Central California—specifically, halfway between LA and San Francisco—offers travelers a leisurely, quality-over-quantity vacation experience. From small beach towns to wineries to fishing villages, San Luis Obispo county’s central coast has it all.
Imagine kayaking to a barge to try oysters pulled right out of the sea, horseback riding across a creek in the mountains, or visiting a goat farm that makes fresh cheese. San Luis Obispo (commonly referred to as “SLO CAL”) is more than just great farmer’s markets and restaurants—although those certainly exist. SLO CAL is a slow-flowing lifestyle.
Interest piqued? Read on to learn about all the unique experiences you can have in SLO CAL.
San Luis Obispo County is made up of 21 great towns, which are all a stone’s throw from the beach. In fact, SLO CAL touts more than 80 miles of coastline along the beautiful Highway 1. Whether you fancy surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, whale watching or fishing, you’ll find plenty to do in one of the county’s beach communities: Avila, Cayucos, Morro Bay, Oceano, Pismo, Cambria, and San Simeon.
Pack a picnic basket full of sandwiches and snacks from SLO Provisions and head to Pismo State Beach for marshmallow roasting and sunset watching—this is the only California State Park that allows cars to drive and camp on the beach.
Smell the wildflowers while hiking along the winding path at Moonstone Beach. Dig for clams in the mud at Oceano Beach. Kayak near seals and sea lions at Morro Bay. Grab a surfboard and catch a wave at Oceano, Pismo Beach, Shell Beach, Cayucos or even in the shadow of Morro Rock, the large volcanic plug that can be seen for miles.
Have you ever seen an elephant seal up close? Just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse, near William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, lies a herd of seals that can be seen—and heard—from the Elephant Seal Boardwalk. The seals can be seen year-round, but the peak season is October (the beginning of mating season) through March (when the population reaches 17,000). There is nothing like watching a 16-foot long male seal, weighing upwards of 5,000 pounds, fight another bull for dominance of the area.
Another cool animal experience can be had at Morro Bay. It’s here that you’ll find playful sea otters, harbor seals and noisy sea lions. Morro Bay State Park is definitely worth a visit—along the saltwater marsh, you can see more than 240 species of birds: American white pelicans, great and snowy egrets, double-crested cormorants, hawks, owls, hummingbirds, towhees, loons, gulls, warblers, and more.
Central coast also has many farms, many of which you can pop in for a look-see.
Avila Valley Barn is ideal for families. Little kids can feed lettuce to the goats and get a safe, up-close peek at a variety of farm animals like cows, pigs, and chickens. You can also purchase fresh fruit and vegetables that are, of course, grown locally. Stepladder Creamery in Cambria, a cozy family-owned farm that produces handmade cheeses, milks and honey, offers one of the most unique animal encounters—you can hold adorable and friendly baby LaMancha goats.
Sips and snacks
Due to 315 days of pure sunshine, and diverse microclimates, SLO CAL produces excellent wine, fruit and fresh produce. Diners have access to more than 350 restaurants with farm, ranch, or ocean menu influences. The best part: SLO CAL is low-key, meaning you can go on a food or wine tour without hordes of other visitors.
If you can, take a kayak out to visit the Morro Bay Oyster Company barge. You might find owner Neal Maloney pulling out cages full of fresh Pacific gold oysters. It may be the influence of the ocean water blended with the stream water from volcanic aquifers that make these sustainably grown oysters taste so good, but they’re something you have to taste for yourself.
Great restaurants that come with a side of that awesome SLO CAL vibe include: Nourish SLO, Vegetable Butcher, Novo Restaurant and Lounge, Luna Red, The Libertine, Tognazzini’s, The Grill at the Cass House, and La Cosecha Bar and Restaurant. Take yourself on a foodie tour and sample bites from the best of the best.
The central coast also offers more than 250 quality wineries—the three American viticulture areas are Edna Valley, Paso Robles, and Arroyo Grande. Make time for sips at Qupe and Verdad Wines, Claiborne and Churchill Winery, Sextant Wines, and Ancient Peaks Winery. Several distilleries and breweries will also surprise your taste buds—Tin City Cider Company, BarrelHouse Brewing Co., Re:Find Distillery, and Central Coast Brewing.
Finally, don’t leave SLO CAL without stopping in at the Brown Butter Cookie Company in Cayucos. Sisters Traci and Christa Hozie began making their delicious and crumbly cookies alongside sandwiches before realizing that the cookies deserved to be the main feature. Now they have a second location in downtown Paso Robles and continue to ship their famous cookies worldwide.
Colorful SLO CAL
One of the most inimitable places to stay is the Madonna Inn, hands down. The pseudo-Swiss-Alps building layout, with white-carved wood and pitched roofs, matched with the outside green spaces, are lovely and Instagram-worthy. While walking around, you’ll notice a horse pasture, with long white fences; a quiet outdoor pool; a Secret Garden, perfect for picnics or tossing a frisbee; and short trails that will give you an expansive panoramic view of the grounds.
The inside of the rooms, however, offer a jaw-dropping experience like no other. Each one of the 110 rooms are decorated differently and elaborately. Since 1958, guests have opened up their nightly doors to see rooms decked out in rocks, waterfall cascades, and custom furnishings. You might stay in a room with green carpets, couches, walls and even a green leprechaun in the corner. Or perhaps your room is covered in roses—on the walls, whittled into the wood headboard, polished into the sink, affixed to the light fixtures, and on and on. You’ve never seen anything like the Madonna Inn and it’s refreshing to stay at a place that took such a design risk.
See to sea
Of course, there are tons of things to see and do in SLO CAL, besides the above, that are worth mentioning. Film goers will love attending the SLO Film Fest. Green thumbs will adore the Botanical Garden, Nipomo Native Garden, and Sculpture Garden. Everyone, regardless of age or interests, will find something interesting about Hearst Castle—the history, guest list, beautiful grounds, and stunning architecture alone are incredible. Travelers can explore Pismo Preserve with an educated docent for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
Have you been to Central California? Check out the awesome array of RVs available in SLO CAL on Outdoorsy.
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