California is a huge state. Every time we visit we over-estimate how much we can accomplish. This month we visited the Central Coast of California which consists of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties. We narrowed it down to San Luis Obispo County, which is a whopping 3,616 square miles. In the spirit of realistic expectations, here are 6 ways to enjoy San Luis Obispo county.
Hike San Luis Obispo County
When planning any trip I search online for hiking in the region. San Luis Obispo County was full of possibilities. We stayed in Morro Bay and the Montana de Oro State Park seemed close on the map. First I found the 9 best SLO coastal hikes, featured among the 9 were three hikes in Montana de Oro SP. Then I reached out to my fellow blogger from California, Suzanne Stavert at adventuresofemptynesters.com and she called this state park a “must-do”. Finally, I received tips from a representative at Visit San Luis Obispo County and they also recommended Montana de Oro SP.
Sounds like enough endorsements for me.
Montana de Oro State Park
This park lived up to all the positive reviews. It covers 8000 acres with seven miles of coastline. There are numerous trails for hiking, biking, horse back riding, and even an ADA accessible path for several miles along the shoreline. There are primitive camp sites and picnic areas. Its sandy beaches, dramatic bluffs and deep tide pools make it a perfect destination for fishermen, surfers, beach combers, and of course photographers. Montaña de Oro is one of the largest state parks in California. Be sure to visit even if you are not hikers. All ages will love the spectacular vistas, ocean breezes and pounding surf.
Valencia Peak Trail
We chose the Valencia Peak Trail. It was a narrow trail of 4.2 miles round trip with a moderately rigorous climb of 1275 feet in elevation change. Thanks to the constant ocean breezes it was not terribly hot but water is always recommended. The views along the trail were wonderful and due to this year’s wet spring the wildflowers were a special treat.
Kayak in San Luis Obispo County
Morro Bay is a small protected harbor teeming with marine and bird species. The waters inside the bay are shallow and calm. It is set as a marine protected area designed to preserve ocean wildlife and marine ecosystems. These conditions make it a perfect spot for kayaks or SUPs.
Kayak in Morro Bay
There are outfitters available in both towns of Morro Bay on the north end, and Los Osos on the south end (AKA as the Back Bay). First thing in the morning it is quiet except for the wildlife and birds. It is often shrouded in the marine fog layer and an ethereal experience.
Kayak at Avila Beach
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to kayak at Avila Beach but it is an adorable little beach town that I will discuss in the next section. Avila Beach Paddlesports offers paddling tours of the Point San Luis Lighthouse. We tried to drive to the lighthouse and discovered that you had to have a tour to visit. A kayak tour would be a wonderful way to get to this lighthouse. Next visit I will remember this..
Beaches in San Luis Obispo
Before discussing any specific beaches I must say that the Central Coast in May is pretty windy and cool. It was perfect weather for hiking and kayaking but laying in a bikini or splashing in the ocean did not feel appealing to me. We don’t usually just lay on a beach anyway so if you want to walk in the surf or beachcomb these are some great beaches.
Pismo State Beach
Starting on the south end of San Luis Obispo County in the San Luis Obispo Bay is Pismo State Beach. The city declares itself the “classic California beach town.” This summer the iconic pier is under construction though, which makes it a little less “classic”.
Avila State Beach
I begged to go this far south because I was looking for a lighthouse to visit. We could not figure out how to get out there without booking a tour and the day was waning on us. So we walked around Avila Beach, a charming little beach town. There were hearty souls sunning and splashing along the shore. Avila Beach is also a dog-friendly beach and the dogs were loving it. The chilly breezes kept us up off the sand and we close to wine offerings on sunny and warm patios instead. The farmer’s market and a live band added to the charm. This would have been a great little spot to stay for a couple of days.
The beach on the immediate north side of Morro Rock is Morro Beach and stretches for miles as it connects to Atascadero Beach, Morro Strand State Beach, and Cayucos State Beach. Beautiful and protected sand dunes surround much of the beach. The adjacent RV campground had great access to this lovely beach. If you are a distance beach runner this is your paradise.
Discover historic & pre-historic SLO County
Hearst Castle and Estate
After so many trips to California we needed to see the iconic Hearst Castle. The Hearst family developed a certain infamous notoriety in the 20th century. Even though I thought I had an idea of what to expect, this vast estate of over the top opulence and proportions shocked me.
The drive towards the Castle is sprawling ranch land and crashing surf. I guess I expected it to be more true to the landscape, more of a massive cedar ranch house and less of a “castle”. Of course that is ridiculous since the place is called Hearst Castle for a reason.
The tour facility is a bustling Disney-like atmosphere with multiple tours to select from. You need reservations for the tours and if you haven’t planned ahead (like us) you may need to kick around the museum/gift shop for a few hours waiting for you tour time. It is definitely worth the price and effort, a word to the wise — just book ahead. The tours our split by which rooms or portions of the Castle you will see. We did the Upstairs Bedrooms because of timing and it was very interesting. The Grand Rooms Tour with the Upstairs Tour would probably be the best combination if you had all day. They bus you up to the Castle and you are free to wander the grounds after your tour. Hearst lived an extraordinarily lavish life and the tour and museum do a great job of detailing his life and history.
William Randolph Hearst
It is a spectacularly beautiful setting but honestly after our tour of the Upstairs we were overcome by the “embarrassment of riches” and headed down. William Randolph Hearst was an odd duck in my book. . I do think he could have been diagnosed as a hoarder in today’s world. A rich eccentric who lived beyond his means most of his life, I think this is common among the mega-wealthy. He collected rare pieces of art and antiquities and often turned them into the mundane, such as lamp shades and door knobs.
Piedra Blanca Elephant Seals Rookery
From the Hearst Castle we headed north to Piedras Blancas Rookery to experience the Elephant Seals. This was a jarring change of ambiance after the glamour and riches of Hearst. These critters were splayed across the strip of rocky beach as far as the eye could see. It was hard to tell if they were alive, it looked like a veritable massacre with animals laying on top of each other and molting skins littering the sand. They were absolutely pre-historic in sights and sounds. According to the kiosk literature these were the mothers and young males that have to return to this beach to shed their blubbery skins before heading back out to open seas. The young males have the extraordinary probopscises and impressive bellowing bark. There is just no way I can begin to convey the sensory assault of this beach. It was surreal.
Imbibe in San Luis Obispo County
For every hike we take there needs to be a debriefing over a drink. Personally, in California, it should wine. The express purpose of this trip was to explore the wine region of Paso Robles. Paso Robles is rapidly becoming a trendier and fresher wine destination than Napa or Sonoma. Unfortunately, our underestimate of time caught up with us before we were able to explore this wine region thoroughly.
We made one all-encompassing stop at the Grey Wolf Cellars/Barton Family Wines. Here we found great wines, food and a distillery in the back. Check out my post on our visit to Grey Wolf Cellars. Paso Robles offers a vast array of vineyard experiences. The website hosted by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance gives every type of guidance you might need to explore the region.
In order to keep both partners happy in our travel team, we devote equal time to craft beer as to wine. California is ripe with big name breweries. While we do like to try all sizes of breweries, when pushed we will always choose the small more intimate brewery. In this case with our limited time we squeezed in one small place on the Morro Bay embarcadero, The Libertine Brewpub.
The Libertine Brewing Company has a couple of locations within the Central Coast area. The laid-back vibe of The Libertine Brewpub with funky live music was perfect for an evening after hiking and droning. We enjoyed their 48 taps of edgy local beers and great food. They describe their beer this way:
“Serving unique and delicious barrel aged wild ales has been our priority since the beginning.
All of our wild ales spend the night in an open-top coolship. This process allows the local wild yeasts of our area to naturally start the fermentation process. Relying on our environment gives our beers a true Central Coast terroir.”
I am slowly learning to appreciate the taste of wild and/or sour styles of beer. But I do love the spirit of adventure and experimentation a brewery with this philosophy offers.
There are so many great places to imbibe in the San Luis Obispo county that we are already planning a return trip. I love this post from Lia at Practical Wanderlust, that gives a very thorough breakdown of spots to visit.
San Luis Obispo County
In the end, this still turned into a monster post. You can see why it is necessary to make realistic goals when visiting the huge and diverse state of California. This ruggedly beautiful country captured my heart. We were only able to spend three nights in San Luis Obispo County and our days were packed full. Plan on a full week and you will still need to prioritize. But Enjoy!