Hiking Trails, Butterflies, and Beaches Glisten in Central Coast State Parks
You would be hard-pressed to find a more diverse roster of state parks in American than along Highway 1 in the Central Coast of California, San Luis Obispo County or SLO CAL. Imagine spending your morning in one of the country’s only real castles, then splitting the afternoon between ATVing in California’s largest dune structure and witnessing thousands of butterflies at rest in a coastal eucalyptus grove. And that’s not all. Families stream to Lopez Lake for trail adventures, a high ropes course, a zipline, and a waterslide park. Nature lovers flock to Los Osos Oaks to see dwarf oaks and scores of bird species. Meanwhile, short- and longboarders surf off Cayucos State Beach. Whatever your happy place, you'll find your go zone in a state park off the Highway 1 Discovery Route.
Many of these parks celebrate landscapes that have been visited for thousands of years, first by indigenous Chumash cultures, then by missionaries, and today by people from all over the world. Estero Bluffs State Park is the site of a historically significant native community that thrived on local resources. The site of several mid-19th century land grants, almost 9,000 acres were saved from development by the local community. Today, the 4-mile Estero Bluffs State Park trail reveals a cross-section of coastal vegetation, and is home to a wide array of native plants and wildflowers. Like several of the parks, Estero Bluffs features many vista points where you can watch for migrating whales, as well as tidal zones where you’ll find sea stars, sea anemones, and other marine life.
The Cambria State Marine Conservation Area offers a very different environment from most traditional parks, an area of key habitat from steelhead spawning streams to kelp forests that are protected ad infinitum. The SMCA, together with adjacent to San Simeon State Park, provides incredible wildlife viewing opportunities as well as waves to surf and trails to hike along the coast.
The 3.4-mile out-and-back Bluff Trail in Montaña de Oro State Park also parallels the coastline and leads down to the beach and Corallina Cove. Montaña de Oro covers more than 8,000 acres of diverse environments along 7 miles of undeveloped coastline. You can lounge on the beach or hike to the 1,347-ft Valencia Peak. The park captures most features of central coast geography, from sandy beaches to coastal plains, canyons, and hills. The sea stacks also cut impressive figures, especially in silhouette against the sunset.
Whatever your happy place, you'll find your go zone in a state park off the Highway 1 Discovery Route.
Not all the trails in Montaña de Oro match the Valencia Peak Trail’s rapid ascent: the Hazard Peak Trail leads to a 1,076-ft peak via a more gently sloped 6-mile roundtrip. But like Valencia Peak, Hazard provides breathtaking 360-degree views of Morro Bay and the surrounding hillsides. The Islay Creek Trail reveals additional topography, a coastal canyon saunter complete with waterfall access just halfway down the trail. Not surprisingly, the park has grown into a favorite mountain biking destination, with its six easy to intermediate trails.
A different set of wheels dig in at Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve, with over 3,500 acres of undulating sand in California’s largest dune complex it isn’t just four-wheeled ATVs covering ground here—the beach is a favorite area for horseback riding. The entire preserve captures the Central Coast’s fabled reputation as an oceanfront playground. Surfers ride the waves, kitesurfers take flight, fishing lines are cast within a habitat vast and pristine enough to host ground-nesting least terns and snowy plovers. Not surprisingly, this area was also favored by indigenous Chumash communities and the “Dunites,” bohemian artists drawn to the mythical aesthetic of the ever-shifting dunes.
Coastal dune ecology may seem barren of vegetation and wildlife, but a walk through Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve will quickly reveal that even trees can thrive here, albeit in a somewhat reduced state. The 800-year old dwarf coast live oaks, draped in moss like ancient stewards upon sandy soil, stand no taller than 25 feet. Los Osos features four other plant communities, distinct biozones that host acorn woodpeckers, barn owls, and two types of hummingbirds, among several other avian species. Keep an eye out for bobcats, the gray fox, and other mammals drawn to shelter and freshwater. The El Moro Elfin Forest Natural Area, site of another dwarf oak forest, is home to over 100 bird species, almost two dozen mammals, and over a dozen reptiles.
Any birdwatcher will tell you that freshwater in an arid environment serves as a magnet for migrating and residential avian species. As one of many SLO County Parks, Lopez Lake Recreation Area offers a prime example, its shoreline home to scores of bird species. The lake is also rich in recreation, whether you waterski, fish, or prefer to dive in for a refreshing dip. That dunk will be especially well deserved if you embark upon the arduous 7-mile Hi Mountain Trail. You can also join sailors, kayakers, standup paddleboarders, and every other type of human-powered aquatic endeavor. Lopez Lake takes water sports further than most parks, supplementing natural recreation with the Lopez Lake Waterslide and Vista Lago Adventure Park, an adrenaline rush of high ropes, zip lines, and Quick Jump, a 40-foot freefall.
The SLO CAL stretch of Highway 1 glistens in every direction, from bejeweled monarch butterflies clustering near Pismo State Beach to the actual gems accenting the furnishings in majestic Hearst Castle to the north, in San Simeon.
The magnificence of thousands of migratory butterflies perched upon eucalyptus trees and gathering together for protection against the prevailing Pacific winds has to be seen first-hand to be appreciated. You can see this unique subspecies, which lives longer and flies farther than other monarch, at the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach, about 1 mile from the entrance to the Oceano State Park Vehicle Recreation Area.
Not far away, Pismo State Beach offers critical habitat for coastal wildlife including the migrating monarch butterflies. The freshwater lagoon is an ideal and rare habitat along the Central Coast that draws an entirely different set of birds. You can swim, camp and, of course, surf here too.
Lagoon enthusiasts should also head to Morro Bay State Park, home of the famous Morro Rock and site of fresh water, salt water marsh, and an expansive bay, a birdwatcher’s dream. The bay has long been a favorite sailing environment. If you’re culturally curious, the museum here will inform you about the coastal geology, indigenous life and regional oceanography in an engaging format. Even duffers get into the act here, as the park’s 18-hole public golf course is among the most scenic and affordable on the entire California coast. The Morro Strand State Beach adds picnic tables and campsites within steps from a 6-mile stretch of sand from Morro Rock to Cayucos. The strand faces the Morro Bay State Marine Reserve with its abundant wildlife like playful seals and soaring brown pelicans.
A different kind of gilding sparkles about one hour north in San Simeon, where the “Enchanted Hill” known as Hearst Castle showcases esteemed architect Julia Morgan’s talent and displays William Randolph Hearst’s exceptional art collection. The 165-room mansion includes a personal theater, billiard room, and several extraordinary swimming pools. It’s no surprise that most of Hollywood’s most luminous stars, in addition to Winston Churchill and several US Presidents, traveled to San Simeon for fetes and holidays. Whatever your interest, be it cooking, architecture, history, or interior decorating, you’ll find a tour in this State Park gem with your name on it.
With so much hillside glamor just off Highway 1, it’s easy to overlook the simple majesty and natural splendor of Cayucos and other beaches. Cayucos State Beach deserves attention, starting with its 6 miles of undisturbed sand. Or stroll out on the recently restored 950-foot Cayucos Pier, an excellent platform for fishing, explore the tidepools in protected Half Seal Cove, take your surfboard out on the reliable break, or just go for an ocean swim. Anything you can do on the open water you can do right here.
Should you want to get above it all head to Harmony Headlands State Park, located just five minutes north of Cayucos. Follow the 1.5 mile trail to a coastal marine terrace grassland to look for wildflowers, birds and, from the steep promontory, whales and other marine life.
Visit any of the 14 State Parks along Highway 1 Discovery Route by visiting the website, and curate your State Park adventure to pick your beach, find your trailhead, or follow the stars.
MONTAÑA DE ORO
CAYUCOS STATE BEACH
Discover the Parks
MONARCH BUTTERFLY GROVE
MORRO BAY STATE PARK
MORRO STRAND STATE BEACH
CAMBRIA STATE MARINE BEACH
HEARST SAN SIMEON STATE PARK
PISMO STATE BEACH
HARMONY HEADLANDS STATE PARK