Small Towns, Big Experiences

Blink, and you might miss them—but stay, and you’ll be treated to the big charm of our ten small towns on Highway 1. Here, you’ll find fun, flavor, and fantastic views—plus plenty of fins, flippers and feathers, too! Sip bold wines in a quaint tasting room, or find an epic surf spot where the harbor seals are your only competition for waves. Marvel at a kaleidoscope of tens of thousands of Monarch butterflies, tucked just off the roadway. Or glimpse through a tiny window to witness the unparalleled grandeur of Big Sur’s “million-dollar view.” Exploring the seaside hamlets and rolling vineyards on California’s Central Coast, it’s easy to see why travelers come back again and again. Whether chasing a flavor, a sunset, an adrenaline rush or the call of a peregrine falcon, visitors never run out of discoveries to be made here. Like the Pacific horizon, their delights are endless — and because they’re all just 15 minutes apart or less, they’re also within reach. Whether you devote one day or an entire stay to exploring them, these ten little communities will supply you with larger-than-life experiences and memories to last a lifetime. Here, we uncover the views, thrills, tastes and wildlife that make our stretch of Highway 1 a big-time small wonder.

Explore Highway 1 

Table of Contents

Epic Views

Wide-open vistas are a hallmark of Highway 1—and with so much untouched coastline, we think ours are particularly stunning. The following are some of our favorite views, but for more scenic viewpoints (and Google pins to lead you right there), download our Small Towns, Big Experiences map.

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Ragged Point

Ragged Point is called “The Gateway to Big Sur” for good reason. Here begin the views that Big Sur is famous for: tall forested mountains that cascade into the vast Pacific Ocean. Ragged Point marks the start of miles of notoriously untouched and unspoiled terrain, and it has the view to prove it. In fact, it’s potentially one of the best views available on Highway 1—and certainly a terrific spot to stop and take a selfie. Visit “The Million Dollar View,” a circular sculpture that faces out onto the shoreline. This structure has a hole in its center that perfectly frames the splendor of Big Sur: its pristine natural state and ethereal beauty. Ragged Point Inn provides the backstop for this landmark worth pulling over for, especially on the elevated view from the cliffside pergola. For more things to do in Ragged Point, try the hike down to Black Swift Falls or a glass of wine by the fire pits during sunset at the Ragged Point Inn Restaurant.

Million Dollar View Ragged Point
Views of the coast from the Ragged Point Inn

Avila Promenade

View-seekers are spoiled for choice in Avila Beach, where nearly every restaurant along the promenade boasts an ocean-sunset view. Try Ocean Grill for exquisite seafood, steaks and wine, as well as panoramic vistas that extend across the Avila Bay. (If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of a migrating whale or dolphins.) The view from the French bistro Blue Moon Over Avila is equally enchanting, with a vantage that takes in the beach, the waves, and the Avila Pier. For a different viewpoint, drive out to the northernmost pier in Avila Beach, Harford Pier. This historic port offers captivating views of the Avila Bay toward the south, particularly from Mersea’s seafood restaurant, located directly on the pier. Order a glass of wine or a cocktail from the bar and sit on the patio to enjoy the sights and sounds of one of the most picturesque beach towns around. Looking for other things to do in Avila Beach? Try a hike up the Avila Ridge Trail for another elevated vista, or ride a bike along the Bob Jones Trail to soak up the serenity of a sycamore forest.

Blue Moon, Avila Beach
The Avila Beach Promenade is the ideal place to dine, shop, and stroll.

Cayucos Pier

Spend time on the Cayucos Pier and you won’t be surprised Captain James Cass chose to build his port here in 1872. At 950 feet long, the pier offers some of the most breathtaking sights on Highway 1, particularly that of Morro Rock. This natural landmark dominates the coastline to the south, and looks much as it did to people who lived here thousands of years ago. From sunrise to sunset, the views of Morro Rock from the Cayucos Pier are ever-changing, painted in shadows that move with the sun’s rays. Order something warm at Luna Coffee Bar and stroll the pier’s wooden planks, taking in the rhythmic sound of the waves beneath. The pier offers benches for sitting, as well as excellent whale watching, fishing, and opportunities to watch surfers hang ten. For other things to do in Cayucos, don’t miss free samples of sea-salted Brown Butter Cookie Company cookies, or walking the Estero Bluffs State Park trails.

Strolling along the Cayucos Pier

Moonstone Beach Boardwalk

A walk along the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk in charming Cambria affords visitors some of Highway 1’s most picturesque vistas. The one-mile ADA-accessible path travels parallel to pretty Moonstone Beach, known for its smooth “moonstones.” From its elevated position, the boardwalk offers views of rugged cliffs, wildflowers and cypress trees, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary offshore. You might spy a whale spouting offshore, sea lions playing in the surf, active tidepools containing sea anemone and hermit crabs, or busy sandpipers. Within the boardwalk area, you’ll find numerous designated seating spots that cater to various vistas. Or, if you’d like to pair your view with a romantic sunset dinner, a terrific selection of restaurants lie parallel to the boardwalk. For a more rustic but no less awe-inspiring view, venture farther south to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. This historic open space boasts a lesser-known boardwalk called the Bluff Trail that is cherished by locals and visitors alike.

Walking along Moonstone Beach
Oceanfront views along Cambria’s Moonstone Beach Boardwalk

Valencia Peak

One of the largest state parks in California, unspoiled Montana de Oro contains multitudes—including the towering mountain of Valencia Peak. At 1,347 feet, it’s the tallest point in the park, and a top-notch spot for extended coastal views. The trail to the top covers the spectrum from sandy to hard-packed, so good hiking shoes are a must. The distance is 4.4 miles, out and back, with an elevation of about 1,000 feet. Yes, that makes for a challenging hike, but it’s entirely possible for any level of fitness to tackle. Just plan to take plenty of water breaks, and enjoy the 360-degree views at the peak—which excels at spectacular sunsets. A clear day makes this sight absolutely magical. Witness the wide expanse of ocean from Los Osos to Morro Bay and Morro Rock, and out into the Santa Lucia Mountains. But remember that, while the views are the prize, the journey is its own reward, too. Keep an eye out for birds, wildflowers, and lizards along the way, and drink in the pristine wilderness that Montana de Oro is known for. Afterward, check out more things to do in nearby Los Osos-Baywood Park, like kayaking the Morro Bay National Estuary, or shopping for just-picked produce at the Baywood Farmers Market.

Wildflowers on a hill with a view to the ocean
The hike up Valencia Peak has something for everybody

Exciting Adventures

Highway 1 has adventures for every kind of traveler, whether it’s exploring tidepools or loop-de-looping in an aerobatic biplane ride. To find the right kind of excursion for you, we’ve detailed some of the best here. For more ideas of thrills to seek (plus all the Google pins to help you find them), check out our map.

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Horseback Ride on the Beach 

The picturesque coastline in Oceano makes a terrific setting for riding horseback on the sand. Check out the Pacific Dunes Riding Ranch, located just off Highway 1 in Oceano, which offers horseback riding right on the beach. Knowledgeable guides lead group and private trail rides, Friday through Tuesday, for ages 7 and up. (For kids under 7, the ranch offers fun and safe pony rides in the corral.) Providing calm, experienced horses, guides lead riders through forested areas to the dunes and then the beach. Riders can walk their horse along the shoreline in a safe and peaceful environment, to the sound of the waves. The ranch also provides equestrian camping facilities for those with their own horse, as well as horse boarding. Don’t miss this bucket list-worthy experience, set along Highway 1 and all the treasures it has to offer. No need to be an expert: all abilities are welcome here.

Horses and riders against a sunset on the beach in Cayucos
Riding on the beach at sunset is a magical experience

Biplane Rides

If the saddle isn’t your thing, perhaps flying in a biplane will be. Based out of Oceano Airport, Banner Airways offers sightseeing tours over the Oceano Dunes in a vintage yellow 1942 open cockpit plane. This is the aircraft the U.S. military used to train pilots during World War II — a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engine. You don’t have to train for battle in this biplane, though. Banner Airways offers the option to see the Pismo Pier from above, or the Pismo Pier and the vast Oceano Dunes. For adrenaline junkies, Banner Airways also offers what’s called a “Top Gun” flight. This option provides plenty of thrills as you loop-dee-loop, squiggle and flip above Oceano. If a hair-raising ride interests you, don’t miss your chance to do it with scenic views of the dunes and ocean in the background. Banner Airways will loan you a leather jacket, goggles, a helmet, and a life jacket.

Biplane Ride Oceano
Tour the coast in a classic biplane

Humvee Tour

Want an adrenaline rush? Embark on a Humvee tour of the Oceano Dunes, one of the only places in California where vehicles can drive on the beach. Strap into a military Hummer driven by a local expert who can provide an extreme experience for the whole family. Feel the thrill of off-road exploration, driving over and around one of the largest dune complexes in the world. This tour isn’t just about adventure, though—along the way, you’ll get wide-open views of the Pacific and its powerful waves. Not interested in a guided expedition? No problem. Visitors can go it alone by renting their own off-road vehicle at numerous rental companies along Pier Street and the surrounding area. Either way, an excursion into the Oceano Dunes is an electrifying experience you’ll never forget.

Explore the Oceano Dunes in a military Humvee

Looking for more adventure? We have lots of options for adrenaline junkies. Check out a list of Highway 1’s best surf spots to find your perfect wave. Or choose from some of California’s best cycling routes that roll past countryside farm stands as well as unending ocean vistas. Grab your rig for a day of fishing, whether on one of Highway 1’s many piers, on a deep-sea charter, on the beach or from the rocks. And for the ultimate in white-water and high-flying fun, head to the Vista Lago Adventure Park and Mustang Waterslides, located within Lopez Lake State Recreation Area.

WildLife Viewing

Watching for incredible wildlife on Highway 1 is often as simple as pulling over and staying present. But if you’re looking for places that are routinely excellent for wildlife viewing, we’ve listed some below. Of course around here, there’s always more to see! For additional places to see fins, flippers, feathers and more, download our map, which has Google pins to lead you to each spot.

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Whale Watching 

Gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales and even orcas: all of these whales and more can be seen migrating along the coastline of Highway 1. According to the Whale Trail organization, which tracks the top whale-watching destinations on the West Coast, our strip of Highway 1 is a hot spot. Of the 100 sites the Whale Trail has identified, San Luis Obispo County has the most of any other region in California. (That’s a whale of a privilege!) Come with your binoculars to any section of our coastline, and chances are good that you’ll spy a flipper, a tail, or a spout somewhere on the horizon. Whales migrate up and down the coast for feeding and breeding, primarily between December and early May. And they often delight visitors with their activity, from breeching in San Simeon to popping up by kayakers in Avila Bay. Whale watching can be as involved or casual as you want it to be, from chartering a vessel on the open sea to walking along one of our several piers and boardwalks.

Whale Photo by Danna Dykstra-Coy
Migrating whales can provide quite a show

Elephant Seal Rookery 

Blink and you might miss this incredible wildlife habitat on the west side of Highway 1 near San Simeon. The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery provides a rare glimpse into the lives of majestic Northern Elephant Seals, mere feet away from the viewing area. The rookery lies right off Highway 1, making it extremely accessible. Thanks to the volume of elephant seals that migrate here, it’s considered one of the best places in the world to view them. Their habitat is an 8-mile stretch of coastline—a beach that is often chock-full of elephant seals. The colony has grown to around 25,000, and the viewing area provides a front-row view of their lives. Early winter through late fall provides the best viewing window. Watch the elephant seals come ashore to birth their pups and mate during this time. Witness the bombastic bull seals as they battle for access to breeding females, and the tiny pups as they make their first sounds. It’s all front-and-center thanks to an elevated viewing deck and dedicated parking lot. Want to learn more? Drive over to San Simeon and stop in at the Friends of the Elephant Seals’ new visitor center, next to the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort.

San Simeon elephant seals
Witness the drama of nature at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Zebras of Hearst Castle 

Zebras along Highway 1? Yes! When William Randolph Hearst built his sprawling home above San Simeon in the early 1900s, he included space for the world’s largest private zoo. Guests would travel the steep road up his “enchanted hill” and discover a menagerie of caged animals as well as field animals. When the zoo was dismantled in 1937, some of the field animals were left to range freely on the ranch—zebras among them. Today, the zebras remain on the ranch and act as an enduring legacy of Hearst’s hilltop zoo. Look for a herd of the iconic black-and-white-striped animals roaming freely on the eastern side of Highway 1 in San Simeon. You may also see them from the bus that takes you up the hill as part of your guided Hearst Castle tour. When you move on, check out other things to do in San Simeon, like wine tasting at Hearst Ranch Winery, or visiting the historic Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.

A lone zebra grazes on the grounds of Hearst Castle.
The Hearst Castle zebras always grab your attention on Highway 1

Even More Wildlife 

With so many species in so many different habitats here, the Highway 1 experience includes lots of opportunities to see wildlife. We recommend reading our Wildlife Viewing Tips before heading out, to ensure that you, the animals, and their environment stay safe. Once you’re ready, the world is your oyster (or butterfly, or sea otter—take your pick!). The tidepools around Cambria, Cayucos and Los Osos-Baywood Park offer glimpses into tiny worlds where hermit crabs, anemones and sea stars reign. In Oceano each winter and early spring, expect to see thousands of migratory Monarch butterflies crowding the eucalyptus trees off Highway 1. Birders fill their field notebooks with sightings at Oso Flaco Lake in Nipomo and the Morro Bay National Estuary. And who doesn’t love spunky, fuzzy California Sea Otters? Visitors can find rafts of sea otters floating or hunting and feeding their young around the Harford Pier in Avila Beach.

A family explores sea life in a tidepool
Kids love to explore sea life in the tidepools along Highway 1

Big Wines

It’s easy to find spectacular wine on our slice of Highway 1—you just have to know where to look. With that in mind, we’ve shared some of our favorite regions and wineries below. For more specifics, download our Small Towns, Big Experiences map, which includes Google pins to lead you right to your next favorite spot.

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Edna Valley

Cool ocean breezes, rolling hills and sun-kissed vineyards make Edna Valley an irresistible region for wine tasting. The focus here is chardonnay and pinot noir, but you’ll find other varietals too, like tempranillo and albarino. Enjoy driving or cycling on Orcutt Road, Corbett Canyon Road, or Highway 227 where a number of wineries stand ready to share their offerings. Check out the wine tasting room at Baileyana, housed in what was once a one-room schoolhouse. Taste through a selection of four iconic wine brands—Baileyana, True Myth, Zocker and Trenza—then head to the patio for charcuterie or a round of bocce ball. On Highway 227, Claiborne & Churchill Winery invites visitors to taste crisp gewurztraminer and riesling, and to learn about the winery’s pioneering straw bale construction. And at Chamisal Winery, wine-seekers can taste through the brand’s excellent lineup of pinot noir, then move on to sister brand Malene’s lineup of rosé. 

Wine Tasting at Talley Vineyards
Enjoying the wines of Edna Valley

Avila Wine Trail 

It’s tough to leave the lapping waves in Avila Beach, but traveling the Avila Wine Trail is an enticing reason to go. Head to the Sinor-LaVallee tasting room on 1st Street, where winemaker Mike Sinor’s soulful wines come from vines planted just a mile from the ocean. These include pinot noir, albariño, syrah, sparkling wine and chardonnay from the winery’s estate property, Bassi Vineyard. Also in town, Peloton Cellars has a quaint tasting room just off the Avila Beach Promenade. Here, the focus is on cool-climate pinot noir, grenache and chardonnay made from vineyards southwest of San Luis Obispo. Sample wines inside, or opt for bottle service on Peloton Cellars’s comfortable patio. Or for a country wine tasting experience, make the drive east to Kelsey See Canyon Winery, where noble grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay mingle with hard apple cider and apple wine. This is a family-friendly spot in which to taste wine, set up a picnic, and watch the winery’s 40+ peacocks strut and show off.

Blue Moon Over Avila
Relax with a glass of wine in Avila Beach

Sparkling Wine Trail 

Sparkling wine is having a much-deserved moment along Highway 1, and we’re all bubbly about it. Follow the Sparkling Wine Trail, and see for yourself the wide range of styles and varietals winemakers are using. Visit Cutruzzola’s tasting room in Cambria for small-batch Blanc de Noir, made in part with pinot noir grown right around the corner. In the Edna Valley, Biddle Ranch Vineyard produces a vibrant non-vintage sparkling wine in the style of old world Blanc de Blancs, made only from chardonnay. And sparkling wine is the heart and soul of Laetitia Vineyards & Winery in Arroyo Grande, which was founded by a major Champagne house in the 1980s. Expect a wide variety of styles and varieties, all made by hand in the painstaking methode-champenoise tradition. These include vintage and non-vintage blends and variety-specific wines perfect for any occasion. Sample, swirl and sip, then enjoy a round of bocce ball at the on-site court, or a walk along the hilltop walking trail.

Baileyana Winery
Enjoy a glass of bubbles with your bocce

Pour it Up

While our stretch of Highway 1 excels at wine, it also offers many other ways to imbibe. This area has become a hotbed of pioneering energy for everyone from brewers and distillers to folks who make cider, seltzer, mixers and soda. Visit a number of breweries with varying areas of focus like IPAs, brown and red ales, sours and lagers. Many of these are also brewpubs where a pint pairs perfectly with house-made pub fare. For those who love craft-made spirits, no Highway 1 road trip will be complete without a visit to the many local distilleries that make whisky, rum, gin brandy, and port. And who can say no to nightlife? San Luis Obispo offers a wide range of watering holes, from rooftop craft cocktail bars to cozy dive bars with personality to spare.

927 Beer Company Cambria
Not into wine? Highway 1 has breweries, distilleries, cider houses and more

Best of Dining

You’ll find some of the biggest flavors in the world here, from barbecue and berry pie to towering deli sandwiches, taco plates, and fresh-griddled breakfasts. Ready to find your next meal? Read our list below, then download our Small Towns, Big Experiences map for more.

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For one of the best steaks of your life, head to Jocko’s Restaurant on the corner of Thompson Road and Tefft Street. Jocko’s wasn’t always an icon of West Coast BBQ. It was originally established in 1838 as a saloon across the street by Emery Knotts. He put his eight sons to work in the bar, and one of them, Ralph “Jocko” Knotts took the lead. Over the years, the concept changed to a bar and BBQ restaurant, but it’s still owned by the Knotts family today. Walk in and enjoy Santa Maria-style hospitality, including huge portions, a low-lit bar, and cattle brands seared into the walls. The menu includes a wide variety of items, including chicken, fish, and vegetarian options, but the steaks are what make Jocko’s famous. Choose from a variety of cuts, all of which are fired over red oak coals on the restaurant’s outdoor pit. Full meals come with a relish tray, salad, garlic bread, Jocko’s famous beans, potatoes, a scoop of ice cream, and coffee.

Enjoy one of the best steaks ever at Jocko’s

Linns Restaurant

For decades, the Linn family has churned out farm-fresh comfort food and decadent fruit pies from their Linn’s Restaurant in Cambria. For breakfast, lunch or dinner, visitors can indulge in satisfying dishes served in a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Come for anything from a slice of pie and a cup of coffee to a multi-course feast. Favorite orders include the Whole Wheat ‘n Honey Pancakes with Ollalieberry Topping, the Charbroiled Local Artichoke with Dipping Sauces, and the Hearst Ranch Burger with Smoked Gouda. Most if not all of the produce ingredients are grown on the Linn Farm east of Cambria, making each dish highly seasonal. Also note that Linn’s carries an exceptional selection of local wines by the glass or by the bottle to pair with your meal. Want more dining suggestions for Cambria? Look at our list of the Best Places to Eat in Cambria for ideas like tiny Hidden Kitchen, which sells blue-corn waffles and thick smoothies in its tucked away patio on Center Street. For a nearby alternative, check out our Best Places to Eat in Cayucos, too.

A slide of Linn's ollalieberry pie
Come to Linn’s in Cambria for the best pies and more.

Other Top Picks

Though the ten towns on our section of Highway 1 are small, the list of favorite local dishes and eateries is endless. Big eaters love the stick-to-your-ribs fare of the Sea Shanty in Cayucos, while farm-to-table lovers delight in the wood-fired cuisine of Ember in Arroyo Grande. Flavor-packing sandwiches (with a side of irreverence) entice travelers out to High Street Deli in Baywood, and fish and chips draw them to the rooftop at Schooner’s in Cayucos. The diversity of flavors, styles, and cuisines is dizzying without a guide: we recommend starting with our list of the Best Places to Eat on Highway 1. Also look into our selection of the best food and drink festivals that take place here throughout the year.

Eating Ember Restaurant
Diners enjoy a great meal at Ember in Arroyo Grande

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