Of the 101 miles of coastline in San Luis Obispo County, half are protected shoreline. In other words, surf, sand and sun are always within reach here.
The Central Coast boasts some of the best beaches in the U.S., and certainly on the West Coast. What sets them apart? Think miles of white sand, uncrowded, untouched ― and unbelievably scenic. Here, we’ll showcase the best of them from north to south. Visitors can find a wide spectrum of options, including family-friendly beaches, pet-friendly beaches, and beaches for sunbathing, beachcombing, wildlife viewing, surfing, and tidepooling. (For information on beaches with cliffside bluff hikes, visit the Hiking on Highway 1 page. And to get more details on beaches with tidepools, see our page all about the Tide Pools and Sea Life of Highway 1.) No matter your idea of the perfect vacation, the beaches between Big Sur and Nipomo have you covered.
Of course this section of Highway 1 has many, many additional spectacular beaches to those we detail here. Download our exclusive 25 Hidden Secrets of Highway 1 to discover more.
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Explore the Best Beaches on Highway 1
Best Beach for Kids
Avila Beach Pirate Park
Ahoy, mayties! This pirate-themed park lies adjacent to the beach (just a few steps away), and is a favorite among kids and parents both. The playground has options for all ages, including separate play structures for littles and bigs. Kids love the sandy surface, the (almost) life-sized pirate ship, and a tall mast complete with a pirate in the crow’s nest. The family-friendly Central Coast Aquarium faces onto the park, and is an excellent place to see jellyfish, different species of small sharks, and an octopus. Walk the Promenade nearby to choose from carts that sell snow cones and hot dogs, or dine at one of the restaurants with patios that look out on the beach and shoreline. In the mood for a treat? The Promenade also features shops for ice cream, shave ice, fudge and candy, as well as boutique stores for art, home decor, and beach essentials. The “Pirate Park,” as locals call it, also sits at the end of the popular Bob Jones Bike Trail—a favorite for families to travel together. Take bikes, scooters, roller skates or the stroller for a spin to the Pirate Park, and enjoy the abundance of fun activities available there, all within steps of each other.
Best Beach for Dogs
Cayucos Dog Beach
Pup owners are in luck on this stretch of Highway 1, where the Cayucos Dog Beach welcomes four-legged friends to zoom, play, swim and fetch to their hearts’ content. The wide-open beach is expansive enough to give all dogs plenty of space to hang out, sniff and roam safely. If they aren’t into swimming in the waves, pups might like wading in the seasonal creek that runs through the dunes to the ocean. But Fido isn’t the only one who will love this beach: his owners will, too! Enjoy the panoramic view of Morro Rock and the coastal dunes, dramatic rolling waves, and maybe even catch glimpses of seals, dolphins or whales offshore. A one-of-a-kind treasure of a beach, the Cayucos Dog Beach is one of the friendliest of the pet-friendly spots on Highway 1. Bring water and a dog bowl, bags for picking up after your pup, and sunscreen, then settle in for a day that’s sure to tucker her out.
Best Beach for Surfing
Commonly called “Studios” for its location off 24th Street and Studio Drive in Cayucos, this excellent surf beach officially goes by the name of Morro Strand North. Studios is a locals’ favorite beach break with lots of rights and lefts. Waves crash at up to 150 yards out, and swells can range from six to eight feet, and hold at ten feet. The best seasons to visit are fall and winter, otherwise the spot is too windy to enjoy. Conditions here are similar to those at Morro Rock, but the beach is less crowded. Surfers here are generally friendly, but they’re very experienced; they know how to navigate Studios’ rip tides, undertow, jagged rocks and the occasional shark. That being said, Studios is a great beach for reasons other than surf, too. Enjoy an uncrowded expanse of sand, a stunning view up the coast to Harmony Headlands State Park and down to Morro Rock and Point Buchon. It’s not just one of the best places to surf in Cayucos, but one of the best places to surf along all of Highway 1.
Best Beach for Fishing
Point Sierra Nevada Beach in San Simeon
Fans of surf fishing and rock fishing will be wowed by this hidden gem of a beach, nine miles north of San Simeon. Fish from shore or enjoy dropping a line among the craggy rocks, where rockfish like rock cod, cabezon and Boccaccio can be found. This is a lesser-known beach, not just for fishing, but in general. You can expect to be one of the only people on the beach, if not the only one, which means less competition with surfers, swimmers, sunbathers, etc. This is due in part to the beach’s tucked-away position from the road. To reach the shoreline, take the trails leading from two pull-outs off Highway 1. (And be warned: the southern entrance is protected with barbed wire. Be ready to squeeze in!) But if you want a secluded spot that’s peaceful and picturesque, fishing in San Simeon really doesn’t get much better than this.
Best Beach for Tidepooling
Corallina Cove in Los Osos
While the heart of Highway 1 offers plenty of tidepooling for the whole family, this pretty cove at Montana de Oro State Park is special. From the moment you turn toward the coastline from the Bluff Trail and walk down to the beach, you can sense its magic. The cove is picturesque and intimate, with stratified rock formations at all angles, inviting visitors to explore the wonders of Los Osos tide pools. In the nooks and crevices, adjust your eyes to find entire worlds in miniature. Residents include ochre sea stars, mussels, turban snails, sunburst anemones, black abalone, giant keyhole limpets, sea urchins and even the occasional tiny octopus. Tidepooling is best at low tide, but there’s always something to explore here, like interesting pebbles, driftwood, and seaweed. While you’re in Montana de Oro State Park, you can also visit Spooner’s Cove, just south of Corallina Cove, where you’ll find folks wading and sunbathing.
Best Beach for Seaweed Harvesting
China Cove in Cayucos
The vast uses for seaweed have been trending in recent years, but this beach in Cayucos has been a favorite of seaweed foragers and farmers for over a century. In the 1800s, Chinese immigrants took up farming all over Highway 1 and the Central Coast, including seaweed farming. Their families often paid rent to local ranchers for small sections of coastline. Many seaweed farmers lived here, in China Cove, where they built driftwood cabins to be close to manage the harvest. Between the late 1860s and 1960, these farmers harvested a type of sea lettuce called “ulva,” which was almost only available on the Central Coast—and still is. Visit China Cove today and walk the shoreline to find ulva, which is technically a macro algae. It’s incredibly thin and resembles green leaf lettuce, ruffled at its edges. Find the cove on Estero Bay’s northernmost end, below Harmony Headlands State Park, six miles north of Cayucos.
Best Beach for Seal Viewing
Piedras Blancas Rookery
For the best in free entertainment on Highway 1, you can’t do better than the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, just north of San Simeon. This beach is a natural habitat and mating ground for the Great Northern Elephant Seal. This species can be found as far south as Baja, Mexico, and as far north as Alaska, but the Central Coast is a favorite migratory spot. Here, adult elephant seals mate, pup, and molt within full view of a roped-off viewing area for visitors. You’ll be amazed how close you can get to a mother nursing her baby, or males fighting for dominance. The elevated boardwalk extends much of the length of the beach, and lies directly off Highway 1. Volunteer docents from Friends of the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal are available 365 days a year to answer questions about the majestic creatures who visit each year. The viewing area also includes interpretive signs to enhance the experience for all ages.
Best Beach for Whale Watching
William Randolph Hearst State Beach
Did you know that the heart of Highway 1 is a hot spot for whale watching? In fact, the Whale Trail organization deemed six of our beaches some of the best places to spy whales across the entire West Coast. While you’re spoiled for choice around here, though, Hearst State Beach stands out among the rest. The historic pier offers an excellent elevated view of the coastline, and the cove itself often hosts adult whales who feed and nurture their young here. Helpful interpretive signs from the Whale Trail stand at the foot of the pier, and give pointers on what to look for. And the Coastal Discovery Center beyond the pier parking lot even loans out binoculars for whale watching. (It’s also an excellent spot to learn about the natural and cultural history of this stretch of coastline.) Depending on the season, you might see minke whales, gray whales, humpbacks or even orcas. You can also sometimes see harbor seals, sea lions and California sea otters.
Best Beach for Birdwatching
Los Osos’ Sandspit Beach
Sandspit Beach is popular for surfing and fishing—but as for birdwatching, it’s largely empty, making it one of the locals’ best-kept secrets. In fact, it’s safe to say you’ll never find crowds here. One reason for Sandspit’s emptiness is its seclusion, making it an intimate way to experience the Morro Bay National Estuary—a haven for resident and migratory birds. The beach can be reached by a 1/4-mile hike via Pecho Valley Road to Sandspit Road in Montaña de Oro State Park. For a day-long adventure, you can even walk the entire length of Sandspit Beach—all the way to Morro Rock—and back. At the trailhead, you’ll find restrooms, a picnic table, and free parking. Alternatively, Sandspit Beach can be reached by water via the Morro Bay National Estuary. Put in a kayak, paddleboard, boat or canoe at the Morro Bay State Park Marina and paddle across to the dunes, which can reach a height of 85 feet. Enjoy the calm back side of the dunes, or hike over them to their Pacific Ocean break side. From here, you’ll quickly figure out the sandspit is the windbreak that keeps the estuary calm. So make a day of it: bring a picnic across the estuary and enjoy a secluded afternoon on the sandspit. Just remember the beach offers no services or facilities; plan to pack everything you need both in and out.
Best Beach for Horseback Riding
Montana de Oro
Horseback riding on Highway 1 is always a memorable experience. One of the great benefits of horseback riding in Montana de Oro State Park is unlimited access to every hiking trail and biking trail. Enjoy equestrian-friendly paths from end to end of the park. Each natural trail offers stunning views of different features, including iconic coastline and cliffs, mountains like Valencia Peak and more. A favorite spot for equestrians is the eucalyptus forest at the entrance to the park, whose leaves hang down from a cathedral canopy. Don’t have a horse, but want to try riding? Covell’s Clydesdale Ranch lies just up the coast in Cambria and offers a guided coastal ride that all ages can enjoy. You won’t want to miss this unique and timeless way to see the heart of Highway 1.
Best Romantic Beach
Lots of people describe watching a sunset in Ragged Point as “sitting on top of the world.” Indeed, the elevated cliffside view from this tiny town at the Gateway to Big Sur is remarkable, especially as the sun sets over the Pacific. This is an experience worth the drive if you’re looking for a romantic spot to spend an evening. It’s also an excellent destination during the day, where a short, steep cliffside trail leads down to a purple-sand beach and Black Swift Falls, a seasonal waterfall. (Just be sure to bring sturdy shoes for the hike down and back up—no sandals for this romantic beach!) For a glass of wine and a bite to eat, the Ragged Point Inn offers by-the-glass selections for anyone who wants to sit outside on the heated patio to take in the view. They also offer indoor seating, a full menu, and expansive windows to enjoy it all in comfort.
Best Beach for Adults Only
Pirates Cove at Avila
One of the prettiest and most protected beaches on this stretch of Highway 1, Pirate’s Cove comes with a caveat: participation is clothing-optional. In other words, yes, it’s a nude beach. If that’s your vibe, you’ll find Pirate’s Cove absolutely delightful, with white sands, rugged cliffs, and serene waters. Given its seclusion, reaching the beach requires a hike down steep terrain and through rock formations, so bring sturdy shoes. The reward is access to a beach with almost no waves, as the cove calms the ocean for a peaceful seaside experience. (This explains why bootleggers used the beach to smuggle booze during the Prohibition of the 1920s and ‘30s.) On warm days, you may find locals playing beach volleyball at the cove’s end. Reach the trailhead at the end of Cave Landing Road, where a dirt parking lot leads to the rugged 1/4-mile trail. Just remember: this is an adults-only spot. If you’re traveling with kiddos, bring them to one of Highway 1’s many family-friendly beaches instead.
Best Beach Boardwalk
Cambria’s Moonstone Beach
One of the best beaches in Central California for beachcombing, Moonstone Beach encourages exploration for visitors of all ages. This beach is known for its smooth “moonstones” as well as sea glass and driftwood, all of which are especially prevalent after storms. (On that note, beware that waves can be large and strong here, often unsuitable for swimming, surfing, or kids wading.) Adjacent Shamel Park offers parking, restrooms, a playground, gazebo, horseshoes, playing field, and even a seasonal heated swimming pool. Note: dogs are not allowed on Moonstone Beach, but are permitted on leash in Shamel Park. For a scenic approach to the beach, take the one-mile boardwalk from the north end of Moonstone Beach Drive, south of Leffingwell Landing. The boardwalk parallels the beach and is ADA-accessible (as well as stroller-accessible), offering picturesque views from a variety of benches and lookout points.
Best Beaches in Each Town
Ragged Point’s Black Sand Beach
Unique among beaches along this stretch of Highway 1, Ragged Point’s Black Swift Falls Beach has black sand. (Some call it a purple sand beach—you be the judge!) The color is a remnant of ancient volcanoes whose sediment mixed into the beach sand. The sight is striking, though getting there is a challenge. Be ready for a short but steep hike down to the beach by a series of switchbacks descending 400 feet. The payoff? A secluded black-sand beach and a waterfall that runs down the towering cliffside, tumbling to the beach and into the ocean. It’s not uncommon to find this beach completely empty of visitors, so definitely take advantage. Find the trailhead adjacent to the Ragged Point Inn, near the “Million Dollar View” statue. (This round sculpture has a hole in the middle that captures a spectacular view of the Big Sur coastline. Don’t miss the chance to see it on your way down to the beach.) Before and/or after your hike and beach adventure, hit the Ragged Point Restaurant for elegant cuisine, fine local wine, and an ocean view to remember.
San Simeon’s Hearst State Beach
This serene beach is known for its calm and glassy waters, exceptional views, and easygoing, family-friendly vibe. It’s also a point of historical interest, as it once belonged to William Randolph Hearst, whose hilltop estate lies just across Highway 1. A great way to begin any beach day here is at the Coastal Discovery Center at the base of the San Simeon Pier. Here, visitors learn about the marine life and natural and cultural history of San Simeon Cove. If your visit makes you curious about the local wildlife, borrow binoculars from the Coastal Discovery Center and head to the San Simeon Pier. This provides an excellent spot for whale watching, but you may also spy sea otters, seals, or even dolphins, too. On the sand, you’ll enjoy calm conditions thanks to the protection of the cove. This is an exceptionally convenient spot for a beach day, with easily accessible parking, picnic tables, and bathrooms. There’s even a trailhead just north of the pier that leads out to San Simeon Point—a low-key, family-friendly hike with panoramic ocean views.
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
Looking for a quiet, natural beach with wildlife galore? You’ll find it in the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, an open space protected by the American Land Conservancy. The preserve contains a network of 17 hiking and biking trails, including the Bluff Trail, which is ADA accessible. Along the trail, the elevated cliffs allow walkers to spot all manner of marine life, from seabirds and California sea otters to dolphins and even whales offshore. The trail travels parallel to the shoreline, and offers side trails down to several beaches. There, you’ll find pebbly sand, multiple types of seaweed, caves, driftwood and much more to explore. Before or after, take one of the other trails through Monterey Pine forests or across coastal plains. You can even take the 1-mile Bluff Trail north to Windsor Boulevard, which connects to beautiful Moonstone Beach, too. However you choose to enjoy the secluded beaches along the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve Bluff Trail, you’re in for a natural, rugged treat.
Cayucos State Beach
Cayucos State Beach blends sand, surf and sun for a classic California vibe. Kids will love the sizable beach playground, with its swingset, tall slide, and jungle gym to challenge your little monkeys. They’ll also get a kick out of fishing off the historic Cayucos Pier—no fishing license required—and exploring tidepools at the beach’s southern end. For surfers, the waves near the pier offer thrills, and surf schools like Cayucos Surf Company help newbies get in on the action. During the summer months, lifeguards watch the beach and help to keep swimmers, surfers, and splashers safe. Not into surfing? A very shreddable public skatepark lies just at the end of the pier. Multiple casual restaurants line the shore, from the sea-worthy Schooner’s Restaurant to casual Ocean Front Pizza. Other amenities include restrooms, outdoor showers, and parking. And don’t forget Fido! Dogs are allowed on Cayucos State Beach on leash.
Los Osos’ Spooner’s Cove
If lounging by the ocean is your style, nothing beats the views at Spooner’s Cove beach. The spot is named after a previous owner, Alden B. Spooner II, who smuggled illegal alcohol from this very beach during the Prohibition. A quick glimpse of the landscape explains why: the cove is completely protected. Fed by a freshwater stream, Spooner’s Cove offers younger kids a safe spot to wade, play, and explore. At low tide, older kids and adults will want to scramble up the striking rock formations that protrude on the beach’s northern end. These also provide views of the (very advanced) surfers who take on the challenging waves at the surf spots called Lonesomes and A-Frames. Crouch down to discover the tidepools along shore, where tiny worlds populated by anemones, hermit crabs, urchins and sea stars. But no matter how you decide to spend your time at Spooner’s Cove, plan to take your time here. Bring lunch, lay out a blanket (or sit at the picnic tables) and soak up the sights and sounds of this natural playground. Free parking is located on the beach just steps from the water, making this one of the most easily-accessible beaches in the area. Find Spooner’s Cove at the entrance to Montaña de Oro State Park, just across from the historic Spooner Ranch House.
Olde Port Beach at Avila Beach
One of only two off-leash beaches along Highway 1, Olde Port Beach is for the dogs! On this long stretch of open shoreline, pups of all sizes, shapes and personalities can run, cavort, sniff and socialize leash free. Located on the north side of Avila Beach, Olde Port Beach sits just across the mouth of San Luis Obispo Creek. (It’s also a midway point between the Cal Poly Pier and the historic Harford Pier.) Enjoy access to easy street parking, restrooms, and a boat ramp for those who paddleboard or kayak. Families appreciate the small waves and calm waters here—though it’s worth noting that lifeguards don’t watch this beach. Walk to the port, grab an ice cream at the boatyard bait shop or have excellent seafood at Mersea’s, and watch the harbor seals sun themselves. Within close proximity of Port San Luis and all it has to offer, this is a popular beach for a reason! Just remember: Olde Port Beach welcomes lots of four-legged friends. If you’re uncomfortable with dogs, try one of Highway 1’s many other beaches.
Arroyo Grande’s Lopez Lake
Want a beach that’s not along the Pacific shoreline? Try Lopez Lake for something different, located inland from Arroyo Grande in the Lopez Lake Recreation Area. The lake’s 22-mile perimeter offers a private beach experience, whether visitors park and walk to shore or rent a boat to discover hidden coves. Head to the Lopez Lake Marina for a variety of watersport rentals, from jet skis and paddleboats to pontoon boats, waverunners and more. This is also a popular destination for anglers, with access to excellent largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing from shore or by boat. Be aware that the wind tends to pick up in the afternoon, so a visit earlier in the day will offer calmer conditions. For folks with lots of energy and a thirst for fun, Lopez Lake also features the Mustang Waterslide Park and Vista Lago Adventure Park. Combine these two park experiences with time on Lopez Lake, and you can have a full day of water fun here.
Aside from the fact that they’re part of one of the largest dune complexes in the nation, the Oceano Dunes are unique for allowing motor vehicles directly onto the sand. You read that right: the Oceano Dunes are the only coastal dunes in California where driving is permitted. Head to the beach entrance at the end of Grand Avenue in Oceano and drive south onto the beach (to avoid the crowds in Pismo Beach). Choose a spot to park and set up for the day! Dig a pit for a bonfire (which is also allowed here), and bring out your surf-fishing gear, kite surf, or sand toys. The beach is 18 miles long, so you’ll have no trouble driving out to find your own private spot. But vehicles aren’t the only transportation option here: you can also ride horses on the Oceano Dunes. If you don’t bring your own trusty steed, call Pacific Dunes Riding Ranch for a guided ride on their horses.
Looking for crowded beaches? Probably not. While this stretch of Highway 1 includes 57 miles of beaches, they’re not all created equal. With its classic California beach culture, souvenir shops, pier and casual eateries, Pismo Beach is fun and entertaining, but it attracts loads of tourists. The same goes for Morro Rock Beach, whose embarcadero, marine wildlife and fresh seafood are sought after by visitors from across the world. Keep this local insider information in mind as you plan any trip, whether you’re traveling as a couple, a family, a pet-owner, or a solo adventurer.