San Luis Obispo County is a California road trip classic.
Situated roughly halfway between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, it’s no coincidence that the first motel had its home here. If ever there was a place made for exploring behind the wheel of a car, San Luis Obispo County is it. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s my favorite place to be when I’m roadtripping in the Golden State.
What’s so special about San Luis Obispo County?
California has an embarrassment of wealth when it comes to world-class destinations. It’s the state that gave us Disneyland and Hollywood, Yosemite and Palm Springs, Death Valley and Napa Valley. Even though I’ve yet to explore many of the state’s more high profile sights, I keep returning to San Luis Obispo County. Why? Because it encapsulates everything I’ve come to know and love about California.
Writing about places you’ve traveled to can sometimes be a mental challenge. You have to be hyper aware–to remember the things you saw and heard and smelled and felt so you can later recount your experience to others. I was on a break from blogging the first time I took a dedicated trip to the area, and I’ve retained that “live in the moment” approach to the region. Since the happy accident that landed me in Morro Bay on my two-week West Coast solo road trip in 2012, I’ve made three subsequent visits to SLO County. With each visit, I find even more reasons to return.
If you every decide to take that classic road trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco, be sure to hit up one of my five favorite stops in San Luis Obispo County.
One of the northernmost coastal towns in coastal San Luis Obispo County, San Simeon is home to Hearst Castle, the estate of the wealthy media magnate William Randolph Hearst, now a California State Park-managed property. “Opulent, obsessive, and almost obscene. It’s a must-see stop in San Simeon along California’s Pacific Coast Highway.” I wrote those words about Hearst Castle following my first visit in 2012 and I still agree with my initial assessment. It’s a beautiful spot, rich with history and sweeping vistas over the Pacific Ocean. There’s little wonder I choose to return to each time I’m in the area.
The Castle lies just north of San Simeon Beach and a stone’s throw away from that quintessential California thoroughfare, Pacific Coast Highway. San Simeon Beach is a windswept spot that’s easy to get to and ideal for idling or lazily watching kiteboarders riding waves near the shore. It sits near several area hotels, making it the perfect the place to capture a spectacular California coast sunset before spending the night.
A 21-mile stretch of road connecting Paso Robles on Highway 101 and Harmony on Highway 1, Highway 46 is a gorgeous, easy drive through Central Coast farmland. Lined with wineries and vineyards large and small, the gently winding road cuts a picturesque path into a green valley surrounding by signature rolling hills. As you near the coast, a few scenic viewing areas grant patient drivers views out to the Pacific Ocean. On a clear day, you can see the imposing silhouette of Morro Rock in the distance.
They say the small town of Cambria is the midpoint between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Whether that’s technically accurate doesn’t matter, but it’s easy to see why this charming burg would make a wonderful stop when driving between the two major cities. A hearty breakfast at the homey Redwood Cafe will fuel your adventures wherever the day may take you. Be sure to take your morning meal al fresco on the sunlit outdoor patio. If I’m being honest, I still think about that bottomless mug of coffee and the stack of buttermilk pancakes bursting with blueberry flavor.
After breakfast, a wander around the small town is in order. Check out one of the many artist studios or antique shops that seem to be on nearly every corner. If you arrive on a Wednesday, be on the lookout for the Wednesday Regulars, a group of local artists who set up their easels on a quiet street corner each Wednesday to capture slices of life on the California Coast.
I’ll always be grateful for Morro Bay because it’s the town that initially captivated my interest in this part of the world. Each time I’ve returned to San Luis Obispo County, my visit doesn’t feel complete without stopping for a while in Morro Bay. And each time I visit this seaside town, I always make time to do two things. First, I spend an hour or two near the ocean in the shadow of Morro Rock, amusing myself with the antics of the resident otters and seagulls. Second, I head over to the Embarcadero to The Garden Gallery, the most enchanting plant nursery-cum-housewares shop to check out its extensive collection of succulents and to see what’s new in.
In English, Los Osos means “the bears,” but I’ve never seen one on my visits to the beautiful 8,000-acre Montaña De Oro State Park. The drive to the park takes you on a narrow, uphill road through a grove of aromatic eucalyptus trees. Although a sign at the trailhead of the park’s popular Bluff Trail warns about rattlesnakes, I fortunately haven’t seen any of them either, although I’m always on the lookout. The moderately flat 2.1-mile trail is an easy walk along the rugged beauty of volcanic cliffs. Or you can head down near the water’s edge near Spooner’s Cove to seek out tidepools teeming with aquatic life instead.
San Luis Obispo
Once called the happiest place in America, I first sought out San Luis Obispo because I wanted to know if there was any truth to the distinction. While I can neither confirm nor deny this honor, I can truthfully say I feel my happiest when I’m there. Whether I’m experiencing sunrise over the verdant valley after a pre-dawn hike to the top of Bishop Peak, inhaling a massive breakfast at Louisa’s Place, sampling the food stalls of a Thursday Night Farmer’s Market or ending my night catching a new release at the Sunset Drive-In, there’s an unmistakable contentment that settles me during each visit to SLO.
A word of advice
Over the years, I’ve explored San Luis Obispo County as part of a larger road trip, or as the main attraction. Each time, it’s never disappointed me. Here’s my word to the wise for travelers driving through to San Francisco or Los Angeles: stay awhile. It’s tempting to speed past some of these less well-known attractions and destinations, but taking some time to slow down in this lovely county has its own rewards. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.