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10 Important Places to Explore When Traveling Up the California Coast

The California coast is home to many unique sights and attractions, which helps explain why the area is one of the most well-traveled coastal regions in the world. If you plan to take a trip up the California coast, there are several exciting pit stops you should place in your travel itinerary before you reach your northerly destination.

If you’re looking to experience these unforgettable excursions in style and comfort, check out the wide range of comfortable and affordable passenger vans available from State Van Rental. We have vans suitable for 7, 8, 12, and even 15 passengers, so you can all enjoy the adventure together without putting needless wear-and-tear on your respective vehicles.

If this is your first time driving the California coast, and you want some suggestions for sightseeing, check out the 10 remarkable sights below.

1. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is one of the most scenic cities in California. Situated along the longest section of south-facing coastline on the West Coast, the metropolis and surrounding area are a must-see for travelers who enjoy coastal wildlife and mild weather. Often described as “Mediterranean”, Santa Barbara’s warm climate has led to the city being affectionately called “American Riviera.”

Santa Barbara also has a large number of tourist attractions in addition to beautiful weather and scenery. The city is also quite famous for its Spanish architecture, parades that include Flower Girls and Las Señoritas, the Santa Barbara Zoo and Channel Islands National Park. Santa Barbara is also a hotspot for those who love top shelf wine and world-class seafood cuisine.

2. Glass Beach

Located in MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg, Glass Beach is one of the most unique pieces of coastline. The beach gets its name from the small, smooth pieces of glass that make its sand shimmer in the sun. The glass comes from waste products that were dumped underwater near the beach until 1967. Because the glass doesn’t pose a danger to tourists or the environment, cleanup efforts at the beach have left its most striking feature untouched.

Wikipedia gives a good explanation of how the glass was deposited on the beach. Over the years, “pounding waves broke down the glass and pottery and tumbled those pieces into the small, smooth, colored pieces that often become jewelry quality, [washing them up on the beach]”. As you walk on the shoreline, admiring its unique, glittering aesthetic, you may just decide to take a few pieces of glass with you as souvenirs or to create your own jewelry.

3. Big Sur

Big Sur is another must-see sight while you’re driving the California coast. Originally settled by Native Americans, the region has relatively undefined boundaries but is generally said to comprise 90 miles of coastline that runs south from Carmel River in Monterey County to San Carpoforo Creek in San Luis Obispo County. Featuring fertile mountains that rise sharply from the Pacific Coast, Big Sur is one of the most photographed coastal regions in the U.S.

Many tourists associate Big Sur with world-class surfboarding opportunities and congregating on the beach to enjoy the region’s temperate weather, but there are also plenty of other notable attractions, including the historic Point Sur Lighthouse, the scenic McWay Falls and the beautiful Jade Cove, to name just a few. If you plan to stop off at Big Sur while driving the California Coast, be sure to bring along your camera so you can capture all of the area’s beautiful sights.

4. Hearst Castle Hearst Castle

Also known as “the ranch”, Hearst Castle was constructed between 1919 and 1947 under the architectural design of Julia Morgan. Built for famous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the cavernous residence is now a National landmark and a California Historical Landmark. Seven years after Hearst’s death in 1951, the castle was opened to the public for tours of its rooms and grounds. Tourists have been arriving at the sight in droves ever since.

Even if you aren’t an architecture buff, Hearst Castle is still a neat place to visit thanks to its association with famous, historical figures who were frequent guests in its spacious rooms. The list of names reads like a who’s-who list of 20th century celebrities and includes Joan Crawford, Calvin Coolidge, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh, Bob Hope, Greta Garbo and Cary Grant. You can stand in the very same rooms where these people spent time.

5. Solvang

The scenic city of Solvang is located in the Santa Ynez Valley in sunny Santa Barbara County. With a population of just over 5,000 based on the 2010 census, the city has an unusual sense of quaintness that is enhanced by its traditional, Danish, half-timbered architecture that looks like it was pulled from a classic fairytale. Founded in 1911, Solvang was officially registered as a city 74 years later in 1985, and has become a notable winter retreat destination for Midwesterners.

Solvang is especially popular with tourists who enjoy combining bicycling with sightseeing. The city also draws visitors who enjoy touring unique museums. If you like to bicycle, attend one of the city’s two annual cycling events: Solvang Century (March) and Solvang Prelude (November). If touring museums is your pleasure, be sure to check out the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, the Vintage Motorcycle Museum and the art-themed Elverhøj Museum.

6. Madonna Inn

If you are looking for a unique hotel to stop and rest for the night while you’re driving the California Coast, consider making a reservation at Madonna Inn -- a hotel in San Luis Obispo that opened to the public in 1958. Since then, the fine establishment, which was founded by entrepreneur Alex Madonna, has become a favorite destination for tourists of all stripes, not least for its amazing aesthetics, high level of customer service, and ultra comfortable lodgings.

Behind the hotel’s “pseudo-Swiss-Alps exterior” are 110 luxurious rooms that feature such fine appointments as aromatic, pink roses, striking Western murals, and shiny, hammered copper. The hotel also has its own restaurant and bakery, so there’s no need to hassle with making dinner plans in the surrounding area during your stay. As a testament to the hotel’s place in pop culture, it was featured as a backdrop in a 2010 episode of ABC’s reality show The Bachelor.

7. Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a world-class amusement park situated on the coast of Monterey Bay, just east of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Founded over a century ago in 1907, the famous establishment is one of the oldest active amusement parks in the U.S., in addition to being the oldest active amusement park in California and one of the few professionally operated amusement parks located on North America’s West Coast, with views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

As you would expect from an amusement park, the boardwalk offers plenty of enticing attractions, including the famous water ride The Plunge, a video arcade, an indoor miniature golf course, a laser tag arena, and the world renowned roller coaster Giant Dipper. If you’re driving the California Coast with a group, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk would be a great place to stop and relax thanks to its diverse entertainments that offer something for practically everyone.

8. Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf

The sunny city of Monterey, CA stretches along the southern edge of Monterey Bay. Despite having a relatively small population for being such a well-known city (the 2010 census tabulated a population of just under 28,000), Monterey has steadily attracted tourists and permanent transplants, with several notable painters, writers, and other types of artists included in the mix, such as Clint Eastwood, John Steinbeck, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Frank Zappa.

Must-see tourist attractions in the city include Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf and Monterey Bay Aquarium, with the aquarium being especially notable. Featuring over 600 species of aquatic plants and animals, the aquarium has a novel system for pumping in fresh saltwater straight from the Pacific ocean. If you visit the aquarium, be sure to see its 28-foot-high, 333,000-US-gallon viewing tank that’s located in the Ocean’s Edge Wing section of the building.

9. Redwood National Park

Located along the North Coast of California, Redwood National Park is a United States National Park. The park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring tons of mature redwood trees that live for up to 2,000 years and seem to stretch toward the sky for miles. In fact, California’s coastal redwoods are classified as the tallest trees in the world and regularly grow to a height of roughly 300 feet. The majestic trees make the park one of California’s most visited natural sites.

Redwood National Park is worth visiting for its redwood trees alone, but the site is also home to a variety of other woodland life that nature lovers enjoy observing and photographing, including black bears, bald eagles, sea stars and brown pelicans. However, if you visit the park to animal watch, remember that the animals are wild, and try to keep as much space as possible between you and them. Visiting the park is truly a unique experience that you’ll remember for a lifetime.

10. Pier 39

Located on a pier that provides views of the Pacific Ocean, Pier 39 is a famous attraction on the Coast of San Francisco that offers an exceptionally wide variety of entertainment. Many tourists like to visit the site for the traditional ocean pier setting and nice seafood restaurants, but after you’re done sightseeing and enjoying dinner, you can ride on a two-story carousel, shop at a wide selection of retailers, visit a video arcade, watch a sea lion show and more.

Thanks to its endless sources of entertainment, Pier 39 is a great place to visit for people of all ages. If you’re driving the California Coast along with young family members, a church group of people young and old, or any group that has a wide age spectrum, the pier would be a great place to stop and have some fun before you embark on the rest of your journey. To remember how much fun you’re having, just gaze across the water at the famous, island prison, Alcatraz.

State Van Rental ― Getting You There Together


Whether you are driving the California coast solo, traveling with your significant other or taking the journey with family or friends, renting a passenger vehicle from State Van Rental will provide you with the comfortable, reliable vehicle that you want for your trip, with plenty of room for storing luggage and equipment. Choose from late model SUVs, spacious cargo vans, and ergonomically designed passenger vans that offer comfortable seating for up to 15 passengers.

In addition to providing you with a great passenger vehicle for long-distance travel, we can also help you out by renting a vehicle to you in Los Angeles and letting you drop it off to us in San Francisco or Oakland after your journey up the California coast is complete. To inquire about our rental vehicles and special offers, please call us today at (888) 315-6888, or use our contact form. We look forward to helping you travel up the California coast in comfort and style!