San Luis Obispo is a perfect spot from which to explore attractions along central California’s wild and beautiful coast.
By Lazelle D. Jones
As a base camp from which to inaugurate a late-winter sojourn along California’s central coast, the bucolic and provincial town of San Luis Obispo is as near perfect as a place can be. The town’s name means “Bishop Saint Louis” in Spanish, and it is often referred to by its initials — S.L.O. — or even “SLO-town” by locals. A delightful, friendly, and picturesque place, it offers a long list of things to enjoy — attractions that are as fine as the world-class wines that flow from the local wineries.
San Luis (pronounced “Lewis”) Obispo is a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, and almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is accessible via U.S. 101 or State Route 1, the famed coastal highway. Anyone traveling to or from FMCA’s International Convention in Pomona this March will find it makes for a perfect stop. As for the climate, by early March you can expect daytime temperatures of 70 degrees. By night, you’ll typically need a light jacket or sweater.
From S.L.O., you can travel north to Morro Bay and to San Simeon, home of Hearst Castle; south of town, you can explore Pismo Beach and taste the wines grown in the Arroyo Grande region. Whether you like freshwater or deep-sea fishing, fine art or folk art, old Spanish missions and early California history, or excellent cuisine (from Texas-style barbecue to albacore steaks grilled on a mesquite fire), it will take you several days to enjoy the many pleasures found in S.L.O. and the surrounding area.
In San Luis Obispo itself, the street scene invites one to amble, sample the offerings, and then amble some more. The centerpiece of downtown is Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, built in 1772 and the fifth in a chain of 21 California missions. Visitors are welcome inside the church, as it is still an active parish. In the plaza immediately outside the mission, budding and accomplished artists and their creations frequent the tree-lined square, and the air is filled with the sounds of musicians also hoping to attract the attention of passersby.
A good way to learn about the history of town is to visit the S.L.O. County Historical Museum, located next to the mission, and have a look at the old photographs and artifacts on display. Admission is free, and the building, originally a Carnegie Library, is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Historic commercial establishments, churches, and homes also can be seen as you walk about town. Some are adobe, and all have character. The Kundert Medical Building was designed in the mid-1950s by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The 1875 Jack House is a lovely Victorian residence that functions as a living museum. Admission to the Jack House is $2; phone (805) 781-7308 for tour information.
The town’s visitors center (1039 Chorro St.) is open daily, and you’ll find a plethora of maps and guides there, as well as helpful answers to your questions. You also can learn about upcoming events. For example, on March 1, 2003, S.L.O. will celebrate its annual Mardi Gras Fest; later in the year, annual festivals include a rib cook-off; an International film festival; and a renowned Mozart festival.
Every Thursday evening, residents and visitors alike flock to the farmer’s market, a festive event where merchants and chefs move their goods and eateries into the downtown streets for several hours of small-town American revelry. The event, which is nestled between turn-of-the-century red brick buildings draped by the branches of California pepper trees, also includes live music and other forms of entertainment.
The Millhouse at the Apple Farm (2015 Monterey St.) attracts visitors of all ages, who watch as a system of water-powered pulleys and gears help to turn out stone-ground wheat flour, press apples for cider, and even make ice cream. The Apple Farm also includes an inn, a restaurant, and a gift shop. Millhouse admission is free; for more information, visit www.applefarm.com.
Your first excursion outside of town south on U.S. 101 will lead you past the Motel Inn, reputed to be the world’s first motel, built in 1925. Not long after the word “motel” was coined, it became part of the national lexicon.
Continue south on U.S. 101 to Pismo Beach. For years, folks have made this seaside community a harbor from life’s pressures. The decompression that occurs has come to be known as “Pismo therapy.” The town’s 23 miles of beaches are known to be rife with clams, lending the town the moniker “Clam Capital of the World.” If you do plan to collect some, however, you’ll need to have a saltwater fishing license, which can be purchased at several area retailers. Also, be sure to follow the limits for clam size and numbers taken per day.
Pismo Beach’s 1,200-foot-long pier is the perfect spot from which to cast a fishing line, watch the squadrons of pelicans swoop in formation along the surface of the water, or simply listen to the cry of seagulls while enjoying the ocean breezes.
At the south end of town — near the North Beach Campground — is a massive grove of eucalyptus trees where, from approximately the end of October through the beginning of March, monarch butterflies take a break from their long migration. They cover the tree branches in such great numbers that even during a strong westerly wind, the weight of the butterflies keeps the boughs of the trees from moving.
Immediately adjacent to Pismo Beach is the town of Grover Beach, the gateway to the only beach in California where you can drive a vehicle onto the sand — and even into the surf, if you’re so inclined. For RVers who tow an all-terrain vehicle or would like to try an ATV (available for rent locally), the Ocean Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area provides an endless playground full of sand and wild ocean grasses.
The Pacific Ocean coastline nearest S.L.O. — only 5 miles west — fosters places with names such as Morro Bay, Montana de Oro, and Los Osos. A line of nine dormant volcanic peaks begin (or end, whichever the case may be) at the 576-foot-high Morro Rock, one of the most prominent landmarks along the coast. Simply take State Route 1 west of town to Morro Bay.
On the way, you may wish to stop at San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. Its Preview Garden is open during daylight hours, and admission is free. Enter El Chorro Regional Park and follow the signs to the Botanical Garden. Plant sales and workshops also take place there occasionally; phone (805) 546-3501 for more information, or visit www.slobg.org.
Morro Bay is a fishing and seaside resort that beckons those in search of great seafood. And for those who enjoy ocean fishing, charter boats are available.
Three miles south of Morro Bay is Los Osos. The town’s name is Spanish for “the bears” and was so dubbed because in the late 1700s, many grizzlies lived in the local marshlands. Now, when the giant California gray whales begin their migration from the Bering Sea south to Baja and the Sea of Cortez, whale-watching is right at the head of the list of popular pastimes. The best views of these behemoths are gleaned mainly between December and April. Whale-watching excursions are a treat to even the most ardent landlubber.
A few miles southwest of Los Osos is Montana de Oro (Mountain of Gold) State Park, an 8,000-acre preserve with 50 miles of hiking trails. This part of the coast features rugged cliffs and powerful waves that rival those found along the coasts of Oregon and Maine. The drama is nowhere better evidenced than at Spooner’s Cove. There, bird-watchers flock to spot black oystercatchers, ruddy turnstones, and wandering tattlers. Peregrine falcons can be observed nesting high in the ledges of the ocean bluffs. Seeing them is a prize that’s enjoyed even by those who may not consider bird-watching a favorite pastime.
The tide pools at Spooner’s Cove are replenished daily by the sea, so they prove to be an excellent place to observe marine life. The old Spooner Ranch House (now the park’s visitors center) rests just beyond windswept cypress trees that tower above the cove. A great place to picnic and relax, Spooner’s Cove is so scenic that when the ocean breaks against the bluffs, even a stoic observer acknowledges nature’s prowess.
North of S.L.O. via State Route 1 is San Simeon, home of the renowned Hearst Castle. The former mansion of media magnate William Randolph Hearst rests high amid the Santa Lucia Mountains, and the drive there meanders along a coastline that is on the cusp of splendor.
This mansion attracts 800,000 visitors each year. It includes 165 rooms on 127 acres of gardens. Outside are creations like the Neptune Pool. Casa Grande consists of two towers that were Hearst’s personal residence. On this mountaintop the millionaire lived out his fantasy, entertaining film stars from an era that has come to be known as the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Hearst began building the castle in 1919. Construction continued for 28 years, stopping in the late 1940s, when Hearst left the castle to seek medical care. Visitors see new rooms and wings to existing structures that were never finished. But don’t let that make you think the place is not ready for guests. The castle’s expansive quarters are amazing, and filled with priceless treasures.
Hearst, along with teams of collectors, combed the world looking for art to acquire and ship back to California. He bought complete interiors of European cathedrals (including the ceilings); priceless Egyptian art; and anything else that caught his fancy. Many of the items he purchased still remain stored in warehouses and never have been removed from the shipping crates.
Five different tours are available at Hearst Castle. As you look about, you’ll see much of what Hearst wanted to display. Be sure to make reservations to ensure a tour day and time, unless you don’t mind the possibility of not getting in. However, the staff guarantees the availability of first and last tours of the day — usually at 8:20 a.m. and 3:20 p.m. Phone (800) 444-4445 or visit www.hearstcastle.org for tour reservations and information.
A popular pastime is observing the antics of elephant seals in this region, so if the idea appeals to you also, you may wish to stop at the Friends of the Elephant Seal office and visitors center. It’s located 3.3 miles south of Hearst Castle on U.S. 1. There, you can learn all about the lives of these creatures that are so homely, they’re almost cute.
From the visitors center, travel north on Route 1 to Elephant Seal Vista Point. Each year approximately 1,800 pups are born upon the sand between Cambria and Ragged Point. Beginning in late November, the giant males (weighing 3,000 to 5,000 pounds) begin arriving, followed by the females, who tip the scales at 900 to 1,800 pounds. After giving birth, the females accept another mate. Although the adults return to the sea by March, the pups stay at the rookery until they are 3-1/2 months old, and teach themselves how to swim. So, when FMCA convention-goers are traveling through, they may be able to see quite a few of these “youngsters” that weigh hundreds of pounds. During peak season, the population of elephant seals along this stretch of coastline is estimated to be 7,000 (moms, pops, and pups).
Friends of the Elephant Seal docents are frequently on hand at the vista point to answer questions, and docent-led tours can be enjoyed. For more information, visit www.elephantseal.org or phone (805) 924-1628.
Finally, don’t forget that this is wine country. For those who enjoy fine wine or simply appreciate the beauty of rolling hills carpeted by manicured vineyards, the Los Padres National Forest and the Pacific Ocean together create a climate that yields excellent wine and scenery. Much like Napa Valley a quarter-century ago, this region has in the last 10 years garnered a reputation as a wine region that yields premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. “Microenvironments” created and influenced by the moderate temperatures of the Pacific Ocean yield some of the best wines found anywhere.
Some wineries offer tastings and welcome visitors. For a list of wineries and their locations, contact the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau (listed below), or visit the San Luis Obispo Vintners & Growers Association Web site at www.sanluisobispowines.com.
All of these nooks and crannies offer a perfect way to spend several relaxing days before or after the Pomona convention. Here you can enjoy, for life in and around San Luis Obispo is good.
For a free destination guide that covers the entire San Luis Obispo region, and includes a listing of campgrounds and attractions, wineries, Hearst Castle information, and more, contact:
San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau
1037 Mill St.
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
The S.L.O. visitors center provides maps, visitors guides and brochures, and is open seven days a week. Contact:
San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center
1039 Chorro St.
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401