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

Fodor-San-Diego-Travel-Guide-2023.png

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

Fodors-Los-Angeles-travel-guide.png

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

Rough-Guide-California-2023.png

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

Lonely-Planet-San-Francisco-2023.png

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

  • The Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino on the California coast is an eco-resort with yoga classes and the award-winning Ravens Restaurant.

    Stanford Inn by the Sea Mendocino

    The Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino on the California coast is an eco-resort with yoga classes and the award-winning Ravens Restaurant.

  • 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.

  • Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway include some of the best independently-owned boutique hotels, spas, and lodges in California, Oregon and Washington.

    Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway

    Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway include some of the best independently-owned boutique hotels, spas, and lodges in California, Oregon and Washington.

  • For a Moss Beach hotel just off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Seal Cove Inn offers good accommodation north of Half Moon Bay, minutes from the ocean.

    Moss Beach Hotel

    For a Moss Beach hotel just off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Seal Cove Inn offers good accommodation north of Half Moon Bay, minutes from the ocean.

  • Crescent City is on the Pacific Coast Highway in northern California and noted for its crescent-shaped beach, Ocean World sea park, and nearby redwoods and state parks.

    Crescent City

    Crescent City is on the Pacific Coast Highway in northern California and noted for its crescent-shaped beach, Ocean World sea park, and nearby redwoods and state parks.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina Island, is off the shore of Southern California and reachable from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach, and Dana Point.

    Santa Catalina Island

    Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina Island, is off the shore of Southern California and reachable from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach, and Dana Point.

  • 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.

  • Pacific Grove is a small city on the California coast, next to Monterey and close to Carmel, with attractions including its historic Victorian houses.

    Pacific Grove

    Pacific Grove is a small city on the California coast, next to Monterey and close to Carmel, with attractions including its historic Victorian houses.

  • 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.

  •  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.

  • 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.

  • One of the best California coast guides is the California Coastal Access Guide, describing the coast’s beaches, National Parks, State Parks, with many maps.

    California Coast Guide

    One of the best California coast guides is the California Coastal Access Guide, describing the coast’s beaches, National Parks, State Parks, with many maps.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • This Visiting Hearst Castle page gives all the practicalities including location, types of tour, length of tours, how long to allow, and much more information.

    Visiting Hearst Castle

    This Visiting Hearst Castle page gives all the practicalities including location, types of tour, length of tours, how long to allow, and much more information.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Oceanside is a typical southern California beach town with a surf culture and with the Pacific Coast Highway running right through it.

    Oceanside

    Oceanside is a typical southern California beach town with a surf culture and with the Pacific Coast Highway running right through it.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Drive the Pacific Coast Highway and you have to cross Bixby Bridge in California, ten miles north of Big Sur and 30 minutes south of Monterey.

    Bixby Bridge

    Drive the Pacific Coast Highway and you have to cross Bixby Bridge in California, ten miles north of Big Sur and 30 minutes south of Monterey.



Recent Articles

  1. Pacific Coast Highway night closures end

    Feb 27, 24 10:16 AM

    A 6-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway in Ventura County that had been shut at night since Feb. 5 due to storm damage has been repaired, the California Highway Department of Transportation, or Calt…

    Read More

  2. Malibu Canyon Road Reopens Five Days After Mudslide

    Feb 27, 24 10:16 AM

    Crews worked for several days to clear 500 cubic yards of mud, rock and debris that blocked Malibu Canyon Road.

    Read More

  3. From celebrity chef to winemaker - Curtis Stone's next move

    Feb 27, 24 10:16 AM

    He’s the Melbourne-born chef turned international small screen success story, now Curtis Stone has given us a rare glimpse inside the ranch renovation that is setting him on a new career path.

    Read More