An Essential PCH Road Trip
Highway 1 has been called “America’s most scenic drive”…and once you drive it you’ll understand why. Prepare to enter another world of coastal hamlets, lush woodlands, and vibrant small towns. The 101-mile stretch from Ragged Point to Nipomo is also known as the California Highway 1 Discovery Route, and packs a major punch, boasting some of the most memorable towns and incredible natural beauty along the highway. From the gilded opulence of Hearst Castle, to the quirky charm of Nitt Witt Ridge and the natural beauty of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, this stretch of Highway 1 through San Luis Obispo County (SLO CAL) is truly the road trip of a lifetime.
There aren’t too many American mansions worthy of being called “castles,” but San Simeon is home to one of them. Hearst Castle is just off Highway 1, and it’s jaw-droppingly opulent. Completed in 1919, it took over 28 years to complete; with over 170 rooms, it’s easy to see why. Plus, the ornate and detailed Renaissance- and Medieval-inspired architecture is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And the surrounding area is landscaped to perfection.
The castle has definitely cemented its place in history. The house (and the life of its owner, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst) was the inspiration for the classic film “Citizen Cane,” and it’s Xanadu mansion. There are various kinds of tours offered, and the guides are both friendly and knowledgeable. The Grand Rooms Tour is the best option for first-timers; you can learn about the history, art, and architecture, and you’ll get to see the out-of-this-world Roman Pool. Book tickets in advance!
Dedicated to educating visitors about marine wildlife, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is a stop everyone will love. Right off the highway, the rookery consists of a boardwalk and other viewing areas, putting you less than 100 feet from one of the most beautiful sea creatures around — the elephant seal. A non-profit organization run by volunteers, this free attraction is one of the few places in the world where you can safely observe hundreds of elephant seals in their natural habitat. Watch the seals play, splash, and communicate in their distinct style. You’ll be entertained by these creatures and their distinctive personalities for hours. When visiting, be sure to go to the elephant seal viewing platform, and also talk with one of the seal “friends” to learn more about these majestic animals.
One of the most interesting houses you’ll ever see, Nitt Witt Ridge is a hand-built “castle on a hill” created by garbageman Arthur Harold Beal, otherwise known as Captain Nitt Witt. Starting in 1928, Arthur spent the next 50 years handcrafting the building from beer cans, sea shells, and other found objects. Some parts of the home are allegedly made from stuff from Hearst Castle. With unique architecture that reflects Art’s larger-than-life personality, the house is also filled with an incredible collection of knick knacks he collected over the years. It’s a folk art icon, a testament to what a dedicated, self-taught, visionary person can make with seemingly nothing. Current owners Micheal and Stacey O’Malley offer guided tours and ask for a 10 dollar donation.
Estero Bluffs State Park
San Simeon, CA
Tucked away on the California coast line, Estero Bluffs State Park is home to a wide range of biological diversity. As with most state parks in California, the park is committed to preserving the extraordinary natural and cultural resources of the state. Home to incredible views of wetlands, bluffs, and a small cove and beach at Villa Creek, there’s plenty to see and do here. Hike, surf, fish, or just enjoy the sand. There are also several Native American sites which are fascinating to explore. For most of the year, you can expect to see California wildlife such as seals and sea birds as well!
Built in 1872 by Captain James Cass, the Cayucos Pier is rich in California history. It played a significant role in commercial life for merchant boats coming from Los Angeles and San Fransisco in the early 20th century. While incredibly active through the early 1900s, the pier’s usefulness was ultimately diminished thanks to the boom in truck and trains transportation. But thanks to significant investments in renovation, the pier continues to remain a storied part of the Golden State’s history, and is a great place to stop and take in ocean views. Keep an eye out for whales; they love putting on a show for their guests.
Another can’t-miss California state park, Montaña De Oro State Park is a biker’s and outdoor enthusiast’s dream. With dozens of trails for bikers and hikers, you’ll have a blast exploring what the park has to offer. If you’re looking for a great hiking trail, the Point Buchon Trail is the perfect mix of beauty and excitement. In addition to the trails, the coastal views along the cliffs are gorgeous. Many visitors claim the park almost feels like Ireland, with the sweeping ocean views and mild climate. There’s plenty of camping here, and if you’re looking to swim, Spooner’s Cove is a great patch of beach. If you’re wondering where it gets the name “Mountain of Gold” from, you need only visit in the spring to see the wildflowers covering the park!
One of the most popular camping destinations in all of California, Port San Luis has everything you would expect from a booming coastal town. While some of the more popular attractions can be a little on the pricey side, there’s plenty to keep you entertained. Whether you’re into charter fishing, want to check out a world-class seafood market, or are looking for great dining options, Port San Luis has it all. During your visit, be sure to check out Bob Jones Trail; rent a boat, jet ski, or paddle board; and stroll along the Avila Beach Boardwalk. Also, if you have a furry friend with you, there’s an excellent dog beach right next to the pier.
Located in the heart of Edna Valley, Old Edna Townsite is a 1800s town that was bought, restored, and turned into a charming little destination with dining, shopping, and accommodations. Spoil yourself by renting one of two vacation rentals on site or staying at the B&B, or just stop by to sample the wares at Edna Hall’s Sextant Wine Tasting Room and the delicious Gourmet Deli. Best yet, there are over 25 award-winning wineries throughout Edna Valley to complete your wine tasting trip. The whole place has been lovingly preserved, and has a quirky, 1800s charm that’s absolutely intoxicating. Whether you stay here and use Old Edna as a home base for exploring Big Sur and its nearby wineries and towns, or just stop by, it’s a cute little gem.
Created in 1969 to provide water for the “Five Cities” area of the central coast, the Lopez Lake Recreation Area has been a camping favorite for over five decades. With near-perfect summer temperatures and easy access to trails, boating, fishing and more, you might never want to leave. There are over 1,000 acres of lake and a wide range of fish for avid fishermen to pursue. In addition to great boating and fishing options, the park is home to over 175 species of flowering plants and more than 150 species of birds, which should keep any nature enthusiasts in your group busy. Plus, with more than 350 campsites, you can take your time really enjoying this bit of paradise.
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area
There’s nothing quite like taking your vehicle for a spin in the incredible Ocean Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, aka California’s most epic sandbox. Get lost in the seemingly endless dunes in the comfort of your car, or set up a few beach chairs to soak in the view — the choice is entirely up to you. The Ocean Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is something you have to experience for yourself. Be sure to pull over and spend some time collecting sand dollars to remember your trip by on your way back home. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, there are ATVs to rent throughout the park, perfect for adding a little more adrenaline to your trip. Plus, bonfires and camping on the beach are the perfect end to a day of excitement!
As your trip draws to a close, there’s no better way to end your journey than with a quick stop at Oso Flaco Lake. Navigate numerous trails through the wetlands that lead to the beach; you’ll encounter a wide range of wildlife, including birds and animal tracks in the sand. In addition, Oso Flaco offers gorgeous views of the surprisingly verdant sand dunes you won’t soon forget. There are plenty of trees, some of which are even dripping with Spanish moss. The walk to the beach is about a mile each way, making it perfect for just about everyone. Whether you want to spend the day birdwatching and enjoying views of the San Luis Bay, or getting some sun on the beach, Oso Flaco Lake is a relaxing way to end your trip.
There’s no better way to explore the beautiful state of California than by taking an adventure down San Luis Obispo’s stretch of Highway 1. Whether you’re looking to explore the world famous Hearst Castle, make friends with elephant seals, or spend time connecting with nature, this road trip is as close as it gets to perfection.