Season of Coastal Discovery
Where your life meets wildlife
Why do we call this time of year the season of Coastal Discovery? Simply put, this is the best season to discover the hidden secrets of Highway 1 and the Central Coast. Wildlife peaks in winter, offering opportunities to see creatures in their element. Witness thousands of monarch butterflies clustered on eucalyptus branches, elephant seals birthing pups, birds stopping along the Pacific Flyway, and whales spouting offshore. The abundance of creatures great and small during this time of year will foster anyone’s love of Highway 1 and the great outdoors. Travel a coastal hiking trail that affords opportunities to marvel at everything from the tiniest seabird to dolphins cruising the mighty Pacific Ocean. Or head out into the blue with a kayak, surfboard or stand-up paddleboard to watch otters dive and float with their young. Of course, a drive is always in order on Highway 1, and our section is named a Scenic Byway by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Along the way, look west over the untouched and protected beauty of the Pacific Ocean, including the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Look east, and you might even spy a herd of zebras! You’ll also find miles of uncrowded white sand beaches and multiple landmark sites like lighthouses, piers, and historic estates. However you decide to discover the hidden secrets of Highway 1, you’ll never look at it the same way again.
With so much to discover, you’ll need a good guide to find all the best wildlife viewing spots, trails, backroads, and activities just right for you. That’s where our Coastal Discovery Trail comes in. This comprehensive map includes natural preserves, beaches, views and open spaces with recommendations for families, solo travelers, and even dog owners. Get the scoop on where to see butterflies, whales, elephant seals, otters, and birds, plus hikes, walks, and other must-have moments along Highway 1. You’ll even discover experiences specifically designed with conservation in mind, called Stewardship Travel for Good activities. Use the Coastal Discovery Trail to build your own itinerary, or follow our North Coast or South Coast itineraries. These two-day plans provide opportunities for a closer connection to the wild things of Highway 1, and opportunities to make a difference here. What’s more, they suggest eateries, wineries, and other tasty spots between adventures to keep you energized and satisfied.
Few places boast the wealth of wildlife we have on Highway 1 — especially in winter, when marine mammals, butterflies, and birds pass through. Several species make their home here only in winter, whether to escape the cold, to mate or to birth young. Still others stop here on their way somewhere else, like many birds and whales. The good news is you can see all of them along our 100 miles of pristine and protected Pacific coastline. Be sure to check out our Wildlife Viewing Tips to ensure everyone enjoys the experience, including the wildlife.
Captivating and unreal, these marine mammals come to their rookery in San Simeon throughout the year to mate, pup, and molt. Watch their fascinating life cycle play out before your very eyes, just feet away from the viewing area.
The Whale Trail organization identifies the best places for whale watching on the West Coast. And guess what? San Luis Obispo County boasts 10 of those sites — the most of any county in California. Find a trail sign, learn what to look for, and enjoy the search for one of these most majestic creatures.
No one can resist the fuzzy, furry face of a California Sea Otter. Witness these plucky, industrious animals in their habitat, where they hunt, feed their young, float and play. Most lookout spots offer close-up views of our resident sea otters in their element.
With 100 miles of coastline, half of which are protected, our stretch of Highway 1 boasts a wealth of tidepools. Among the shallows, find sea stars, urchin, hermit crabs, anemones, and many, many other tiny critters.
Monarch butterflies are so breathtaking, it’s no wonder they’re named so royally. See them in the thousands as they cluster on trees and in groves across Highway 1 in winter.
Fun fact: 42 percent of all bird species in the United States have been seen in San Luis Obispo County. Do as the locals do and don your binoculars for a birdwatching walk along the coast.
Zebras?!? Yes, zebras. Thanks to the eccentricity of 20th century tycoon William Randolph Hearst, a herd of these exotic animals live in San Simeon. See them grazing as you drive past Hearst Ranch and Hearst Castle.
Coastal Discovery Trail
The Coastal Discovery Trail brings the best of our 100 miles of Pacific coastline right to you. Pick and choose the elements of the Central Coast that most speak to you from our list of locals-favorite destinations. Along the way, see abundant wildlife, sites of historical significance, and awe-inducing wide open spaces. Learn about hiking trails that lead past waterfalls, dunes, and ancient oaks. Pristine white sand beaches welcome families, solo travelers and even four-legged friends — all crowd-free at this time of year. And then there are unique experiences you can’t find anywhere else, like kayaking out to a lighthouse and foraging seaweed for lunch. Each of these experiences is sure to change you, but they’re also designed to preserve and protect our most valuable natural places. Every activity you engage with on the Coastal Discovery Trail has the potential to deepen your understanding and love of this breathtaking place. Create new connections and participate in experiences that conserve this place you’ve come to love.
Plan Your Trip
Use the Coastal Discovery Trail to choose your own adventure, or take a tip from us and follow a specially curated itinerary. Here, you’ll find two punch lists— one for the North Coast and one for the South Coast. These have been designed by locals to show the most essential spots, delicious dishes and memorable moments along our stretch of Highway 1. Along the North Coast, hike the perfect peaks of Montana de Oro State Park and the Estero Bluffs, looking for whales offshore. Forage for seaweed on a guided tour, visit the elephant seal rookery, and walk historic Cambria. And for flavor, dine on seafood, fruit pies, global cuisine and food truck fare while sipping local wine. Along the South Coast, learn how to watch for whales in Avila Beach and contribute to its conservation. Enjoy watching sea otters, sea lions, monarch butterflies and shore birds among towering dunes. Walk the historic Harford Pier, kayak to the Point San Luis Light Station, hike through the dunes and cross the Oso Flaco Estuary. And don’t forget breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Edna Valley wine tasting. Want to see it all? Read our Weekend Itinerary blog for the best of North and South. These itineraries pack the best of Highway 1 into what’s sure to be a weekend to remember.
North Coast Itinerary
South Coast Itinerary
Look for this logo
When you see this logo, you can partake in a Travel For Good activity along the Highway 1 Discovery Route. Feel good about your travel.
Stewardship Travel for Good
Want to make a difference while on vacation? Make your travel experience more meaningful with the Stewardship Travel for Good program activities along Highway 1. Get involved, create unique memories, and make your vacation more fun. From beach cleanups, trail restoration, museums, and parks tours, your contributions make a difference. Help keep Highway 1 beautiful by participating in sustainable activities while on vacation.
• Feel good about your travel.
• Meet new people.
• Learn from local experts.
• Understand how your donations help.
• Make a difference when you travel.
• Help keep our stretch of Highway 1 beautiful for everyone.
Stewardship Travel for Good Activities
With your help, we can preserve and conserve this special stretch of Highway 1.
A menu of more than 50 attractions along the SLO CAL stretch of Highway 1 offers opportunities for visitors to become better acquainted with our wondrous natural playground. That might mean a solo excursion, family outing, or group event. It might mean that you fill a need ― and fill your heart. Fifty miles of protected coastline, a national marine sanctuary, 13 state parks, a scenic byway, and multiple wildlife preserves provide plenty of ways to start. After all, there’s no better way to connect here than to do good here.