Scenic Drive: California Central Coast
Thinking about hitting the road with the top down? But wait. A 61-mile stretch of Highway 1 is closed after winter storms crippled the bridge leading into Big Sur. Is there a scenic detour? You bet! So don’t cancel your plans to make the classic road trip from northern to southern California. Just do it in sections. Once I decided that, I imagined driving Highway 101 to Paso Robles, turning west on Highway 46, passing hilltop winery estates, rows of dewy-green vineyards and arriving at the Pacific. Planning went like a breeze. A week later, I was eye-to-eye with the pounding surf.
For my first long drive of the year, Cambria became my home base to sample the outdoor thrills from Cayucos to Ragged Point. Each coastal town has a unique character with plenty of restaurants, shops and events to round out a four-day trip.
CALIFORNIA: Cambria, San Simeon, Cayucos
Plan Your Trip. Consider renting a convertible. Costco members know how easy it is to get into a cool set of wheels. Check out the inventory for Avis, Hertz, Budget and Enterprise at Costco Car Rentals.
Wildflowers are everywhere in April and May. The bluffs at Piedras Blancas Light Station are bright with yellow yarrow, seaside poppies and pink dune daisies.
Spring is also prime time for wildlife viewing. Head outdoors during dawn, dusk and the incoming tides when birds, fish, and mammals are active. Look for churning water, diving birds, shiny dolphin backs, seals and otters in bays and on open water.
Gray whales migrate from the winter calving lagoons in Mexico up the coast to summer feeding grounds in the Arctic, traveling close to shore. Watch for heart-shaped blows. Humpbacks are the most acrobatic and breech and flap their tails. Blue whales can be spotted from June to October wherever krill is abundant. Orcas roam the coast in pods, hunting gray whale pups and seals.
Sea otters hang out in the kelp beds. To keep from drifting, they wrap themselves in kelp and spend hours grooming to keep their fur waterproof. Harbor seals congregate on protected beaches to give birth and nurse their young. Elephant seals haul out on beaches and molt in spring. At the very least, don’t head home without a walk on the Piedras Blancas Rookery boardwalk. You haven’t lived until you’ve looked into the coal-black eyes of an elephant seal.
Learn More. Watch National Geographic videos and get tips from Ocean Today. Learn about Orcas on a PBS Nature video. Human garbage is one the greatest threats to wildlife. You can pick up Stewardship Traveler Clean-up Kits at in Cayucos and Cambria at the local chambers of commerce and visitor centers.
On The Road with Jo on YouTube is an entertaining romp through the coastal towns. The Highway 1 Discovery Route itineraries cover wildlife viewing, coastal trails, wine region, bike routes, and beaches. Love kayaking? Kayaks rentals and tours are available in San Simeon at William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach. Sign up with Kayak Cambria, or call 800.717.5225 to set up a guided tour of San Simeon Cove and the Moonstone kelp forest.
View the events calendar. The Cambria Wildflower Show is held April 29 to 30. The Paso Robles Wine Festival is May 18 to 21. Check highway conditions. Highway 1 in Monterey County is closed due to structural damage to the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, a mile south of Big Sur. This will be a long-term closure, states the official news release. Crews have also closed Highway 1 from Ragged Point to 15 miles north of Big Sur at Palo Colorado. Caltrans, or Caltrans Highway Information Network 800.427.7623, provides updates.
DAY 1 Getting there. Cambria
Drive to Cambria and check into the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage for the weekend.
The Piedras Blancas light keeper’s house was sold to a local in the 1960s for $1. The new owner cut the house in fours, moved it and carpenters reassembled it. It looks the same as it did in historic photos at Piedras Blancas Light Station. Now a rental, the three-bedroom house sits in a prime spot a half-block from Moonstone Beach boardwalk. Mid-week rates are about what you’d pay for a hotel.
Have dinner at a seaside restaurant.
The house is a stone’s throw from the Sea Chest on Moonstone Beach Dr. The oyster bar and dining room open at 5:30 p.m. but a line begins forming at 5 p.m. Avoid the first rush and arrive for the unofficial second seating around 6:45 p.m. Best place to watch the sunset. Bring cash, at least $50 per person due to the no-credit card policy. Don’t miss this gem.
6216 Moonstone Beach Dr., Cambria, CA
DAY 2 San Simeon
Tour Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.
Tours are offered Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday at 9:45 a.m. The groups meet at the former Piedras Blancas Motel 1.5 miles north of the light station. After the tour, walk the half-mile trail to admire the wildflowers and wave action around the sea stacks, the iconic white rocks; piedras blancas in Spanish. Learn more.
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Tours
San Simeon, CA 93452
805.927.7361 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Have lunch at Sebastian’s in Old San Simeon Village.
Across the highway from the castle is the hot spot for burgers made with Hearst Ranch beef. Steve Hearst often pops over for a burger. The general store, built in 1852, was once the center of this rural community. Remnants from those days include the post office, barn wood siding and copper bar top. Sebastian’s is also the tasting room for Hearst Ranch Winery, known for its cuvée blends. Afterward, walk down to the Discovery Center and out to the end of the San Simeon Pier.
Sebastian’s General Store and Cafe
Hearst Ranch Winery
442 SLO San Simeon Rd., San Simeon, CA 93452
805.927.3307 or 805.927.4100
Tour Hearst Castle.
Ride the tram to the Hearst’s sprawling hilltop estate to tour the 115-room main house, guest houses, pools, and eight-acre garden. William Randolph Hearst built a private retreat to house his art collection: souvenirs from several round-the-world trips. He also brought in a menagerie of exotic animals. Back on Highway 1, look for the Hearst Ranch zebras grazing alongside the cattle.
750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon, CA 93452
800.444.4445 tour reservations
DAY 3 San Simeon. Cambria. Cayucos
Watch the elephant seals.
The elephant seals have been coming to Piedras Blancas since 1990. Today more than 20,000 elephant seals migrate thousands of miles to this secluded sandy beach twice a year. From late March to around the first of May, juveniles and mothers (returning from their short, post-pupping migration) arrive on the beach for a month of molting. The seals are often inches from the boardwalk.
Piedras Blancas Rookery
Friends of the Elephant Seals
4 miles north of Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA 93452
Have lunch in the village of Cambria.
Usually a longtime resident is at the desk to give you the local scoop on the best places for lunch. You can also get a Stewardship Traveler Clean-up Kit and help keep the beaches pristine and safe for marine life. Also ask for the guide to Cambria Area Trails and Parks. Trailheads are often tucked away in residential areas and difficult to find.
Cambria Visitors Center and Chamber of Commerce
767 Main St., Cambria, CA 93428
Browse the shops and art galleries.
I can’t tell you the last time saw the sign: Working Artist; and actually saw someone with a paintbrush. Patrick Dennis creates compelling art. During my visit, he etched through layers of moody, smoky colors. I bought four mini oil paintings and lingered, watching him work and petting Bella the St. Bernard sprawled at my feet. His ocean landscapes are posted on Facebook: workingartiststudio.
815 Main Street #C, Cambria, CA 93428
805.909.9522 or email@example.com
DAY 4 Cambria, Cayucos
Pack a lunch and hike Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
The Ranch has eight entrances to trails that meander through 437 acres of protected forest, riparian habitat, and grasslands. The residents of Cambria held bake sales and fundraisers to save the dairy and cattle ranch from developers. Even the MidState Bank pitched in by donating a creekside property. Artists built the donor benches and no two are alike. What a place to sit with a journal and compose Lines From a Bench! On the bluff trail I felt inspired, if not to write or paint, at least to admire the Pacific’s ever-changing mood.
Taste award-winning wine on the Pacific Coast Wine Trail.
Moonstone Cellars offers a wide variety of wine to taste, from Grenache to full bodied Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, from crisp Sauvignon Blanc to dry Riesling. The winemaker Todd Clift is a member of the Pacific Coast Wine Trail and is often on hand to answer questions. The tasting room just off Main Street in the West Village of Cambria near Sheffield Street.
Drive to Cayucos. Whale watch from the Cayucos pier.
In spring gray whales migrate from Baja California to Alaska’s feeding grounds. Dusk is the optimal time for sightings. The new interpretive sign at the end of the pier is an official spot on the Whale Trail. When the ocean is calm, you can spot tail flukes and dorsal fins. Big splashes may indicate a whale has just breached. Notice the shape of whale blows: gray whales are heart-shaped; humpbacks tall and rounded; blue whale blows are tall and shaped like a champagne flute. An orca’s triangular triangular dorsal fin on the male stand as tall as six feet.
Sports & Recreation
Cayucos Pier. Whale Trail viewing site
10 Cayucos Dr., Cayucos, CA 93430
Have dinner at Schooner’s.
After sunset have dinner at Schooner’s. The menu has everyone’s ocean favorites. The chef piles crab, scallops, clams, shrimp and cod in the spicy cioppino. I had the sesame crusted ahi and wasabi mashed potatoes, but would come back for the Alaskan king crab legs and the lobster tail. They also feature Paso Robles wine.
171 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos, CA 93430
DAY 5 Heading home. Paso Robles
Shop for Paso Robles wine.
Discover the wineries at the forefront of central coast wine making. As you head east along Hwy. 46, turn left at Vineyard Dr. In seven miles you’ll come to Whalebone Vineyard. Workers unearthed whalebones when planting the vines. At the tasting bar, try the Rhone blends. The 2014 blend has Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah with flavors of raspberry and black pepper. Other award-winning wineries—Justin and Adelaide—are nearby and worth a visit.
8325 Vineyard Dr., Paso Robles, CA 93446
Justin Vineyards and Winery
11680 Chimney Rock Rd, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Adelaida Vineyards and Winery
5805 Adelaida Rd., Paso Robles, CA 93446
—text and photography by Donna Peck. Whale & landscape photography courtesy of Discovery Route Highway 1, Miata photo courtesy of Mazda USA.