Few places in the West can boast as much charm, flavor and family fun as the town of Avila Beach. But it’s the town’s scenic beaches that really set it apart. With its long stretches of white sand, boardwalks, pet-friendly spots, wildlife and bustling harbor, Avila Beach has attracted visitors for centuries. Here, sun, surf and sand come together to make any stay memorable.
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Explore Avila Beach
A spacious and serene white sand beach, Avila Beach shines like a jewel in the crown that is California’s Central Coast. This stretch of seaside is popular with all ages for its calm waves, shallow wading options and arm’s-length proximity to town. Walk the beach, combing for shells, sand dollars and driftwood. Have little ones in tow? The SLO Creek offers a small outlet that is calm enough for kids to splash and play. Adventurous folks can also hop on a surfboard, Stand Up Paddleboard or kayak to cruise further out. Stand Up Paddleboarders are sure to enjoy traveling up the creek which runs next to the Avila Beach Golf Resort. Take in the coastal scenery as you float under the Bob Jones Trail bridge, a popular hiking and biking destination for all ages. Visitors should note that the south side of the beach can become a bit crowded when the resort hosts live music concerts. From hot springs to wine tasting, you’ll find there’s plenty of diverse activities to explore in stunning Avila Beach. Of course, there’s always the option of sunbathing and taking in the sights and sounds of a picture-perfect day at the beach.
Avila Beach is located west of the 101 Freeway, along Avila Beach Road. Free street parking is available near Avila Beach, but can be hard to come by. Try to find a spot or pay for parking at the lot off First Street. Beach amenities include restrooms, outdoor showers, a playground, picnic and barbecue facilities.
Avila Beach Promenade
Nestled along the glittering Pacific ocean, The Avila Beach Promenade is the heart of downtown Avila Beach. Hosting a range of family friendly activities and events, you’ll want to spend plenty of time leisurely strolling through the many local businesses located here. This scenic, sea-facing section of Front Street is also home to beautiful dining patios, public benches and local art. In the summer, experience vibrant community events like the Avila Beach Farmers Market, Art on the Beach and many more. At the center of promenade, you’ll find an inviting entrance to the Avila Beach Pier, one of Highway 1’s most popular seaside destinations.
Dog Beach (Olde Port Beach)
The smallest beach in Avila, the Dog Beach (Olde Port Beach) is popular for its welcoming attitude towards four-legged friends. Dogs of all breeds, ages and personalities love to run free on this leash-optional beach. This is a privilege afforded by the Port San Luis Harbor District, which allows well-behaved dogs to frolic in the surf and sun. Remember to keep Fido under your control and pick up after him at all times, throwing all trash in a proper receptacle. Of course, there’s more to this beach than wag-worthy fun. Visitors should note that the Point San Luis Lighthouse trolley picks up passengers directly across from Olde Port Beach each Wednesday and Saturday. Grab a ride and enjoy a docent-led walking tour of the historic 1890 Point San Luis Lighthouse. Get ready for stunning views of the Pacific you won’t catch anywhere else! This beach also features a ramp from Avila Beach Drive down to the sand for vehicles to drop off kayaks, SUP boards, etc.
To find the Dog Beach, travel Avila Beach Drive past downtown toward Port San Luis. Traveling west, the beach lies on the left; park on the street free of charge. Restroom facilities are available, as are bonfire rings. These can be used on a first-come, first-served basis, the second Sunday of March through the first Sunday of November.
Further west from the Dog Beach, Fisherman’s Beach offers a peaceful, secluded vibe despite its position just off Avila Beach Drive. Enjoy the calm waters and harbor views from this quiet cove. Dogs are not allowed on Fisherman’s Beach, neither on- or off-leash, making this a less crowded spot. Swim or bodyboard in the ocean, sunbathe, fish or launch kayaks and SUP boards from this beach. Bring a picnic lunch, unfurl a blanket and enjoy the coastal scenery—this is your moment in the sun.
Fisherman’s Beach is the closest beach to Port San Luis and the Harford Pier. Park for free, but plan ahead as the beach offers no restrooms.
Pirates Cove (Mallagh Landing)
Pirates Cove (Mallagh Landing) is as unique as it is picturesque. This clothing-optional beach lies off the beaten path and, although great for adventurous souls, may not be the best choice for children. The secluded hideaway is rumored to hold a $5 million treasure, buried by Sir Frances Drake in 1579 — hence the name. This special beach is also referred to as Mallagh’s Landing, named after David Mallagh, a sea captain who built a wharf and adobe home here in 1849. Later, during the Roaring ’20s, the cove served as a secret spot for Prohibition-era booze smuggling. Even those who lack an interest in smuggling, treasure or nude sunbathing will be able to appreciate this beach’s natural charm. Discover unusual rock formations like an arch, cliffs and the “beach cave,” which overlooks the crashing waves below. Plenty of wildlife can be seen here as well, from seabirds and seals to undersea creatures thriving along shallow tide pools. Just remember that clothing is optional here, so plan accordingly.
To reach Pirate’s Cove, travel west along Avila Beach drive, passing the intersection of San Luis Bay Drive. Just across the street from the golf course, find the entrance to Cave Landing Road and turn south onto it. Drive for half a mile, then park in the large dirt lot. The trail to Pirate’s Cove proceeds south from here; though it is short, be aware that the trail is rather steep.
Historic Avila Beach Piers
Avila Beach Pier
During Avila Beach’s heyday as a bustling import and export hub, the Avila Beach Pier welcomed passenger ships and fishing vessels. At the time, the 1,685-foot pier boasted many hoists and a large warehouse. Today, the pier remains at the center of Avila Beach culture, though not in the same commercial capacity as it once did. Walk or fish this classic pier, enjoy views of the bay and be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife and migrating whales.
The Avila Beach Pier can be found perpendicular to Front Street and the Avila Beach Promenade. Find free street parking or pay at the lot on 1st Street.
Also called the Port San Luis Pier, this historic landmark remains one of the last driveable piers in the United States. Built in 1868, the 1,320-foot structure served the exporting of San Luis Obispo County products across the world. Its builder, John Harford, also constructed “The People’s Wharf,” near where the Avila Beach Pier stands today. Harford connected both of these piers to the light gauge railroad that transported passengers and cargo to and from San Luis Obispo. Though the railroad and People’s Wharf are no longer standing, Harford Pier remains as a working harbor. Ready to enjoy all this Avila Beach destination all it has to offer? SLO Tours charter boat tour docks at Harford Pier, offering awe-inspiring whale watching tours and even high speed zodiac boat tours along the water. For a more relaxed excursion, check out the pier’s fish market or cast a fishing line off the dock—no license required. Keep an eye out for seabirds, sea lions and whales, as wildlife is commonly seen from this elevated vantage point. Enjoy fresh seafood or a chilled glass of wine at Merseas on the pier, a popular hangout for oceanfront dining. Perched above the surf and overlooking the calm bay, this is the only place along Highway 1 you’ll experience such spectacular sights and flavors. Additionally, Harford Pier is one of the last Highway 1 piers that allows cars to roll over, so take advantage of the opportunity to arrive in style. Looking for a workout on the water? Avila Beach Paddlesports is located at the foot of the Harford Pier, ready to outfit visitors for their next Stand Up Paddleboard or kayak adventure. When strolling the pier, visitors should note the historical markers on display, too. Multiple information panels dot the length of the pier pertaining to Avila Beach area geology, fishing, boating and commerce.
The Harford Pier lies at the termination of Avila Beach Road, west of Highway 101. Facilities include restrooms, free parking on the pier, tackle shops, and fish cleaning stations.
Cal Poly Pier
This educational pier was built in 1914, and owned by the Pacific Coast Railway Company for commercial shipping. Later, Union Oil Co (Unocal) would lease the pier to ship crude oil exclusively. (In fact, this pier and the Harford Pier constituted the largest crude oil shipping port in the world at the time.) With the rise of standard Gauge railroads, the need for narrow gauge railroad transport declined. Still, Port San Luis and the Pacific Railway Pier remained critically important for fuelling the U.S. Pacific Naval Fleet during World War II. Unocal eventually purchased the pier, which continued to export oil until a massive storm damaged it irreparably in 1983. Unocal replaced the wooden pier with a concrete and steel version, and gave it as a gift to nearby Cal Poly State University for marine research.
Activities on Avila Beach
Produce and community spirit collide at the Avila Beach farmer’s market. This family-friendly celebration of local goods takes kicks off on the Avila Beach Promenade every Friday afternoon from 4-8pm, April through September. Mere steps from the sand, visitors enjoy live entertainment from local performers, farm-fresh produce and artisanal products courtesy of local vendors. Restaurants, wine tasting rooms and boutique shopping can all be found within steps of the farmer’s market, making the Promenade a one-stop fun spot for all ages. Ride the Avila Beach Trolley for free from Pismo Beach or Shell Beach to avoid the hassle of parking.
The calm, sparkling waters of Avila Bay make for magical kayaking or Stand Up paddleboarding any time of year. Bring your own kayak or rent one from outfitters like Avila Beach Paddlesports or Central Coast Kayaks. These operators also offer tours of the area, from adventurous outings to family-friendly excursions. Enjoy the tour or head out on your own to view seabirds, seals, sea lions, otters and whales. You can even kayak to a secret cove to reach the Point San Luis Lighthouse, a fascinating destination.
Point San Luis Lighthouse
The Point San Luis Lighthouse is a beautifully restored example of Highway 1 history. During the heyday of ship travel in California, this iconic stretch of shoreline saw many a shipwreck. In the late 19th century, Congressman Romaldo Pacheco proposed the construction of a new lighthouse off the coast of Avila Beach. And in 1890, the Point San Luis Lighthouse opened to protect passing ships. The lighthouse continues to illuminate the way today with a French Fresnel lens whose light is visible 17 miles offshore. All tours of the property require a reservation and include a docent-led hike or trolley ride out to the lighthouse.
Bob Jones Bike Trail
The Bob Jones Trail offers up an accessible outdoor excursion for the whole family. Beneath a canopy of sycamore leaves, this beloved biking, walking and jogging trail begins at the Ontario Road parking lot to the town of Avila Beach. At just over three miles roundtrip, the trail passes by Woodstone Market, where casual breakfast and lunch fare delight passersby of all ages. The trail also passes beside the San Luis Obispo Creek, with interpretive signs describing wildlife activity there. Named after environmental pioneer Bob Jones, this special path fully connects San Luis Obispo to Avila Beach, effectively making it a “city-to-the-sea” trail. Until that time, the Bob Jones Trail makes for a pleasant and scenic morning or afternoon walk, ride or run.
Central Coast Aquarium
Spend a day at Avila Beach’s own aquarium for oodles of underwater fun. A boutique aquarium with charm to spare, the Central Coast Aquarium brings conservation, exploration and ocean education to Avila Beach locals and visitors alike. Enjoy in-house exhibits like the jellyfish and octopus tank, shark swell encounter and scheduled feedings. Home to 75 sea species in all, the aquarium works alongside patrons to advocate for a clean, diverse and healthy ocean.
Feeding the Sharks
If you’ve ever wanted to get an intimate look at sharks, you’re in luck. The Central Coast Aquarium’s public shark feeding encounter invites anyone to take a peek under the waves. Not only will you observe the various sharks interacting during an action-packed feeding experience, you’ll also find out just what it feels like to touch the impressive animals. Learn more about local shark species, including the Horn Shark, Swell Shark and Grey Smooth-Hound Shark, among others. No advance reservation is required to enjoy this exciting educational experience.
Whale Watching (Whale Trail)
Whale watching is popular along Highway 1 and Avila Beach for a reason: Catching sight of a breach along the horizon is a life-changing experience! Look for the Whale Trail signage on the Avila Beach Pier for helpful information and whale watching tips. Positioned along a handful of scenic whale watching stops across Highway 1, the Whale Trail aims to help visitors better catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures in the wild.
Pecho Coast Docent Hike to Point San Luis Lighthouse
One of the most scenic hikes on the Central Coast, the Pecho Coast Docent Hike to Port San Luis Lighthouse showcases panoramic views of Avila Beach, the bay and beach towns below. After a beautiful climb, relax at the Historic Point San Luis Lighthouse, followed by a short docent-led tour of the site. A unique trek along Highway 1, visitors will catch a bird’s eye view on the active port in all its splendor—a rare sight indeed.
Stewardship Travel for Good activities
Participate in Stewardship Travel for Good activities in Avila Beach to deeply connect with Highway 1’s varied habitats and cultural offerings. Whether you feed the sharks the Central Coast Aquarium or paddle back in time to enjoy the Port San Luis Lighthouse, there’s plenty of ways to better understand Avila Beach’s rich coastal offerings. The more you learn, the more you appreciate—which allows all of us to keep this land pristine for generations to come. For more close encounters in Avila Beach, check our list of Stewardship Travel for Good activities.