San Luis Obispo County offers a slow-paced, but action-packed vacation destination
The Arizona Republic — November 25, 2018
SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY, California – The locals in this central California region on the Pacific Coast Highway about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco refer to their county simply as “SLO CAL.”
Spend a few days in San Luis Obispo County amidst the colorful tapestry of vineyards, rolling hills, sand dunes, cattle ranches, beaches dotted with lounging elephant seals, and seaside shops in Morro Bay selling saltwater taffy, and you’ll see that SLO is much more than an acronym.
It also describes a slow-paced, less-pretentious way of life that differentiates San Luis Obispo from many of the state’s more well-known tourist destinations. As the county’s tourist board – SLO CAL — proudly proclaims with its new marketing slogan, “life’s too beautiful to rush.”
“We consider it the California less-traveled,” says Brooke Burnham, SLO CAL’s vice president of marketing. “We’re kind of hidden and we offer similar experiences to other places but at a different pace.”
True, but for those not content with sunbathing on the golden sands of Pismo Beach while munching on a tri-tip steak sandwich – a local specialty – and washing it down with a chilled Chardonnay produced in the nearby Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo also offers adventure-seekers plenty of chances to experience the outdoors in a more exhilarating way.
During a recent four-day visit to this county of about a quarter-million people, I went paragliding in Santa Margarita, rode in a military Humvee up and down the wild terrain of the Pismo Dunes, took a three-hour sailing trip in a 44-foot yacht along the California coast, pedaled my way past several vineyards in the Edna Valley, hiked the Boucher Trail to the famous Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, and ziplined high above pinot noir vineyards.
And for a more cerebral activity, I was even able to squeeze in a visit to perhaps the most iconic castle in the country – the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. The former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst has 165 rooms full of art that rivals museum collections. The castle is part of a working cattle ranch set on 127 acres and offers stunning views of the Pacific and rolling hills of central California.
Here are my five top choices for adventure-seeking travelers visiting SLO CAL:
Riding the Dunes
“Do you want wild or mild?” our driver asked our group of five as we strapped ourselves into a 1987 U.S. Marine Corps Humvee for the drive to the dunes at the Oceano State Recreation Area near Pismo Beach. I was outvoted. Wild it was.
The trip made prior four-wheeling dune rides I had taken seem like the Disneyland teacup ride in comparison. But our seasoned driver with Pacific Adventure Tours, the largest Humvee tour company in the country, was firmly in command. Never once did I feel like we were close to tipping over, even when the driver zig-zagged across dunes seemingly as tall as skyscrapers.
The views of the Pacific – which I enjoyed while holding on tight and clenching my teeth — were magnificent. Following the ride, we enjoyed a bonfire and clam chowder at nearby Grover Beach.
Bike and Wine
With more than 250 wineries, San Luis Obispo County is California’s third-largest wine-producing region (behind Napa and Sonoma). I took a 6-mile bike tour past numerous vineyards through the bike-friendly Edna Valley, and stopped at two wineries for tastings along the way.
SLO CAL is known for producing top-notch reds and whites and offers a less touristy experience than wineries with more acclaimed – and expensive — products 200 miles up the coast.
“You’re often going to find the winemaker in the tasting room,” says Burnham. “You’ll be able to have a much more casual experience. You don’t need to make appointments. And the cost of tastings is much lower.”
Not for the faint of heart, this is the most exhilarating way to experience the natural beauty of the ocean, mountains and farmlands of San Luis Obispo County.
My WingEnvy Paragliding pilot and I took off on a motorized paraglider attached to a parachute in Santa Margarita, a few miles inland. Originally, we were scheduled to fly closer to the coast, but the ocean winds were too strong.
My ride lasted just 10 minutes and the landing was a bit bumpy, but it was the most spectacular and picturesque activity of the trip (see video shot by the author of the landing: Paragliding in San Luis Obispo County).
Hiking Past Elephant Seals
Wildlife lovers will enjoy a 2-mile hike on the Boucher Trail that begins at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, the largest on the West Coast.
In peak times — December through March — there are 17,000 seals on these beaches. Docents are stationed on the trail to explain the animals’ behavior and mating habits. Gray-whale sightings also are common, especially in the spring when the whales migrate to Alaska.
The hike ends at the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, which was first illuminated in 1875. It’s open for tours and is now used as a research facility and wildlife sanctuary.
For those who want amazing views of the landscape but a tamer experience than paragliding, Margarita Adventures offers a zip-line tour in Santa Margarita.
The two-hour tour includes six zip lines spanning more than 7,500 feet and takes about two hours to complete.
Odds ‘n Ends
It’s easy to get to San Luis Obispo; American Airlines offers daily 90-minute nonstop flights from Phoenix. The airport is just a 10-minute drive from the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo, the county seat.
“SLO Town,” as it’s called by the locals, has a population of 45,000 and is home to a major university, Cal-Poly. Founded in 1772, San Luis Obispo is one of California’s oldest communities and is worth exploring for an afternoon.
Accommodations in the region are pricey; an average hotel costs about $250 a night. The Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in San Simeon is a good choice; it’s a short drive to the Hearst Castle. You’ll want to rent a car as public transportation in the area is virtually non-existent. Even finding an Uber or Lyft driver was difficult.
But it’s best to act like the locals if things move at a more relaxed pace than you’d like. Chill out, have a glass of wine and enjoy the sea air.
In other words, take it SLO and easy.
© 2018 Dan Fellner