Central California Coast Road Trip - Pismo Beach to Monterey
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
On this Labour day weekend we set out on yet another road-trip in California. California's Pacific Coast is one of the best scenic routes in the country and there is so much to see in this lifetime. Our road-trip to the central coast has been a very memorable one, with many firsts, lots of fun and beautiful places.
Day 1: We started our drive on Friday afternoon in order to avoid any traffic over the weekend. Holiday traffic is just insane, especially in California. In less than 3 hours we arrived at Pismo Beach, our first destination. We checked-in to Casa Grande Inn at Arroyo Grande before heading to the coast.
Pismo Beach - Ocean Blvd: Ocean Blvd in Pismo Beach is a short cliffside road, with a beautiful residential neighborhood on one side and gorgeous views of pacific on the other. There were many pullouts and grass parks along this road where we could stop to relax at one of the park benches, absorb the great views, click pictures and watch birds. Some of the houses in the neighborhood were nothing like what we are used to seeing around California; very fancy, modern and each with unique style.
Shell Beach, Pismo
Dinosaur Caves Park: Our next stop in Pismo Beach was the Dinosaur Caves Park at the south end of Ocean Blvd. A nice flowery park overlooking the ocean that can be a quick stop for those traveling the coast. There were benches to relax and enjoy the views, pathways for a brief walk or jog, and play area for kids. There was an unpleasant ocean smell though that didn't let us stay for long.
Dinosaur Caves Park, Pismo / Sit and enjoy the views
Dinosaur Caves Park
Pismo Beach and Pier: We spent the rest of our evening at the beach and pier, clicking away lots of photos. We weren't allowed to walk on the pier because of some ongoing construction work, so we strolled on the beach enjoying the calm and gorgeousness of the ocean. We stayed until sunset and witnessed the most dramatic skies ever. Wish our cameras could capture the real scene. Pelicans took to the pier and cast beautiful silhouettes against the sky. It was simply spectacular.
After sunset, we had our dinner at Mo's Smokehouse BBQ by the pier and called it a day.
Birds on the pier during sunset, Pismo Beach
Beautiful colors / Pismo Beach shopping area
Day 2: Oceano Sand Dunes - Riding in the dunes: I did not agree to this at the first thought but I was persuaded into it. I was so afraid of flipping over and getting sand into my eyes and nose, so I only agreed to a shared ride. We rented a 2 seater from BJ's ATV Rentals for an hour and what a thrilling experience it turned out to be. There was nothing but sand in all directions as far as we could see. I was so glad I brought myself to do this and can't wait to go back sometime, may be a separate day trip just to the dunes.
Read our detailed post and see more photos of our Sand Dunes experience.
Oceano Sand Dunes
Our 2-seater Rhino / Fence between riding and conservation area
After returning our OHV, we got in our car and drove right back into the beach. We actually drove on sand right next to the beach. Never thought we would do something like this in our lives. Since it was a holiday weekend, the beach was packed with camper's tents, RVs and OHV's.
Driving on the beach
Oso Flaco Lake: Part of Oceano Dunes Recreation Area, this lake was a few miles south of the dunes. It was a nice easy walk through the woods and a mile long boardwalk over and across the lake to the sand dunes and the beach. At the end of the boardwalk there was beach access and a viewing platform that offered scenic panoramic views.
Oso Flaco Lake, Nipomo
Boardwalk to the beach / Beach view from the lookout
Hearst Castle: We planned to visit Hearst Castle only if time permitted. Since we had enough time to reach there before they stopped selling tickets for the day, we decided to go on our way to Monterey. We regretted our decision the minute we stepped out of our car. It was like an oven outside, one of the hottest days in San Simeon, above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Since we were there already, we went in. We bought tickets for an "Upstairs tour" as that was the only option available. Our tour started on a shuttle bus to the castle, with an audio clip talking about the surrounding land, farm and animals. Our guide met us at the entrance of the castle and took us around 4 floors of private bedrooms, guest rooms and libraries. The furniture and decor inside were beautiful and rich in art, but most of our group didn't really enjoy the tour because it was so hot and stuffy inside. After the tour, we checked out the gardens and pools before we took a bus back to the visitor center. Our favorite room in the castle was the indoor pool.
Library / Indoor pool
Hearst Castle, San Simeon
Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the country. To our disappointment that day, Hwy-1 past Ragged point was closed due to slides, and there were no signs warning us not to take the route. We drove quite a distance and found that the road was closed off. So we had to take a very long detour back to Hwy-101, but the scenery was beautiful and we got to see a herd of mule deer. It was very late when we arrived at The Stevensons, Monterey, so we quickly checked-in and hit the bed.
A herd of Mule Deer on Pacific Coast Highway
Day 3: One of the main reasons for our trip was to visit McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which by that morning we knew was closed. But we weren't sure how far south of Monterey the Hwy-1 was drivable, so we decided to just drive and find out.
Garrapata State Park: It was a cloudy morning and we wanted to enjoy the ocean as much as we could before the sun came out. Our first stop was this beach park with many coastal hiking trails. We parked by the side of the road and hiked the beach trail first. The ocean was rough and loud, spraying mist every time a wave broke at the shore. Surrounding mountains and cliffs were just gorgeous. We also hiked the bluff trail which is another short trail that lead to 2 lookouts.
Stairs to the beach / Beach
There were many pullouts along the highway for us to stop and gape at the views. We saw pelicans and seagulls resting at some of the cliffside beaches.
Birds resting on a beach
Rocky Creek Bridge: A historic bridge built in 1932, much similar but smaller than Bixby Bridge. Short descents down the cliff next to the parking area offered better views of the bridge and ocean.
Rocky Creek Bridge
Bixby Bridge: We stopped at a lookout further south as the parking areas next to the bridge were full. It was still a great view along with the beach below and ocean caves nearby.
Bixby Bridge, Pacific Coast CA
Point Sur Lighthouse: There are limited tours per day to see the inside of the lighthouse at very specific times. We did not check on that in advance so we couldn't take any tours but just loved the views from the pullouts on highway-1. The lighthouse sits almost on the edge of a huge rock at Point Sur State Historic Park.
Point Sur Lighthouse
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: Thats were the road was closed, just past the park entrance, and no access to Pfeiffer beach (Purple sand beach). Like most places, there was no parking available inside the park, so we parked on the road and walked in. First we stopped at Big Sur Lodge Restaurant for lunch.
Most of the trails in the park were closed due to landslides, only 3 short trails were open (if I got that right). We took the river path for a short distance, but since we have to go back to Big Sur another time anyway, we didn't want to waste much time there. So we left the park and started driving back up north.
River Path, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: This park had many trails and offered more stunning views of the ocean, cliffs, birds and beaches. First, we parked at one of the small lots inside the park and hiked north on the loop trail, which was a short and easy hike.
An overlook on the loop trail
Then we hiked the Bird Island trail. Bird Island trail offered views of the closed-off China beach and had access to Gibson beach. We saw very few birds resting on the rocks. As we got closer to the island, there was a very strong unpleasant smell the from years of accumulation of seabird droppings on the rocks.
China Beach / Bird Island
Carmel-by-the-Sea: We picked up ice creams from Carmel Bakery and took a quick walk around the downtown. You know it is going to be pretty when there are colorful buildings with colorful windows and doors, brick walls, potted flowering plants and bougainvillea. It was very charming with many courtyards and secret passageways lined with boutique stores, galleries, wine sellers and restaurants.
Carmel by the Sea, California
Gallery at the end of a passageway / A hat store in Carmel
17 Mile Drive: I have written a separate detailed post and shared more photos of this drive. In short, it was a very beautiful drive with many points to stop and check out; soft white sand beaches, rocky points, cypress trees and golf courses.
Read more about our 17 Mile Drive.
The Lone Cypress - 17 Mile Drive
Fisherman's Wharf - Monterey: We were back in Monterey and made our last stop for the day at Fisherman's Wharf. Don't know if its just us, we love harbors. There is something about the stillness, especially on a cloudy day or in twilight, we find it very calming and romantic. And because people generally rush to the pier, we had no issues getting pictures of the boats without anyone in them. As expected, shops and restaurants at the wharf were very busy and packed. At the end of the wharf, we climbed to the rooftop deck at Big Fish Grill, checked out some nice views of the bay, and more boats.
Busy wharf / Rooftop viewing deck
Harbor at Fisherman's Wharf, Monterey
Day 4: Cannery Row: We checked-out of our hotel and hit the road back home, stopping for more attractions on the way. First, we drove around Cannery Row in Monterey. It was a busy area parallel to the coastline, with many high end hotels and boutiques, lodges, restaurants, bars and shops.
Luxury hotels in Cannery Row
Cannery Row shopping area / Ocean side shopping
Pacific Grove: Lover's Point and Ocean trail: Lover's Point is a green park with a rocky tip into the ocean. We walked on the coastal trail (goes both sides of the park) to the west, saw people climb rocks, kids swim in the beach next to the park, joggers, divers, kayakers, and resting sea lions. There were many such green parks along Pacific Grove coastline.
Ocean trail / Sea lions resting
Lover's Point, Pacific Grove
Point Pinos Lighthouse: Our last stop before we left the area. Main gate to the lighthouse was open to allow golfers to access one of the holes of the Pacific Grove Golf Links that was inside the compound. But we were too early, the lighthouse was still closed, so we could only get pictures through the fence.
Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove
Morro Bay: After driving nearly 3 hours we decided to stop in Morro Bay for lunch. We had delicious tacos at Taco Temple before we headed to Morro Rock. We drove all the way in and parked next to the rock, which is not the best place to get a full view. Anyway, we walked on the path next to the water watching boats go in and out of the harbor, seagulls and squirrels fight over hidden food, seagulls attack a tour boat, and kayakers. There were many people at the rock but somehow it was so calm and peaceful. It was a great spot to stretch our legs in-between drives.
Morro Rock / Seagull attack
Avila Beach: We were supposed to go there on day-2 after Pismo Beach, instead we decided to go to Hearst Castle, so we had to make this stop on our last day. Surely not as popular as Pismo beach, we didn't know what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised. It was small beachfront community with charming colorful buildings and restaurants. The beach was beautiful and the pier there was closed off as well. We checked out some of the shops and got ice creams from Reimer's Candies to get us going.
Beachfront shops and restaurants / A colorful hotel
Avila Beach, California
Racho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve: We had to go back to the dunes, this one was further south of Oceano Dunes (nearly 20 miles). The road to the dunes ran through farm lands, continued to the dunes and ended at a fenced parking lot near the beach. It was an incredible drive, I can't even explain. It was only a short walk to the water and had a fenced bird nesting area to the right. There were hardly anyone at the beach at the time. It was such a tranquil place to be and a great way to end our vacation.
Road to the dunes
Beach / Bird nesting area
On our drive back we were hoping to see sunset over the ocean at Santa Barbara, but it was so cloudy we couldn't even tell where the sun was. Surprisingly though our drive was very smooth without any traffic jams on the way.