San Luis Obispo
The city of San Luis Obispo (SLO) reigns as “queen” of the county, blessed with historical sights, arts, culture, a vibrant downtown and a friendly small-town vibe. Lush hills and vast open spaces with hiking trails ring the town, making it seem like a giant urban park. California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) infuses the town with stimulating intellectual energy, arts and culture. Walking here is a joy—stroll along the scenic creek, browse through shops and galleries, and feast on regional cuisine at the many restaurants and cafés.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Visit the small museum to view artifacts and learn about Chumash Indian life, early Spanish settlers and California history. Docents lead tours of the church and grounds most days at 1:15 p.m. (Sundays at 2 p.m.), starting at the mission steps (call to confirm). Mission Plaza, adjacent to the mission, is SLO’s community cultural center.
751 Palm St., 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily, 805/543-6850, missionsanluisobispo.org.
SLO’s main street—along with the alleys and avenues that connect to it—was named for the Higuera family, who arrived here in 1774, just two years after the mission was founded. Higuera Street also hosts SLO’s world-famous Thursday Night Farmer’s Market—a social gathering of locals and visitors who come here to eat (many restaurants set up shop on the street), listen to music, connect with community groups and shop for fresh produce and culinary delights. | Farmer’s Market: Higuera Street, between Nipomo and Osos streets, 6–9 p.m. Thurs., weather permitting.
San Luis Creek travels through the city on its way to the ocean and borders Mission Plaza. Follow a footbridge to the scenic Creek Walk, with various access steps to downtown shops and restaurants, some with patio tables overlooking the bubbling stream. | Between Higuera and Monterey streets, from Nipomo Street to Osos Street.
Historic Railroad District
In 1894, a train chugged into San Luis Obispo, marking the first time passengers and goods could travel directly between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the Southern Pacific rails. Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight trains stop here multiple times a day and connect with bus systems throughout the city and county. The district is also a lively neighborhood with restaurants, shops and businesses, parks and open spaces. | San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum,1940 Santa Barbara Ave., 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Sat., 805/548-1894, slorrm.com.
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
SLOMA focuses on contemporary California art and presents ever-changing exhibits of paintings, sculpture, printmaking, fine crafts and photography. The center also hosts films, classes, lectures and special events. | 1010 Broad St., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (closed Tues.), 805/543-8562, sloma.org. Admission is free.
Parents and kids explore, investigate and create at the fabulous San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum. The three-story 8,400-sq.-ft. center houses indoor and outdoor learning environments that stimulate curiosity and discovery through play. | 1010 Nipomo St., hours vary by day and season (closed Mon.), 805/545-5874, slocm.org.
People have been plastering this quirky 70-foot-long alley with a 15-foot-high wall with fresh wads of chewing gum for decades. No one really knows for sure why and how the tradition started, but it’s now one of SLO’s signature attractions. | 735 Higuera St.
South County Inland
EDNA VALLEY & ARROYO GRANDE VALLEY
To the east of Hwy. 101, travel back to turn-of-the-century California in the charming village of Arroyo Grande. Arroyo Grande is also the gateway to the pastoral Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley wine growing AVAs.
In the heart of the Edna Valley wine region, historic Old Edna, a restored early 1900s town site, offers a tasting room, deli counter and several vacation rental cottages. | Hwy. 227 at Price Canyon Rd., 805/544-8062, oldedna.com.
Lopez Lake Recreational Area
Camp, fish, picnic, hike, sail and water ski along 22 miles of shoreline at this gem of a lake. In the summer, kids can whoosh down slides in a water park near the campgrounds. | 10 miles northeast of Arroyo Grande, 805/788-2381, slocountyparks.org/camp/lopez-lake.
Arroyo Grande Village
Get a dose of authentic Americana by strolling along the main street of this quaint village, lined with modern shops and eateries housed in historic buildings dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s. A lush village green fronts a meandering creek and holds one of the last swinging bridges from early California days. | East Branch St., east of Hwy. 101 to Huasna Rd., arroyograndevillage.org.
South County Coast
PISMO BEACH, OCEANO, GROVER BEACH, SHELL BEACH, AVILA BEACH
The southern region of the county encompasses miles of beaches, state parks, seaside towns, and quaint historic villages. The hub of this region, the town of Pismo Beach, preserves the spirit of early California with 23 miles of pristine sandy beaches and spectacular coastal scenes. Two fabulous state parks hug the coast for miles just south of town.
Pismo Beach Pier
This 1,200-ft. historic pier anchors the downtown waterfront area. Shops and restaurants abound in the neighborhood surrounding the pier. Note: the pier is closed for renovation until Fall 2019, but the adjacent beaches and boardwalk will remain accessible during most of the construction period. | West end of Pomeroy Ave., Pismo Beach.
Pismo Beach State Park
Experience fantastic seaside activities at this popular park: tide pooling, fishing, surfing, boogie boarding and bird watching. From November through March, about 50,000 Monarch butterflies spend the winter in a grove of eucalyptus trees amid the sand dunes—one of the largest such wintering sites in the nation. | 555 Pier Ave., Oceano, 805/489-1869, parks.ca.gov.
Oceano Dunes State Recreational Vehicle Area
This is the only drivable beach in California—pull up and camp close to the waves and drive ATVs on the vast stretches of sand dunes. You can also swim, surf, fish, hike and camp in the recreation area, which includes fascinating views of unusual geologic formations, flora and fauna. | Entrance is at west end of Pier Ave. off Hwy. 1, Oceano, 805/ 473-7220, parks.ca.gov.
South-facing Avila Beach is reputedly the sunniest and warmest beach in the county. Once a major shipping and international customs port, the tiny town is a vibrant family-friendly destination with many attractions, including restaurants, hotels, wine tasting venues and a wonderful park and children’s playground. Sport-fishing and whale-watching excursion boats depart from Port San Luis wharf, famous for its scenic views and seafood restaurants. | Avila Beach Dr. exit off Hwy. 101.
LOS OSOS, BAYWOOD PARK, MORRO BAY, CAYUCOS
The charming, adjacent communities of Los Osos and Baywood Park edge the quiet southern portion of Morro Bay Estuary. The town of Morro Bay is home to a state and national estuary and Morro Rock, a state historic monument.
Montaña de Oro State Park
The spectacular 8,000-acre park’s name, “Mountain of Gold,” pays tribute to the fields of the springtime wildflowers that blanket the park’s meadows, hills and coastal bluffs. It’s an ideal destination for hiking, biking, horseback riding, tide pooling and camping. Monarch butterflies spend several months here every winter, and sea otters often frolic at Spooner’s Cove. | On Pecho Rd., seven miles south of Los Osos, 805/772-7434, parks.ca.gov.
El Moro Elfin Forest
Walk along an accessible boardwalk that loops through a 90-acre nature area with more than 200 species of plants, from pygmy oak woodlands to coastal marsh. It supports more than 200 species of plants, plus more than 100 bird, 22 mammal and 13 reptile and amphibian species. | Entrance is north of Santa Ysabel Ave., between South Bay Blvd. and 10th St., Los Osos, 805/528-0392, elfin-forest.org.
Sometimes called the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” this dome-shaped sentinel is 576 feet high and 50 acres at its base. It’s actually a volcanic plug—one of nine similar peaks that pop out of the landscape between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay. More than 250 birds visit the estuary every year, making it one of the most popular bird-watching destinations in the state. | West end of Coleman Dr., Morro Bay, 805/772-7434, parks.ca.gov.
This classic California beach town has a historic pier, built in 1875, and other buildings that reflect its various eras. Stroll along the miles of beaches and bluff-top trails, and walk along the historic main street to find delectable treats like fresh-baked cookies and smoked fish. | Hwy. 1, 4 miles north of Morro Bay, cayucosbythesea.com
North County Coast
The charming arts-oriented town of Cambria sits amid hillsides studded with towering Monterey pines. It has two adjacent downtown sections: the historic East Village and the newer West Village. Each boasts an array of excellent choices for dining and shopping for unusual artworks, crafts and antiques.
On the western edge of town, romantic Moonstone Beach derived its name from the semi-precious agate and jasper stones hidden amid the granules of sand along the shore. It’s a fantastic place to stroll along the bluffs and gaze at the wild, dynamic Pacific coast. |Moonstone Beach Dr., west of Hwy. 1.
The tiny one-block town of Harmony (pop. 18) dates back to 1915 and includes a pottery studio, glassworks, a restaurant and the Harmony Cellars winery and tasting room. | 7 miles south of Cambria off Hwy. 1, harmonytown.com.
SAN SIMEON AND RAGGED POINT
The historic town of San Simeon is forever linked to one of the most magnificent private estates in the nation—Hearst Castle. North of San Simeon to the county line, the scenic Piedras Blancas coastline becomes ever wilder as it rises from sandy dunes to meet the rugged cliffs near Ragged Point, the southernmost entry point to the dramatic Big Sur coast.
Famed California architect Julia Morgan designed this magnificent estate, officially known as Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst in the early 1900s. It’s now a state monument where visitors can join various tours and gaze over the stunning coastline from the castle’s bluff-top perch, two miles via tram uphill from the visitor center. | 750 Hearst Castle Rd., tours daily from 8 a.m. to late afternoon plus seasonal evening tours, 800/444-4445 or 518/218-5078, www.hearstcastle.org.
Piedras Blancas Light Station
Built in 1875 to guide ships into San Simeon Bay, this light station is one of only three tall seacoast lighthouses built in California. | On Hwy. 1, about 7 miles north of Hearst Castle, guided tours at 9:45 a.m. Tues., Thurs. and Sat. except national holidays, 805/927-7361, piedrasblancas.org.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
About 4.5 miles north of Hearst Castle, pull over to the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, where a colony of giant elephant seals hauls out each year to molt, mate and give birth—an estimated 1,800 pups are born here each year during the winter months. Docent tours are available. | Off Hwy. 1, 4.5 miles north of Hearst Castle, elephantseal.org.
North County Inland
PASO ROBLES, ATASCADERO, TEMPLETON, SANTA MARGARITA
Starting in the 1860s, tourists flooded into Paso Robles to “take the cure,” soaking in the tubs or pools fed by the region’s abundant hot sulfur mineral springs. Today the town blends its Old West heritage and mineral spring spas with a booming wine business. Atascadero, a quiet residential town at the crossroads of Highways 41 and 101, serves as a gateway to nearly all North-County destinations and activities.
Historic Downtown Paso Robles
Downtown, historic buildings, shops, antique stores, restaurants and hotels surround the oak-studded Paso Robles City Park, aka The Square—the hub of Paso life and the site of festivals and concerts, including the annual Paso Robles Wine Festival weekend every May. | Downtown City Park bordered by 11th, 12th, Spring and Pine streets, travelpaso.com.
Atascadero Lake Park – Charles Paddock Zoo
Scenic Atascadero Lake Park has a walking/running trail that circles the lake, plus picnic areas, a sand volleyball court and a children’s playground. The park is also home to the five-acre Charles Paddock Zoo with hundreds of animal species from around the globe. | Park at 9305 Pismo Ave., Atascadero , Zoo at 9100 Morro Rd., open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily (10 a.m.–4 p.m.in winter), 805/461-5080, charlespaddockzoo.org.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara SEASONS magazine Summer 2018 issue.