Highway 1 is arguably America’s most scenic road trip. Many people fly into Los Angeles, rent a car, and cruise up the coast to San Francisco. While the 450-mile trip could be driven in a couple days, we highly recommend a week. San Luis Obispo County, which many people breeze through after visiting Santa Barbara on their way to Big Sur, is the gem of California. Local brewer Rodney Cegelski said it best when he described the region as “where cowboys meet surfers.” Here, we shine the spotlight on a few lesser-known towns worth visiting.
San Luis Obispo
Though not on the coast, San Luis Obispo (SLO) — the county’s flagship town — is well worth a stop. With a downtown full of breweries, bars, and restaurants, and a location adjacent to the Edna Valley Wine Region, SLO has a little bit of everything. Most notably is its hub of 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. Locally-owned SLO Brew is a great stop for local beer, and it’s also opening five lofts above its brand new brewpub that range from one to three bedrooms, each with a kitchen, dining area, and fireplace. Hikers looking to head out into the hills should check out the Bishop Peak Trail for great valley views, elevated lakes, and views above the low-hanging clouds.
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 best offerings are found in its harbor area, where you can lodge (Anderson Inn) and dine on fresh fish (The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar) while overlooking the comings and goings of sailboats and fishing vessels. 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. Wash down your visit with a locally-made wine alternative: Reef Point Hard Cider.
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. 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. 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. 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. If you’d like to treat yourself, the ocean-front rooms at Cliffs Resort overlook Shell Beach and offer a front row seat to the sunset.
When it comes to wine in California, Napa and Sonoma have a tendency to cast a shadow on 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 pinot noir, the region’s flagship varietal. For an active adventure, bike winery to winery with Paso Bike Tours. Although it’s one of the more expensive wineries in Paso, we recommend a stop at Daou Winery for its incredible panoramic views — arguably the best of the Central Coast. Though Paso does have a downtown area, a stay out in the wine-growing fields is the best way to experience its personality.
Overlooking the ocean from the top of the coastal mountains is the infamous Hearst Castle, the former estate of publisher William Hearst, a man credited with bringing yellow journalism — the idea of sensationalizing and selling the news — to America. At the peak of his career, he opened his home to many Hollywood celebrities, hosting legendary weekend parties. He also built what was at the time the world’s largest private zoo, filling it with dozens of species including lions, tigers, bears, jaguars, monkeys, and even an elephant. Today, Hearst Castle is a magical place to tour, with stories that evoke feelings of “if these walls could talk.” Interestingly enough, the zebras, set free in the 1950s, still wander the hillsides of San Simeon today. With miles of hillside to graze, they don’t always come close enough to the road to be seen, but your best chance is a few miles south of Hearst Castle, right when you come into San Simeon when driving north from Los Angeles. If your timing is right, you can also catch the elephant seal mating season from December to March, when hundreds lay belly up on the shores of Piedras Blancas.