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Take a tour with Big Sur Adventures
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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Alex Farnum

Discover the Central Coast

Your next stop, San Luis Obispo, may just be the perfect embodiment of the Central Coast. With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history, and a decidedly mellow vibe, SLO (as the locals call it) is a must-see. This college town also features a slice of ranch culture—thanks to the area’s Santa Maria-style barbecue—and has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.

The spirit of downtown SLO is captured in Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which dates back to 1772 and overlooks the plaza. Explore the mission and its museum or show up on summer Friday nights for live music on the plaza. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks, and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evenings, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for San Luis Obispo’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, craft beer (sample those at The Libertine Brewing Company), and the acclaimed clam chowder from Splash Café. Enjoy the locally sourced scene more intimately at Novo Restaurant & Lounge, which pairs a globally inspired menu with an idyllic creek-side setting.

Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds, and the Fox & Hound.

SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.

San Luis Obispo County—a.k.a. SLO CAL—is home to an array of cool small towns, too. On your way into SLO, try the epic tri-tip at Jocko’s steak house in Nipomo, explore the dunes at Pismo Beach, and then say hi to the lounging sea lions off the coast of Avila Beach. Other essential stops as you then head north toward Hearst Castle include the harbour village Morro Bay, beachy Cayucos, and picturesque Cambria, set on beautiful seaside bluffs.

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