The San Luis Obispo County State Parks and Beaches Section of the California Central Coast Travel Guide describes 12 parks and beaches along the coast. Includes the spectacular Montana de Oro State Park, Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area - the only place where you can bring a vehicle onto the beach, and many others.
Guide to San Luis Obispo County State Parks and Beaches
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Note: Many California state parks and beaches have excellent campgrounds. Reservations are very strongly advised during the prime summer season and weekends and holidays.
Also, hikers may want to check out our story: California Central Coast - Ten Easy Day Hikes.
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area
Oceano Dunes is unique among California State Parks and Beaches as being the only place where you can bring a vehicle onto the beach. The five miles of beach are south and adjacent to Pismo State Beach. At-large vehicle camping is permitted on the south end of the beach where the beautiful Oceano Dunes are located behind the beach. Recreation vehicles are permitted on some of the dunes while part is fenced off for hikers only. Passenger cars can navigate the north end of the beach. Most of the camping area is beyond a creek crossing, and a four wheel drive vehicle is advisable to reach it. The at-large beach camping is very popular, and reservations are advised.
Pismo State Beach
Pismo State Beach offers all kinds of attractions: hiking, swimming, surf fishing, and digging for the famous Pismo clam. There are tree-lined dunes along much of the beach. Also, lagooons behind the beach (right, near the Oceano campground at the south end of the beach). There are restaurants and other services within walking distance of the campgrounds.
Los Osos Oaks State Reserve
Located south of the town of Los Osos, the reserve protects an area of ancient sand dunes covered by coastal oaks thought to be as much as 700 years old. The trees feature massive trunks and gnarled branches twisted into all sorts of fantastic shapes. The gnarling results from the centuries of stormy weather close to the coast. There are several short hiking trails through the reserve.
Montana de Oro State Park
One of the finest and most scenic parks in California, Montana de Oro offers rugged cliffs, secluded beaches, sand dunes, tidal pools, and mountains which almost reach the sea. The park has an outstanding network of trails with some great hikes. The most famous is the Bluff Trail, on the coastal plain at the edge of the cliffs. Numerous vista points provide great views of the contorted rocks at the base of the cliffs. Windows and arches may be spotted, as well as marine mammals. Horseback riding, mountain biking, and surfing are also popular at the park.
The park's name translates to "Mountain of Gold". During spring and early summer, especially after a rainy winter spectacular displays of wildflowers may be seen everywhere, particularly along the Bluff Trail (right). The most prominent wildflower is usually the golden poppy.
The inland areas, on the mountainsides and in scenic canyons, also offer compelling hiking. On a foggy morning, one can hike up a mountain until breaking out of the clouds and seeing the bizarre sight of the fog hanging over the low lying areas. The trail up Coon Creek Canyon visits a tremendously lush riparian area rich in wildlife and plant life. Beautiful wildflowers and ripe blackberries may be found in season.
There is a primitive campground (pit toilets, water taps only) in a very pretty side canyon. Camping is extremely popular here, and reservations are mandatory.
Montana de Oro is one of this writer's most frequent destinations while visiting the Cental Coast.
Morro Bay State Park
Located just south of Morro Bay town, Morro Bay State Park offers beautiful scenery and a variety of activities. There is a large, wooded, and recently refurbished campground which is a highly popular place for families to gather. There is also an 18-hole golf course which goes up the hillside behind the campground. Some of the holes have great views of the bay. There are also hiking trails on the adjoining hillside. Across the street is the very excellent - and newly remodeled - Morro Bay Museum of Natural History. There are eucalyptus groves next to the museum which are heron breeding grounds.
The park is also adjacent to the pleasure craft marina which includes a canoe rental shop and the excellent Bayside Cafe. Marine mammals can sometimes be seen in the harbor here. The Morro Bay Estuary, adjacent to the marina and across the street from the campgound, is a fragile marshland whose channels fill with water during high tide. It is an excellent place to observe wildlife, particularly larges birds such as the white heron. There is a short trail across from the campground at the edge of the marina which goes through a grassy area and then follows along the edge of the marshland. This is a good place to observe birdlife or watch the channels fill as the tide comes in.
The Morro Bay State Park is an excellent destination. Reservations are essential to stay at the campground. There are also a number of small, quiet motels in the area.
El Chorro Regional Park
El Chorro is actually a county, rather than state park. It is ideally located five miles north of San Luis Obispo off of Highway-1, offering easy access to the city and all the local beaches. The scenic park offers a full array of facilities, including a campground with full hookups and water at each site. A less expensive second campground is available without hookups. The park's day use facilities include Dairy Creek Golf Course (and restaurant), a barbeque and picnic area, volleyball courts, an off leash dog park (with two separate areas - one for smaller pets and one for larger pets), horseshoe pits, a botanical garden, softball fields and various hiking trails.
The campground is first-come first-served for individual units. (You can usually get a site early on a weekday.) Groups of six parties or more can reserve.
Morro Strand State Beach
A beautiful three-mile stretch of wide, sandy beach facing Estero Bay, Morro Strand State Beach is anchored at the south end by Morro Rock and on the north end by a rocky headland which has very nice tidal pools at low tide, a great place to explore. A short, easy trail crosses the low headland to Cayucos State Beach which faces the northern three miles of Estero Bay.
A campground sits directly behind the beach. It is essentially a parking lot with picnic tables and an area to pitch tents. However the closeness to the beach makes the campground very popular, and reservations are strongly recommended. Access to the beach and campground is via turnoffs from Highway-1.
Morro Rock State Preserve
Morro Bay's scenic landmark, 576-foot tall Morro Rock, is actually the remnants of a 23 million year-old volcanic plug. It is one of the "Nine Sisters", volcanic plugs which appear as prominent peaks along this area of the coast. The rock has been designated a bird sanctuary for the Peregrine Falcon and other bird species. Climbing the rock is prohibited.
Cayucos State Beach
Cayucos State Beach faces the northern three miles of Estero Bay, extending from the headland bordering Morro Strand State Beach to just north of Cayucos Pier. The beach offers nice walking, surfing, and swimming. There is a rocky area about a half mile south of the pier with very excellent tidal pools at low tide. The pier is quite popular for fishing.
The town of Cayucos has a number of historic old buildings, including a block which fronts the beach with a restaurant and snack shop. The surf shop at the foot of the pier has intriguing murals painted on the outside wall.
A recent addition to the California park system, Estero Bluffs protects a very unspoiled section of coastline just north of Cayucos. Estero Bluffs features inter-tidal areas, wetlands, low bluffs and coastal terraces. There is a pocket cove and beach at Villa Creek.
Due to its unspoiled nature, the area is rich in wildlife. During our visit, we observed pelicans, aheron, and a sea otter while participating in a docent-led hike offered by the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History. Access is near the north end of Cayucos at the Highway-1 south off-ramp.
San Simeon State Park
One of the oldest state parks, San Simeon State Park is located off of Highway-1 between Cambria and San Simeon. The coastal bluffs and promontories of the scenic park offer unobstructed views of the ocean and
rocky shore. Inland, the park contains several significant natural and historical preserves:
- San Simeon Natural Preserve protects vast wetlands, riparian areas, and several undisturbed native plant communities. It is also a wintering site for monarch butterfly populations. A 3.3 mile boardwalk trail runs through parts of the preserve and Washburn campground. The trail includes scenic overlooks, rest-stop benches and interpretive panels. A portion of the trail along the seasonal wetland is wheelchair accessible.
- Santa Rosa Creek Preserve includes valuable riparian forests and coastal wetlands.
- The Pa-nu Cultural Preserve contains a significant archeological site. The site has been dated to 5,850 years before the present.
William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach
The scenic, protected cove was donated by the Hearst Corporation to San Luis Obispo County in 1953. It has since become a state beach, open only for daytime activities. The beach is off of Highway-1 opposite of the Hearst Castle Site.
The park offers an excellent picnic site, with tables and grills in a grassy area. The protected cove makes the beach a nice spot for swimming, fishing, boating, kayaking, beachcombing and sunbathing. A private concession offers kayaks and boogie boards for rent. A 795-foot visitors' pier is available for fishing or just for strolling. Fishing is permitted from the pier without a license but local fish limits are enforced.
The San Simeon Bay Trail goes out to San Simeon Point, the promontory west of the beach. (The beach actually runs east-west here, not north-south.) Some very dramatic and rugged scenery will be found at the tip of the promontory, as well as coves and tidal pools. The trail climbs to the wooded bluffs from the beach west of the pier. The start of the trail is not easy to find, so inquire locally.
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