The Forgotten Coast: Off The Beaten Path in California
I’ve lived in California all my life and for some reason I didn’t explore Central California until a few years ago. I feel like this is somewhat of the forgotten coast of California. Southern California has San Diego and Los Angeles, Northern California has Humboldt and San Francisco, but what is Central California known for?
Obviously there is more than enough beauty on this coast with Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Barbara, but what about the smaller areas of the Central California coast? Scott and I recently went on a trip to explore a few of these places and this is what we came up with.
The Forgotten Coast: Off The Beaten Path in California
Morro Bay, California
First we stopped in Morro Bay, a charming little town with great cafes, shops and outdoor sights. This place is most famous for its landmark called Morro Rock, a 581-foot volcanic plug which is considered to be sacred by a couple of local Indian tribes.
We stopped here to check the surf. There were a few people out catching waves, but after realizing we would freeze in our measly 3/2 wetsuits, we decided to watch the surfers instead of joining them. This right and left sandy, beach-break is also known as “The Rock.”
Where to Stay in Morro Bay
Harbor House Inn is just two blocks from the waterfront and is a great budget stay in Morro.
Masterpiece Hotel is a mid-range stay just 5 minutes away from Morro Rock. This Andalusian-style motel features an indoor hot tub and a daily wine reception.
Read more: 12 Best Small Beach Towns in California (And Where to Stay)
San Luis Obispo, California
When I was growing up in Northern California, San Luis Obispo seemed like heaven. Of course, when you are a kid you would rather be any place other than where you live, but I had friends with older siblings that headed off to college in San Luis Obispo so it seemed like the cool place to live.
My parents even let me visit one weekend while I was still in high school. I won’t go into detail about that trip since it mostly involved drinking and I don’t remember much of the scenery.
Read more: San Luis Obispo Travel Tips: Everything You Need To Know
On this particular trip with Scott, we took full advantage of the outdoors by staying at El Chorro campgrounds. Ideally we would have liked to stay at a campground on the beach, but most beach campgrounds are booked in the summer — sometimes up to a year in advance.
El Chorro is somewhat remote and only about half of the 63 sites were taken. The best part was waking up and realizing the campground shower requires quarters and we didn’t come prepared. My advice is to bring quarters if you want to get clean and avoid an extremely quick shower.
For those travelers who prefer not to camp, we found the hidden gem, Granada Hotel & Bistro, on another trip to this area and if you want to explore downtown, everything is within walking distance. We absolutely loved our stay there.
Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to check out any of the beautiful hiking spots in the San Luis Obispo area. We really wanted to hike the “Big Falls” trail.
Read more: Central Coast Travel Guide (California): Everything You Need to Know
Pismo Beach, California
If you have 4wd and you want to camp on the beach, there is usually availability year round at the Oceano Dunes in Pismo Beach. This is one of the only places you can find last minute camping on the beach because you can’t camp unless you have 4WD.
If you just want to drive through the park and you don’t have 4wd, they will let you only at low tide. Just make sure to drive as close to the water as possible and don’t make any sudden stops or you will get stuck. Just so you know, Scott and I did get stuck in my 2WD 4Runner. It was not our finest hour, but everything ended up fine and we were able to get out before the tide came up.
ATV rentals are available at the park entrance for about $55-$60 for 2 hours. The dunes are amazing and camping right on the beach is a must.
Pismo has some surf spots such as Pismo Pier and the dunes. We headed out for a two hour surf session at Pismo Pier. This sand bottom beach-break was fun, but the waves were a little mushy that day which is fairly common in summertime.
You cannot visit Pismo Beach without eating at Splash Café! They make award winning clam chowder. If you order the clam chowder in a bread bowl it’s probably enough for two people since it’s a heavy cream dish. We also tried the steamed clams which were very tasty. I find it odd that I liked both of these dishes so much since I’m usually not a big fan of clams.
Read more: 15 Best Weekend Getaways in California (And Where to Stay!)
Jalama State Beach, California
About 2 hours South of Pismo, off Hwy 1, is a little gem of a place called Jalama State Beach. We love this place so much that we almost want to keep it a secret.
If you plan on camping here, they don’t take reservations so it is nearly impossible to get a spot in the summer unless you go on a weekday and are willing to show up at 7 am to wait in line until they open at 8. Even then, you may be turned around only to drive the 14.5-mile windy road back to Hwy 1 and find other accommodation. I would suggest going on the off-season.
Jalama is off the beaten path and it takes about a half hour to drive the 14.5-mile road since it is very windy at times, but well worth the drive. Once you get there, you will find a beautiful, uncrowded stretch of beach. The surf was good and the crowd in the water was fairly small too.
Please know your limits because the waves at Jalama can get heavy in the winter.
While you are here, stop by the Jalama Beach Store and Grill and have a “World Famous Jalama Burger.”
I find the Central California coast to be more rural than the other two coasts of California and this is one of the things I like most about it. We have since been back and visited Big Sur a few times, a place that I cannot say enough good things about.
Read more: Best Places To Camp in Big Sur – Big Sur Camping Guide
Have you been to the Central California coast?
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It’s interesting to hear a visitor’s take on my local area. For one, we call it the Central Coast since Central California is usually what people call the area in the middle of the state (Central California Valley). That said, I do agree we have it made living here. It’s not as forgotten as one would think, though, given the level of tourism here.
You mentioned a hike at Big Falls which I’ve never heard of so I had to look it up. LOL. But I think that’s because it is South of SLO in Arroyo Grande which is a town about 10-15 min South of town. There are dozens of hiking spots in SLO alone that are also incredible, with some being very challenging and some being easy for someone like me that has mobility issues. If one is needing good hiking advice, look no further than the shop downtown SLO (but with easier parking) called the Mountain Air. They will give you all the help you need on where to go and where to avoid based on your own limitations or lack thereof. I should add that just about every trail here has poison oak on it. I can’t think of any that don’t. You’d be VERY wise if you’re unfamiliar to take screenshots of what it looks like (since places like Montana de Oro have spotty cell service) so you and any dogs can avoid it. It can really ruin a vacation. Dogs are not allowed on all trails so check the trailhead (or ask the staff at Mountain Air if you go). There is good reason why dogs aren’t allowed on some steep trails or cliff trails and the fine is between 400 and 600 bucks so not worth the risk.
Lastly, for surfing in Morro Bay, the Rock is usually good but not advised for novices because of the hazards. If you go up the beach about 1/4 mile to the Pit, or 1/2 mile to A beach, those are great places to surf. Keep an eye on the news for shark sightings, though, since we’ve had a few incidents (my good friend was attacked surfing, and a man was killed in December, both near the Rock).
Enjoy your visit!
Yes, I call it Central Coast too, but need to be specific that it’s California for our readers. 🙂
Lompoc is my home town. I graduated from Cabrillo Senior High School in Vandenberg Village, class of 88. My husband is class of 87.
We live in Tracy now. We miss the beach tremendously. It was so nice to be able to jump in the car and be at Ocean Park or Surf Beach within 10 minutes.
Jalama is where the local surfers went. If you’re looking to fish, I would recommend Gaviota or Surf Beach. If you’re looking for a free beach and a lot of privacy, I would recommend Tajegeus. Tajegeus is just south of Gaviota but there isn’t a parking lot. You just pull off the PCH and step over the railroad tracks and take the trail down the cliff. If you see El Capitan you’ve gone too far.
Oh well, hopefully we will retire in Lompoc and enjoy the 70 degree weather year round.
My name is tammy I was born in San Luis obispo grew up Pismo beach, arroyo Grandy,all those little towns we have a very big family we were everywhere, its the best place to grow up, play hide and seek in the dunes, i will never for get my child hood down home, its the great place to grow up in. Tammy in Sacramento
I live in Pismo Beach and we are over-run with tourists all year long. Mostly folks from Fresno and Bakersfield travel here for respite from the valley heat…Lots of them. I understand that our economy depends on tourism but it has made it difficult for the locals to enjoy the beaches and harbors here. The wineries in North San Luis Obispo County (Paso Robles area) are big attractions for tourists, too.
I think it’s stupid that they are going to close the beach so you can’t drive on it. Just because some people built their homes close and now want it closed. Pismo Beach will dry up thanks to some dumb people
Just an FYI, the Oceano Dunes area where you can drive on the beach will be closing by 2024. To protect a unique and critical habitat and improve air quality on the Nipomo Mesa, the CA Coastal Commission put an end date on “the dunes”.
Also, those of us that live here like the quiet relaxed vibe. If you visit, try to embrace the SLO life. Whether it be the wineries or the waves, take a breath and chill, you are in a special place.
It is estimated that closing oceano dunes will remove 200 million from the local economy. The air quality will not improve because the sand is fine and the wind will still blow it up in the air with or without any one driving on the beach. I think it’s delusional and selfish to deprive California the only beach you can actually camp on.
I cannot disagree more. 100 years of access has not ruined anything. Closure of the Dunes will be very harmful.
This is my home home. Born and raised. Avila Beach, Shell Beach, and Pismo were my playground in the Summer when I was growing up. Wouldn’t trade it for anything. And I’m still here.
We have been going to the Central Coast since 1985. We love it! So many, fun places and things to do. Love hiking at Mantero State Park and visit all the local beaches. Will be here again in 3 months!
Did you drive through cambria?
Or cyucus? Los osos? Avila?
I love every one of those places.
Yes! We visited these places on a different trip and loved them as well!
I have to stop reading your California posts, they make me wish I was living on the other coast!
This past fall I spent lots of time traveling to the Central Coast working on a project at the Diablo Canyon power plant (near SLO) and I really grew to love the place. The coastline is just so rugged and spectacular there and what amazed me the most was all the marine life in the water. I watched the otters playing in the kelp beds and dolphins swimming along the shore, saw a sea lion feeding frenzy and a whale (!!) from the Avila pier, and of course visited the elephant seals north of Morro.
Thanks for bringing back these great memories – I agree the this area can be overlooked but I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to get to know it! Now I just need to take up surfing and get back out there…
We love Pismo Beach! Jack used to have a Jeep and he wooed me by taking me off roading on Pismo as one of our dates 🙂 And it worked!
Wow, taking an ATV through Pismo Beach sounds like fun 🙂
yea it looked like fun to us too, util we found out it was about $100 an hour. So we decided it wasn’t that much fun. 😉
I love Jalama…we are so blessed to live on the West coast, from Vancouver BC to Seattle, SF and down through Southern Cali, this is my favorite stretch of land on gods green globe…
@Laura – Sometimes I’m glad that it’s over looked. I can’t imagine having to deal with a ton of traffic on the 1 not to mention it’s nice to get away.
@joshywashington – Amen Brother
When we started the RV trip we drove from SD to SF and stopped to camp at Pismo Beach. We were so excited because we had just gotten a Jeep and wanted to try it out on the sand! What I didn’t quite realize was that you had to take your 4WD vehicle OUT to camp… so it wasn’t much of an option for us in an RV, lol.
I’d still love to visit there, though!
I saw on Oprah that SLO is the happiest place in the US. We haven’t been, but it looked VERY idyllic.
@NVR Guys – I’m not sure how they determine that, but I sure was happy when I was there 😉
@Grace – yea there is there is no straight way through there. It kinda out of the way so I think that helps keep people out too.
Our favorite part of the coast was the elephant seal beach by San Simeon. We spent enough time in the area to see the first baby born of the season, then the bull seals fighting for territory. Volunteers “man” the beach – to keep it safe and share their knowledge – a GREAT experience. -David and Veronica
@Gypsynester – Thats a pretty awesome experience. I didn’t realize that the seals bore their young on San Simeon.
I’ve never been to central California, only San Diego. Camping in San Luis Obispo sounds like something I would really enjoy! 😉
@Ella – It’s a pretty amazing place. I’ve loved my time here. If you want to move, don’t think just do it! 🙂
I have heard that all of California is beautiful! I would love to make it out there one day…your descriptions of central Cali make me want to move.
It’s true the central coast gets less love because everyone flocks way up north or way south. Still have not been to Pismo Beach!
@Christy – Yea that’s a bummer. There are not many places that you can drive on the beach so it’s hard to know what you can and can’t do. We were just as clueless. As you heard us mention in the article we got stuck driving. Guess who was driving…. yep it was me. Ooops