At just over 50 miles, it’s not a long drive. But the trip north from San Luis Obispo to Ragged Point on Highway 1 packs an awful lot into such a short distance. Although you could cover it in under an hour, with beach towns, long stretches of unspoiled coastline, and Hearst Castle along the route, who wants to hurry?
You’ll certainly want to slow down in SLO—that is, the city of San Luis Obispo. Hip and historic, it’s college and mission town in one, with open space perfect for hiking and mountain biking just a few minutes from a walkable downtown.
Wake up with a double espresso made from locally roasted beans and just try to resist the almond croissants at Scout Coffee, where the weathered brick wall interior is as pleasing as that first cup of joe. Take a walk through downtown and along restored Mission Creek before visiting the 1772 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, where you can stroll beneath a shaded grape arbor in the serene gardens.
Or if you’re looking for more of a workout, power up with the Big Sky Café’s Devil’s Mess (scrambled eggs, onions, spinach, and spicy Andouille sausage among other ingredients) before challenging yourself on the single-track mountain biking loops at the 720-acre Irish Hills Natural Reserve. For more mountain biking near SLO, head into the high country just north of town for rides that lead to spectacular views across the county in the West Cuesta Ridge area of Los Padres National Forest.
Before leaving SLO, grab lunch at Taste, where you can take your pick of such surprises as a banh mi sliders, then customize your mac-and-cheese with ingredients that include smoked gouda, pulled pork, and jalapenos.
Next stop, drive north on Highway 1 to the harbor town of Morro Bay.
Highway 1 leaves town and quickly starts cruising through open, rolling hills, with Bishop Peak, home to some of SLO’s best hiking (and views!), off to your left.
In about 20 minutes, you’ll reach the shops and restaurants on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero. Follow the waterfront boardwalk to the iconic 581-foot Morro Rock, Bishop Peak’s geological cousin, where you might spot nesting peregrine falcons. Or look for sea otters and other wildlife as you paddle the bay with a rental from Kayak Horizons. Seafood is always on the menu in Morro Bay, whether you queue up for the halibut fish-and-chips at Giovanni’s Fish Market or go for the pan-seared scallops in the Galley Seafood Grill & Bar’s contemporary, waterfront dining room.
From the Embarcadero, drive south along Main Street, passing the rookery where great blue herons and egrets nest in Morro Bay State Park. Learn about the local environment and take in a gorgeous view across the water while visiting the park’s interactive Museum of Natural History. Not far from the museum, hike the short trail to the summit of Black Hill Lookout for more panoramas out over the bay. And while Morro Bay is justly famous for its wildlife, if you’re actually more into birdies than birds, play a round on the state park’s historic Morro Bay Golf Course, which dates to 1923.
Continue up the coast to the nearby beach town of Cayucos.
With its ranching traditions and surfing, Cayucos’ unique blend of the Old West and tasty waves earned it honors as America’s coolest small town from Budget Travel magazine a few years back. Walk out above the water on the pier for views down coast to Morro Rock and to watch surfers catch their precious waves.
While in town, shop for beach-themed art at the Cayucos Collective and stock up on delectable smoked salmon and ahi at Ruddell’s Smokehouse. For dessert treats to munch on during the drive, you’ll definitely want to pick up a collection of Brown Butter Cookie Company’s sweet-and-salty specialties. The espresso cookies are irresistible, but keep a watch out for limited edition flavors and such newly introduced varieties as cinnamon.
If you’re looking for more of a sit-down dining experience, The Grill at Cass House serves up an impressive lobster roll at lunch and such dinner favorites as Tuscan-style short ribs with charred tomatillo salsa. On the way out of town, walk off a few of your Cayucos calories as you follow the network of trails that explore four miles of coastline and the secluded pocket beaches at Estero Bluffs State Park.
Go north to the old dairy town of Harmony.
The coastal trails at Harmony Headlands State Park lead through onetime ranching and dairy lands to a hidden stretch above the ocean. The park gets its name from the tiny, historic creamery town across the highway, where Harmony Cellars, a family-owned boutique winery, has a tasting room and carries out a local winemaking tradition that goes all the way back to the late 1800s.
This sprawling metropolis of only 18 people (look out for its population sign) also has an exquisite gallery of glass art, Harmony Glass Works, where you can learn to make your own pieces during one-hour glassblowing workshop. Or just leave the hard work to owner Eric Dandurand and browse the gallery for vases, jewelry, and sculptures that he and other leading glass artists from around the world have created. For more crafts, Harmony Pottery Works has been around since 1973 and sells beautiful ceramics and locally produced lavender soaps.
While in Harmony, keep your eyes open for a 1957-vintage ice cream truck. Considering Harmony is barely a block long, it shouldn’t be too hard to spot the truck. Indulge in some scoops and cones of Harmony Valley Creamery’s scrumptious craft ice cream. Select from six flavors, all described by the creamery as “udderly awesome.”
Harmony was founded in 1869 and things don’t change especially quickly around here, but a new restaurant is scheduled to open as the town’s new owners continue to fix things up.
Next stop is the coastal village of Cambria.
Just six miles or so north of Harmony, the highway enters a forest of Monterey pines at Cambria, an artsy and historic coastal village.
Browse the many craft and fine art galleries in the heart of town, including The Vault Gallery, which specializes in works by acclaimed West Coast artists and is located in a onetime bank building (hence the name). A piece of Olallieberry pie at Linn’s Restaurant is a Cambria tradition, as is lunch on the trellised patio at Robin’s Restaurant, a Central Coast favorite since 1985.
For fine dining, the Black Cat Bistro takes full advantage of San Luis Obispo County’s local and seasonal bounty in such dishes as an appetizer featuring abalone raised in Cayucos. During the day, discover premium varietals from boutique Central Coast wineries at Madeline’s Restaurant’s tasting room; by night, pair your new favorites with such tantalizing entrees as a lamb tenderloin topped with dried fig and in a Zinfandel reduction.
But before settling in for dinner, you’ll want to catch sunset, so take your pick of two memorable Cambria spots: the mile-long boardwalk along the coves at Moonstone Beach or Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, where trails along the marine terrace connect into the pine forests in the hills high above the ocean.
Drive north to the visitor center for one of California’s most famous landmarks, Hearst Castle.
Designed by legendary architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle is positively enthralling: a collection of priceless art and antiques from all over the world, exquisitely assembled in a mountaintop Mediterranean estate that Hearst dubbed La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill).
The castle out-Hollywoods Hollywood and is as grand as the finest palaces of Europe. And the story of its visionary owner, William Randolph Hearst, is a made-in-America fable that proves that fact is truly stranger than fiction.
Considering that the castle rambles over roughly 80,000 square feet, 165 rooms, and 123 acres of gardens and pools, no single tour can fully capture its splendor. In fact, take your pick of nine different ways to explore the castle, including seasonal evening and holiday tours. Or splurge on your very own four-hour private tour for up to six people.
Love art? The Art of San Simeon Tour looks at the priceless assortment of tapestries, paintings, and sculptures that Hearst collected for his castle. Limited to eight visitors, the tour explores a few rooms that have never been previously accessible to the public. Or for architecture buffs, nothing beats the Designing the Dream Tour, which focuses on the unique creative collaboration between Hearst and Morgan that spanned more than 30 years.
It’s just a few minutes downhill to your next stop at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach.
Along the coastline below the castle, there’s more Hearst history at San Simeon Bay, which is part of Hearst San Simeon State Park. At what is now William Randolph Hearst State Memorial Beach, stroll out on San Simeon Pier, where many of the castle’s treasures came ashore.
Keep an eye out for harbor seals, sea lions, and sea otters as you paddle the bay’s protected waters on a tour with Kayak Cambria. Or hike along the bluffs and through the forest on the 2.5-mile roundtrip trek to San Simeon Point. A couple minutes up the quiet shoreline road, grab a juicy burger made with Hearst Ranch beef at Sebastian’s General Store, which was built in the mid-19th century. Sebastian’s is also home to Hearst Ranch Winery’s tasting room, which pours such varietals as Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, and Malbec.
Hearst wasn’t the only colossus to call this coast home. A few miles past the turnoff for the castle, get close-up looks at giant elephant seals (some bulls weigh more than 5,000 pounds) as they battle for territory along the beach at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Depending on the time of year, you’ll also see newborn pups with their mothers, and docents are onsite to explain the seals’ behavior and describe the seasonal cycle at the beach.
Drive up coast and into southern Big Sur on your way to Ragged Point.
On the way to Ragged Point from Piedras Blancas, take in the stunning, untouched coastline views to your left as Highway 1 twists and climbs up the southernmost cliffs of Big Sur. Stroll through the gardens at the Ragged Point Inn & Resort to see what’s blooming, or work your way down the short but definitely steep 1.2-mile roundtrip Ragged Point Cliffside Trail to reach a secluded black-sand beach. (And remember, you have to climb back up!)
For a casual lunch, head over to the sandwich stand to order up a burger, salad, or fish and chips (there’s also an ice cream stand). After getting your food, settle in at one of the picnic tables or spread out a blanket on the broad lawn. On summer weekends, enjoy live music in the plaza, or stay for a romantic gourmet dinner served 400 feet above the Pacific Ocean at the Ragged Point Restaurant.
After being closed for months at Ragged Point, Highway 1 is again open all the way to Salmon Creek, about 15 minutes north. Follow the Salmon Creek Trail into the rugged coastal mountains as you hike along a canyon and through oak forests to Spruce Camp. For day hikers, it’s a good turnaround spot and makes for a beautiful four-mile roundtrip outing.