11 Reasons You Need To Plan A Trip To Coastal San Luis Obispo County
Confession: When we hop in our car for a weekend road trip to escape San Francisco, we usually go to places like Yosemite, Tahoe, Big Sur, Napa, Mendocino, or Point Reyes.
One place we’ve always overlooked is California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route, home to some of the best marine wildlife viewing in the entire state, quirky little towns, world-class wineries, delicious food, and stunning scenery. But after a recent trip to San Simeon and Cambria (a super easy four-hour drive from SF), we can promise we won’t be doing that anymore.
Simply put: this coastal area is stunning. And what makes it even more amazing is that though it’s certainly a vacation destination for many, the natural beauty hasn’t been affected by the influx of people.
We can’t help but think that one reason for this is because the people behind tourism in this area are taking the next step in eco-tourism by promoting stewardship travel.
Stewardship travel is a simple concept, really. It’s a way for visitors to learn more and form a deeper connection with the area by either spending time volunteering (helping restore a park trail, picking up garbage, planting a native tree) or, if that’s not possible, donating money to help the area thrive. Though the Annual Coastal Discovery & Stewardship Celebration runs from mid-January to the end of February, stewardship travel activities are something you can participate in anywhere and anytime you travel. Learn more and then head to this beautiful area along the Central Coast and have the most fun sightseeing, eating amazing food, and yes, drinking lots and lots of wine.
What to See
If you’ve never seen the northern elephant seals before, you need to change that immediately. This marine mammal is one of the most extraordinary animals we’ve ever been around… so much so that when we walked up to the rookery early one rainy morning, we were so overwhelmed with their size, sounds, and overwhelming presence, we actually got teary (in a good way).
The Piedras Blancas rookery on Highway 1 is open every day and depending on when you go, you may either see 5,000 pound bulls battling for dominance over a portion of the beach, pregnant females and brand new pups, males and females breeding (this happens in January and February but the fertilized egg doesn’t implant until May!), juveniles and mothers molting, or juvenile males jousting.
If you can, arrive early in the morning (the females give birth early and the viewing platform will be less crowded) and find a volunteer guide (look for the blue jacket) who will astound you with their knowledge. To support them and the rookery trails, leave a donation in the secure box by the trailhead.
When to visit: The peak season for elephant seals is December to March, but you’ll be able see at least some at the rookery nearly year-round.
Fun Fact: One of the last things Obama did while he was in office was sign an act that provides added protection for this elephant seal sanctuary, as well as five other sites across the state.
This light station was built in 1875 and housed a Fresnel lens (that is now on display in downtown Cambria because an earthquake made the upper part structurally unsound). It’s currently being restored to its period of greatest historical significance, but it’s not just the lighthouse you’re going to see.
The two-hour tour also includes wildlife viewing, gorgeous scenery, and a fun history lesson about the land. Note: You can only access the lighthouse by way of guided tours on certain days, but reservations aren’t required.
When to visit: September 1 through June 14: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 9:45 a.m. June 15 through August 31: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 9:45 a.m. Tours meet at the former Piedras Blancas Motel, located 1.5 miles north of the light station.
There are over 50 Whale Trail sites up and down the west coast, but the six locations in Coastal San Luis Obispo County are the biggest cluster anywhere. If you’re staying around San Simeon and Cambria, you’ll want to check out the Whale Trail sites there or in Cayucos. Each site has a sign that tells you the marine wildlife you can expect to see (gray whales, humpback whales, blue whales, Orcas, harbor seals, dolphin, etc.) and how to spot them.
Visiting Covell’s California Clydesdale’s Ranch is a must. You’ll get to see and experience a herd of over 60 Clydesdales that live in rolling pastures with ocean views (and take a trail ride if you plan ahead), as well as learn about the fascinating history of this beautiful 2,000 acre ranch and the endangered Monterey Pine Forest that is protected in a nature conservation easement.
Call or email to arrange a tour by the owner (who’s a total California cowboy) to meet these magnificent horses.
What, like you’re going to go to San Simeon and not stop at Hearst Castle? Right. This famous grand estate was once William Randolph Hearst’s private retreat. Because who doesn’t need 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, and pools to wind down over the weekend?
There are several tours, but the Grand Rooms Tour is the best one if you’ve never been to Hearst Castle before. You’ll see all of the “social rooms” and lots of W.R. Hearst’s art collection.
Pro Tip: If you can bring yourself to look away from the ocean when you’re driving on Highway 1 in San Simeon, you just may see zebra grazing alongside cattle in the pastures on the side of the road. They’re the last remaining animals from what used to be the world’s largest private zoo.
What to Eat
If you’re staying in Cambria or San Simeon, Cayucos is a bit of a drive (about 20 minutes), but it’s soooooo worth it to indulge in (and stock up on) the freshly baked sweet and salty cookies. The original brown butter sea salt cookie is our favorite, but you can’t go wrong with almond… or bourbon… or spice… Okay fine, just buy some of each.
Since you drove to Cayucos for cookies and since you probably shouldn’t just have cookies for dinner (although no judgment if you do), stop in at Schooner’s Wharf where you can dine and drink while taking in stunning ocean views. During the winter, when the sun sets early, head there for lunch and ask for a seat on the top deck. The cioppino and seafood pasta are both legit options.
You simply cannot spend time in San Simeon and not go to Sebastian’s General Store for lunch. The only thing to order is the Hearst Ranch Beef Burger (with cheese, of course). The 1/2 pound burger is almost too big to finish, but there’s a “junior” version, which is perfect for one person (get the fries to share).
And though we are obsessed with the burgers, we’d be lying if we didn’t say our favorite part is that there’s a Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting room inside the store, which means: yup, you can do a wine tasting while you eat. Doesn’t get better than that.
Pro Tip: After lunch, head down the street to W.R. Hearst State Beach and take a stroll down the 850-foot pier to see what the local fisherman are catching.
You’re going to go wine tasting in Cambria (more on that next), so afterwards, head to Robin’s, where visitors and locals dine on farm-fresh comfort cuisine with international flavors. (Sounds weird but tastes delish!) Be sure to sit on the vine-covered, heated patio and whatever you do, order the salmon bisque.
What to Drink
After all of the exploring and sightseeing, you’re going to need to unwind with a glass of wine. Luckily, Cambria is right on the Pacific Coast Wine Trail, which boasts ten amazing wineries and wine tasting rooms on the Central Coast that are the perfect place to stop and sip when you need to take a load off.