Free Things to Do on the Pacific Coast Highway

There are lots of free things to do on the Pacific Coast Highway and here's our list of ten of them including wildlife, the best free views, and free museums.

Blue and white sign saying FREE ENTRY

We're not including obvious free things like going to the beach, visiting the Point Reyes National Seashore, driving the coast of Big Sur, or stopping to look at Bixby Bridge, as you'll be doing those anyway. But here are ten things you can do that are all free of charge.

Visit Balboa Park in San Diego

The Cactus Garden in Balboa Park in San DiegoThe Cactus Garden Is One of Balboa Park's Many Free Attractions

There's lots of free stuff to enjoy in Balboa Park in San Diego. The Timken Museum is always free, and you can see some free outdoor displays at the Mingei Museum, and other places.

There are several gardens to stroll around, playgrounds for kids, and other free attractions. See this page on the San Diego website, and see our own page on Visiting Balboa Park.

Our Pick of San Diego Guides

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Get the Best Free View of Los Angeles

Go to Griffith Park and head for the Griffith Observatory. Here you get a sweeping panorama of Los Angeles that is the best free view in the city. It's also free to visit the Griffith Observatory itself, though donations are welcomed.

Our Pick of the LA Guides

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Walk on Santa Monica Pier

The Entrance Sign for Santa Monica PierSanta Monica Pier - It's Free!

There's no charge to go on Santa Monica Pier and walk around, to get good views out to sea from the end. See our full page on historic Santa Monica Pier.

Elephant Seal Beach

Elephant Seals on Piedras Blancas Beach along the Pacific Coast HighwayElephant Seals on Piedras Blancas Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway

A five-minute drive north of the entrance to Hearst Castle is Piedras Blancas Beach, better-known as Elephant Seal Beach. We always stop here when driving the Pacific Coast Highway to see the amazing sight of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of elephant seals on the beach. See our full page about Elephant Seal Beach.

Whale Watching

A Whale BreachingA Whale Breaching

Of course you can pay to take a whale-watching trip, which we've done several times, and they're always good value for money. However, it costs nothing to watch for whales from the coast. See our page on Whale-Watching in California for the best times and places, and our page on Whale-Watching from the San Diego Shoreline.

See Thousands of Butterflies

Monarch ButterfliesMonarch Butterflies

Visit the free Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove where thousands of monarch butterflies take their annual winter vacation from about November to February. You can look but you'd better not touch as disturbing the butterflies can turn your free visit into one with a fine of $1,000!

Stroll Cannery Row

It costs nothing to stroll along Monterey's Cannery Row, made famous by writer John Steinbeck, who was born about twenty miles (32 kms) away in Salinas. Fisherman's Wharf is also free and it's fun to watch the sea-lions that gather there.

Our Pick of the California Guides

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See Free Museums in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz may be best known for its boardwalk and amusement park, but there's a cultural side to the city too. What's more, many of its museums are free including the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, the San Lorenzo Valley Historical Museum, the Capitola History Museum, and the Aptos History Museum.

Take a Free Tour of San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge in San FranciscoThe Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Whether you want to see the Golden Gate Bridge or Chinatown, or any of the other 80 free tours they offer, check out the website of San Francisco City Guides for the full list of the free city tours they offer.

Our Pick of the Guides

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Best Free View of San Francisco

In Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is only free to everyone on the first Tuesday of each month, but access to its Hamon Observation Tower is free. Just take the elevator from the lobby and you'll be whisked to one of the best free views of San Francisco that you'll find.

Other California Coast pages

  • Santa Monica Pier is just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica near Los Angeles, with an amusement park, an aquarium and many other attractions.

    Santa Monica Pier

    Santa Monica Pier is just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica near Los Angeles, with an amusement park, an aquarium and many other attractions.

  • La Jolla in southern California is north of San Diego off the Pacific Coast Highway and has museums, restaurants, hotels, beaches, and the Birch Aquarium.

    La Jolla, in southern California

    La Jolla in southern California is north of San Diego off the Pacific Coast Highway and has museums, restaurants, hotels, beaches, and the Birch Aquarium.

  • Standing on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, Santa Barbara is an attractive resort with a historic downtown, sandy beaches, a mission, and good museums.

    Santa Barbara

    Standing on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, Santa Barbara is an attractive resort with a historic downtown, sandy beaches, a mission, and good museums.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel's guide to the most scenic spots on the Pacific Coast Highway in California with Big Sur, Bixby Bridge  and Pfeiffer Beach.

    Scenic Spots on the Pacific Coast Highway

    Pacific Coast Highway Travel's guide to the most scenic spots on the Pacific Coast Highway in California with Big Sur, Bixby Bridge and Pfeiffer Beach.

  • Lonely Planet's Coastal California guidebook is the ideal travel guide for driving or cycling the Pacific Coast Highway from the Oregon border to Mexico.

    Coastal California Guidebook

    Lonely Planet's Coastal California guidebook is the ideal travel guide for driving or cycling the Pacific Coast Highway from the Oregon border to Mexico.

  • PCH Travel picks the best time to visit Mendocino, with a monthly summary of the weather, plus hotel prices and special events to help plan a visit.

    Best Time to Visit Mendocino

    PCH Travel picks the best time to visit Mendocino, with a monthly summary of the weather, plus hotel prices and special events to help plan a visit.

  • San Clemente in California is a small city on the Pacific Coast Highway midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, noted for its beaches and surfing.

    San Clemente California

    San Clemente in California is a small city on the Pacific Coast Highway midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, noted for its beaches and surfing.

  • Mendocino in Mendocino County is a small but pretty California coastal town, popular with artists and with travelers. It has featured in many songs and movies.

    Mendocino

    Mendocino in Mendocino County is a small but pretty California coastal town, popular with artists and with travelers. It has featured in many songs and movies.

  • The Lighthouse Inn at Point Cabrillo is a romantic, historic guesthouse on the Mendocino California coast, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

    Lighthouse Inn at Point Cabrillo

    The Lighthouse Inn at Point Cabrillo is a romantic, historic guesthouse on the Mendocino California coast, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

  •  Historic and romantic Vagabond's House Inn Bed and Breakfast in Carmel is a great place to stay with free wine and cheese and generous breakfast.

    Vagabond's House Inn

    Historic and romantic Vagabond's House Inn Bed and Breakfast in Carmel is a great place to stay with free wine and cheese and generous breakfast.

  • There are plenty of Santa Cruz downtown wine tastings including Beauregard Vineyards,Storrs Winery and Pelican Ranch Winery,all with tasting rooms.

    Santa Cruz Downtown Wine Tastings

    There are plenty of Santa Cruz downtown wine tastings including Beauregard Vineyards,Storrs Winery and Pelican Ranch Winery,all with tasting rooms.

  • Bodega Bay is a small California coastal town on the borders of Marin County and Sonoma County, and the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock's the Birds.

    Bodega Bay

    Bodega Bay is a small California coastal town on the borders of Marin County and Sonoma County, and the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock's the Birds.

  •  Of all Eureka inns, The Carter House Inns are the most romantic and historic, with one of the best restaurants in Northern California.

    Eureka Inns

    Of all Eureka inns, The Carter House Inns are the most romantic and historic, with one of the best restaurants in Northern California.

  • Santa Cruz on the Pacific Coast Highway in California has its famous boardwalk, beaches, wine tastings, Surfing Museum, Mission, and Marine Discovery Center.

    Santa Cruz

    Santa Cruz on the Pacific Coast Highway in California has its famous boardwalk, beaches, wine tastings, Surfing Museum, Mission, and Marine Discovery Center.

  • Dana Point in California is the official start or end of the Pacific Coast Highway, and its attractions include whale watching, and Doheny State Beach.

    Dana Point

    Dana Point in California is the official start or end of the Pacific Coast Highway, and its attractions include whale watching, and Doheny State Beach.

  • Whale watching in California is one of the most popular things to do along the Pacific Coast Highway, in places like San Diego, San Francisco and many more.

    Whale Watching in California

    Whale watching in California is one of the most popular things to do along the Pacific Coast Highway, in places like San Diego, San Francisco and many more.

  • Santa Monica in California is famous for its pier, and beaches, and is one of the best west coast vacation spots, with hotels, restaurants, surfing, museums.

    Santa Monica, California

    Santa Monica in California is famous for its pier, and beaches, and is one of the best west coast vacation spots, with hotels, restaurants, surfing, museums.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel recommends some of the top wildlife spots along the California coast.

    Top Wildlife Spots on the California Coast

    Pacific Coast Highway Travel recommends some of the top wildlife spots along the California coast.

  • Carlsbad is a beach city north of San Diego in southern California famous for its flower fields, LEGOLAND resort and water park, surfing and SEA LIFE Aquarium.

    Carlsbad

    Carlsbad is a beach city north of San Diego in southern California famous for its flower fields, LEGOLAND resort and water park, surfing and SEA LIFE Aquarium.

  • The Pelican Inn and Suites in Cambria on California's Central Coast has oceanfront views, swimming pool, gardens, and is right on the beach near Hearst Castle.

    Pelican Inn and Suites in Cambria on the Central Coast of California

    The Pelican Inn and Suites in Cambria on California's Central Coast has oceanfront views, swimming pool, gardens, and is right on the beach near Hearst Castle.

  • Pismo Beach is a small beach town on California's Central Coast, a resort famous for surfing and clams.

    Pismo Beach

    Pismo Beach is a small beach town on California's Central Coast, a resort famous for surfing and clams.

  • San Luis Obispo in California is half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on the Pacific Coast Highway and with lots of things to do and see.

    San Luis Obispo

    San Luis Obispo in California is half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on the Pacific Coast Highway and with lots of things to do and see.

  • The Pacific Coast Highway goes right through Laguna Beach, a relaxed artsy beach resort whose attractions include shopping, galleries, dining, and beaches.

    Laguna Beach

    The Pacific Coast Highway goes right through Laguna Beach, a relaxed artsy beach resort whose attractions include shopping, galleries, dining, and beaches.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel's list of the best beaches in California with beaches in Santa Monica, Big Sur, Malibu, Carmel, Cambria, La Jolla and Coronado.

    Best Beaches in California

    Pacific Coast Highway Travel's list of the best beaches in California with beaches in Santa Monica, Big Sur, Malibu, Carmel, Cambria, La Jolla and Coronado.

  • San Simeon is a tiny town of a few hundred people close to Hearst Castle on the California coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

    San Simeon

    San Simeon is a tiny town of a few hundred people close to Hearst Castle on the California coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.



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