We’ve driven Central California’s jaw-dropping section of the Pacific Coast Highway a few times, but never gave San Luis Obispo County the credit it deserves. Halfway between LA and San Francisco, it’s the heart of the Central Coast but often overshadowed by its big-city neighbors and legendary ocean road. We’ve even hopped out to wildlife watch at their unbelievable elephant seal colony, gawk at the ultra-luxe Hearst Castle, and marvel at the volcanic Morro Rock jutting out of the sea, but didn’t realize so many gems we’re hiding on the other side of the road. This time was going to be different. In partnership with the San Luis Obispo County tourism board, we dedicated 10 days to discover its vibrant little cities, beach towns, wine country, farmers markets, hiking trails, art exhibits, and down-to-earth people. Proven to be one of the happiest and healthiest places on Earth, the county seat of San Luis Obispo is among the few cities in the world to be designated a National Geographic “Blue Zone.” Why do its people live longer with fewer health complications? Check out our article “SLO CAL: Best of California’s Central Coast” and see what the good life is made of!
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Entering SLO from their northerly and world-renowned coastal neighbor, Big Sur, we were welcomed into the county by over 20,000 elephant seals. No need for a boat tour or tickets, Piedras Blancas is the world’s most accessible elephant seal viewing area that’s free and open daily. We walked the boardwalk along the beach in awe of these blubbery mammals, cuddling, waddling, flinging sand, barking, and even waving their little flippers like a hello. After watching their lovable moves for upwards of an hour, we continued south to William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach for a quick hike out to San Simeon Point. Still owned by the publishing magnate family but open to the public, this trail goes along the beach, through eucalyptus groves, then out to the narrow peninsula where you get stunning views of the dramatic cove and rugged coastline.
Cruising SLO CAL’s section of the Pacific Coast Highway, there are so many cute beach towns like Cambria, Cayucos, and Morro Bay…though if cute correlates to size—Harmony takes the mini cupcake. So small and tucked off the east side of the highway, you could easily miss this 18-person hamlet. Founded by dairy farmers and taken over by artists, it’s anchored by Harmony Glassworks and Harmony Pottery with a great ice cream shop and town bandstand in between. We watched the glassblowers and chatted with the curator of thousands of pieces of California-made pottery, and quickly fell in the love with the place. We’re currently saving up our funds to have it all to ourselves because you know what? You can rent the entire town for the night!
Paso Robles Wine Country
Gearing down for steep Highway 46 or “The Grade,” as locals call it, the misty coastline turned to golden hills in a matter of minutes. Local wineries take advantage of this change in elevation and subsequent mesoclimates and spread their vineyards across the Paso Robles AVA’s 610,000 acres for the best of all terroir. The region is said to be the “Wild West” of winemaking, utilizing their 40+ grape varietals and nearby Cal Poly’s cutting-edge viticulture techniques for some renegade blends. Adding hops to Chardonnay? 10 varietals in one batch? Sure, why not! No pretension and lots of fun, that’s our kind of wine country.
Paso Wine Fest
As luck would have it, we were in town for the annual Paso Robles Wine Fest, which meant that everyone’s cellar doors were open for special celebrations and the city was hosting a Grand Tasting of 500 wines from 80 different wineries. Set in the gorgeous Downtown City Park with its old growth trees, inviting seating areas, and historic Carnegie Library, The Grand Tasting filled the green space with merriment. We sampled fabulous wine and nibbles, danced to two bands, and chatted with winemakers about their process and where the happenin’ events were taking place the next day. Tip: Check out PasoWine.com/events for wine-related festivities throughout the year.
Our Favorite SLO CAL Vineyards
We love wineries that don’t take themselves so seriously. Here are three that excel at winemaking and good times. Castoro Cellars: A family-estate spread across 12 vineyards, Castoro makes 100% organic and sustainable “dam fine wines.” We came for their “Yoga, Bubbles & Brunch,” which we thought was special to Wine Fest, but their in-house yogi regularly host classes in their art gallery and vines. Let us tell you, nothing makes you feel more blissed out than sun salutations and champagne, followed by a free tasting and live music. We’ll certainly be coming back, not just for the wine, but to play a round of disc golf at their Whale Rock Vineyard course. Tooth & Nail Winery: The tasting room is in a castle with a turquoise moat, need we say more? Playing up their medieval theme, they have huge fireplaces, wrought-iron chandeliers, feasting tables, and a Game of Thrones vibe. They have music every weekend, plus a Thursday summer concert series and live painting events. This is the place to be for Sunday Funday. Margarita Vineyard & Ancient Peaks: Twenty miles south of Paso Robles, Margarita Adventures invites you to Zip & Sip. Six lines are set up (some spanning 2,800 feet!) over their historic ranch and vineyard for a thrilling look at wine country. We ziplined 1.5 miles ending at the Gold-Rush-style mine for refreshments, then took an old-school humvee back to the Ancient Peaks tasting room. Their vineyard is an uplifted seabed riddled with ancient oysters and calcium-rich soil for an excellent array of wines.
Where to Stay in Paso Robles
We’ve got a fabulous picks for RVers and a hotel so incredible anyone would want to stay here. Cava Robles: Swimming pools, hot tubs, bocce courts, fitness centers, and a plush clubhouse, Cava Robles is a proper RV resort. Plus, it has more activities than virtually any hotel we’ve ever stayed at. On our weekend itinerary, we had a wine-glass painting class, corn hole tournament, water ballet, plus a complimentary 7-vineyard tasting event where we made a bunch of new RVer friends. Allegretto Vineyard Resort: For those without a rig and a love the finer things in life, Allegretto is pure bliss. Founded by the free-spirited son of a prominent California hotelier family, Douglas Ayres spent his life dreaming of creating his perfect hotel and took a two-year journey around the world to find his ultimate inspiration. Part Tuscan villa, part art gallery, part spiritual sanctuary, this vineyard resort was built with the utmost attention to detail and your serenity in mind. Stay the night in a suite overlooking the vines or just come for the day to walk their sonic labyrinth, take an art tour, or have an unforgettable wine tasting.
The Art Exhibit of the Year: Field of Light
If we could give you one reason to rush to SLO CAL, it would be the Field of Light at Sensorio. This world-class art installation will run until January 2020 and ranks among the greatest we’ve ever seen. British Artist Bruce Munro’s largest work to date, Field of Light fills 15 acres with 58,000 stemmed fiber-optic bulbs for an electric super bloom. Arrive early to see these solar-powered lights slowly grow brighter from sunset to nightfall and the oak trees take dramatic silhouettes on the valley ridge. Open evenings Wed-Sun; tickets start at $27.
San Miguel Mission
SLO County boasts a few of California’s historic missions and one of the best preserved. San Miguel is a National Historic Landmark and its adobe structures, frescoes, and furnishings have been virtually untouched for 200 years. We highly recommend the self-guided tour to learn about the Franciscans role in early California winemaking, the Salinian Indians contributions (from hard labor to fine art), and how the Spanish blazed the Camino Real…the original California Road Trip.
Atascadero: California’s Next Hot Spot
Mark our words, Atascadero is going to be the next big thing in California real estate. This town dates back to the early 1900s and was planned as a “utopian colony” by Edward Lewis, the same guy who developed LA’s posh Pacific Palisades. To get people to buy land in 1914, Lewis’ team would put them up in his tented city (glamping, how progressive!) while they shopped for their plots and supplies. It still has lovely early 20th-century homes and an ongoing tradition of the creative arts. Pottery is their original craft and studios like Heidi Petersen Ceramics demonstrate that in spades. Ärt is a lovely gallery owned by six artists who showcase local art and offer workshops. When it comes to the culinary and liquid arts, there is Central Coast Distillery. The co-owner Eric was the Executive Chef for Ojai Valley Inn & Spa then left it all to start a new-age food truck, where wild foraging (and wild times) was an ongoing theme. He started making single-batch spirits from the native ingredients and refined his craft into an award-winning label: Forager. We spent the day exploring the hills with Eric (a total character and wealth of knowledge), learning about the different microclimates and aromatic plants, then returned to the tasting room for his incredible cocktail creations and gourmet tapas. Stop in to try their double gold-medal rum or partake in one of their Wildcrafting workshops.
Templeton: Small Town, Big Heart
Saturday morning arrived and the Templeton farmer’s market was calling. It’s one of the biggest in the county and enormous considering the size of this 19th-century train stop town. In the 1880s, when it was the end of the line from San Francisco, this town boomed with saloons, blacksmiths, a “shash and blind” shop, and gorgeous Victorian houses (many of which still stand proud), but by 1889 the train blew past and Templeton started anew as an agricultural community. No shame in that, they take pride in their crops and over 50 vendors set up each week at the Community Park market. We tried lots of interesting goodies like cashew cheese, bee pollen granules, and freshly harvested seaweed (to be continued below). It was hard not to stuff ourselves silly, but we had lunch reservations at the inspiring Fig at Courtney’s House. Set under an ancient oak tree in a Victorian mansion with a huge wrap-around porch, this restaurant has everything going for it—architecture, healthy food, and a great cause. We had an excellent Moroccan Chickpea & Lentil Stew and Curried Tofu & Chickpea Scramble of which their proceeds went back into their non-profit which offers vocational and employment opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities. We were so moved by their “food for good” concept that we threw in an extra $50 donation. No matter where you go in SLO, you’ve gotta stop here for a meal and walk Templeton’s historic downtown.
When Mike stopped by the Marley Family Seaweeds booth at the Templeton farmers market, he couldn’t stop asking questions. (Seaweed and foraging are two of his favorite things.) Spencer Marley told us of seaweed’s incredible volume of vitamins (folate, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and omega 3), that SLO County has some the most diverse offerings on the California coast, and that he leads private foraging tours. Well, we signed up on the spot. A few days later we were wading into the ocean with our clippers and harvesting basket, finding exotic varietals like Mermaid Hair and Splendid Iridescent, and learning about all their various. Once we harvested a volume the size of our camper fridge, Spencer and his rad ten-year-old daughter Chloe fired up the camp stove for a ramen feast on the beach. Tucking into a beautiful coastal cove, slurping up our spoils, and celebrating new skills…this was one of the best California dining experiences.
Classic Pismo Beach
If you’re looking for a classic California beach town, with surf shops, salt water taffy stands, 50s diners, piers that extend to the horizon and mountains that frame the beach, it’s Pismo. To soak it all up, we stayed at Pismo Coast Village RV Resort, right on the water and walking distance to town. It’s got a real community vibe—especially if you catch it around the annual Vintage Trailer Rally—the nation’s largest with over 300 classic rigs! You need to have a camper from the 1970s or older to reserve a spot, but anyone can check it out by day and new rigs can stay on the final Sunday to catch the retro fanfare (complete with lawn flamingos, martinis, and bowling shirts). We cooked at the camper alongside our fun-loving neighbors and also made it to town for three fabulous meals. Be sure to have a bountiful breakfast at the Honeymoon Cafe, a Patsy Klein sandwich at the throwback Cool Cat Cafe, and fine dine with million-dollar sea views at Ventana Grill.
The Best Bike Ride: Pismo to Port San Luis
With dramatic coastline, beautiful parks, and a string of cute beach towns, renting a bike in Pismo is a must. And if you really want to cover ground without breaking a sweat, rent e-bikes from Central Coast Kayaks. These offer all sorts of equipment rentals, awesome guided tours, and brand new Rad Power Bikes. We took these bad boys out for ride from Dinosaur Caves Park (a Pismo must-see!), along Ocean Blvd, the wooded Bob Jones Bike Trail, to the adorable Avila Beach. Be sure to park your bikes to walk this seaside village’s dramatic beach cove, have a fruit-filled acai bowl at the Avila Market or craft cocktail at Blue Moon Over Avila. Hop back on and continue 2.5 miles more to the secluded Port San Luis. Don’t let the rickety old pier fool you, it used to be a train track and now doubles as a road. Pedal past hundreds of crab traps and lobster pots on this working dock and you’ll reach the fish market and its sister seafood restaurant, The Old Port Inn. Grab a glass-bottom table to watch the waves below you and keep your eye out for sea lions, maybe even the catch of the day. Ride back toward Avila Beach and go up Cave Landing Road (that’s the secret to ride all the way home along the water). You’ll pass the photogenic Pirates Cove then cruise along the sea cliffs, tall grasses, manicured gardens, and mansions until you reach Shell Beach Road and Central Coast Kayaks. It’s a heck of a ride!
Sycamore Crest Trail
While e-bikes can go up this steep trail (we couldn’t help ourselves), this is a great 1.5 mile round-trip hike. Parking near the trailhead is a little tricky but to smooth things over, go to Avila Valley Barn for farm-fresh picnic provisions or book some post-hike hot tub time at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort…both are fantastic options that grant you free, nearby parking. The hike begins above the resort and meanders up the hill under the shade of old oaks until it reaches a panoramic vista of the coastline and mountains, even Oceano Dunes in the distance. We continued to the Ontario Ridge Trail for a brief stretch and were rewarded with new views to Pismo Beach and two cliffside tree swings! Like giddy little kids, we hopped on, pumping our legs, and giggling as we swung towards the sea.
Get Local, Give Back
As we work with more and more tourism boards, we’ve started to think about ways we can give back to the regions we explore. So we’ve decided to put 5% of every campaign towards local non-profits! Though more than money, we want to volunteer in those areas and surface awesome do-good travel experiences. With a little bit of research we discovered ECO SLO, a non-profit that’s been advocating for environmental and social causes in the county for more than 50 years. Their environmental community calendar is absolutely fantastic, listing tons of naturalist-led hikes, environmental film screenings, beach cleanups, fruit-picking for food banks, eco-minded happy hours, and tons more. We signed up for the SLO City Rangers’s Wednesday Workday trail maintenance and had a blast. Not only did it feel good to help improve the area for hikers and bikers, we got in an awesome hike led by legit (and really nice) rangers, at no cost. Check out this events calendar, you’ll undoubtedly find something that’s as fun for you as it is good for environment.
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Thank you to SLO CAL for hosting us in your incredible county and showing us the best of California’s Central Coast. We appreciate the opportunity to share the kindness of your people, gorgeous landscapes, and motto: “Life’s too beautiful to rush.”