Where Cowboys Meet Surfers: Best Towns of Cali’s Central Coast on Highway 1
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock
The drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco on Highway 1 is arguably America's most scenic road trip.
Most travelers rent a car in L.A. and head north, making stops, if any, in well-known hubs like Santa Barbara and Big Sur. Typically, the focus is more on the ocean-side drive itself rather than on the tiny destinations found along the way.
Despite driving directly through it, most travelers leave with only a passing glance of the Central Coast, not realizing that it is the gem of California, filled with seaside towns, coastal mountain ranges and rural wine regions.
Local brewer Rodney Cegelski said it best when he described the region as “where cowboys meet surfers,” shedding light on the mix of rural and ocean lifestyles, including the rolling, wine-producing hills of Paso Robles, the beer and barbecue-filled streets of San Luis Obispo, and the sunny coastlines of Morro Bay, Pismo and San Simeon. Below, we provide details and recommendations for some of our favorite small towns found along California’s Central Coast.
San Luis Obispo
Overview: Though not on the coast, San Luis Obispo is surrounded by mountains in a valley setting, with a downtown full of breweries, bars and restaurants. SLO has a little bit of everything to offer, including immediate access to the outdoors and wine country.
What to Do: Besides enjoying the college-town vibe and Spanish Mission-style architecture downtown, SLO’s coastal mountain range provides plenty of opportunity to get outside, whether it’s tasting in the local Edna Valley Wine Region or hiking trails such as the Bishop Peak Trail to enjoy the valley views and elevated lakes.
Where to Stay: Locally-owned SLO Brew is a great stop for local beer, and it is also opening five lofts above its brand new brewpub that range from one to three bedrooms, each with a kitchen, dining area and fireplace.
Where to Eat: SLO is a hub for Santa Maria-style barbecue joints. Whereas Memphis has ribs and Texas has brisket, Santa Maria-style centers around tri-tip, a tender, triangular muscle cut of the bottom sirloin that is then cooked over a deep set pit and open flame. Firestone Grill in downtown SLO is one of the best, serving it up in its trademark sandwich style: Dry-rubbed tri-tip on a buttered, toasted roll with a side of local pinquito beans. Other local favorite barbecue spots include Old San Luis BBQ and the Rib Line.
Don’t Miss: The weekly farmer’s market on Thursday provides the opportunity to try all the local barbecue vendors back-to-back-to-back, and also sample some of the region’s other culinary treats.
Overview: You’ll recognize Morro Bay immediately from the large rock formation, known as Morro Rock, protruding from the ocean just offshore. A fishing town by trade, Morro Bay’s charm is found in its harbor area, where boats come and go and restaurants, bars and small inns line the waterfront.
What to Do: Walk and enjoy the coastline, of course. For something more active, set sail on a sunny morning along the Morro Bay coastline with Red Anchor Charters, or lace up your hiking boots for the coastline trails of Montana de Oro State Park.
Where to Stay: The Anderson Inn, located on the waterfront, is prime real estate with rooms overlooking the harbor.
Where to Eat: Regardless of which restaurant you choose, you’ll want to order the catch of the day, which is most likely caught just offshore. Try local favorites like the Galley Seafood Bar and Grill, Giovanni’s Fish Market, or Tognazzini's Dockside Restaurant.
Don’t Miss: Wash down your visit with a locally-made wine alternative: Reef Point Hard Cider.
Overview: The city of Pismo is tucked between the coast and the highway, creating an elongated, decentralized town with a personality that, for a first-time visitor, can be hard to grasp. But, if you’re looking for a place to chill out on the beach, Pismo has one of the best stretches of coast in the region thanks to its rocky cliffs, soft sand and mountain backdrop.
What to Do: Shell Beach is arguably the most visually impressive cove thanks to its tall sea cliffs, and Pismo State Beach is a good place to camp. If you want to surf, rent a board in town and head to the Pismo Beach Pier, one of the area’s notorious surf spots.
Where to Stay: The ocean-front rooms at Cliffs Resort overlook Shell Beach and offer a front row seat to the sunset.
Where to Eat: To say that clam chowder is a thing in Pismo would be an understatement. Pretty much every restaurant in town — which is only a few miles in length — offers their own version and loves to brag about its superiority. Local opinions vary, of course, so feel free to ask around for recommendations from people you meet. The Splash Cafe, Cracked Crab, Wooly’s, Pismo Fish and Chips, and Brad’s Restaurant are all highly regarded and good places to start.
Don’t Miss: Walk the trails around Shell Beach, Cave Landing and Pirate’s Cove in the early morning or late afternoon to take in the natural beauty.
Overview: When it comes to wine in California, Napa and Sonoma have a tendency to cast a shadow on the State’s other regions. That’s a good thing for savvy travelers, who can enjoy a peaceful day or two in the lesser-visited Paso Robles wine country. The rolling, rural hills and charming do-it-yourself nature of the countryside will surely swoon you into a relaxing afternoon, especially when accompanied by a few glasses of the region's vino.
What to Do: Here in Paso, it’s all about the wine and rural, rolling hills of grapes. So, no trip is complete without a day of tasting, relaxing, and picnicking in the vineyards. For an active adventure that helps to take it all in, bike from winery to winery with Paso Bike Tours.
Where to Stay: Though Paso does have a downtown area, a stay out in the wine growing fields is the best way to experience its personality. Check out the bed and breakfast style lodging offered by Summerwood Winery & Inn.
Where to Eat: Where else but a wine bar? Thomas Hill Organics has an extensive Central Coast wine list to go along with grass-fed beef and free range poultry.
Don’t Miss: Although it is one of the more expensive wineries in Paso, stop at Daou Winery for its incredible panoramic views — arguably the best of the Central Coast.
More by Will McGough
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Recent Travel Opinions
Airlines & Airports
Features & Advice
Destination & Tourism