It’s always the perfect time of year to head south where the sun is out, the waves are calling your name and there’s an adventure around every corner. California’s central coast is only a three hour drive from the Bay Area. Follow the iconic Highway 1 Discovery Route and you’ll find quirky small towns with a relaxed pace ready to welcome you. Read on for all our recs!
Just north of Pismo Beach is the beach town of Avila Beach. Downtown has tons of restaurant options but if you drive just a short distance to the Harford Pier you can eat right on the water. MERSEA’s Restaurant offers a great kids’ menu and an awesome crab melt sandwich served with avocado on sourdough bread. Pick a table outside and the kids can watch the resident seals as they play in the water. You can also buy fresh fish and other seafood at the end of the pier if you want to cook something up yourself.
Avila Beach Adventures
With miles of coastline and tons of trails to explore, Avila Beach is the perfect spot to get on two wheels and head out! Pedego Electric Bikes is located right on the main drag and is ready to outfit the whole family with electric bikes. They offer kids’ bikes, adult bikes and the “stretch” that can carry an adult with two kids in back. Rent by the hour or by the day, you’ll love the extra boost that the electric bike gives to keep your journey going.
Ride on the Bob Jones Trail from downtown Avila Beach and you’ll meander through a wooded area with lots of spots to stop and play on playground equipment and grassy areas. Grab some lunch provisions to eat on the patio at Woodstone Marketplace and then continue on to the Avila Valley Barn. Kids will love visiting with all of the farm animals and taking a tractor ride around the property.
After your bike adventure, book some time to soak in the rejuvenating water at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa. The property has 23 private, open-air hot tubs on the hillside just waiting to offer you some relaxation time. The hot tubs rent by the hour ($15/person Mon.-Thurs. and $20/person Fri.-Sun.) for groups of 2-6 people. Larger groups or families looking for more area to spread out should book the Oasis Waterfall Lagoon ($20/person). Up to 20 people can enjoy this quiet spot that has two waterfalls pouring into the naturally-heated mineral spring water. Families can also stay the night at Sycamore Mineral Springs to enjoy in-room hot tubs and other spa amenities.
Another great spot for families to stay in Avila Bead is the Avila Lighthouse Suites, where their many villas and suites offer ample room for families to spread out. When you are not exploring Avila Beach’s sand and pier, you can take a dip in the hotel’s pool or play a game of giant checkers on the deck. Bonus: continental breakfast is included with your stay.
Another great spot to make your home base is Pismo Beach. Located right off highway 101 on the coast, Pismo offers an iconic California beach that’s perfect for a weekend on the sand. Right next to the brand-new Pismo Pier you can find a swing set right in the sand! And just a little farther south down the beach you’ll find an even bigger playground, also right on the beach. Public bathrooms and snacks are on the boardwalk right near the pier.
Explore Pismo in style! A number of companies rent surreys, double surreys and bikes for the whole family. The double surrey can fit up to four peddling adults and four riding kids. All rentals come with helmets. This is a great activity to try in the early morning hours before the marine layer burns off and the sun comes out.
Where to Eat in Pismo Beach
The long lines at the Splash Cafe might clue you in that it is one of the most popular spots to grab a bite to eat in town. Crowds line up around the corner for the opportunity to try their award-winning clam chowder. Avoid the line and order your meal to-go or even grab a four-pack of frozen chowder to take home with you.
Wooly’s Beach Bar and Grill is another kid-friendly option in town. It is located right by the pier and offers tons of outdoor seating so that you can whale watch while you enjoy your grub. Grab a table and order your meal at the counter and they will bring it to you.
Another spot with fantastic ocean view’s is Pismo’s Flagship restaurant. Kids will love the nautical theme and giant wooden boat inside the restaurant. It is located on a cliff above the coast and is just a short drive from the downtown area.
In nearby Shell Beach you will find F. McLintock’s Saloon and Dining House. This old west-style restaurant has enormous portions so make sure you bring your appetite. Also, ask your server to show off his water pouring skills. Their signature move is to pour water into a glass on your head, all while blindfolded (get the kids to volunteer for this one)!
A local favorite for breakfast is Surfside Donuts where you can grab the Shaka donut that is a bear claw morphed into a “hang loose” hand. Other favorite donuts are mint chip, salted caramel and the maple bacon long john. Grab some Sumptown coffee and enjoy your donuts on the beach.
Kids and adults line up at Old West Cinnamon Rolls where they have been serving sticky-sweet goodness for over 40 years. Try the crumb-topped cinnamon roll or cinnamon twists and make sure to grab some carrot cake for later. They even offer frozen cinnamon rolls to take home and bake in your own oven.
Where to Stay in Pismo Beach
Families looking to stay right in the action should shack up at the Inn at the Pier. Recently opened right across from the new Pismo Pier, this hotel offers large rooms and suites for families. A rooftop deck with a hot tub, small pool and restaurant/bar is a great spot to hang out and watch the sun set. Check their seasonal specials for options that include breakfast at the hotel’s Blonde Restaurant, located in the lobby.
If you want to stay right on the sand, the Sandcastle Inn is a great option for families. Suites include a small fridge and microwave and all guests can grab continental breakfast each morning. On the third floor there is a roof deck where you can watch the gorgeous sunsets.
If your Central Coast adventures take you to a bit north, the town of Cambria is a great place to make your home base. Just a short drive from downtown Cambria will take you to Stepladder Ranch and Creamery where you can book a tour of the property ($20/person, kids under five are free) that includes ample time to snuggle the friendly herd of Lamancha goats. See inside the milking parlor and end the tour with a sampling of seasonal goat and cow milk cheese. Buy some to take home with you!
For a truly unique experience, hit the trails on the back of a Clydsedale! Covell’s California Clydesdale Ranch offers a two-hour trail ride for visitors to their 2000-acre Cambria property for $100/person. Learn the history of these massive animals as well as the property where they make their home. Minimum age for the trail ride is “capable” seven-year-olds.
photo: Scott Campbell
Where to Stay in Cambria
The rustic charm, huge rooms and free buffet breakfast make the Cambria Pines Lodge a great option for families. Reserve a large suite and your crew of up to six people can spread out with two bathrooms, a king bed, queen sleeper sofa and queen Murphy bed. Ask where to find the path down to the town and you can walk down the 257 steps to grab a bite to eat or some shopping time. The resort’s pool is heated in the colder months and the garden is full of fairy houses and nooks to explore.
photo: Cambria Pines
Head there between Thanksgiving and Christmas to enjoy the lights and festivities at the Cambria Christmas Market right on the property!
Other Central Coast Adventures
Break up the beach days with some exploring! Make sure you plan some time at Oceano Dunes where you can literally drive you car right on the beach! Pick a time when the tide is low and you’ll find loads of sand dollars at the shoreline. It is $5 to access the beach via your personal vehicle.
Those looking for more of an adrenaline rush can reserve a dune buggy from Sun Buggy Fun Rentals in Oceano. Dune buggies seat up to eight and kids as young as four years old can ride as passengers. A four-point harness, helmet and safety goggles are included with all rentals. Kids as young as eight can also reserve a single-seat ATV by the hour. There’s nothing like powering up to the top of a dune and viewing the ocean like you’ve never seen it before!
If ziplining over vineyards is your jam, head to Santa Margarita and book your spot at Margarita Adventures. You’ll get to hook up and zip down six ziplines on their course that shows you some of the gorgeous hillsides of Central California. Kids weighing 30-100 pounds can fly tandem which is a great way to get the little ones interested. Soon they’ll be adding on a wildlife hummer tour that will show you native animal habitats up close.
If you are in Pismo during the winter months, plan a stop at the Monarch Butterfly Grove to observe these colorful creatures. They stop here from October through February and cluster on the branches of the Eucalyptus trees. Helpful docents are available to answer questions and point out the best viewing locations.
A fun (and free) spot to visit in nearby Nipomo is the Luffa Farm where you can learn how these sponges are grown (spoiler alert: they are gourds!). Take a guided tour through the greenhouses to see the gourds growing and learn how they are harvested and turned into sponges. Swing by the gift shop on your way out to purchase a luffa and other products made from the luffas grown on the farm.
The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is a must-visit spot in San Simeon (just north of Cambria). Pretty much any time of year you can walk along the pier and see these massive animals up close. Volunteer docents are often available to answer questions.
Midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, nature meets nurture on California’s Central Coast along the Highway 1 Discovery Route. Connecting ten artisan communities, this picturesque stretch of the iconic Highway 1 is known for its beautiful beaches, wide open spaces, abundance of outdoor adventure, a variety of wildlife viewing, award-winning wineries, Hearst Castle and authentic farm-to-table cuisine. Plan your road trip along this route and you’ll have loads of family vacation memories to take home with you.
—photos and story by Kate Loweth
Note: This trip was paid for by the Highway 1 Discovery Route and Inn at the Pier but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.