While you might have been attracted to Cal Poly because of its excellent academics and “Learn By Doing” philosophy, you have without a doubt noticed that the campus is surrounded by a vibrant, lively community. New and returning students can agree that there is something so special about living on the Central Coast. From picturesque views along coastal and mountain trails to charming local shopping and dining explorations, there are endless hidden gems that will keep you entertained throughout your time living in San Luis Obispo.
Kick off your college bucket list with these five epic local adventures right in your own backyard:
1. Take the 1
Hit the open road and take Highway 1 up the coast for some breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. First, stop in Cambria, a charming little town filled with art galleries and boutiques, and head into the Cookie Crock Supermarket to pick up some picnic supplies. They’re a participating Local Rewards¹ business, so be sure to use your SESLOC HomeFREE Checking™ debit or Visa Signature Rewards® to earn bonus rewards points² on your purchases. Your points can be redeemed for gift cards, cash back, merchandise and more!
Then, head up to the picnic grounds at Leffingwell Landing Park to enjoy your treats and take some Insta-worthy snapshots. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a whale sighting. Keep heading up the road past San Simeon to the Piedra Blancas Vista Point to check out the elephant seals. The massive seals nap on this beach year-round, delighting visitors from around the world, and if you go during their peak times in January, April, and October you will see thousands.
Next up on the itinerary is Hearst Castle. In the late 1800s, George Hearst made a name for himself as a mining and publishing tycoon, and in 1856, he purchased a whopping 400,000 acres of ranch land, setting the stage for his son, William Randolph Hearst, to continue the family’s tradition of acquiring vast tracts of land. William Hearst inherited his father’s land and quickly set about building upon it. Hearst decided to construct a grand estate that would stand as a testament to his family’s wealth and influence, and Hearst Castle was born.
Situated on a hilltop overlooking the stunning coastline, Hearst Castle is a sight to behold — the castle boasts 115 rooms, including 38 bedrooms, over 40 bathrooms, a theater, and even a beauty salon. Its opulent furnishings and stunning architecture make it a true marvel of design and engineering. The estate was also home to a private zoo, which was once reportedly the largest in the world, and today there are still around 120 zebras that still roam the land around the castle. Hearst Castle is now a California State Park and a must-see destination for visitors to the Central Coast — so tour reservations are encouraged.
2. Get Back to Nature
Montana de Oro (MDO) State Park is a true gem of California’s Central Coast, boasting an impressive 8,000 acres of pristine natural beauty. The park’s diverse habitats provide a haven for a wide array of flora and fauna, ranging from majestic eucalyptus groves to rugged deserts, and from towering forests to sparkling tidepools. It’s easy to get lost in the park’s rugged landscapes and stunning vistas, with so much to explore and discover.
Hiking enthusiasts will find themselves in paradise with the park’s numerous trails, each with its own unique flavor and stunning views. For instance, the Bluff Trail, which snakes along the coastline, offers breathtaking vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged coastline. Meanwhile, the Valencia Peak Trail provides an invigorating challenge, with its maximum height of 1,347 feet and commanding views of the entire park and beyond.
Beyond hiking, Montana de Oro offers visitors a wealth of opportunities to indulge in outdoor activities. Whether it’s horseback riding through the rolling hills, mountain biking through rugged terrain, or surfing some of the Central Coast’s most pristine breaks, this park has something for everyone. And for those looking to stay awhile, the park also offers a range of camping options, from primitive to full-service, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the park’s natural beauty.
Montana de Oro is also rich in history, with a storied past that dates back to the Native American Chumash tribe, who used the area for hunting and gathering. Later, Spanish explorers passed through the area, leaving their mark on the landscape. Today, visitors can explore the park’s historical sites and gain a deeper appreciation for the people and cultures that shaped this remarkable region. With so much to see and do, it’s easy to lose oneself in the natural beauty of Montana de Oro State Park. Whether you’re seeking wildlife, history, or simply a chance to soak up some sun and relax, this park is a must-visit destination for anyone looking to experience the best that California’s Central Coast has to offer.
After your visit, head back into Baywood-Los Osos and hit up Beerwood to relax and wind down with a quick snack and beverage on their outdoor patio.
3. Climb a Mountain
Bishop Peak, the majestic mountain that looms over the city of San Luis Obispo, is a must-visit destination for hikers and nature enthusiasts alike. At 1,559 feet above sea level, it is the highest peak among the Nine Sisters that call San Luis Obispo county home. But Bishop Peak’s allure doesn’t just stem from its height; it’s the breathtaking panoramic views that await you at the summit that make this hike a bucket list item for many. The hike to the top of Bishop Peak is not for the faint of heart. The trail is 3.5 miles round trip, and the elevation gain is a whopping 1,000 feet. This may sound daunting, but the steep ascent is worth every step for the unparalleled views you’ll be rewarded with upon reaching the summit. On a clear day, hikers can see for miles, taking in views of the charming city below and the sparkling coastline beyond.
Aside from the stunning vistas, Bishop Peak’s unique ecology also makes it a beloved spot among hikers. The mountain’s thin, rocky soil provides a home for a diverse array of rare plants, including oak woodland, sage scrub, and chaparral. As you climb higher, the vegetation shifts, and the trail becomes surrounded by an enchanting mix of trees, wildflowers, and shrubs. The wildlife on Bishop Peak is also a highlight of the hike. You may spot a variety of birds soaring above, or catch a glimpse of small rodents scurrying across the trail. And, if you’re lucky (or unlucky), you may even spot one of the mountain’s big cats, such as a mountain lion. Overall, the Bishop Peak hike is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. Its challenging terrain and breathtaking views make for an unforgettable outdoor adventure.
After completing this demanding hike, there is no better place to go other than Milestone Tavern for a refreshing beverage coupled with a juicy burger to satiate your hunger and thirst.
4. Visit Morro Bay
Morro Bay, a picturesque coastal city in California, is an anomaly for nature lovers and explorers alike. Standing out as a prominent landmark in the area is Morro Rock, a towering volcanic plug that looms 576 feet above the ocean’s surface. This massive formation, which has stood the test of time, is a sight to behold, drawing in visitors from far and wide.
Beyond Morro Rock, the state park is a haven for all sorts of birds, making it a top destination for birdwatchers. In fact, every Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, the annual birding festival takes place, attracting enthusiasts to witness the avian splendor firsthand. The park is also home to a diverse range of aquatic creatures, including sea otters, dolphins, and sea lions, providing ample opportunities for visitors to appreciate the park’s rich marine life. There are also various aquatic activities such as kayaking, whale watching, and glass bottom boating that locals and tourists alike can enjoy.
However, the beauty of Morro Bay extends beyond the state park. The town itself is a stunning sight, with miles of breathtaking beaches stretching both north and south. Visitors often enjoy leisurely strolls to take in the town’s many offerings, from the unique shops to the delicious restaurants that line the streets. Speaking of unique, be sure to check out Rose’s Bar & Grill in Morro Bay for a picturesque view of Morro Rock in combination with affordable seafood dishes, burgers, salads, and tacos. Overall, Morro Bay’s scenic beauty and abundant wildlife make it an ideal destination for nature lovers, adventurers, and anyone who wants to experience the beauty of California’s central coast. A visit to this state park is an absolute must for anyone exploring the area for the first time.
5. Hit the Beach
Nestled along California’s central coast lies a hidden secret town that is perfect for a weekend getaway with loved ones. Avila Beach, a quaint beach town, boasts its own warm micro-climate and tranquil atmosphere that is sure to relax and rejuvenate anyone who visits. Whether you prefer to hit the road or take a scenic trail, Avila Beach is easily accessible via highway or foot. Covering a mere 1.3 miles of land and home to around 1,500 people, this town is a true testament to the phrase “small but mighty.” From modern hotels and charming shops to delectable restaurants, there is something for everyone in Avila Beach.
Of course, the beach itself is the main attraction. A stunning boardwalk offers breathtaking views of the ocean and surrounding areas, while the dock serves as the perfect spot for fishing or a leisurely stroll. And if you’re interested in marine life, be sure to visit the Marine Institute, where you can get up close and personal with some of the area’s indigenous creatures.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. Avila Beach is also home to the Avila Valley Barn and Gopher Glen Apple Farm, Insta-worthy spots complete with a pumpkin patch, fresh produce for purchase, and homemade pies and cider. And if you’re visiting on a Friday evening, be sure to check out the fish and farmers market, where you can sample some of the freshest seafood and local fare around. Don’t be fooled by its small size; Avila Beach is one of the biggest attractions the central coast has to offer. With its warm climate, breathtaking scenery, and plethora of activities, it’s no wonder that so many locals and tourists flock to this hidden paradise every year.
As you can see, there’s plenty to see and do off campus and the area around San Luis Obispo is a gem for those who love to explore the great outdoors and check out cool local businesses.