Overview of San Luis Obispo
Surrounded by some of California’s most fertile and cherished landscapes, San Luis Obispo County rests like a jewel in the midst of the splendid bounty of California’s wandering central coast. Located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the San Luis Obispo region is nestled peacefully into an enchanted coastline that is marked by rolling green hills, quaint seaside towns, windswept beaches, gentle inland valleys and tumbled mountains that are surrounded by vineyards, farmland and native California Oaks. The County includes more than 80 miles of pristine Pacific Ocean coastline – stretching from the warm, sprawling sandy beaches of the south to the windswept bluffs and tumbled promontories of the northern county.
San Luis Obispo is also a region identified as much by its scenic wonders, as it is by its regional charm and the neighborliness of the resident locals; who can be identified by their friendly, easy-going demeanor and generous hospitality. I discovered this myself while sampling every known edible type of produce at the weekly open-air farmers’ market in downtown San Luis Obispo – a Thursday evening event that fills four blocks of Higuera Street and is marked by a local sampling of just-picked produce accompanied by barbecued specialties and a sampling of tasty nibbles supplied by local restaurants. It was a lively affair, where everybody offered open smiles, free samples and, even, a few cherished family recipes – to me, a virtual stranger!
This generosity is not unusual, as I soon discovered. Visitors to the region will find a benevolence of spirit and a tradition of hospitality particular to this section of California coastline. It is a tradition that began in 1925, when American’s first motor hotel, the Motel Inn, opened to welcome weary travelers on a little-know stretch of Highway 101 at the foot of Cuesta Grade in San Luis Obispo. The tradition continued in grand style during the mid- 1940’s in nearby San Simeon, where publisher William Randolph Hearst entertained lavishly at his famous “castle” perched atop La Cuesta Encantada – the Enchanted Hill. Hearst’s beloved castle was a labor of love and countless craftsmen labored for 28 years, many by hand, to create the hilltop estate. Today, the grand estate of Hearst Castle, encompassing 165 rooms and more than 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways, is now a popular tourist destination that should be on any visitor’s list of places to visit.
From its lofty clifftop perch, Hearst Castle presides over the dramatic beauty of northern San Luis Obispo County as it traces Highway 1 – one of the most spectacular drives in the world. Visitors may follow the curving spine of this famous scenic route along California’s dramatic central cost, a land of wildly beautiful landscapes and thundering water. This is the land of Ragged Point, which marks the southern end of Big Sur and untamed section of coastline where the sea crashes against cliffs that rise dramatically towards a lien of rugged coastal mountains.
Although perhaps the most famous landmark of this majestic coast, the unrestrained beauty of Hearst Castle and San Luis Obispo County’s rugged northern coast is not, by any means, the only attraction. The region offers diverse landscapes of windswept sand dunes and grapevine valleys, historic villages and quaint seaside towns, sparkling beaches, and rolling hills.
Take, for example, the charming town of Cambria, just south of San Simeon, which beckons from the edge of a Monterey pine forest that runs along sloping hillsides to meet the edge of the sea. This lovely village, once known for its dairy farming, is now a thriving artists’ colony offering an impressive array of gourmet restaurants, art galleries, quaint ocean-view inns and unique specialty shops and boutiques. Further south along the coast below Cambria, visitor may explore the beach town of Cayucos, a haven for surfers and fishermen, which also host to a wide array of antique shops and unique restaurants.
Kayaking, whale watching and fishing are other popular ocean pursuits; while mountain biking and hiking may be enjoyed along miles of scenic trail – Bishop’s Peak and Montana de Oro State Park are the two most popular. Montana de Oro State Park translates from Spanish as “Mountain of Gold” and encompasses more than 8,000 acres of rugged wilderness and jagged coastline to be enjoyed by hikers, cyclists, campers and surfers. It is a beautiful park offering more than 30 miles of trails that meander along the ocean and climb into the hills.
For the less-adventurous, set a leisurely pace with a wine-tasting tour inland in the Paso Robles and Templeton regions to enjoy the ripe, robust Merlots and Zinfandels for which the area is becoming famous. Or, head south to the Edna Valley/Arroyo Grande wine region, which is famous for highly acclaimed, fruity Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Bird watchers will find paradise around Morro Bay, which provides bird sanctuary for more than two-dozen threatened and endangered species, including the peregrine falcon, brant, brown pelican, black rail and snowy plover. Currently the last estuary of its kind located between Mexico and Northern California, Morro Bay is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway and offer winter refuge to more than 195 migratory species – so grab your binoculars and search the horizon.
You could spend weeks exploring this lovely region of California’s central coast. But, if you only have a long weekend, not to worry; step out along the wide open beaches, wander the charming historic towns or explore the rolling inland valleys, and discover the unique character of the San Luis Obispo region, the jewel of California’s central coast.