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17 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Pismo Beach, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Updated May 26, 2022

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Pismo Beach is a vintage coastal city in San Luis Obispo County, exuding a hometown charm with great ocean views. The historic Pismo Beach Pier is a central gathering spot for the community and tourists alike, extending 1,200 feet into the ocean, and connected to a downtown district lightly scented with the aroma of locally sourced seafood specialties.

Pismo Beach sign at sunset
Pismo Beach sign at sunset | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

North of the pier, the natural landscape and laid-back community of Pismo Beach encourage a slower pace of travel. Here, places like Palisades and Spyglass Parks offer stunning views of the sea stacks that define this picturesque part of the coast. And to the south, Oceano Dunes is one of few Special Vehicle Recreation Areas operated by the state, allowing visitors to drive ATVs and off-road vehicles across the shifting landscape.

Alongside the sunny forecast and coastal views, Pismo Beach has a distinct tourist charm that's hard to miss. From motor lodges to restaurants and several photo opportunities, these visitor resources also lend to the feeling of vacationing done right.

Enjoy your next vacation to San Luis Obispo County with these top attractions and things to do in Pismo Beach.

1. Pismo City Beach

Pismo Beach Pier
Pismo Beach Pier | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Pismo City Beach is the main stretch of sand lining the downtown district and a very popular spot to enjoy the ocean. The Pismo Beach Pier juts into the Pacific Ocean here, standing as an iconic landmark of the city. It's also a popular pedestrian pathway for fishing, strolling, and photographing the long stretch of beach on either side.

Opposite the pier is a lively district filled with live music and lines outside of neighborhood restaurants. This trendy area is popular throughout the day and into the night. The Pismo Beach Promenade connects to the pier and this restaurant district, providing a vehicle-free pathway to navigate the rest of the beach.

Pismo Beach Promenade
Pismo Beach Promenade | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Clam digging has always been popular on the beach, though special regulations now apply to protect the species, and those interested in harvesting need to obtain a license. Other popular activities on the beach include sand volleyball, kiteboarding, and taking long walks on the wide shoreline.

To access the quieter north end of the beach, a large wooden staircase owned by the city is found on Wilmar Avenue stretching down to the sand.

2. Dinosaur Caves Park

Dinosaur Caves Park
Dinosaur Caves Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

This 11-acre public park is a crown-jewel natural space of Pismo Beach and has an interesting history regarding a large concrete dinosaur that could be seen from the highway. The novelty dinosaur no longer exists at this city-owned space, but the stunning shoreline and natural features still make it one of the most popular oceanfront parks in the county.

A paved path makes its way around the perimeter of the park atop a high rugged bluff with generous views, revealing the many sea caves below. Other amenities at this ocean-front park include a popular playground area with unique amenities such as dinosaur and sea creature play structures, as well as decorative "dinosaur eggs" kids can crawl into.

Dinosaur Park is on the north side of the city, in the Shell Beach neighborhood of Pismo Beach. It also features rentable venue space including an amphitheater, reception area, and an ocean-vista ceremony space.

Address: 2701 Price Street, Pismo Beach, California

Official site: https://www.pismobeach.org/288/Dinosaur-Caves-Park

3. Monarch Butterfly Grove

Monarch Butterfly Grove
Monarch Butterfly Grove

The Monarch Butterfly Grove is on the north end of Pismo State Beach, south of the Pismo Pier. It's an essential stop during annual monarch butterfly migrations. Between November and February, tens of thousands of monarch butterflies descend upon this natural shelter and literally overtake the branches of the surrounding eucalyptus and pine trees.

The Monarch Butterfly Grove is an amazing natural cycle and demonstration of long-distance migration. It's also a free and fun activity the whole family can enjoy.

Address: 400 South Dolliver Street, Pismo Beach, California

Official site: https://www.experiencepismobeach.com/beach-and-outdoors/monarch-butterflies/

4. Pismo State Beach

Pismo State Beach
Pismo State Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Pismo State Beach stretches for miles along the coastline south of downtown, offering a wide variety of seaside activities. Surfing, swimming, suntanning, and all the usual beachside attractions are easily accommodated, as well as more unique things to do like clam digging, freshwater fishing, and sand dune exploring.

Pismo State Beach is also the only beach in California where visitors can drive onto the beach with off-road and personal vehicles. The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) allows trucks, four-wheelers, and other motorized vehicles to explore the abundant shore, including many enormous and shifting sand dunes.

Two campgrounds are available for tents and RVs at Pismo State Beach, with motorsports enthusiasts often filling the Oceano Campground to the south. The North Beach Campground, closer to downtown, features quieter surroundings and proximity to the Monarch Butterfly Grove also located within the park.

Address: 399 S Dolliver Street, Pismo Beach, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=595

5. Spyglass Park

Spyglass Park
Spyglass Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Spyglass is a quiet neighborhood park with ocean views. It features playground equipment, barbecue pits, and a large grassy area perfect for lawn games. However, one of the real appeals of this four-acre park is its mile-long stretch of beach, enabling activities like surfing, sunbathing, and tide pool exploring.

The trail leading down to the beach is steep and potentially difficult to navigate. High tide can make the trail inaccessible, making a tide chart handy to bring along when visiting the beach at Spyglass Park.

Address: Spyglass Drive, Pismo Beach, California

6. Oceano Dunes SVRA

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Oceano Dunes is on the south end of Pismo State Beach. It's a designated State Vehicular Recreation Area and unique as the only place in California where motor vehicles can access the beach.

Vehicles with four-wheel drive have a much easier time navigating the beach without the risk of getting stuck, and many visitors opt for ATVs, dune buggies, or motocross bikes to navigate the sprawling sand dunes. This unique SVRA status makes Oceano Dunes a very popular place to visit, especially on the weekends.

Dune buggy at Oceano Dunes
Dune buggy at Oceano Dunes

The Oceano Dunes Visitor Center is an excellent place for first-time visitors to check out, or anyone interested in the shifting environment.

Address: 1001 Cabrillo Hwy, Oceano, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=406

7. Avila Beach

Avila Beach Pier
Avila Beach Pier | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The unincorporated community of Avila Beach is just north of Pismo Beach, accessible with a short drive and turnoff from Highway 101. It's situated along the San Luis Obispo Bay shoreline with several scenic places to pull over and enjoy the view.

Many trips to Avila Beach center around the Avila Beach Pier and the adjacent shopping and restaurant district. Here, a supreme beach scene unfurls on either side of the pier, and a lively atmosphere emanates from the storefronts. And the nearby Central Coast Aquarium offers several hands-on exhibits to round out a visit.

The entire coastline along Avila Beach is worth a detour. To the west, Old Porte Beach and Fisherman's Beach offer seaside parking spots. And if you're coming from Pismo Beach, take some time to explore Smuggler's Cave and the adjacent Pirate Cove's Beach (clothing optional).

8. Pismo Beach Premium Outlets

Nike Factory Store at Pismo Beach Premium Outlets
Nike Factory Store at Pismo Beach Premium Outlets | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Pismo Beach Premium Outlets is accessible from the 101 in the southeast part of town. It features name-brand deals and nearly 40 stores offering discounts from their regular retail price. Parking is plentiful at Pismo Beach Premium Outlets, and most stores are open seven days a week.

Storefronts like the Nike Factory Store, Kate Spade, and Tommy Hilfiger are often reason enough to visit, with other popular retailers including Levi's, OshKosh B'gosh, and IZOD.

Address: 33 5 Cities Drive, Pismo Beach, California

Official site: https://www.premiumoutlets.com

9. Avila Hot Springs

Avila Hot Springs is near Avila Beach and offers fun for the whole family. It features places to stay, play, and swim just northwest of Pismo Beach. The appeal of this public facility, situated atop a natural artesian mineral hot spring, comes from the heat and health benefits of the water.

The large freshwater heated swimming pool at Avila Hot Springs has plenty of space to splash around, and the 400-square-foot mineral pool at the facility reaches a muscle-soothing 104-degrees Fahrenheit.

Avila Hot Springs is open seven days a week. Day passes are available and dry camping and cabins enable overnight visits. Long-term cabin rentals are also available for those looking to stay for an extended time. Other amenities at Avila Hot Springs include swimming lessons, couples' massages, and bike rentals to cruise along the nearby Bob Jones Trail.

Address: 250 Avila Beach Drive, San Luis Obispo, California

Official site: https://www.avilahotsprings.com/

10. Palisades Park

Palisades Park
Palisades Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Palisades Park is a charming seaside park north of downtown, comprising six acres of ocean views. The park is neatly manicured with clean, cut grass and a mile-long pedestrian path, making it a popular place to visit for a picnic or leisurely stroll.

A playground at the park is popular with young children, and public tennis courts offer a fun way to volley near the ocean. Picnic tables and barbecue pits are also reservable at Palisades Park for large group activities.

Address: Florin Street, Pismo Beach, California

11. Bob Jones Trail

Bob Jones Trail
Bob Jones Trail

Also known as the City to the Sea Trail, this paved bike path offers a great way to spend the afternoon exploring San Luis Obispo County. Starting near Avila Hot Springs, where bicycles are available to rent, the three-mile path lives up to its nickname as it heads to Avila Beach following San Luis Obispo Creek. Crossing scenic pedestrian bridges and escaping the sound of motor vehicles, the trail passes through a golf course before ending near the Avila Beach Pier.

12. Ebb Tide Park

Beach at Ebb Tide Park
Beach at Ebb Tide Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Ebb Tide is a charming coastal park overlooking San Luis Obispo Bay near the Shell Beach neighborhood. It's accessible from Shell Beach Road, with limited parking at the cul-de-sac trailhead. Additional parking is available in large lots across Shell Beach Road.

The park navigates a modest open grassy space between residential units. Here, a beautiful view across the ocean accompanies almost every vantage point. This is a popular area to lay down a blanket and soak in the sun.

A steep staircase leads down to the beach at Ebb Tide Park. This long, skinny beach is easily walkable, and the rock protrusion on the south end reveals tide pools when the ocean is ebbing. Ebb Tide sees some crowds on the weekends but is relatively uncrowded for this part of the coast.

13. Eldwayen Ocean Park

Eldwayen Ocean Park
Eldwayen Ocean Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

A few blocks from Spyglass Park in the Shell Beach neighborhood, Eldwayen Ocean Park is another popular community space. It spans over a mile along the coastline and features a manicured path atop a short ocean bluff. A steep set of stairs within the park accesses a sandy beach, where tide pools are exposed during low tide.

14. Pismo Beach Clam Festival

Every October, thousands of people flock to the shores and streets of Pismo Beach to celebrate the city's biggest event: The Pismo Beach Clam Festival. Entering its 73rd year of festivities in 2019, the Pismo Beach Clam Festival celebrates the natural bounty and unofficial pastime of Pismo Beach. Live music and three days of community flavor define much of the festival, as well as parades, surf competitions, and clam digs.

Official site: https://www.experiencepismobeach.com/clam-festival/

15. Margo Dodd Park

Margo Dodd Park
Margo Dodd Park

Margo Dodd is a lovely public space just north of Dinosaur Caves Park. It features a covered gazebo and stunning views of the coastline in both directions. There's beach access in the park, at the end of Pier Street, where some of the best tide pools in the area reveal themselves at low tide.

16. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

The stunning Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is one of the many top tourist attractions of San Luis Obispo and can be reached from Pismo Beach with a 15-minute drive.

Established in 1772, Mission San Luis Obispo was the fifth mission in California founded by Father Junipero Serra. Public and private services are still held in the historic mission, and an on-site museum details its centuries-long history. Many other scenic and historic attractions of San Luis Obispo are within walking distance of the Mission.

Address: 751 Palm Street, San Luis Obispo, California

Official site: http://missionsanluisobispo.org

17. Morro Bay

Flowers blooming at Morro Bay
Flowers blooming at Morro Bay | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Morro Bay is another top destination in San Luis Obispo County, north of Pismo Beach, on the other side of Point Buchon. It takes less than 30 minutes to reach Morro Bay from Pismo Beach. And upon arriving, it's hard to miss Morro Bay's most defining feature: Morro Rock.

Morro Rock stands 581 feet tall just offshore from the city, providing a dominant landmark and home to nesting peregrine falcons. Attractions line the waterfront across from Morro Rock, including the sprawling Morro Strand State Beach. The downtown waterfront is also well known for its many ocean-view dining opportunities.

Much like Pismo Beach, visits to Morro Bay typically include exploring outside. Morro Bay State Park and Montaña de Oro State Park are both within city limits, offering elevated hiking trails and wildlife-rich beaches.

Read More: Top-Rated Attractions and Things to Do in Morro Bay

Where to Stay in Pismo Beach, California for Sightseeing

Luxury Hotels:

  • Encompassing five oceanfront acres toward the north side of town, Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa offers one of the most luxurious stays in Pismo Beach. With the beach nearly always in sight, it's a feeling of getting away at Dolphin Bay. The property exclusively offers one- and two-bedroom suites, each adorned with plush furnishings and several comforts of home, including full gourmet kitchens. The property also offers on-site dining at Lido Restaurant. Other resort amenities include a concierge service and professional treatments at the Spa at Dolphin Bay.
  • Near the Pismo Beach Boardwalk, Vespera on Ocean is another luxurious place to stay. The hotel provides instant beach and boardwalk access and is in a prime location relative to downtown. A large outdoor pool and deck area overlooks Pismo Beach and offers a stunning place to catch the sunset. Overnight accommodations range from classic rooms with step-out beach access to premium suites with balcony views. Other resort amenities include oceanfront dining, nightly bonfires, and room service. Select suites at the hotel are pet-friendly.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • The most sought-after family hotel in Pismo Beach is Pismo Lighthouse Suites. This fun-centered hotel has one and two-bedroom suites, perfect for the whole family, with some pet-friendly accommodations available. The hotel is adjacent to the ocean and has a vast Play Deck that attracts the eyes of every child that passes by. A small sample of activities on this sun-drenched play area includes a pirate play ship, mini-golf, ping pong, and life-size checkers. The deck also features abundant lounge chairs for catching some rays.
  • On a five-acre bluff top, the SeaCrest OceanFront Hotel provides rooms with a view. Overnight accommodations at the hotel include oceanfront rooms and suites, each adorned with modern and hip decor. The hotel makes enjoying the ocean scene easy, with plenty of outdoor spaces, including a pool and barbecue area and staircase access to the beach. Other convenient amenities at this pet-friendly hotel include casual bites at the Willow Kitchen and complimentary continental breakfast each morning.
  • The Inn at the Cove offers another excellent place to stay perched above the ocean. The ocean views are breathtaking from nearly all 52 well-appointed rooms. Every overnight accommodation has been recently remodeled and features convenient amenities like free Wi-Fi, coffee makers, and granite countertops. The hotel's common areas also make for a comfortable stay, including an excellent outdoor pool area overlooking the ocean. When it comes time to experience the surf, the property accesses a private cove perfect for exploring.
  • For a luxurious stay at a more favorable rate, the Shore Cliff Hotel is an excellent choice. Perched high above the ocean, every room and suite offers an ocean view and private balcony to soak in the splendor. The hotel also features a sprawling heated outdoor pool and deck area, complete with a bocce ball court and clay tennis court. It's a popular location for weddings, romantic trips, and other special events.

Budget Hotels:

  • For the best budget hotel in Pismo Beach, Ocean Palms Motel offers an excellent rate without sacrificing cleanliness or comfort. The motel is just a few blocks from the beach and the rest of downtown, making most of the day's activities within walking distance. It offers standard rooms with either one king bed or two queens. In-room amenities include a flatscreen TV with an extended cable package, coffee makers, and air conditioning. Maximum occupancy ranges from two to four people.

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imageMore to Explore in San Luis Obispo County: San Luis Obispo County is blessed with great ocean views, temperate weather conditions, and a "SLO" pace of living. Exploring the city of San Luis Obispo is a great introduction to the central California charm of the county, and to the north, Morro Bay offers even more seaside attractions. For the right hotel, motel, or seaside cottage for your travels, our Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo article helps find the perfect overnight accommodation for your type of travel.

imageCentral Coast Destinations: For staying in Pismo Beach or San Luis Obispo County, day trips from San Luis Obispo can take you to places like historic castles and other friendly beachside communities. Farther north along the Central Coast of California, the rugged shoreline of Big Sur has millions of artists and tourists from across the world to visit. Farther north, the city of Monterey is also an international destination with attractions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

imageCalifornia Road Trip: For further exploration of the state, many of the best West Coast road trips make their way through California, including along Highway 1 and the rest of the California coast. Adding even more inspiration to a road trip, our best attractions in California article highlights some of the most memorable and photogenic sights to see in the state. For further seaside attraction, the best beaches in California add even more postcard images to a vacation slideshow.

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