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 harbour town of Morro Bay.
From Highway One, you’ll see this incredible complex of ornately embellished towers and buildings perched high on a coastal hilltop in San Luis Obispo County, like a coastal Shangri-La with 360-degree views. Park in the main lot of the state park grounds of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, then check in at the visitor centre to ride one of the park’s shuttle buses up to the castle for a guided tour. (Make online reservations well in advance, especially during the busy summer months.)
Lavishly designed by Julia Morgan (California’s first female licensed architect) as the private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the complex, completed in 1947, is an extraordinary temple to opulence and excess. Now showcased within one of California’s most visited state parks, it is a must-see to end all must-sees, an eye-popping extravaganza with a 165-room castle, 127 acres of terraced gardens, fountains, and pools.
In fact, the castle’s two pools are standout attractions. The outdoor Neptune Pool, 104 feet in length and with an oil-burning heating system, evokes ancient Greece and Rome, with marble statues of Neptune and Nereid guarding over the aquatic paradise. The second, smaller indoor Roman Pool has the look of a decadent Roman bath, with rich details including cobalt blue and gold smalti, or glass tiles. Look up to see intricate mosaics depicting a star-filled night sky, spreading across the roof and dome. The pool is surrounded by eight marble sculptures of Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, and heroes, carved by Italian sculptor Carlo Freter.
From Hearst Castle, you can take a detour to the wine lover’s magnet of Paso Robles, or head north 15.5 miles to Ragged Point. Take in the views of crashing waves against plunging cliffs from the patio of the Ragged Point Inn. Towering 400 feet above the Pacific Ocean, this oceanfront locale is a prime viewing spot for whales, dolphins, and elephant seals, and is considered the “Gateway to Big Sur.”
Next up, you’ll encounter the most famous panoramas along the Central Coast—Big Sur.
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.