San Luis Obispo County (SLO CAL) — halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco — is a classic California blend of sea, soil, and oh-so-laid-back vibes. It’s all about wide open spaces, extended growing seasons, wildlife, trails, and the freshest of flavors.
If you didn’t know any better, this could be a mere Highway One pit stop. Fortunately, you now know better. Here’s a sampling of the reasons why SLO CAL should be your next vacation destination.
1. Our road trips are eco-friendly.
The portion of Highway One that winds through coastal San Luis Obispo County is nothing short of awesome. People have been known to drive down here from as far as Seattle just to get a glimpse of our shoreline. Along the way are artsy towns, seaside hamlets, and incredible viewpoints at pretty much every turn.
But hey, this is California, so 10 towns — Cambria, San Simeon, Cayucos, Aliva Beach, and others — have gotten together to create Stewardship Travel, a program that means your trip isn’t just about great views and vibes…it can be sustainable, too. You can pitch in, eco-style, along this 101-mile stretch of the Highway One Discovery Route, whether it’s by helping to restore native plants, maintain trails, or support local wildlife programs. Stop by Avila Beach, Cayucos, and Cambria visitor centers to pick up a Stewardship Cleanup Kit to get started.
2. Seaside castles are kinda our thing.
As you’re cruising down Highway One, you might notice ornate towers overlooking the Pacific somewhere near the town of San Simeon. That’d be Hearst Castle. This mammoth mansion was once the private residence of the enigmatic publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. These days it’s a state park, in all its 165-room glory (including 60 bathrooms…). Think Versailles — but modern and Americanized.
With Greco-Roman-style architecture, terraced gardens, and mosaic-tiled swimming pools, this place is opulent, to say the least. If you were anybody in the 1920s and ’30s, you definitely partied here. Hearst Castle was a go-to spot for a long list of celebs and powerful politicians, including Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Clark Gable, and Calvin Coolidge. Nowadays, a different breed of notables call this place home. Resident zebras and other exotic animals left over from the heyday of opulence — because, of course, Hearst had his own exotic zoo — still roam the area.
3. Cambria is California, slowed down.
Just south of San Simeon on Highway One is the artist town of Cambria. Surrounded by Monterey pines and only minutes from the sea, this enclave has been attracting creatives for decades. There’s a seaside boardwalk, plenty of galleries downtown, and seemingly endless spots for watching the sun dip below the horizon in the evening.
The food in Cambria reflects the area’s agricultural roots. Farms here produce everything from organic arugula to sweet oranges to goat milk. At the Cambria Pines Lodge Restaurant, known for its local and organic fare, even the salads are totally decadent, complete with grilled artichoke hearts, asparagus, eggplant, corn, avocado, and basically every other fresh-sounding ingredient you can dream up — and there’s Central Coast wine, too. Robin’s Restaurant is a great place to hang out on a relaxed patio with classic pub fare and a locally brewed beer. And then there’s Linn’s, which started out as a fruit stand (so you know it’s good). Grab a cheese plate and a slice of olallieberry (a type of blackberry) pie, and settle in for the aforementioned sunset.
4. We have the ultimate road trip food, too.
In Cayucos, the pier is a great place to watch local fishermen pull in their latest catch. This seaside town opens up onto the beach, where somehow it mixes one-part surfing village with one-part hometown mainstreet and one-part antique-hunter paradise.
For food, follow your nose to The Grill at Cass House and try the grilled prawns with espellette marinade, arugula, lime, oregano, and paprika oil. Follow that up with a stop at the Brown Butter Cookie Company, home to what must be the best cookies ever, period. The simple, shortbread-style treats are made with — you guessed it — brown butter, and come in a variety of flavors. There are fresh-baked samples, but you’re probably going to want to take a bag to go. Don’t be surprised if they don’t make it home.
5. Not one mammoth-sized creature…
For most of the year, southern elephant seals can be seen at the Piedras Blancas Rookery in San Simeon. With their distinctive “trunk,” these giants grow up to 16 feet in length. Just think about that for a second — these are the second-largest seals on Earth. Conscientious wildlife viewing is key to the whole “stewardship travel” idea advocated around here, and these big guys are part of the reason why.
6. …but two call SLO CAL home.
The size of a California condor is completely unfathomable until you see one in person. With a wingspan of over 10 feet — that’s the height of the average story in an office building — California condors are the biggest flying birds on the continent. These massive scavengers nearly went extinct in the 1980s, but conservation efforts have increased their numbers considerably, though they’re still critically endangered. One of the best places to view them soaring in the wild is at the Hi Mountain Lookout, near Santa Margarita, in the Los Padres National Forest.
Tip: Bring your binoculars and a camera, or only the locals will believe you.
7. We’ve got music for all tastes.
Music festivals are common in California, but in SLO CAL you can enjoy jazz in historic missions or take in country music in old-style saloons where you might just bump into Neil Young.
The Festival Mozaic features classical, jazz, and world music performed in places like Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which was founded in 1772 and is the namesake of the county. For more contemporary styles, head to the small town of Pozo. A true Wild West town, its Pozo Saloon hosts the Higher Grounds Music Festival, as well as the Pozo Stampede Country Music Festival. These events have featured the likes of — get this — Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Lynrd Skynrd, and more. Now that’s a list.
8. The Happiest City in America is right here.
National Geographic author Dan Buettner ranked the city of San Luis Obispo as “the happiest place in America.” What’s the secret? Wide sidewalks, green spaces, pedestrian zones, and abundant bike lanes limit traffic and pollution. Drive-thrus are banned, which pushes dining options to the healthier side of the spectrum, as you’ll find at the bustling Thursday night farmers market. This was also the first place in the world to ban smoking in indoor public spaces, including bars and restaurants.
The result: a healthy, highly social, and thriving city of about 45,000. This place feels different. More grounded, less chaotic. If this is your flow, this might just be your happy place, too.
9. Hiking days are always on the calendar…
In SLO CAL, practically countless miles of trails mean no shortage of options — from epic mountain adventures to tranquil coastal walks. There’s the lush environs of Reservoir Canyon, a Sycamore-shaded trail just off the 101. Or the Bob Jones Trail that takes you all the way from San Luis Obispo to Avila Pier. If you prefer hikes of the distractingly beautiful variety, Bluff Trail in Los Osos is hard to beat.
10. …as are biking and climbing days.
From meandering country roads to white-knuckle single tracks, SLO CAL’s dozens of bike routes definitely don’t disappoint. Cruise from winery to winery in the Chardonnay-rich Edna Valley, or challenge yourself to the City to Sea route, a 68-mile journey that rolls from San Luis Obispo to Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, Los Osos, and Morro Bay. If you want to see more of the city, check out a historical biking tour — you’ll cycle past Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the Railroad District, and other living remnants of the past.
If you feel the need to get off the ground and wheels just don’t cut it, SLO CAL does that, too. In Morro Bay, beginners can try top-roping and sport-leading at Cabrillo Peak and finish the day with a plate of seafood at the Windows on the Water restaurant. For more seasoned climbers, SLO CAL is full of bouldering, sport-, and trad-climbing options. And if you can’t get outdoors, there are two indoor climbing gyms here, too.
11. All this, and you’re still in wine and beer country.
Wine country in San Luis Obispo County is Napa-level. Seriously. With Paso Robles, Edna Valley, and Arroyo Grande recognized as award-winning American Viticultural Areas, the region produces roughly two dozen varietals, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay being the most popular. Check out Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles for their mountain-grown Cabs, or head to Chamisal Vineyards in San Luis Obispo, the first winery in the Edna Valley.
Beer drinkers will be at home here, too. The options are plentiful, especially in the town of Paso Robles, where you’re probably going to want to stop in at the tasting room of the Firestone Walker Brewing Company — it’s just off the 101. A pioneer in the microbrew movement, they’ve been heralded as the producer of some of the best beers in America.
12. SLO CAL = “slow” Cal.
San Luis Obispo County really lives up to the moniker. Soak in the waters of Avila Beach’s Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort or drive your car onto the town’s Harford Pier — yes, your car (the pier was originally made for horse-drawn carriages). Hunt for shells in nearby Pismo Beach and enjoy its classic beach town vibe. Around the corner you’ll find Grover Beach and Arroyo Grande, where you don’t need to worry about anything but when the next summertime festival will be. In Oceano, visit the Oceano Dunes by driving onto the beach — one of the only beaches in the state where you can get so close to the water for a front-seat sunset.
That’s the thing about SLO CAL. There really are surprises around every corner.