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.

Pea Soup Andersen's: Buellton, California

It can be hard to eat well on the road, which is why there's the traveler’s special at Pea Soup Andersen’s: All-you-can-eat split pea soup, a piece of Danish pumpernickel bread or an onion cheese roll and a milkshake (other beverage choices are available, too).

Around the beginning of the 20th century, Danish immigrants started pouring into California. By 1920, there were more Danish Americans in the state than in any other place in the country. They brought with them their culture, architecture (the nearby city of Solvang is a fantastic example) and food, with split pea soup a common everyday dish in Danish households.

In 1924, Danish immigrants Anton and Juliette Andersen opened their first restaurant in their adopted hometown of Buellton, which they named “Andersen’s Electric Café” in honor of their prized possession, an electric stove. The small eatery became a social hub, and Mrs. Andersen’s pea soup a popular dish. Soon, the pea soup was also a favorite of travelers and truck drivers on the newly diverted highway that cut through town.

Today, Pea Soup Andersen's in Buellton (there's another location in Gustine, California), only a few miles off Highway 1, is so beloved that it serves up to 600 gallons of split pea soup a day

Hearst Castle: San Simeon, California

Already one of the richest men in America thanks to his newspaper empire, William Randolph Hearst got even richer when his mother died in 1919, leaving him the sole heir to the family's mining fortuneAlong with other proprieties, he inherited 250,000 acres of hilly ranch land along the California coast. He lovingly referred to the land as “La Cuesta Encantada”—Spanish for “Enchanted Hill.”

Hearst used this ranch land and his stockpile of money to build the 165-room estate that came to be known as Hearst Castle. He didn’t take on this immense project alone, however: He employed Julia Morgan, the first woman ever to graduate from the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to design every aspect of this grand estate. It took 28 years, but Hearst and Morgan built a castle that includes 127 acres of gardens, walkways, swimming pools and a zoo. It was also technically never finished, due to Hearst's death in 1947

Today, visitors can tour the entire Hearst estate. While the interior and gardens are magnificent, perhaps most intriguing are the remains of what was once the world’s largest private zoo. During the summer months, the offspring of the zebras that used to live in the zoo can still be seen grazing along the highway. 

Henry Miller Memorial Library: Big Sur, California

Author Henry Miller lived in Big Sur for nearly 18 years and wrote nearly a dozen books while there, including 1944's Sunday After the War and 1945's The Air-Conditioned NightmareBig Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, which came out in 1957, was a collection of personal stories about living on the California coast. He dedicated the writing of it to his close friend and Big Sur resident, painter Emil White.

When Miller died in 1980, White turned his own Big Sur home into a memorial and library dedicated to his friend. It became a place for artists, writers and other creative types to congregate. Despite White’s own death in 1989, the library remains a vibrant museum dedicated to Miller’s legacy. 

Pebble Beach Golf Links: Pebble Beach, California

According to the Professional Golfers' Association of America, Pebble Beach is one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. It is also one of the most well-known and historic venues in all of American sports; if Augusta National is golf's version of Churchill Downs, then Pebble Beach, a public course available for anyone, not just members, to play, is Pimlico

Situated along rocky coastline and sandy dunes, the course was the brainchild of Samuel F.B. Morse (a distant cousin of the more famous Morse), who opened it in February 1919. According to Golf Digest, Morse was so cheap that he employed two amateur golfers to design the course. Ten years later, Pebble Beach hosted its first major tournament, the U.S. Amateur.

Since then, Pebble Beach has been home to several of the PGA’s most prestigious golf tournaments, including five U.S. Opens (the sixth is scheduled for 2019). It has been the site for more than its fair share of golf’s most historic moments, including what may be considered the greatest shot in golf history. Visitors are welcome to walk the course, as well as play it.

Point Pinos Lighthouse: Monterey Peninsula, California

In 1852, Congress organized the U.S. Lighthouse Board in response to complaints that lighthouses were poorly designed and located, especially on the West Coast. The board commissioned seven new lighthouses along the California coast, along with new standards for construction, design and the appointment of lighthouse keepers. Point Pinos Lighthouse was one of those first seven.  

The lighthouse was first lit on February 1, 1855. One-hundred-and-sixty years later, it is still shining its beam out to sea. It's the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the West Coast, and is still an active aid to navigation.

The lighthouse became fully automated in 1975, so no lighthouse keeper lives there anymore, but visitors are welcome to explore year-round

Historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Santa Cruz, California

It was 150 years ago when bathhouses, swimming tanks and indoor seawater pools began attracting visitors to Santa Cruz beach. By 1907, businessman and future Santa Cruz mayor Fred Swanton had turned this oceanside town into the “Coney Island of the West.” With rides, sideshows, entertainment, food and plently of beachfront property, it is the only seaside amusement park left on the West Coast

Over the last 100 years, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has witnessed its fair share of historic stunts, from the first Miss California pageant in 1924 to the 1940s feats of strongman “Bosco” Peterson, which included throwing his 12-year-old assistant into the ocean. (Authorities eventually shut down Peterson’s stunts for “being too hazardous to minors.”)

Today, the boardwalk is California’s oldest surviving amusement park and a historical landmark. The 1911 Looff Carousel and the Giant Dipper roller coaster on the boardwalk are also both on the National Register of Historic Places

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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