The central coast of California has always had a special place in my heart. It’s the lesser known part of my home state and one of our favorite vacation destinations. The temperatures are typically cooler than southern California, making the beaches less inviting for sunbathing but lovely for long, romantic walks. And it’s here we’ve seen more marine life than anywhere else in the state, including whales, sea otters, and elephant seals.
I’ve read different definitions of what comprises the central coast, but many people agree it starts at the northern tip of Big Sur near Carmel Highlands and ends at the southern tip of Santa Barbara County. This is the area that I’ve focused on. There are dozens of beautiful beaches along this coast, but here are just a few of my favorites, beginning in the north and proceeding south.
1. Pfeiffer Beach
Each time I visit Big Sur, I regret that I didn’t schedule more time here. It’s a 90-mile stretch of Highway One that just might be the most beautiful road trip in the world. (I admit I’m biased.) Among the many spots I recommend visiting in Big Sur is Pfeiffer Beach.
Getting to Pfeiffer Beach isn’t easy. From Highway One, look for Sycamore Canyon Road. It’s a long, winding, and mostly unpaved road that will take you to the parking lot (larger vehicles like RV’s are not recommended). If you’re visiting in the summer or on a weekend, the small parking lot fills up fast, so try to arrive early.
When you finally arrive, you’ll be rewarded with the sight of waves splashing through Keyhole Arch. A portion of the beach appears to be a dark and subtle purple thanks to minerals in the sand. And in the spring, you may see wildflowers in bloom bordering the sand.
2. William R. Hearst Memorial Beach
Named for the infamous newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst, this small beach is located across the street from his massive mansion that is now a popular tourist sight. You’ll find a wide range of activities including swimming, kayaking, boating, and fishing. You’re even permitted to have your dog on the beach as long as they remain leashed. There’s ample parking and a few dozen picnic tables. Nearby is the Coastal Discovery Center which provides educational exhibits about San Simeon Cove, local wildlife, whaling history, marine mammals, and more.
If you’re visiting mid-January through mid-March, head a few miles north to Elephant Seal Vista Point to see these massive creatures return to their breeding grounds. Male elephant seals can weigh as much as 5,000 pounds, so they are quite a sight to behold.
3. Moonstone Beach
Cambria is a tiny hamlet located about 30 minutes south of San Simeon. One of Cambria’s best known attractions is Moonstone Beach, named for the smooth stones found here that appear to sparkle when the light is right.
While you can visit Moonstone Beach anytime of day, you don’t want to miss it at sunset. Take a stroll along the mile-long boardwalk and watch the Sun dip into the Pacific Ocean. You will not have the beach to yourself, instead, you’ll enjoy the company of couples, families, and dogs, all coming together to enjoy a lovely time outdoors. Afterwards, head into town for wine tasting or dinner and make it the perfect romantic evening.
4. Morro Rock Beach
You’ve likely seen a photo of Morro Rock, even if you didn’t know what it was. This 581-foot-tall rock is actually a volcanic plug and for centuries served as a navigational aid for sailors. It’s also the focal point of Morro Rock Beach. No one is permitted to climb on the rock, but with 6 miles of sandy coastline, there are plenty of other things to do including beachcombing, walking, surfing, and birding. Keep your eyes open for marine life including seals, sea otters, and starfish.
If you enjoy photography, consider getting up before the Sun and head to the beach to shoot Morro Rock at sunrise. You’ll likely have the beach to yourself as the Sun paints the sky a range of colors.
When you get hungry — or just need a break from the beach — head to the small town of Morro Bay, where you’ll find plenty of coffee shops, seafood restaurants, and boutiques selling souvenirs.
5. Avila Beach
Most Californians have never heard of Avila Beach, so I definitely consider this spot a hidden gem on the central coast. It’s a charming spot with everything a family would need for a summer vacation: a stretch of sandy beach, a boardwalk lined with ice cream vendors and souvenir shops, and a large and colorful playground.
Since Avila Beach is located in a protected bay, it’s also a good spot to watch for gray and humpback whales during their annual migrations. And if you want to learn more about local marine life, head to the Central Coast Aquarium, just steps off the sand.
6. Pismo Beach
My first overnight stay in central California was in Pismo Beach, just a few feet away from the pier, so I have fond memories of it. In the morning when the tide was out, we walked for hours along the sand.
The city of Pismo Beach has recently developed the pier and surrounding promenade, making it an even better destination. There’s the Whale Surfing Playground that any kid will love. And Sheldon’s Bait Shack sells everything you might need for fishing.
If you’ve always dreamed of driving your car on the sand, then head to nearby Pismo State Beach or Oceano Dunes Recreation Areas. This is the only place in the state that permits vehicles on the sand.
7. Leadbetter Beach
Santa Barbara might just be the best known city along California’s central coast, so it gets pretty busy. But that’s one of the reasons I appreciate Leadbetter Beach. Located a bit north of the more touristy area surrounding Stearns Wharf, this beach is quieter. Depending on the time of day you’re visiting, you may see surfers, kayakers, paddle boarders, and even kitesurfers. Or you may see nothing other than the gentle waves of the Pacific Ocean.
When you get hungry, head to Shoreline Beach Cafe where you can enjoy a delicious meal while relaxing on the sand (though they offer indoor dining as well). My husband and I highly recommend their ceviche.
8. Mandalay State Beach
It’s unlikely you’ve heard of Oxnard if you’re not from California. But this lesser known city offers 6 miles of white sand beaches often adjacent to acres of strawberry fields; if you’re visiting in the summer, I definitely recommend buying some strawberries at one of the roadside stands. Mandalay State Beach is a family-friendly destination featuring walking paths, volleyball courts, a playground, sand dunes, and spectacular views of Channel Islands National Park in the distance.
Long-distance cyclists will appreciate the fact that Mandalay State Beach is along the Pacific Coast Route — an 1,800-mile bicycle journey beginning in Vancouver, Canada, and concluding in Imperial Beach, California. This is the perfect spot to rest during a long day of cycling.
Enjoy more from our California beaches series: