The Best Things to Do in the Central Coast

Highlights
125 Ocean View Blvd #122, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, USA
Using an e-bike isn’t cheating—it’s far more environmentally friendly than using a car, plus you get some exercise as well. And those climbs along the coast are much easier when you have a 750-watt assist. Big Sur Adventures offers a trio of e-bike tours for all levels of riders: 17-Mile Drive, the Old Coast Road, and McWay Falls. One of the best choices for intermediate riders is the Old Coast Road route, a dirt road that follows the original wagon trail into Big Sur. There are locals who haven’t been on this road, and the views are magnificent as they stretch along the coast, into oak and redwood groves, and across the Little Sur River. Trips include four to 12 people and typically last three to four hours. Sure, in a car, you can roll down the windows to smell the sea, but exploring the coast by bike gives you a full sensory experience: ocean and forest scents, warm sun on your arms, the sound of crashing waves and wind in the trees, and the feeling of getting a little closer to the wild coast.
886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940, USA
When you stand on the Monterey bluffs and look at the bay, the vast expanse of marine protected areas may inspire you to learn more about conservation of the ocean and its creatures. That’s exactly the mission of the innovative Monterey Bay Aquarium, a window into the habitats and sea life of one of the world’s richest marine regions. More than 35,000 creatures representing over 550 species fill 34 galleries here. It can be daunting to get to everything in a single visit, and one of the best additions to your time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the Personal Guided Tour. On this customized tour, aquarium staff can answer any questions you have about the animals and exhibits and then take you behind staff-only doors to watch how the animals and marine life are cared for. The six Southern sea otters are the crowd favorites at the aquarium, so arrive early for the three-time-daily feedings to get a good look at them.
2040 Niderer Road
Romantics may be drawn to Clos Solène for its origin story. Sixth-generation French winemaker Guillaume Fabre promised his love, Solène, their own “clos,” or enclosed vineyard, in the New World if she would come along with him to put down roots. Their Paso Robles winery has even been the subject of a documentary, which was a finalist in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. But the romantic backstory is only a small part of what makes the wine special. Clos Solène produces 11 different wines (mostly rhône and cabernet sauvignon blends), each with its own identity and vineyard site. A year ago, the boutique winery purchased an estate property in the Willow Creek District that has become the new home to Clos Solène Estate—complete with a winery, vineyard, and tasting room. Pro tip: Tastings are available by appointment, and while visitors can purchase a limited amount of select wines, the best opportunity for fans who want open access is to become a member of the wine club (with three- and six-bottle options).
2670 Ontiveros Rd, Los Olivos, CA 93441, USA
Successful first acts often lead to equally successful second acts. After years as leaders and pioneers in the electronic music business, Tom and Judy Beckmen decided to turn their attention to winemaking. Today, with their son, Steve, they’re turning out innovative wines in the Santa Ynez Valley near Los Olivos. The winery focuses on rhône varietals and has two estate vineyards: The 165-acre hillside certified biodynamic Purisima Mountain Vineyard has almost 40 individual blocks of rhône grape varieties; the 17-acre vineyard that surrounds the winery is planted predominantly with syrah and cabernet sauvignon. Swing by to taste (although groups of six or more require reservations) or bring your own picnic and nab a gazebo. For a more in-depth experience, reserve a private tour with a customized wine tasting flight paired with cheese and charcuterie. Four different levels of membership in the wine club offer access to hand-selected bottles, flavor profiles, and recipes to match.
52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, USA
One of Big Sur’s most iconic images comes from this state park: tree-topped rocks jutting above a golden beach next to crashing surf. If you’re not an avid outdoorsperson, this is possibly the best reward for an easy hike that exists: Visitors can view the 80-foot McWay Falls as it plummets from a granite cliff to the sandy cove below from the half-mile Waterfall Overlook Trail, which is easily accessible from the entrance gate of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The falls, creek, and canyon are named after Christopher McWay, an early settler and farmer, but the park itself is named after a legendary early pioneer who had a ranch in McWay Canyon with her husband. For a different view, turn to Ewoldsen Trail, a two-mile loop that crosses streams and winds through redwood trees. At its highest elevation gain, the views make any effort more than worthwhile. Pro tip: The Central Coast’s only known colony of double-crested cormorants live just offshore, so birders should bring binoculars—and patience.
80 Asilomar Avenue
Standing its ground between a cypress grove and the Pacific Ocean, the Point Pinos Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the U.S. West Coast—and one of seven lighthouses for which Congress appropriated funding shortly after California statehood was ratified. But this lighthouse wasn’t just an aid to navigation; it was also a social hub in early Pacific Grove. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about lighthouse keeper Allen Luce and his piano playing, while a fondness for entertaining inspired locals to call keeper Emily Fish the Socialite Keeper. The lighthouse beacon, a third-order Fresnel lens, has flashed nightly since 1855 and is still used in the tower today—the light is visible up to 17 nautical miles out to sea. Docents are on duty to answer questions as you tour the lighthouse, from the 1890s-style parlor to the 1920s-style kitchen, and up to the Emily Fish bedroom and lookout. Right behind the lighthouse is the El Carmelo Cemetery, one of the most peaceful seaside cemeteries, with deer wandering through to nibble on the grass.
Pfeiffer Beach, California 93920, USA
If you blink, you might miss the turnoff for Pfeiffer Beach. There’s no signage except for a yellow “Narrow Road” warning at the top of otherwise unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road, the only paved, ungated road on the west side of Highway 1 between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and the Big Sur Post Office. From the path that starts at the parking lot, this flat beach may not seem like much at first, but the view unfolds as you get closer. The focal point from Pfeiffer Beach’s wide, sandy beach is Keyhole Rock, a natural arch where the tide sweeps through as waves break on the rock. During low tide periods, you can find tide pools in this area, but always keep your eye on the ocean, which rises quickly. Walk to the northern end of the beach, where purple sand comes from the manganese garnet in the surrounding rocks (the best places to see it are under running streams of water). Pro tip: Those looking for a golden, romantic moment—and beautiful photos—should head here before sunset, to catch Keyhole Rock as the last rays of daylight pass through.
209 West Ojai Avenue
Walk through the foyer of Ojai’s Beacon Coffee and into this light and airy crafter’s paradise. When you emerge, you may have a new project or two in your hands. Beautifully curated by husband-wife team Kirk and Anna Nozaki (who have a background in fashion and graphic design, respectively) Cattywampus Crafts is filled with all-natural products that seem made for an Instagram or Pinterest feed. The store brings texture to life: inventory includes luxurious fabrics, books, plant dyes, ceramics, jewelry, and clothing. As you look, you’ll realize that they’re more than things to buy—they’re also ideas to inspire your own creativity. Go it alone with a book and materials, or choose an in-house craft class from a wealth of offerings that cover knitting, crocheting, macramé, weaving, stitchery, mending, and dyeing. Pro tip: Cattywampus sells objects by local artists. Don’t miss Margins’ beautiful moon calendars that are available in a variety of colors.
750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon, CA 93452, USA
This sprawling, 165-room mansion may be known as Hearst Castle, but officially, it’s called La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”), former owner William Randolph Hearst’s affectionate name for the property. Designed by legendary California architect Julia Morgan to the newspaper magnate’s specifications, Hearst Castle was considered completed in 1947, even though it was still unfinished. Now a national historic landmark and museum dedicated to art and excess, it’s filled with Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities, along with Old Master European artwork, Chinese and Near Eastern art, and art deco items—25,000 artifacts in all. There’s always something blooming in the 127 acres of gardens, whether it’s sweet-smelling hyacinth, walls of magenta bougainvillea, fragrant star jasmine, or orange California poppies (the state flower). Don’t get overwhelmed by the numbers during a visit here. Most tours of the estate focus on certain areas, instead of the entire grounds. Pro tip: The Hearst Castle private tour, a four-hour, in-depth exploration of the lavish grounds and mansion, is well worth it. The customized route can access any areas of the estate that are available to the public, but since it’s limited to a maximum of six guests, you can cover a lot of ground with your private guide and get information that shorter tours can only touch upon.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure