Four Days on the Central California Coast
Regardless of your threshold for adventure, we’ve found a bevy of activities
Sara Shaw hung up her speed skates for a week this winter and escaped from snow-laden Rochester, New York, to warm and sunny central California. She and her partner landed in Los Angeles and meandered north along U.S. Route 101, the freeway that runs north-south through the state, and California 1, the scenic coast-hugging road, pausing frequently to hike bluff trails, stroll through eucalyptus groves and saunter up and down the beaches.
At 58, Shaw is one of those people whose energy is underserved by the “active” adjective. A former program coordinator for several arts organizations, she knows her way around an energetic itinerary.
Though we chat a couple of times a year, I was surprised to find out that she was planning the same adventure I was — exploring California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route, a distance of about 100 miles, from Oceano to Ragged Point. Though Shaw is a perpetual mover (and often a political shaker), it’s no wonder she hit pause when she arrived on the central California coast.
“I was amazed at how accessible everything was,” she says. “I assumed it would be built up with traffic and homes, like here in New York, where everything is private property and there’s rarely beach access except for a couple of state parks.” Though they’d planned all their endeavors, my friends found the highlight of their trip was a walk from San Simeon Bay beach to San Simeon Point, recommended by a shop owner in Cambria.
“She told us we wouldn’t see any other people there, and we were sold,” Shaw says. “We took a wide berth around a sleeping bull elephant seal, then climbed up through the eucalyptus trees. From the point, we saw over a dozen whale spouts, and the tide pooling was incredible, with vibrant sea stars and anemones.”
How often do we wrap ourselves in a strict itinerary, especially when planning a personal “trip of the year?” We want everything to be perfect: no museum unvisited, no highly touted path untrodden. However, leaving space to extend a gallery visit or heed a local’s trail suggestion often proves more gratifying than checking out that five-star restaurant.
Arrival day — butterflies, hummingbirds & crab cakes
The schedule I crafted for my own visit works as a rubric for many destinations around North America. I like to compose a day that contains a little bit of everything, with an obvious emphasis on outdoor activities. Some of these, like visiting the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, which is a short loop beneath the eucalyptus trees — prime butterfly habitat — isn’t going to take a lot of energy. But it’s a good leg stretch after touchdown at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport. Naturalists there have counted as many as 90,000 butterflies between November and February.
Unfortunately, I spot only a few dozen black and orange stragglers. Fortunately, a spotting scope is focused squarely on a black-chinned hummingbird nest, a 1.5-inch cup (imagine a Ping-Pong ball cut in half) partially hidden among the eucalyptus leaves. I spend most of my hour photographing the incubating couple, proving yet again that nature always yields discovery and delight. Hummingbirds may beat their wings more than 50 times per second, but I’ve remained rather stationary, so I ad-lib a walk above Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, where I’m spending my first two nights in Avila Beach.
The Sycamore Crest Trail is a popular mile-and-a-half out-and-back path that courses within a coastal live oak grove before ascending to several vista points. It’s a moderate climb at first, with several switchbacks under the oak tree canopy, where moss and ferns grow in the shade. I skip the Ontario Ridge Trail extension and descend, passing the scattered hillside hot tubs for which Sycamore Springs is famous.
It seems only right after arriving on the coast that I head to Mersea’s Restaurant, a solid local seafood place. The menu won’t surprise you, but the clam chowder and (very reasonably priced) crab cakes were excellent, as is the maritime ambience.
Day 2 — e-biking & wine tasting
The next morning proved yet again that irrespective of the work we put into crafting an itinerary, adaptability remains key to a successful holiday. I’d planned to mountain bike in Montaña de Oro State Park, the crown jewel of local recreation areas. Five bike trails traverse the 8,000-acre park, all beginner and intermediate terrain that requires little to no technical skill.
The trails weren’t the problem; it was the sketchy road (windy, busy with no shoulder) along South Bay Boulevard, to and from Morro Bay. I’d arranged a bike rental, but when the shuttle I’d plan to take to the starting point was not available, I swapped out my hardtail mountain bike for a gravel peddle-assisted e-bike. Soon I was off to Black Hill, the highest point in the area, where I found a brilliant view of Morro Rock and surrounding Morro Bay. Pedal-assist, as opposed to throttle-controlled, is my preferred e-bike because you still have to work to get where you’re going.
I added a quick drive to Sweet Springs Nature Reserve in nearby Los Osos. Managed by the Morro Coast Audubon Society, Sweet Springs tucks several bird habitats — arboreal, dune, estuary, stream — into a compact space.
Like long-billed curlews stitching the sandbar a mere 100 steps from where Anna’s hummingbirds, the most common species on the Pacific Coast, conduct a territorial standoff, the short distance here between human activities is also impressive. The geography invites you to bike and hike all morning, then ease within minutes into an afternoon of wine tasting.
Nowhere is this proximity more astounding than Edna Valley, with its 27 tasting rooms that lie just 5 miles from the Pacific. Strolling on, or kayaking off, Pismo Beach presents the perfect overture for late-afternoon terrace tastings of subtle pinot noir (Chamisal Vineyards) and crisp chardonnay (Tolosa Winery). Volcanic cinder cones rise like incense from the agricultural landscape that features more than 2,000-acres of grapes. Pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah varietals thrive with minerality due to the volcanic and sedimentary soil cooled by the dependable sea-spawned breeze.
North of Morro Bay, tasting rooms take on a decidedly agrarian aesthetic — for example, the tin-roofed barn and rusted John Deere farm implements at Stolo Family Vineyards. Ten minutes away, the Harmony Cellars tasting room resides in a converted barn, from which you gaze down upon the town of Harmony, home to glassblowers and potters — and a whopping 18 residents. Farther north, Hearst Ranch Winery’s deck is a sand-dollar toss away from the beach.
That evening I “anchored” at Cambria Beach Lodge, directly across from Moonstone Beach, for two nights due to its equidistant proximity to Morro Bay and San Simeon.
Cambria Beach Lodge depicts one of my favorite travel trends — the conversion of roadside motels into retro habitats that couldn’t be cooler. I also take advantage of the oyster-laden happy hour at the Sea Chest Oyster Bar next door, a 10-minute walk beyond the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill. Is there anywhere that declares “Good Vibrations” more melodically than a moonlit beach walk after oysters, an oaky chardonnay and cioppino? I don’t think so.
Day 3 — whale watching & hiking
I’d scheduled a three-hour whale-watching tour with Morro Bay Whale Watching. Though hoping for whales, a 20-yard view of California sea lions and lolling sea otters is also pretty sweet. A barnacle-encrusted gray whale back-rolls, an early March prelude to the 20,000 Eastern gray whales that will soon swim north to Alaska from their Baja breeding waters, one of the longest mammalian migrations on the planet.
With my telephoto lens at the ready, I was, alas, deprived of a decent shot of so much as a tail. I did catch sight of several children for whom spying a distant whale tale elicited squealing joy. This wasn’t the first time I was reminded that my disappointment at not capturing a publishable image doesn’t stand up against someone’s real-time discovery of nature’s magic.
As much as we focus outward to the ocean, the coastline comprises historic ranchland. Fortunately, many of these once-massive spreads have been saved from development and most also pay homage to the Indigenous Chumash people, who’ve lived throughout this region for more than 10,000 years.
That afternoon, I spend a couple of hours hiking at one such expanse, Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. It’s a great break to hike within a Monterey pine forest, then step among the coastal meadows with 180-degree Pacific views. That evening’s dinner is in the garden at Cambria’s Robin’s Restaurant, an Asian-fusion pioneer. (Think prawn and scallop kimchi fried Rice.). Hands down, Robin’s is the best kitchen around.
Day 4 — horseback riding & elephant seals
The next morning, I visit the working Covell Ranch, where Tara Covell-Key leads trail rides upon her herd of Clydesdales. These giants mostly walk and occasionally trot. But given their girth, I definitely detect a good stretch in my inner thighs when I dismount after two hours.
It’s only appropriate after riding up at Covell Ranch to stop in at Linn’s Restaurant, the Cambria institution that debuted as an outlet for the Linn family’s farm produce and berries. Linn’s is most famous for olallieberry, a tart hybrid blackberry creation of Oregon State University. Call me nostalgic, but there’s something irresistible about a restaurant that’s celebrated for its pie — though often the celebrity doesn’t match expectations. Linn’s olallieberry comes through just fine. Just fine indeed.
Before I know it, I am hearing a squeal when observing elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery — specifically from a 5-month-old weanling — when a bull, weighing 2-plus tons, “ambles” by and, for a few moments, over the pup, who seems fine after the ordeal.
Located directly off Highway 1, Piedras Blancas remains the most accessible elephant seal rookery in the world. I get my steps in while walking up and down the three-quarter-mile boardwalk. It’s an easy effort, given it’s impossible to tear oneself away from marveling at these gravity-defying animals as they jiggle and shake across the sand.
As I travel north from Cambria past San Simeon, I enter the transition zone where the bluffs give way to the Santa Lucia Mountains that define Big Sur. I pause for the night at Ragged Point Inn and Resort, a gorgeous property built upon the cliffs that will stretch for 90 miles and just 15 miles from the famous Hearst Castle. It was the perfect ending to a four-day odyssey in an oft-overlooked section of the Golden State.
Aging Playfully Series
Check out these columns, and stay tuned for more coming soon:
- Series Introduction: The ‘Just Do It’ Lifestyle
- Exploring North Carolina's Research Triangle
- E-Biking Around New York's Finger Lakes
- Walking in England and Ireland
- Paddle Your Way Across Canada
- North American Gardens You Should Visit
Crai S. Bower is a Seattle-based freelancer whose work has appeared in AARP The Magazine, Afar, Alaska Magazine, AAA Journey and more. He is a recipient of a 2022 Lowell Thomas Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for an essay that appeared on AARP Members Only Access.
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