City

About 30 minutes south of Newark is the coastal town of Chesapeake City. Stroll through the south Chesapeake City Historic district, and grab a bite at the Bayard House Restaurant. Built by Samuel Bayard in the 1780s, the building sits alongside the C&D Canal and offers some of the best crab cakes in this part of the world.

Mount Harmon

About 30 minutes south of Chesapeake City is Mount Harmon Plantation. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mount Harmon operated as a tobacco plantation during the 17th and 18th centuries. Today it comprises a beautifully preserved manor house and 200 acres of outdoor space, including trails you can walk or drive. Take a look at the old tobacco “Prize” house on the property, and wander the walled boxwood formal gardens.

Chestertown

Dotted with brick mansions and beautifully preserved townhouses, Chestertown is an historic waterfront town that was one of Maryland’s leading port cities in the 18th century. Take the Chester River Packet Cruise for daytime or evening sailing on a 65-foot classic yacht (food and a cash bar available).

best coastal drives
(Photo: Alamy)

The Schooner Sultana, a replica of a 1768 Chesapeake schooner, also offers public sails and pairs a lesson on the history of the Chesapeake waterways with gorgeous views.

Queenstown Harbor

Cross the Chester River and head down Blue Star Highway until you reach Queenstown Harbor. A dairy farm and crop field until the 1970s, it’s now one of the most beautiful golf courses in the region.

Two challenging courses promise a fun round, and Queenstown’s Harbor’s commitment to the natural landscape (it’s a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary) ensures that you’ll have firsthand experiences with some remarkable wildlife.

Terrapin Nature Area

Located in Stevensville in Kent Island, Terrapin Nature Area beach is a narrow, sandy stretch bordered on one side by a path of crushed oyster shells. Dogs are permitted, and the views of the Bay Bridge are worth posting to social media.

Annapolis

Baltimore’s capital city has plenty to do and see, but before you take a tour of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Banneker-Douglas museum or the State House, try every local’s favorite activity: eating crabs. Head over to Cantler’s Riverside Inn for some of the Chesapeake’s finest steamed hard shell crabs, smothered in the region’s trademark Old Bay seasoning.

North Carolina Outer Banks Drive

Windswept dunes, lone lighthouses and sandy marshes make for a truly unique coastal drive along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Cruise along a narrow stretch of highway with the Atlantic on one side and the Roanoke Sound on the other.

Kitty Hawk

An hour and a half south of Virginia Beach, pass the North River Game Land and cross Currituck Sound to arrive at Kitty Hawk, the birthplace of modern aviation.

best coastal drives
(Photo: Getty Images)

Browse the shops and grab a bite at The Black Pelican, a seafood restaurant operated out of an old lifesaving station built in 1872. After lunch take a stroll on the beach or head to the nearby nature preserve.

Wright Brother’s Memorial

Just to the South on Highway 12, in Kill Devil Hills, is the Wright Brothers National Memorial. A full-size replica of the Wright Brothers flyer is on display, and the memorial comprises more than 400 acres that mark the spot where the brothers made their first flights. Humbling and awe inspiring, the museum covers the history of aviation, from first flight to space travel. Be sure to grab a box of legendary Duck Donuts before hitting the road.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

In Nag’s Head, hang glide off of the largest sand dune on the East Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. There are also self-guided hiking trails, a boardwalk and a small museum. This beautiful natural resource is a perfect place for a beachside picnic with a bottle of wine.

Pirate Adventure of the Outer Banks

If you’re traveling with kids, you won’t want to miss this attraction. Cross the bridge over the Roanoke Sound onto Roanoke Island where adventure awaits. Little ones dress up and board the Sea Gypsy and take off on a real treasure hunt in the nearby waters of Shallowbag Bay.

Crystal Dawn Headboat

This fishing charter boat in Manteo offers inlet or sound fishing and evening cruises. If you’re a fishing enthusiast looking to reel a few in on this trip, this is the way to do it. Bait, tackle, license and fish bags are all included.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Back on Route 12, about 30 miles south of Nag’s Head, is the Outer Banks’ most recognizable landmark—one of the most-photographed lighthouses in North America.

Buxton

Mellow in the off-season, this small town bustles in the summer. Enjoy some oysters at Pop’s Raw Bar or simply pack a picnic basket and head to the beach.