The pretty beach towns that line California’s Central Coast all have their own claims to fame — whether it’s great surfing, magnificent ocean views, or stellar marine life viewing. Amidst all that seaside splendor, the little town of Cayucos manages to stand out for its fascinating maritime history.
From the 950-foot-long fishing pier that has its roots in the 1870s shipping trade to vintage buildings that still stand, from the region’s frontier beginnings to the town’s name, derived from the plank canoes or cayucos used by the region’s early Chumash people, Cayucos is firmly anchored in the past.
That’s not to say Cayucos doesn’t have plenty of fun beach-town features as well. Miles of sandy beach, restaurants serving up fresh seafood dishes, and shops selling ocean-inspired art and antiques are all front and center in this California Highway 1 enclave located 6 miles north of Morro Bay and about 20 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo.
Although Cayucos is small, at about 3,000 people, the town’s lovely setting and interesting story make it worth a visit of a day or two on a trip to California’s Central Coast.
Here are six ways to spend a perfect day in beautiful Cayucos.
1. Wander The Pier
You can’t miss the massive Cayucos Pier as you drive into town. It sprawls more than 950 feet into the Pacific Ocean and can be spotted from miles away.
While it serves as a major tourist attraction today, the original pier had a more practical use. It was initially built by Captain James Cass in 1872 as a wharf to ship out locally produced goods to major population centers in the North and South. Through the years, the historic pier deteriorated, and it was rebuilt in 2015.
When I visited in December, the lamp posts along the pier were decorated in candy cane stripes, making for a festive scene. And even though the wind was cool and brisk, the sun was shining brightly and plenty of people were out strolling, casting their fishing lines into the sea, and taking selfies on the pier.
Along with its fun scene, the pier offers great views of Estero Bay and the massive Morro Rock to the south. The pier is also known as a great spot to watch for sea life, such as dolphins, otters, and seals.
Pro Tip: A sign at the entrance to the pier notes that the area is a part of California’s Whale Trail, and it advises visitors to watch the horizon for whale spouts.
2. Dip Your Toes In The Sea
The wide sandy beach that runs right alongside Cayucos’s downtown is a perfect spot for a long walk in the surf. Officially known as Cayucos State Beach, the shoreline runs for 6 miles, all the way to Morro Rock.
On my December visit, I saw numerous family groups playing in the surf and couples walking in the sand, as seagulls swooped from above and long-billed curlews scampered into the waves.
In warm weather, the beach is popular for swimming, surfing, and tide-pooling. Even in the cool winter weather, though, plenty of people were wading into the water and walking barefoot in the sand.
Pro Tip: Unlike other nearby beaches that do not allow dogs, Cayucos appears to be fantastically dog friendly. Leashed dogs are allowed on the beach, and a number of hotels and patios allow dogs as well.
3. Explore Charming Downtown Cayucos
Highlighted by 150-year-old buildings that date back to the days when 1800s-era town founder Captain James Cass was warehousing goods to be packed onto cargo ships, downtown Cayucos is a wonderful mix of charm, history, and views.
According to the Cayucos Historical Society, Cass arrived in the area in 1867, not long before he was developing his shipping trade. By the 1870s, Cass had purchased 15 acres along the shore and eventually built a 940-foot-long pier and warehouse to house the barrels of butter, bales of seaweed, and grain cargo bound for San Francisco or Los Angeles — along with handling lumber imports for the James Cass & Company lumber yards.
Walk down Cayucos’s Pacific or Ocean avenues, and it’s not hard to imagine some of that early shipping hustle and bustle. For instance, the 1872-era wharf warehouse still stands at the entrance to the pier. (A community effort is currently underway to secure the funds needed for a restoration of the building, known as Cayucos Veterans Hall.)
Cass’s former home also still stands, just across the street from the beach, and now serves as the Cass House event venue and bed and breakfast. Continue down Ocean Avenue, and you will come upon a range of antique stores, cafés, delis, and boutique hotels.
4. Take A Mural Tour
Art is on display all over Cayucos in a range of ocean-themed sculptures, plaques, and paintings. Helping to illustrate the town’s culture is a series of colorful wall murals that depict everything from the shipping history to the region’s sea life.
One of the most accessible murals — located on the exterior wall of the Cayucos Surf Company near the pier — shows the busy scene during a butter and steamer day at the Cayucos Landing, while another painting on the Old Cayucos Tavern on Ocean Avenue shows a reproduction of famous western paintings. Other murals are located around town at an elementary school and a supermarket and they focus on topics such as the history of Indigenous people, the early blacksmith scene, and the creatures that live in the sea.
Pro Tip: Owing to Cayucos’s small size, the murals make for an easy walking or driving tour. For a self-guided mural tour, check out the Mural Society tour map.
5. Have Lunch With A View
True to its seaside locale, Cayucos is famous for its fresh seafood cuisine. On my visit, I was on the hunt for a lunch spot that would serve up both delicious seafood and a great sea view. I found it at the Schooners, a lively restaurant and bar located right on Ocean Avenue overlooking the ocean.
Schooners has a wonderful upstairs patio that appeared, to me, to offer the best pier view in town. It also serves a range of fresh seafood choices, including hand-crafted fish and chips, jumbo shrimp and chips, and calamari and chips. Lunch specialties also include fish and shrimp tacos, an albacore tuna melt, and burgers. For something a bit lighter, I loved the Asian sesame salad topped with grilled halibut.
Thanks to the downtown’s proximity to the beach, there are a number of other places also featuring seafood with a view. For award-winning chowder in an ocean setting, check out Duckie’s Chowder House, which bills itself as having a small-town feel and big-time flavor. Along with its New England and Manhattan clam chowders, Duckie’s also has fish tacos, steamers, and fish and chips.
Other downtown spots to try include the Honey Girl Café, a cute Ocean Avenue coffee shop with a California BLT and tuna or chicken salad on its menu; and Sea Shanty, also on Ocean Avenue, which serves a variety of seafood favorites like fried calamari strips, ceviche, and crab melt.
Pro Tip: For a sweet treat, be sure to stop by the Brown Butter Cookie Company on Ocean Avenue. Although the company has stores in nearby Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo as well, the shop in Cayucos is the location where the sweet/salty flavor and crumbly texture of the signature brown butter sea salt cookie made a name for itself.
6. Hike The Estero Bluffs
No trip to Cayucos would be complete without a hike or two in the bluffs that line the coast northwest of town. And conveniently located just 6 miles from town along a gorgeous stretch of California Pacific Coast Highway 1 is the Estero Bluffs State Park — a perfect spot for a walk in the sea breeze.
Not only is the park known for its spectacular cliffs and sea stacks, but the area is also home to a wide variety of birds and marine mammals. A sign at the entrance notes that sea otters use kelp beds in the area, finding food and seeking shelter from waves while harbor seals rest on the rocks and beaches. And from December through March, gray whales can be seen migrating south.
Shorebirds, sea birds, songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl also call the area home, and egrets and other wading birds also sometimes congregate there too.
The bluffs are located about a half-mile from the highway and can be accessed via an easy walk from the trailhead to the sea. The park features 4 miles of trails in all, but visitors can get a good taste of the bluffs by making the short walk through the grasslands to the shoreline.
There, they will be treated to magnificent views of low, craggy bluffs, wetlands, pocket coves, intermittent creeks, and sandy beaches.
When To Visit
Because weather on the California Central Coast remains fairly mild throughout the year, virtually any season is a good time to visit. Cayucos posts average high temperatures in the 60-degree-Fahrenheit range every month of the year, except October, when the average high is 70 degrees. January and February are the wettest months, each with an average of 7 days of rain. June through September are the driest months, posting averages of zero days of rain.
For more things to do near and along California’s Central Coast: