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Exploring the highlights of laid-back, Coastal SLO CAL
Read time: 8 mins
The region known as Coastal SLO CAL offers the chance to slow down and enjoy the good life in an area that sits about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, boasting a fabulous Mediterranean-like climate, beautiful beaches, breweries and wineries, charming towns and a rich, fascinating history.
One of the best ways to experience this region is to do it as part of a coastal self-drive, flying into LAX and embarking on a scenic drive north along the coast for a stop in SLO CAL, followed by beautiful Carmel and an exploration of the Golden Gate City before flying out of SFO. Or, vice versa, with a flight to SFO, perhaps some time in the area’s famous wine country in the Napa and Sonoma valleys and a visit to Yosemite National Park before travelling south down to SLO CAL and open-jawing out of LAX.
San Luis Obispo
While it may be lauded as one of the “Happiest Places in America,” the city of San Luis Obispo has somehow managed to remain under the radar among California’s travel destinations, but that just means you can enjoy this unspoiled region without bumping elbows with countless other tourists. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Range, this laid-back college town is surrounded by thousands of acres of protected open space and offers a thriving arts community and an impeccably preserved 19th century downtown. There are galleries located throughout the city, and on the first Friday of every month, Art After Dark offers the chance to explore the work of skilled local artists while participating in a unique, one-of-a-kind art expo. There are also multiple museums to explore, the beautiful 18th century Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa to visit, and the internationally renowned Thursday farmer’s market where you can purchase local produce and a wide range of other delicious foods along with handcrafted items while enjoying live music and mingling with the locals.
Pismo Beach and Shell Beach
Just a few miles south of San Luis Obispo are two of the most popular beach towns in SLO CAL: Pismo Beach and Shell Beach. While neither are rattled with traffic and noise, each have their own distinct vibe and reasons to visit and are situated within the Pismo Beach city limits. Shell Beach is particularly stunning with its fascinating rock formations like the Dinosaur Caves. It’s also popular for its glorious sunsets and the opportunity to watch for whales, dolphins and a variety of birds. Pismo Beach, which is now officially known as Oceano Dunes, is a bit busier, known for its somewhat more exuberant fun, with surf board, beach bike and ATV rentals available for exploring the dunes. In fact, nearly half of its 3,600 acres are open to off-road riding, as the only beach area in the entire state where you can still drive a vehicle right out onto the sand. While the dunes area can be explored with just a day of riding, it offers lots of other fun activities too, like horseback riding, fishing and swimming.
A free bus trolley runs between the two beaches, as well as Avila Beach and Port San Luis, on weekends through the year, and Thursdays and Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
When you’re looking for small-town charms close to lots of outdoor adventures for the whole family, the historic Village of Arroyo Grande should be on the top of your list, surrounded by fertile farmland, vineyards, fields of flowers and glistening lakes, while the Pacific Ocean sits just two miles west. In the town itself, friendly locals greet everyone on the streets, strangers included, and there are lots of fun boutique stores, antique shops and wine tasting rooms to explore. As many of the wineries in the area are small, family-owned businesses, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to chat with some of the winemakers themselves. You can also take a trip back in time by visiting its iconic one-room schoolhouse. Built in 1901 it was fully restored to its original use, complete with slate boards, pictures, maps and school books. There are five other museums and a historic reference library with artefacts that date back to the earliest days of the local settlers.
Don’t blink or you’ll miss Atascadero, situated between Santa Margarita and Paso Robles. That would be a mistake considering it offers lots of attractions for its compact size. Downtown is home to some excellent art galleries, a brewing company, interesting boutiques, wine tasting rooms, spas, the beautiful Sunken Gardens Park, all sorts of restaurants, coffee houses and more. The Historic Atascadero City Hall is worth a visit too, not only to gaze up at its spectacular architecture but to take a docent-led tour hosted by the Atascadero Historical Society. The town is also home to the Charles Paddock Zoo which houses over 200 animals, including a rare Malayan tiger, red panda and an impressive walk-through aviary. Frisbee golf, traditional ball golf and walks through Atascadero Lake Park are all popular too.
Located along San Luis Obispo Bay about three miles southwest of San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach is just off Highway 1 and offers a breath of fresh, salty sea air with multiple beaches and all sorts of things to do in a unique, warm and sunny microclimate. Soak in the soothing pools and indulge in massage at Avila Hot Springs, sip tasty local wines or paddle out onto the bay in a kayak and explore the picturesque shoreline. The quaint downtown is lined with wine tasting rooms, waterfront eateries and an outstanding collection of unique boutiques.
This seaside village tucked between Caycos and San Simeon offers the ideal mix of relaxation and adventure. Enjoy quiet strolls and horseback rides on the beach - Moonstone Beach is especially picturesque with its driftwood-strew sands and tide pools to look through. In downtown Cambria, marvel at the historic architecture and browse the independent shops and galleries downtown in between dining on delicious gourmet cuisine and sipping luxurious local wines.
Cayucos is a tiny beach town that’s often overlooked though it’s a true hidden treasure set along Estero Bay. With the Pacific Ocean at its front and the rolling hillsides of open ranchland as its backdrop, it offers an especially serene experience with no traffic, city noise or pollution. Something that’s sure to please those who are looking to leave the chaos of the city behind. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to do. Cayucos is home to a historic pier and boardwalk lined with antique shops, eateries and interesting boutiques as well as being a jaw-dropping vantage point for taking in epic sunsets.
Creston, Shandon and Cholame
Creston, Shandon and Cholame are rural communities along Highway 41 that offer the chance to explore SLO CAL backcountry. Creston hosts the Creston Classic Rodeo in mid-September each year, featuring everything from bull riding, barrel racing and steer roping to line dancing, while Shandon is best-known for Chapel Hill, a magnificent private chapel constructed from the remnants of Hearst Castle, and is surrounded by scenic farmland. Cholame is most popular as the site of the infamous 1955 car crash that took the life of legendary Hollywood star James Dean. You can pay your respects at the memorial at the junction of Highway 41 and 46.
Situated just south of San Luis Obispo and north of Arroyo Grande, five miles inland from the Pacific Coast, Edna Valley is an American Viticultural area that boasts award-winning wines, a variety of tasting events throughout the year, like Harvest on the Coast, and nearly 20 tasting rooms for sampling the area’s wines too. The Old Edna Townsite, established in the mid-19th century, was once a busy farming and ranching centre, with its historic buildings now serving as a gourmet deli and wine tasting room.
Situated right along Highway 1, Grover Beach hosts a wide, flat beach with flat, firmly-packed sands that are part of Pismo State Beach, which means you can drive right out onto it, but it’s best to have a four-wheel-drive to avoid getting stuck. Visitors can also hike through the dunes, dig for clams, fish, ride horses across the sand and enjoy roasting marshmallows on a bonfire.
Harmony is a tiny town that sits between Hearst Castle and Paso Robles with a population of just 18. It offers the chance to take a trip back in time, with a glimpse into its history as the epicentre of the region’s booming dairy history, once home to the Harmony Valley Creamery that shut down back in 1955. Today it’s better known for its creative residents as a quirky artist haven where you can marvel at the handblown glass pieces created in the glassworks shop and watch a potter behind the wheel.
Los Osos and Baywood Park
Los Osos and Baywood Park are tucked around the southern shores of Morro Bay, surrounded by picturesque parks, a magnificent bay and one of the best-preserved estuaries in central and southern California. In fact, Morro Bay National Estuary is home to over 250 birds and a historic oyster farm. In Montana de Oro State Park, you can hike or bike more than 50 miles of scenic trails, that are especially impressive when the colourful wildflowers bloom in the spring. a landscape filled with wildflowers in the spring.
Morro Bay is home to one of the most beautiful stretches of sand along the central California Coast, renowned for its monolith, Morro Rock, a lava plug remnant of an ancient volcano that soars dramatically from the Pacific just offshore, often referred to as America’s Gibraltar. The Embarcadero is the main tourist area, lining the east side of Morro Bay featuring a variety of shops and eateries, and an outstanding walking experience for viewing all sorts of marine life from sea lions to sea otters. One of the most popular things to do here is to rent a kayak and paddle around the south part of Morro Bay, or head out to the vast sand spit to enjoy a picnic.
Nipomo is surrounded by vineyards, orchards of citrus and avocado, strawberry fields and greenhouses, located at the southernmost gateway of SLO CAL. There are three golf courses for enthusiasts to tee off from, and just southwest is Oso Flaco Lake with its mile-long boardwalk popular for scenic strolls. At the Nipomo Eucalyptus Groves at Trilogy Monarch Dunes from late October through February, you can see thousands of black and gold monarch butterflies gathered in the limbs.
The small community of Oceano is big on thrills, renowned for its sand dunes and the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, popular with ATV and dune buggy riders as visitors can also drive right on the beach here as part of the Pismo Beach area. It’s also popular for fishing, hiking and camping, and even with Hollywood history buffs. The largest movie set ever constructed, used for the silent movie “The City of the Pharoah,” is buried right here underneath the sand.
“The Pass of the Oaks,” is filled with rolling hills dotted with oak trees and surrounded by vineyards, with over 40 wine grape varieties in the region. It’s become one of the state’s top wine tasting regions, with some 200 tasting rooms. It offers an especially relaxed, small-town vibe with cowboy charms combined with contemporary wine country fare, paired with some of the best Rhône-style vintages. There are wine caves to visit at Eberle Winery and live music hosted at the Vinas Robles Winery and Amphitheatre. There’s also an ever-increasing number of distilleries and craft breweries, and more than a few restaurants serving farm fresh meals, along with a host of museums, art galleries and festivals to enjoy throughout the year.
Pozo is a tiny community located 17 miles southeast of Santa Margarita along the former Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route. It’s all about natural beauty and unspoiled wilderness, with wildlife like turkeys, deer and even bears, along with endless grasslands and spring wildflowers. Pozo is arguably best known for the historic Pozo Saloon, which opened back in 1958 and is still thriving as one of the most authentic examples of the Wild West, and as one of the central coast’s favourite concert venues.
Just north of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Ragged Point is the gateway to the Big Sur coast, with its landmark stop along Highway 1 known as the “Million Dollar View.” From here you can gaze out at the Pacific as far as the eye can see, the waves that crash on the wild beaches below, and the occasional whales that pass by during migration.
This small town that surrounds historic Mission San Miguel, a National Historical Landmark that’s been an important part of the region’s history for over 200 years, offers an authentic look at the Old West with a mix of cattle ranches, almond orchards and vineyards, situated just north of Paso Robles.
San Simeon is best known as the home of one of America’s few “castles,” set along a wild and rugged, breathtaking stretch of coastline. Open for public tours, Hearst Castle overlooks the crashing waves of the Pacific, designed and built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. It features a 115-room main house, “La Casa Grande,” which is the setting for his massive collection of European antiques and art pieces. The Moorish castle contains a total of 150 rooms, 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and meandering pathways. Three different tours are on offer, including the “Upstairs Suites Tour, the “Cottages and Kitchen Tour” and the “Grand Rooms Tour.” If you plan to visit, be sure to book reservations in advance to avoid disappointment.
Santa Margarita melds outdoor adventure with fabulous food and drink in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains as one of SLO CAL’s most rural communities. Paddle around Santa Margarita Lake or enjoy heart-pounding activities, like a high-flying zipline ride where you’ll soar thousands of feet above the vineyards.
Situated halfway between Paso Robles and Atascadero, Templeton is a historic town that once served as the end of the line for passengers travelling south on the Southern Pacific Railroad from Northern California. Today it offers lots of old-fashioned, small-town charms in an area surrounded by agricultural land. Parades travel down its main street, lined with antique stores, a diverse array of eateries and acclaimed wine tasting rooms.