Left Coast, Best Coast, Central Coast. In the very middle of California is a gorgeous 350 mile stretch of coastline, countryside and mountains known as the Central Coast, an area of four regions and six, count’em, six counties linked together by a ragtag band of beach communities, old mission and university towns, and farmland, all tricked out with Mother Nature’s very best from blazing sunsets and wintergreen peaks to mammoth-sized seals, cuddly otters, blue whales and herds of Hearst zebras. Forget the panning, the Central Coast is true California Gold.
And in the center of it all, and almost equidistant from the California you and I know, is the old Spanish mission town San Luis Obispo. Just as chill as its acronym, SLO is laid back, a home grown college town with a population of 47, 000, where A-Frames, Victorians, and Craftsman bungalows surround the agro-tech Cal Poly State University. In the center of it all is San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the 18th century mission, the core to a network of coffee bars, vintage boutiques, pyschadelic donut shops, a Farmer’s Market, and local businesses, in postcard perfect classic California style. It’s a slice of Americana pie, so picturesque that it’s been a movie set back drop. In fact, when I was returned this past August for our annual family meet up, we bumped into Keanu and Winona in downtown SLO.
SLO, like most towns in California, is one of those place where it’s easy to chill, to hang out, to get out. Walk, run, hike, surf, zipline, sky dive, air balloon, ski, kayak. . . every outdoorsy adventure you want to have is right in front of you and under that gorgeous California sun. Each time I visit, it’s like I am living the Nike slogan all the time- I just do it. I’ve learned how to surf at Morro Bay and then spent a few hours watching the otters sunbather near by; rode some trails through the Oceano Dunes, the largest coastal dunes left in California- and backdrop to a Star Wars film, and zip-lined through the wineries.
Everyone will tell you that the Central Coast is California’s best kept secret. It’s beautiful, “real” California. The colors are intense, and so is the diversity of the terrain. You can hike the foggy foothills in the morning, and lose yourself among the dunes in the same afternoon. And there is no doubt that the sunsets are the best in the world, especially when watching the Pacific Ocean go technicolor. Even more amazing are when California’s incredible wildlife make guest appearances. In my last visit, I tried whale watching, spied otters and elephant seals sun bathing, and caught up with the zebras running through Hearst ranch. [Hearst had a ranch? Yes, and there is an incredible origin story to boot. Read more info on George Hearst and the Gold Rush]. Next up: bird watching. California keeps me outdoors more hours than in, and that’s all I need.
No matter what, my favorite Central Coast moments, and there are so many, have been just taking in the panoramas and turning off, or better yet, putting down my phone. Ironically I noticed something just a little different about SLO on this last trip- it was cash free and easy to be contactless. I know, I know, contactless is the norm nowadays, except in Rome where cash is king and hovering a credit card or smart phone over a reader is ridiculous. But in the Central Coast, contactless is just how things are done. Take my morning zip line adventure at Margarita Adventures for example: I signed the liability release, and then zip-lined over vineyards. I spent what felt like hours picking out the prettiest tie-die donuts from SLO Donut Co. My surf lesson with Trevor? That incredible clam chowder in a sour dough bowl at Tognazzini’s Dockside? Those tickets at Hearst Castle? Yep, I did it all.
More favorites on the Central Coast:
Just an hour drive north up the coast to San Simeon and Hearst Castle, William Randolf Hearst’s mountain top getaway -national landmark and true California history. After the tour, look out for Hearst’s zebras on the ranch, and then head to Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals up close and personal.
Closer to SLO is Morro Rock, a humongous volcanic plug in Morro Bay, where you enjoy the otters sunbathing, or get your sea legs in a whale watching adventure with SubSea tours. Wavelengths is where I signed up for surf lessons, while my sister kayaks the bay. We make pit stops for clams and chips and fried oreos at Giovanni’s Fish Market, and barbecued oysters and clam chowder sour dough bowl at Tognazzini’s Dockside.
For laid back days, Pismo Beach and Avila Beach are two of many great seaside communities where you can pretty much just hang out, catch sunsets and live the beach life. I’m pretty partial to the cuban sandwich at Paradise Beer Garden. For more hands on adventure, Pacific Dunes Ranch has trail riding through the Oceano Dunes Reserve where you can race dune buggies around the largest beaches I’ve ever seen . . .
How to get to San Luis Obispo
Whether from San Francisco or Los Angeles, coastal or inland, the lead up to SLO is beautiful. Drive north on the 101and you’re drifting through seaside communities, take the Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner** from Los Angeles and you’re crossing through the very best of California terrain- red rocks, mountains and coast line. Head south on the 101 (or north on the 5) and you’re driving through FarmVille. Every frame is an old Sunset magazine editorial spread, and every town is a movie backdrop with houses like Mitch Ever’s ranch in the Parent Trap, the House of Seven Gables and Grandpa’s house in The Lost Boys. No matter what, when planning out a drive on the 101, keep an eye on current and up-to-date weather-related traffic conditions. You don’t want a landslide stopping your flow.
** Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight both take about in about five to six hours between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. Though the trip is about twice as long as the drive, it’s very scenic and the National Park Service is on board sharing regional heritage for Trails & Rails.