It’s Beach Time
Fans of California’s rocky, wave-crashed coast exult in the sheer beauty of San Luis Obispo’s far western fringe. Mountains plunge down to the sea and white-sand beaches hug hidden coves.
Winding along the coast, Highway 101 provides the main way in and out. Dubbed El Camino Real (“the royal highway”), the route dates to the Spanish conquistadors. While nature treks, beachcombing and swimming are the outdoor activities of choice, you won’t want to miss the area’s other attractions.
Hearst Castle at San Simeon remains one of the most famous tourist stops in California. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst spent more than two decades building the rambling, ornately styled mansion that he filled with antiques from Europe. Today the property is open to the public as a State Historical Monument, although the Hearst family still owns it and the surrounding land.
Romancing the Seals at Piedras Blancas
Just four miles north, thousands of elephant seals congregate along the shore at Piedras Blancas. From vista points you can observe three-ton males vociferously competing for mates as well as females with their pups.
Ten miles south of Hearst Castle, the coastal town of Cambria began life as a 19th-century mining boomtown. The community (population 6,000) retains quaintness and charm, although it’s been gentrified with hotels and B&Bs. Don’t miss Robin’s Restaurant, which serves everything from pizza to pad Thai.
Surf’s Up in Five Cities
Highway 1 meets the main 101 Freeway at San Luis Obispo, some 40 miles to the south. From there, it’s a straight shot to the “Five Cities”—a collection of seaside towns dominated by bustling Pismo Beach. Here’s where Southern California beach culture truly begins, with ample sightings of surfboards, flip-flops and bikinis.
More Activities and Adventures
Pismo’s wide white sands are perfect for summer family gatherings, and the modest surf attracts the boogie board crowd. Nearby Oceano Dunes, in addition to offering surf fishing and horseback riding, has 5½ miles of off-road vehicle use. Port San Luis Beach and Harbor welcomes RV camping, with expansive views of the Pacific Ocean.
The area population has soared, buoyed by an influx of retirees and those seeking second homes. Although the bars and restaurants are funky, you’ll find luxe at upscale resorts such as The Cliffs and Dolphin Bay.
And Don’t Miss:
During the 19th century, ranchers pastured their cattle and sheep on Paso Robles’s rolling, scenic hills, and the animals were tended by cowboys on their faithful horses. Although today’s Paso has become an urbane region of wineries and fine dining, cowboy culture remains a valued part of its heritage.
The centerpiece of that tradition: the Paso Robles Fairgrounds located on the edge of downtown just blocks from the 101 Freeway. Old wooden buildings, horse stalls and rodeo stands refuse to cater to modernity. From spring until fall, it hosts boots-and-saddles events such as the Cattlemen’s Western Art Show,Horseman’s Reunion, San Luis Obispo County Quarter Horse Association Show, National Stock Horse Show, and the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Show. The big event comes in July with the California Mid-State Fair. It features country music stars as well as competitive horse shows, rodeos and plenty of barbecue.
Want to release your own inner cowboy? Here are three ways to do it:
Go shopping at the Boot Barn, the area’s leading purveyor of all things cowboy, from stylish boots and silver buckles to sexy Stetsons.
Relax at the Pine Street Saloon. Housed in one of Paso’s oldest buildings, it celebrates its frontier roots. “We’re a country bar through and through,” says Ron French, one of the owners. Each year, during thePioneer Day Parade (October), the Saloon opens its doors to cowboys who lead their horses in for a drink
Dine at F. McLintocks Saloon & Dining House. Best steaks, chops and oak-pit BBQ in town.