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Great California Coast Towns

Where to get your water, wildlife, beach, or history fix along the Pacific.

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  • Sandbar Surf School students hit the waves, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Jonny Ziegler
    Photo caption
    Young Sandbar Surf School students hit the waves in Pismo Beach.
  • Kayaking in the coves, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of Central Coast Kayaks
    Photo caption
    Explore grottos, kelp forests, and coves around Pismo Beach with Central Coast Kayaks.
  • Humback whale breaching, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Mike Sack
    Photo caption
    With Sanctuary Cruises, get an up-close view of breaching humpback whales near Moss Landing.
  • Pescadero State Beach, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Christopher Hall
    Photo caption
    A mile of dramatic cliffs and soft sand awaits at Pescadero State Beach.
  • Chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Konstantin Kudryavtsev, courtesy of Fort Ross Conservancy
    Photo caption
    The reconstructed colony chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in Jenner is now open to tour.
  • Antelope at B. Bryan Preserve, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Judy Mello
    Photo caption
    Antelope roam a coastal California savanna at B. Bryan Preserve in Point Arena.

Not all hamlets along the Golden State’s 1,100-mile coastline are created equal. Here are five true gems, each with its own distinct and irresistible lure.

Pismo Beach: Water Sports

What's more California-cool than surfing? Even if you’re a beginner, Sandbar Surf School will get you riding the waves—if not hangin’ ten—with group lessons or during summertime surf camps on Pismo’s rolling three-to-five-foot waves. Kayaking is big here, too, and during the guided Cave Excursion offered by Central Coast Kayaks, paddlers explore grottos, kelp forests, and protected coves accessible only by water—no experience required except the ability to swim.

Moss Landing: Wildlife Sightings

Looking for creatures great and small? Start big on a Sanctuary Cruises whale-watching excursion on Monterey Bay, a prime summertime feeding ground for humpbacks, blues, and other baleen species. At Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, where trails meander for five miles alongside marshes and through oak woodlands, the hundreds of species you might spot include bobcats, frogs, and acorn woodpeckers. In the summer, keep an eye out for rays and sharks, which can be seen from the South Marsh Trail.

Pescadero: Beach Exploration

As if the dunes, rocky pools, and dramatic cliffs weren’t enough, mile-long Pescadero State Beach also boasts a generous swath of lovely sand, perfect for picnics, Frisbee-tossing, or walks along the crashing surf. At nearby Bean Hollow State Beach, tide pools teeming with lime-green anemones and other marine life beg to be explored, and a thick carpet of polished agate, jasper, and other multicolored stones covers aptly named Pebble Beach.

Jenner: History Lesson

Time travel is real at Fort Ross State Historic Park, the site of a former Russian settlement (1812–1841) where you can now visit the period-furnished Rotchev House and a reconstruction of the colony's chapel. For another glimpse of history, head to the 1885 Fort Ross School at Stillwater Cove Regional Park. As you peek through the windows of the one-room schoolhouse, it's easy to imagine kids of yesteryear practicing their three Rs.

Point Arena: Quirky Fun

At B. Bryan Preserve, a slice of the African savanna transported to California, you can visit a remarkable collection of about 80 free-roaming hoofed animals that include zebras, kudu, and antelope. Tours end with a hands-on giraffe feeding. Quirky also describes Uneda Eat, where inventive, fine-dining dishes are created with local produce delivered in an electric golf cart and then served on tables painted by a local artist.

This article was first published in August 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.