Take a Historic Ride Along California’s Famous Route 1

Here are seven of the most interesting historic stops along California’s scenic highway

(© Jon Hicks/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

California’s State Route 1 is one of America’s most scenic highways. The road stretches for over 650 miles, providing travelers with unparalleled views of the ocean crashing against the rocky cliffs below. (It can also be terrifying for those afraid of heights—in some sections, little more than a guardrail separates cars from the cliff’s edge.)

Construction of the road began in 1919, with some labor provided by inmates from nearby San Quentin Prison who exchanged work for shorter sentences. Locals also worked on the road, including a young John Steinbeck, who would often set his writing along Highway 1 and the towns dotting the route.

The road was finished in 1937, becoming the first complete north-south highway in California. The concrete artery connected the beaches of Southern California to the redwoods of Northern California, cutting through both small towns and large metropolitan areas. Much like Route 66, the road was associated with a sense of freedom.

Today, California's State Route 1 is a history-lover's paradise, with enough museums, historic sites and other wonders to last the curious-minded for weeks. Here are seven of our favorite historic stops along the route (listed in geographical order from south to north):

International Surfing Museum: Huntington Beach, California

On June 20, 1914, Huntington Beach dedicated their new 1,350-foot pier with an appearance by the father of modern surfing, George Freeth. He thrilled onlookers with his ability to “walk on water,” and thus began a love affair between this sport (which had only arrived in California from Hawaii) and the town. 

Seventy-three years later, the world’s only International Surfing Museum opened in the town that has officially trademarked the nickname “Surf City, USA.” A bust of Olympic medalist and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku greets visitors as they enter the small museum. From there, display cases and exhibits illuminate surfing's history, techniques and centuries-old popularity. Along the nearby boardwalk there’s also the Surfing Walk of Fame, where embedded plaques honor surfing’s best—including Freeth and Kahanamoku.

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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