Drive our special stretch of Highway 1 between Ragged Point and Nipomo, and you can’t help but be awed by its natural beauty and scenic riches. These 81 miles are what make a Highway 1 road trip one of the top bucket-list excursions in the world. But finding all the secret treasures of this famous byway would take several days — and a local’s know-how. If you want the inside scoop on the best places to stop while driving the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll need inspiration from a knowledgeable guide.
Top 5 Ways to Revel in the Central Coast's Wide Open Spaces
Whether you want space to breathe, move freely, or commune with nature, our stretch of Highway 1 has plenty of room for you. The Central Coast offers a wealth of uncrowded wonders, including scenic drives, hiking, biking and equestrian trails, beaches and state parks. Views capture panoramas of long white beaches, rugged cliffs, velvety green rolling hills, and peaceful valleys. Enjoy nature’s playground: we have waves to surf, piers to fish, mountains to summit, wildlife to watch and curves to hug. So put the top down, inhale the sea spray, and get ready to roam. Welcome to our fresh, uncluttered, wide-open corner of the world.
Celebrate The Uncrowded Freedom of Highway 1 Discovery Route
It’s obvious why multi-millionaire William Randolph Hearst once said he’d rather be here than anywhere else in the world. Tucked between Santa Barbara and Big Sur, this part of Highway 1 allows visitors plenty of personal space without going too remote. Hearst retreated from the speed of city life to reset on his tranquil “enchanted hill” above the sea in San Simeon. From ancient times through Hearst’s day and beyond, this area has provided a sanctuary of peace and quiet.
And is it any wonder? Here, 100 miles of Pacific coastline await exploration. Better yet, 50 of those miles enjoy state and federal protection, more than anywhere else in California. That means they’re unspoiled and uninhabited — unless you count sea otters, whales, elephant seals, Monarch butterflies, dolphins, herons, anemones, or starfish, of course. Just like you, they are free to roam, too.
Here, we love a good drive. Give us the open road, all 87 miles on our stretch of Highway 1, by the sea, through vineyards, over hills. In fact, the US Department of Transportation considered it special enough to be designated one of America’s Scenic Byways.
But while four wheels are fun, the best of coastal San Luis Obispo County happens off-road. Across this stretch of Highway 1, explore the uncrowded outdoors with 200 miles of hiking and biking trails, many of them wheelchair accessible. Push your kayak or stand-up paddleboard into open water, with no one else around for miles. On a miles-long beach, have the whole place to yourself (and maybe Fido) for a walk. Or surf, fish, swim, dance, cartwheel, whatever: here on Highway 1, we like to get it all out in the open.
Find Serenity in Nature and Wildlife
No need to look far and wide for wildlife on this part of Highway 1; sea and land animals love it here, too! We put a high premium on our access to the great wide open and those who call it home.
Coastal San Luis Obispo County is home to one of just 14 National Marine Sanctuaries, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. All told, this preserve stretches over 6,000 square miles and reaches nearly two miles deep, making it larger than Yellowstone National Park. The Central Coast also hosts one of 28 federally protected estuaries in the country, the Morro Bay National Estuary. This abundant intersection of freshwater and seawater hosts over 300 species of birds alone, and is popular for bird-watching. What’s more, the Central Coast counts five State Marine Reserves and State Marine Conservation Areas among its treasures.
While wildlife abounds here, a few species really stand out. As one of only a few habitats left in California, the Piedras Blancas Rookery allows visitors to see elephant seals up close. In fact, it’s the only elephant seal rookery in the world that is public and free to access, 365 days a year. Come see these majestic, sometimes comical creatures mate, birth, and molt on the beach in San Simeon, steps away from the guard rail.
Similarly, the Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Oceano serves as a destination for over 25,000 migrating butterflies annually. As the largest overwintering site for Western Monarchs, this grove is free, open to the public, and easily accessible from Highway 1. Thousands of orange and black butterfly wings cluster in the eucalyptus trees there, opening and closing in the sun. Docents set up high-powered telescopes for the public to view them, and share expertise in talks and tours.
For whale-watching, coastal San Luis Obispo County offers a treasure trove of opportunities to see whales migrating offshore. The Whale Trail organization identifies prime West Coast whale-watching locations, and ten are in San Luis Obispo County alone. (That’s more than any other county in California.) Find a Whale Trail sign from Oceano to Ragged Point to learn which species can be found there and what to look for.
Traverse Miles of Uninterrupted Trails
If you want an uncrowded excursion, 200 miles of trails in coastal San Luis Obispo County ought to do the trick. Here, you can lace up your shoes for open adventures through wilderness, over mountains, across beaches, sand dunes, paths and piers. But hiking isn’t the only way to get out there; many trails welcome mountain biking and horseback riding, too.
One favorite (yet uncrowded!) network of trails on our stretch of Highway 1 is the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria. Once a Mexican land grant and later a dairy and cattle ranch, this preserve stretches over 70 acres of Monterey Pine forest. Find 17 different trails through the Monterey Pines (one of the last remaining stands in the world) and along the rocky Pacific shoreline. Hikes vary from less than a mile to several miles, mostly easy walking; some trails also include wheelchair accessibility. Wander these diverse trails and marvel at the animal and plant life, or sit on a bench to enjoy the scenery and quiet.
The Pismo Preserve is a network of trails that overlook the Pacific on one side, and Edna Valley wine country on the other. The preserve edges Highway 101 in Pismo Beach, and is the newest addition to SLO CAL’s extensive hiking offerings. From the entrance, the opening trail moves east and splits into five subtrails that vary in length and difficulty. Some paths wander through peaceful meadows among native plants, while others take in vineyard views of Edna Valley on the east side. Still other trails show panoramic views of the ocean, where whales spout offshore during migration season. All but one trail invites mountain biking and horseback riding as well, and dogs are allowed on-leash. If you’re looking for a place that shows diverse aspects of the Central Coast, the Pismo Preserve should definitely be on your list.
For the most miles of trail in one place along San Luis Obispo County’s coastline, head to Montana de Oro State Park. Not only does this sprawling state park boast 65 miles of trails for hiking — it offers mountain biking and horseback riding trails, too. All routes take in views of the ocean, from Point Buchon across Morro Bay, Morro Rock and Cayucos. The rocky shoreline makes for fun diversions from the path, with secret beaches and tide pools to explore. Montana de Oro also claims some of Highway 1’s tallest summits, including Oats Peak, Hazard Peak and Valencia Peak. All of these challenging peaks have well-kept, well-marked trails, and are absolutely worth the climb.
Not all trails on this stretch of Highway 1 require hiking shoes or spandex, though. Some casual routes take in the most beautiful and quiet parts of the county. The Bob Jones Trail in Avila Beach, for instance, is a wide paved path that winds through the Avila Valley, thick with sycamore trees. Visitors and locals alike love the spacious, scenic surroundings for walking, jogging, and cycling. Bring Fido on leash or haul the jogging stroller out for a spin. Walk the 1.5-mile trail all the way from Ontario Road to the beach along a wildlife-rich stream and estuary. (Don’t forget to reward yourself with an ice cream in town.) Other easy walks include any of the four historic piers on the coast, all walk-able and fishable; one of them is even driveable.
Discover a Cyclist's Paradise
Whether you want a casual ride or a training course, this length of Highway 1 has diverse terrain and open space for cycling. These roads are favorites for all sorts of cyclists; in fact, they’re included as part of the Adventure Cycling Association’s Pacific Coast Route.
Coastal San Luis Obispo County hosts multiple races and rides throughout the year, including a leg of the famous Amgen tour of California. This stage race is notable for being the only race at the UCI WorldTour level held in the U.S. for both men and women.
Another well-known event for cyclists is the Eroica ride, which starts in Cambria. Eroica California is the only ride of its kind in America, and mimics the original classic bike enthusiast ride in Tuscany. The event features a breathtaking 80-mile vintage bike ride in which some cyclists ride bicycles dating back to before World War I. Cyclists travel over pavement and dirt, through rolling hills and valleys, gaining 6,000 vertical feet total for this truly unique event.
But not all routes are for races or professional cyclists. Visitors have their pick of multiple road rides, from easy farmland flats to steep coastal climbs. Many of the best routes for cycling along Highway 1 can be found at Cycle Central Coast. This website is dedicated to cyclists who seek to stay, play and train on the Central Coast. Their routes will have you spinning past rows upon rows of vines, heavy with fruit for some of the best wines in California. Or travelling long coastal roads parallel to the rugged shoreline. If casual trips on city bikes are more your speed, you’ll find plenty of excuses to pedal leisurely through town, too.
For mountain biking, this stretch of Highway 1 is no less appealing. With hundreds of miles of rugged, technical trail, coastal San Luis Obispo County attracts mountain bikers from near and far. Most notably among them is Montana de Oro State Park in Los Osos. Tall peaks, wide empty trails, and unobstructed views make this sprawling state park a true mountain biking destination.
Relax on an Expansive White sand beach
The word pacific means peaceable, which definitely applies to the gentle giant body of water beside our section of Highway 1. More than any other factor, the beach frames life here on California’s Central Coast — it’s never more than minutes away. Proximity to the ocean impacts everything from our weather to our award-winning wine.
Wherever you roam here, there is a wide, expansive beach nearby, but not all beaches are the same. Take your pick of wild majestic beaches like Oso Flaco and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes or Morro Strand State Beach. Or find secret, tucked-away beaches like Black Sand Beach in Ragged Point, Estero Bluffs (by San Geronimo Creek) or Pirate’s Cove. Of course, there are spacious family-friendly beaches like Avila Beach, Spooner’s Cove and Cayucos State Beach. And don’t forget our four-legged friends! On-leash dogs are welcome on most beaches, and off-leash dogs can romp on Fisherman’s Beach, San Simeon Cove, and Morro Strand State Beach.
The sand you choose to put your toes in depends entirely on your mood and desires, but there are a few must-visit beaches. Be sure to take in the glittering beauty of WR Hearst State Memorial Beach. Located directly across Highway 1 from the entrance to Hearst Castle, this was once Mr. Hearst’s private beach. Enjoy an afternoon on this protected beach, walk the pier, hike the cove, and you’ll understand why Hearst wanted it all to himself.
Cambria’s Moonstone Beach captivates visitors with its unusual stones and plentiful seaglass, discoverable across the wide landscape. Once called moonstones, these stones are tumbled against each other by the ocean until they are silky smooth and rounded. Find delicate jade, agate, and jasper here, as well as sea glass and gnarled driftwood, too.
No trip to coastal San Luis Obispo County is complete without a visit to the Oceano Dunes. These towering natural sculptures comprise one of the largest dune systems on the globe, wide open and ready to explore. Roll down the dunes, jump off their peaks, and delight in the soft sand between your toes. It’s easy to spend an afternoon here picnicking, watching for wildlife, flying a kite and digging up famous Pismo clams. To really go big, bring your horse for a comfortable ride across the wide-open beach.