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?
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.
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, 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.