Whales, elephant seals, and monarch butterflies vie for your attention with wineries, missions, and spas
With Monterey and Santa Cruz just north and Santa Barbara immediately south, San Luis Obispo County has major competition when it comes to persuading people to stop and stay a spell.
Yet there are plenty of reasons to tarry—the accessible, scenic coastline and pleasant small towns hold a wide variety of things to see and do.
For example, animals both huge and tiny are in season during SLO winters. Monarch butterflies gather by the multitude along the coast; perhaps the best place to see them is along Highway 1 at the south end of Pismo Beach. You'll often find docents in the eucalyptus groves, or you can wander at will. These groves have the added advantage of proximity to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, where there's a six-mile stretch of drivable beach, much of it suitable for the family Turnpike Cruiser—although soft sand can, in places, make a car sink to the hubcaps.
Elephant seals gather along the county's northern coast. Good places to see them are the vista points beside Highway 1, where you can get close to the noisy, mannerless giants. The best vista point is 4.4 miles north of the Hearst Castle turnoff. You'll find explanatory signs and, probably, blue-jacketed docents. The biggest animals of all, whales, migrate by the coast from December through March; you'll find good places from which to watch whales all along the shore.
The north county stretch of Highway 1 follows an especially scenic route and takes you to Hearst Castle—which just was named No. 1 U.S. Monument in Conde Nast Traveler magazine's Readers' Choice Awards. Hearst's estate is big, extravagant, and laden with anecdote-rich showbiz history.
If Hearst Castle represents romanticism of a kind, California's missions have come to represent for many a romanticized version of the state's past. SLO has two: San Miguel and San Luis Obispo. Despite their architectural similarities, they are so different from each other in atmosphere that to see one is not to see both. San Miguel, looking very Old California—it's easy to imagine Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona showing up at vespers—seems off by itself in both time and geography even though the freeway ramp is a few yards down the street. In contrast, Mission San Luis Obispo, in its leafy urban plaza, has an air of constant readiness for an inspection by the archbishop.
That plaza is in the middle of the city of San Luis Obispo, part of a handsome downtown area that's made for walking. There are several historic buildings and an impressive array of quality architecture in a small area—along one short stretch of Monterey Street you'll see the mission, late-19th-century commercial buildings, an expansive Moderne county building, and the jukebox Deco Fremont Theater.
SLO is a college town (California Polytechnic State University) with the amenities that implies—some nice bookstores, cafés and an easy atmosphere. For example, the Thursday evening farmers' market is more of a street picnic than a traditional market. Booths offering barbecue and ethnic eats outnumber vegetable stands. Massage therapists knead people. Advocates of causes expound. On our visit, a brass band marched through, creating a Charles Ives-like counterpoint with a rock band.
Almost directly west, on the coast, Morro Bay presents an odd juxtaposition of man and nature. The town landmark, 576-foot Morro Rock, rises from the water opposite a faceless power plant boasting some impressive smokestacks. The town's waterfront is an almost Fisherman's Wharf-like collection of tourist-oriented eateries and businesses. But it borders a handsome bird sanctuary harboring egrets, herons, pelicans, terns, kingfishers, loons, and cormorants, all apparently ignoring the works of man. Sea lions and otters share the sanctuary. We watched as an otter floating on its back dismembered a crab while fending off attacking gulls. Treat yourself to a stroll along the water on a paved path adjacent to the built-up area.
You'll find a particularly nice beach drive and walk at Cambria's Moonstone Beach. It's a lovely stretch of shore, with tidepools, rocks, and waves placed as though by artists. While you're there, visit Cambria. This small town must have an ordinance requiring buildings along Main Street to be quaintly, if somewhat self-consciously, picturesque. It's an environment rich with galleries, boutiques, and antiques shops.
In addition to a scenic coast and unusual wildlife, San Luis Obispo's natural resources include a climate that favors wine grapes and mineral-laden natural springs with waters available at a number of spas.
Several dozen wineries have tasting rooms. One stretch of road good for wine-tasting is 46 east from Paso Robles. It not only offers a number of nice wineries, but at Cholame you'll find the crossroads where James Dean was killed when his Porsche hit a Ford. There's a marker by the tree in the Jack Ranch Café’s parking lot just before the fatal intersection.
Mineral water may be good for what ails you and, at the very least, can be pleasantly relaxing. In his 70s, fabled pianist Ignacy Paderewski was soothed by the waters now available at Paso Robles Inn, a handsome, upscale successor to the resort he visited. Another spot worth considering, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, is a luxurious accommodation that also offers a quality soak by the hour for those who want the waters but not the whole spa experience.
Photography by Gert Hochnuth/Shutterstock
This article was first published in January 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.