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Courtesy of Visit California

6 Fantastic Outdoor Activities in the Central Coast

6 Fantastic Outdoor Activities in the Central Coast
Mother Nature is the star of the show along the Central Coast, so make sure to get outside and play

Big Sur Adventures

Using an e-bike isn’t cheating—it’s far more environmentally friendly than using a car, plus you get some exercise as well. And those climbs along the coast are much easier when you have a 750-watt assist. Big Sur Adventures offers a trio of e-bike tours for all levels of riders: 17-Mile Drive, the Old Coast Road, and McWay Falls. One of the best choices for intermediate riders is the Old Coast Road route, a dirt road that follows the original wagon trail into Big Sur. There are locals who haven’t been on this road, and the views are magnificent as they stretch along the coast, into oak and redwood groves, and across the Little Sur River. Trips include four to 12 people and typically last three to four hours. Sure, in a car, you can roll down the windows to smell the sea, but exploring the coast by bike gives you a full sensory experience: ocean and forest scents, warm sun on your arms, the sound of crashing waves and wind in the trees, and the feeling of getting a little closer to the wild coast.

Point Pinos Lighthouse

Standing its ground between a cypress grove and the Pacific Ocean, the Point Pinos Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the U.S. West Coast—and one of seven lighthouses for which Congress appropriated funding shortly after California statehood was ratified. But this lighthouse wasn’t just an aid to navigation; it was also a social hub in early Pacific Grove. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about lighthouse keeper Allen Luce and his piano playing, while a fondness for entertaining inspired locals to call keeper Emily Fish the Socialite Keeper. The lighthouse beacon, a third-order Fresnel lens, has flashed nightly since 1855 and is still used in the tower today—the light is visible up to 17 nautical miles out to sea. Docents are on duty to answer questions as you tour the lighthouse, from the 1890s-style parlor to the 1920s-style kitchen, and up to the Emily Fish bedroom and lookout. Right behind the lighthouse is the El Carmelo Cemetery, one of the most peaceful seaside cemeteries, with deer wandering through to nibble on the grass.

Pfieffer Beach

If you blink, you might miss the turnoff for Pfeiffer Beach. There’s no signage except for a yellow “Narrow Road” warning at the top of otherwise unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road, the only paved, ungated road on the west side of Highway 1 between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and the Big Sur Post Office. From the path that starts at the parking lot, this flat beach may not seem like much at first, but the view unfolds as you get closer. The focal point from Pfeiffer Beach’s wide, sandy beach is Keyhole Rock, a natural arch where the tide sweeps through as waves break on the rock. During low tide periods, you can find tide pools in this area, but always keep your eye on the ocean, which rises quickly. Walk to the northern end of the beach, where purple sand comes from the manganese garnet in the surrounding rocks (the best places to see it are under running streams of water). Pro tip: Those looking for a golden, romantic moment—and beautiful photos—should head here before sunset, to catch Keyhole Rock as the last rays of daylight pass through.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

One of Big Sur’s most iconic images comes from this state park: tree-topped rocks jutting above a golden beach next to crashing surf. If you’re not an avid outdoorsperson, this is possibly the best reward for an easy hike that exists: Visitors can view the 80-foot McWay Falls as it plummets from a granite cliff to the sandy cove below from the half-mile Waterfall Overlook Trail, which is easily accessible from the entrance gate of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The falls, creek, and canyon are named after Christopher McWay, an early settler and farmer, but the park itself is named after a legendary early pioneer who had a ranch in McWay Canyon with her husband. For a different view, turn to Ewoldsen Trail, a two-mile loop that crosses streams and winds through redwood trees. At its highest elevation gain, the views make any effort more than worthwhile. Pro tip: The Central Coast’s only known colony of double-crested cormorants live just offshore, so birders should bring binoculars—and patience.

Lotusland

As the name suggests, this 37-acre Santa Barbara garden is horticultural heaven. For more than 43 years, socialite and opera singer Madame Ganna Walska filled the grounds with more than 3,000 plants; after her death, Lotusland opened to the public in 1993 as a nonprofit botanical garden. The species of plants hail from all over the world, and the collection includes succulents, aloes, ferns, bromeliads, and water lilies. Other gardens are planted by theme, like the Blue Garden, Theatre Garden, and Water Garden. There’s never a bad time to visit, but if you’re especially interested in seeing the lotuses bloom, mark July and August in your calendar. Nonmember visitors must make reservations in advance for two-hour tours that include both horticultural and historical information, but the parties are small, so you’ll have a clear view of the gardens. If you want the luxury of wandering the gardens unattended, consider purchasing a membership. Either way, be sure to stop at the garden shop for plants and tools, and dream about creating your own little Lotusland at home.

Bart's Books

For bibliophiles, a beautiful bookstore is akin to a church. Voices hush, smiles abound, and books are handled gently, like precious relics. An old home packed with an extensive collection of used and new titles, Bart’s Books opened in 1964, when Richard Bartinsdale’s collection became so huge that he constructed bookcases outside, so passersby could peruse the titles. Instead of a cash register, he left coffee cans on the shelves so customers could leave payment. Today, Bart’s is the largest independently owned and operated outdoor bookstore in the country—and the books outside are still for sale via the honor system. But the offerings extend indoors too. If you’re looking for cookbooks and culinary lore, check in the building’s kitchen. The living room features poetry. Art books are in the gallery. The rest of the place is a maze of bookshelves with corrugated tin roofing and open-air seating areas for reading at your leisure. Don’t worry about rain: The books are fairly well protected, and while a few may be lost in the rare heavy storm, most make it through perfectly fine.

In Partnership with Afar.

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Central California

Discover the Central Coast

From the epic grandeur of Big Sur to the Mediterranean-style stretch of Santa Barbara coastline nicknamed “the American Riviera,” this region of picturesque hamlets, jagged sea cliffs, and rolling wine country has long attracted—not surprisingly—writers and artists mesmerized by its dreamlike beauty.

Monterey served as California’s first capital when the state’s first constitution was signed in in the coastal city in 1849.

Take the epic Highway One drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles to discover secret beaches and soaring cliffs along Big Sur, stroll a redwood trail, spy a sea otter at the incomparable Monterey Bay Aquarium, and sip Pinot Noir at sunset in the romantic Santa Ynez Valley.

Kenny Osehan
The creative force behind some of the state's coolest places to stay shares some Golden State recommendations

People to Know: Kenny Osehan

The creative force behind some of the state's coolest places to stay shares some Golden State recommendations

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Courtesy of Ventana Big Sur

5 Great Ways to Experience Highway 1

Discover your favorite way to take in this iconic drive through Big Sur and beyond

Now that repairs are complete, you can once again drive the legendarily scenic Highway 1 through Big Sur. With its redwood forests, towering...

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Casa de Fruta Courtesy of Casa De Fruta

Casa de Fruta Orchard Resort

Part fruit stand, part theme park, this Central Coast stop is the perfect place to fill your belly

What started as a humble cherry stand in 1908 is now a massive roadside attraction, welcoming more than 3 million visitors each year. Located 40...

San Luis Obispo to Ragged Point

San Luis Obispo to Ragged Point
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Stay at the Ragged Point Inn & Resort were you can see what’s blooming as you stroll through the gardens, or work your way down the short but steep 1.2-mile round-trip Ragged Point Cliffside Trail to reach a secluded black-sand beach.

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Courtesy of Alisal Guest Ranch Resort

Santa Maria Barbecue

Head to California’s Central Coast to try this distinctive regional cuisine at its source

The barbecue styles of Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas are well known around the U.S., but California’s Santa Maria Valley claims a...

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Zachary Miller/Getty Images

Spotlight: Ventura County

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Absorb the relaxed vibe of this classic California destination on the coast

When it comes to places in California that feel like one big outdoor playground, Ventura County, on the south end of the Central Coast, stands out...

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San Luis Obispo’s Bubble Gum Alley is filled with more than 1.7 million pieces of bubble gum.
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Spotlight: Santa Barbara

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Mediterranean style magic and a perfect ocean breeze

Bougainvillea twining across red-tiled rooftops, birdsong mingling with the ocean breeze, islands and whale spouts on the horizon—...

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See a few amazing wonders of the sea first-hand

California is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. Each year, about 20,000 gray whales make an epic 6,000-mile journey between Alaska and Mexico—and then back again. These...

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Kodiak Greenwood

Spotlight: Big Sur

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Art and nature merge on this rugged coast, one of California’s most spectacular settings

Welcome to one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline. This roughly 90-mile-long stretch of redwood- and fog-trimmed waterfront...

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Castroville produces 95 percent of the nation's artichokes. In 1948, Marilyn Monroe was crowned the town's first "Artichoke Queen."
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Follow celebrated routes to iconic vineyards and tucked-away surprises

With more than 4,000 wineries statewide, California lets you sample award-winning wines almost anywhere you go. These classic and up-and-coming wine roads—some too packed with wineries to tackle...

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Kid-friendly fun zones, special kids' menus & amazing wine for the grownups

Sure wine country is romantic, but now it’s a surprisingly great destination for families too, with a growing number of vineyards trading in elegant tasting rooms for kid-friendly fun zones that...

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John/Flickr
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Farm-fresh produce, culinary adventures

Juicy heirloom tomatoes and just-picked strawberries. Super-sweet peaches shaped like mini UFOs. Artisanal cheeses, golden-green olive oils, local wildflower honey—California’s farmers markets are...

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Laura Flippen

Highway One Classic

Highway One Classic
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Discover the awesome sports scene in the Golden State

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Christina Lauren/Flickr
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Beautiful locations, luxurious comforts

Get the starry nights, the campfire stories, the cozy sleeping bag, and all the best parts of camping in some of California’s most beautiful settings—but without the hassle of hauling loads of...

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Ventura County Wine Trail

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Visit vineyards in coastal hills and communities

Sip your way along the Ventura County Wine Trail, where you’ll find nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms in settings ranging from urban...

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Big-city-worthy events liven the sleepy Central Coast

Bookended by the big cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Central Coast may be known for its mellow pace, but the closeness of those major gateways bring big names to relatively small...

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Courtesy of Monterey Jazz Festival
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Check these amazing experiences off your bucket list

Kiss a beluga, see cool movie props, and learn about Walt’s secret hideaway on exclusive and behind-the-scenes tours at California’s theme parks and attractions. Here’s a roundup of worth-the-...

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Michael Saechang/Flickr
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Old-fashioned fun in the Golden State

Historic oceanfront playgrounds, classic city-park charmers, boisterous adventures—smaller theme parks and attractions offer an array of ways to play.  These smaller parks offer old-...

Safari West
Tai Power Seeff
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Solvang

A Danish stronghold makes a charming outpost surrounded by ranchlands and vineyards

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Tai Power Seeff

Central Coast Missions

Visit some of California’s most beautiful missions to discover the state’s Spanish roots

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Santa Barbara ranks in the nation’s top 20 counties for bicycle commuters, with nearly 5,000 residents commuting to work by bicycle.