I Went on The Ultimate Road Trip Down California’s Central Coast
This article was made possible by the fine folks at the Highway 1 Discovery Route.
California’s Central Coast doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Sure, Southern California has hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches and plenty of movie stars. And Northern California gets the spotlight for its towering Redwoods, lush wineries, and the glamor of San Francisco. But the Central Coast is often forgotten about when people talk about California. And while that’s a shame for them, it’s a boon for people like you and me.
From up close encounters with incredible wildlife, to verdant wineries, to world class farm to table dinning, the Central Coast has the best of both Southern and Northern California, and it’s only a short road trip down historic Highway 1 to get there.
Join our weekly newsletter so we can send you awesome freebies, weird events, incredible articles, and gold doubloons (note: one of these is not true).
As Teri Bayus, host of Central Coast Travel & Food show Taste Buds, told us “This stretch of highway boasts mostly family run eateries, with a bonus of world-renowned chefs and wineries. Life on Highway 1 still holds its wild roots and originality is honored.”
If that doesn’t make you want to hop in a car and head down the coast, maybe reading about all these wonderful places Alex and I visited will. We used Highway 1 Discovery Route to plan our trip.
Known around the world for its natural beauty, and of course, Heart Castle, San Simeon is an absolute treat to visit. Whether you’re into wine tasting, viewing wildlife, or just frolicking in nature, this beautiful place has a little something for everyone.
The natural habitat of an Elephant Seal is deep underwater. They can dive deeper than most whales, and hold their breath for 30 minutes at a time, which explains why seeing them on land is like catching a sumo wrestler coming out of the shower. It’s a bit awkward. The Males weigh up to 4,500 pounds, and move by repeatedly belly flopping across the sand, and the sounds are incredible; it’s a symphony of barking, belching, and gurgling noises unheard anywhere else in the world.
The sounds on the observation decks are incredible too, we heard tourists speaking languages from a dozen different countries. Highway 1 in San Simeon is the safest, and closest you’re ever going to get to these incredible animals, anywhere on the planet. And it’s 100% free.
The males are monstrous, covered in scars gained from a lifetime of fighting other males for dominance. We were on the viewing decks literally feet from the seals during ‘birthing and breeding season’ (December-March) and the beach had hundreds of new pups(they are the little ones with black fur). This Elephant Seal rookery saw 1,600 pups born last year. One was born literally minutes before we arrived.
You can check out the Elephant Seal viewing locations right here.
Did you know that Hearst Castle has its own IMAX theater!? And it’s open to the public! We got to see the National Parks Adventure, a film which is an exploration of the most beautiful natural wonders in the USA. The cinematography on the five-story IMAX screen was actually breathtaking. You can check out show times and get your tickets right here. Here’s the trailer:
You may also be aware that much of Hearst Castle is incredible, historic and unique, including its herd of zebras! But many don’t know that the Hearst property is much bigger than just the castle grounds, there’s a Hearst winery and a whole coastline to see.
Hearst Ranch Winery
Situated on an 80,000 acre property that’s been a working ranch since the 1860s, the Hearst Ranch Winery might have the most scenic tasting area in the world. It literally backs right up to the beach in San Simeon. I guess when you’re the Hearst Family everything has to be just a bit finer than everyone else. Luckily their wines, ranging from White Cuvée to Rosé to Zinfandel, fit the bill. And so did my new friend Horseface (it’s a family name).
Full artists and hippie vibes, and dripping in historical buildings, Cambria can feel like taking a trip back in time…to multiple different eras. The food is good, the people are kind, and there’s just enough of the right kind of weird to make you fall in love with it.
Nitt Witt Ridge
An incredibly strange folk-art environment built by outsider artist Arthur Harold Beal in the early and mid 20th century, Nitt Witt Ridge is a 2.5 acre house and property entirely made from found objects and trash. The current owner Michael O’Malley gives daily tours. It’s an odd place that’s hard to describe and even harder to forget.
The Squibb House Shop Next Door
Housed in a building constructed in the 1880s, the Shop Next Door exclusively sells furniture that’s handmade by Amish craftsmen. The work is exquisite and made me wish I had more need of a good rocking chair.
Originally started as a wine and cheese shop (which is still located next door), Indigo Moon serves modern American cuisine using the bounty of the Central Coast to create their tasty dishes. Situated in a historic building on main street, work by local artists cover the walls indoors (including the art of our server that night), while there are two patios and a lovely garden where you can also dine. The quinoa bowl with spring peas, spinach, mushrooms, chickpeas, tahini, and pumpkin seeds was superb, and I’m not even a vegetarian!
Olallieberry is the word of the day every day at Linn’s Restaurant. From lemonade to pie to muffins, the Olallieberry seems to find its way into many of the things on the menu. The Olallieberry was first developed in 1949 and is genetically about two-thirds blackberry and one-third red raspberry. It’s the primary fruit grown at the Linns’ family farm. Beyond that though, Linn’s Restaurant is an eatery with an old-timey feel that serves up a wide variety of delicious food all day long.
Also, I’m a grownup and can eat pie and ice cream for breakfast if I want.
With white sand beaches and a history as an important commercial port in the olden days, tiny Cayucos packs a mighty punch right to your heart. Absolutely charming and adorable, you’ll wonder how it’s kept as such a secret.
Old Cayucos Tavern
The tagline for the Old Cayucos Tavern is “Liquor in the Front, Poker in the Rear” and they’re not kidding. This 110+ year old bar is weird and funky in the best way possible. The front part is a kickass old saloon with hundreds, if not thousands, of dollar bills stuck to the ceiling and lit by neon beer signs. In the back is a card room for people to play poker. And somewhere in the middle is a stage for live music. It’s the kind of place where everyone is welcome, whether you grew up in Cayucos or you’ve just arrived in town.
With both indoor and outdoor seating that commands exquisite ocean views, it’s hard to beat Schooners as a place to spend an afternoon or evening. While we popped in to watch the 49ers whoop the Packers, we stayed for the stiff drinks, fish & chips, soul reviving clam chowder, and of course this:
Morro Bay is sometimes called the Gibraltar of the Pacific because of the humungous rock sitting just off the beach. But among the other things it’s known for is a laidback vibe, epic outdoor activities, and access to wondrous wildlife. Morro Bay is perhaps the best place in the world to see the fastest animals on Earth, as well as arguably the cutest animals in the entire ocean.
Morro Rock is a nesting reserve for the Peregrine Falcon. Environmental scientist Claudia Makeyev known in California as the ‘Mermaid Scientist’ showed us around ‘The Rock’. “The Peregrine are the fastest animal on earth and have been clocked at 242 mph,” she tells us, “This impressive, sleek, and aerodynamic little creature maneuvers better than a fighter jet. They also made an amazing comeback from the brink of extinction (caused by DTD) when the Nixon administration created the EPA and passed a bunch of amazing environmental laws.”
Apparently their favorite meal is Pigeon, which is why they are welcome in major cities around the world (including San Francisco).
Sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800’s for their fine fur, but a group of otters survived off the rugged cliffs of Big Sur where they were sheltered from hunters. Now their descendants occupy Morro Bay, which has the best otter viewing spot in the world. For info on otter safety and viewing guidelines go right here.
Now watch while this cute little guy waves to me.
Afterwards we hung out on the pier and a watched the otters glide through the water on their backs while they opened up shellfish with their stones.
“Did you know that sea otters have pockets? They also typically have a favorite stone that they keep in their pocket and use as a tool to open things with.” – Environmental Scientist Claudia Makeyev.
You can find all the other Sea Otter viewing locations right here.
Tognazzini’s Dockside Too
If you eat at just one place in Morro Bay make it the Dockside Too. Started in 2009 by the Tognazzini family after the success of their original Dockside, this spot is both a fish market and a dinning patio. Much of their fare is locally caught, and their fish & chips are killer. Add an incredible view, live music from local musicians, and a dog friendly environment, and you’ve got a wonderful place to spend a sunny afternoon.
The Libertine Pub
While Libertine Brewing is now well known throughout California for its unique beers, it all started right here in this Morro Bay brewpub. Opened in 2012 The Libertine Pub was one of SLO county’s first craft beer bars, and it’s still a hit with locals and tourists alike. Stop in to taste one of their “Wild Ales” and leave your mark by decorating a dollar bill and stapling it to…well, anywhere you can find an open space. Apparently they really like stapling money to things in the Central Coast.
Being within such close proximity to the wild and rugged Montaña de Oro State Park makes Los Osos an outdoorsy person’s dream. But even for indoorsy folks like me it was stunning enough to get me out and hiking. Plus sleepy Los Osos has a surprisingly great food scene, making the town an unexpected delight.
Sea Pines Golf Resort
Tucked away in a beautiful part of Los Osos is the Sea Pines Golf Resort. Alex and I used this as our home base during our Central Coast adventures. There’s a nine-hole golf course on the property where you can either play the old school way with balls and clubs, or you can go newfangled by playing disc or foot golf.
There’s also a spa on the premises and a restaurant that often has live local music. My favorite part though was that they had the least expensive minibar prices I’d ever seen.
Blue Heron serves up excellent farm to table cuisine inspired by the natural abundance that exists in SLO county. But the food isn’t the only star of the show, the décor and environment are brilliant in themselves. Indoors is decorated with shells and driftwood in homage to their location, and the heated dinning patio has awesome views of the Morro Bay State Marine Reserve. The cheese and charcuterie boards are impeccable.
Situated in darling little Los Osos, Sylvester’s Burgers has been serving up “big, hot, ‘n juicy” burgers since 1988. In fact, their success has led them to open other locations in Atascadero and Oceano, but this spot is the original. Photos of the past 30 years of slinging big burgers covers the walls, but the outdoor patio is the place to be when the weather is nice. As an added bonus, there’s an extra hand-washing station on the patio because it’s impossible not to get messy with these burgers.
Montaña de Oro
With incredible coastlines, tidepools, hiking/mountain biking trails and more, Montaña de Oro State Park is an absolute delight to visit. Just minutes outside Los Osos and our hotel, this park feels untouched by the modern world, in fact Spooner Ranch House, built in 1892, is a museum and ranch house that has been largely unchanged since rancher families lived in it beginning over a hundred years ago. Montaña de Oro is truly a wild place that looks and feels like California at the crest of when Europeans first began populating it.
The luscious Edna Valley has 2000 acres of vines and 27 wine tasting rooms spread though out its soft rolling hills and fertile soil. Many of the wineries are small, family owned affairs that put out some of the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California, which is saying a lot. Wine tasting here is spectacular. My teeth might still be stained purple.
The grounds of Biddle Ranch are Instagramably perfect. Sunshine dapples the grapevines while a stark white farmhouse beckons you to come inside and taste some wine. All the wines here are handcrafted and made in small batches. The Pinot Noir is excellent, as are the Rosé and the Chardonnay, but this place is so visually stunning it’s hard to think about anything else.
Claiborne and Churchill Winery
Founded in 1983, Claiborne and Churchill is a family owned and operated winery right in the heart of the Edna Valley. Claiborne and Churchill specializes in dry white wines inspired by the Alsace region of France with a focus on Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris grapes. They also do excellent handcrafted Pinot Noirs and Syrahs where the grapes are sourced from several Edna Valley vineyards. And if that wasn’t enough, their staff is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, and loves to tell you all about the wine you’re drinking.
Wolf Vineyards has won a gazillion awards, which you can see on display in their homey tasting room. They are very proud of their estate grown Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Teroldego, Syrah, Petite Syrah, and Riesling. And I would be too if I made wine that lovely. The view from the tasting room is of the languid and lush Edna Valley below and there’s a wonderful picnic area where you can bring your lunch and relax with some of Wolf’s wine.
Known for its wineries, good food, and beachy lifestyle Pismo Beach feels like the perfect California town that East Coasters dream about during the winter. Plus they’ve got hordes of butterflies!
Monarch Butterfly Grove
The Monarch butterflies flock to California by the thousand every winter (between October and January) and Pismo Beach’s colony is the largest in the U.S. The butterflies hang out in the area on eucalyptus trees in super dense clusters, forming a kaleidoscopic shingle effect. It’s a once in a lifetime sight.
You can find more info on where to see the Monarchs right here.
If you love biscuits and gravy (and come on, who doesn’t), then Beachin’ Biscuits is your new favorite place to eat. As the words on the wall say “If anyone tries to tell you biscuits & gravy isn’t a meal, stop talking to them. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.” And I couldn’t agree more. I got sausage, eggs, and cheese served between two biscuits and slathered in gravy. It damn near changed my life.
Arroyo Grande is a darling little village that looks like it’s stuck in time. The excellently preserved historic buildings are charming as hell and you’re not sure if you’re in California or a movie staring a young Ron Howard.
Wild Gangs of Roosters
Teri Bayus, host of Central Coast Travel & Food show Taste Buds, told us that “The wild roosters of Arroyo Grande are a mystery and a delight. No one knows where they come from, but you see them roosting in the door fronts of every business. It is a rare delight to see cocks run free.”
Despite signage warning not to leave your roosters downtown, people obviously still do. There are hundreds of well-groomed cocks strutting around the small downtown, and frankly, cock fighting.
Arroyo Grande Meat Company & Village Butcher
There’s been a butcher shop in this location ever since Pete Olahan erected the building in 1897. While it’s changed ownership a few times over the past 120+ years the Gonzalez family has been running the Arroyo Grande Meat Company & Village Butcher since 1992 and can rightly claim to serve possibly the best tri-tip sandwich on the Central Coast. Hot, juicy, and flavorful, it virtually melts in your mouth. They are also a full-service butcher shop for all your meaty needs, but did I mention the tri-tip sandwich? Sorry, I just can’t stop thinking about it.
That’s it from here. I hope you have as much fun as we did! Tell all those cute little animals I say hello!