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Fall Road Trip: California’s Central Coast

A drive that’s heaven for lovers of wine and seaside fun

cars on Pacific Coast Highway

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En español | Tour the up-and-coming Paso Robles vineyard region and scenic, value-packed central coast midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (153 miles)

Hearst Castle

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William Randolph Hearst Castle

Day 1: San Luis Obispo to San Simeon  (47 miles)

Drive north up fabled Highway 1 past rolling hills to the Pacific. Stop at Morro Bay to snap otters and seals cavorting near haystack-shaped, 576-foot Morro Rock. In artsy Cambria, the Café on Bridge Street in a 19th-century cottage serves a decadent cheeseburger salad for lunch. Pass towering Monterey pines, and tour late publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s over-the-top Hearst Castle. (The cheapest tour, of grand ground-floor rooms, costs $25.) About four miles north, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery offers free and spectacular viewing of giant sea mammals with trunk-like noses basking, barking and battling on the beach.

Where to stay: San Simeon Lodge, a favorite roost for thrifty road trippers, with ocean views, redone rooms, heated pool, wheelchair-accessible showers and fall rates starting under $70.

woman on the road driving pacific coast highway at sunset

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Day 2: San Simeon to Paso Robles (58 miles)

Cut inland on Highway 46 West and take in vistas at overlooks. Drive a two-lane circular route on Vineyard Drive and Adelaida Road under canopies of live oak trees to wineries such as Opolo (sample six vintages for $15) and Tablas Creek, where you can bring a picnic and have the tasting fee for Rhône-style reds waived if you buy a bottle. (The area boasts more than 200 wineries, so you could explore for days.) Walk off lunch in historic, compact Paso Robles or sip a $10 sidecar in the Eleven Twenty Two speakeasy on Pine Street.

Where to stay: Retro Farmhouse Motel in Paso Robles is cozy and renovated. Rates start at about $100.

Directional Signs to San Luis Obispo and Monterey along Highway 1 in Big Sur, California

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Day 3: Paso Robles to San Luis Obispo (27 miles)

Hop on Highway 101 to San Luis Obispo, dubbed SLO for its agreeably slow pace. Admire Victorian mansions in the downtown historic district, see the 18th-century Spanish mission and stop for happy hour at craft beer makers, such as Central Coast Brewing. Time your visit for Thursday night’s farmers market, with music and booth after booth of local specialties, including grilled tri-tip steak sandwiches smothered in barbecue sauce.
Where to stay: Apple Farm Inn and Trellis Court Motel, a gingerbread/Queen Anne/Victorian mansion with adjoining motel downtown, has a great location. Rates are under $150 on select dates.

The Madonna Inn Sign, San Luis Obispo, California

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Day 4: San Luis Obispo to Pismo Beach (13 miles)

Heading south on Pacific Coast Highway, another name for Highway 1, gawk at kitschy Madonna Inn, where rates run $300 or more for rooms themed like a caveman’s abode, safari hunter’s retreat and more. More affordable: an $8.95 slice of Pink Champagne cake in the cafe. At Pismo Beach, stroll the fishing pier or observe migrating monarch butterflies starting in late October at Monarch Butterfly Grove.  Have lunch by a picture window at Ventana Grill, perched on a cliff above the ocean. Even better, dine while watching the sun dramatically sink over the Pacific.

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