14 Top-Rated Day Trips from San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo offers many opportunities for fun day trips. A short drive from town, visitors can explore a wide array of Central Coast attractions, including the world-famous Hearst Castle, the seaside village of Morro Bay, and the relaxed beach resort of Cayucos. Natural beauty also beckons on San Luis Obispo's doorstep. Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, the world's largest coastal dune ecosystem, lies less than 30 miles from town. Also an easy drive away is sparkling Lake Nacimiento and Montaña de Oro State Park, with hiking and horseback riding trails and colorful springtime wildflowers.
1 Hearst Castle
Commanding the landscape from a hilltop high above the Pacific Ocean, this famous landmark is California's only castle. Hearst Castle is an architectural masterpiece created by architect Julia Morgan for newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. Morgan was the first woman to graduate from U.C. Berkeley School of Engineering and was the only architect who would attempt Hearst's overambitious plans. Hearst had proposed his ideas to several other architects, but they all said it couldn't be done. Despite the challenges and a nearly 30-year construction process (from 1919 to 1947), Julia Morgan succeeded at building a magnificent Mediterranean-style mansion amid the splendid surroundings.
The 115-room main building, known as the Casa Grande, resembles a 16th-century Spanish cathedral. The design for the bell towers was inspired by a church in Ronda in Spain's Andalusia region. Among other gargoyles and sculptures, the facade features a Madonna from San Vicente, another town in Spain. The interior exemplifies High Gothic style with many decorative elements from Europe, such as a 15th-century painted ceiling and a medieval convent door grill, an ancient Roman floor mosaic, and a 16th-century Flemish tapestry by Rubens. Everything was meant to dazzle the high-society and Hollywood guests that Hearst invited to the castle. For instance, guests could flip through a Gregorian illuminated manuscript or admire a 3,000-year-old Goddess Sekhmet statue, a precious artifact from Egypt.
The outdoor space was also created with entertainment in mind. Within its sprawling estate, the Hearst Castle grounds include 127 acres of lush gardens filled with towering palms, rare flowers, fruit trees, decorative pools, fountains, and sculptures. Guests could play a game of tennis or go for a swim in the classical-style outdoor Neptune Swimming Pool. Another option was taking a dip in the marvelous indoor Roman Pool, exquisitely decorated with a million Murano glass mosaic tiles. Bougainvillea-trimmed Moorish-style cottages provided overnight accommodations for the house guests. Today, the site is owned by the state of California and tourists may only visit on a guided tour. Visitors choose from a variety of 45-minute tours that focus on specific locations of the property, such as the grand rooms, the upstairs suites, or the gardens. During high season, it's best to reserve tickets in advance because popular tours such as the Garden Tour tend to sell out. Hearst Castle is an easy day trip from San Luis Obispo, about 45 miles away, a 50-minute car ride, or a one-hour-and-45-minute bus ride with one transfer at Morro Bay. The RTA bus from San Luis Obispo leaves from the Old County Government Center at 976 Osos Street; one day and multiple day bus passes are available at the RTA ticket office inside the Government Center building.
2 Morro Bay
Once a small fishing village, Morro Bay is now a recreational destination that delights visitors with its relaxing seaside ambience and stunning scenery. The town overlooks the distinctive Morro Rock, an iconic nature site and protected bird sanctuary. The calm waters of Morro Bay make it a popular place for watersports, especially kayaking and sailing. The area is also wonderful for fishing, cycling, nature walks, and spotting wildlife. Organized boat tours allow visitors to see the amazing marine animals including seabirds, sea lions, and sea otters. For a delicious meal, tourists can choose from several restaurants along the harbor that offer sensational views.
3 Arroyo Grande
Just 15 miles south of San Luis Obispo, this historic village is known for its old-fashioned small-town charm as well as its selection of antique shops and vintage boutiques. Arroyo Grande has a lively farmers market on Saturdays and a Strawberry Festival over the Memorial Day weekend. Visitors enjoy strolling the town and going for hikes or bike rides on nearby trails. For an afternoon excursion in the countryside, pick up a picnic lunch in Arroyo Grande and then spend the afternoon at nearby Lopez Lake located 10 miles away. This picturesque lake is a delightful spot for fishing, boating, and windsurfing.
Cayucos lies 18 miles from San Luis Obispo on the way to Hearst Castle (another 26 miles away). This small, laid-back beach town has a charming, historic downtown filled with surf shops; hotels; and restaurants offering Mexican cuisine, clam chowder, and other local specialties. Cayucos is prized for its long, wide shoreline. Surfers, swimmers, and sunbathers appreciate the Cayucos State Beach for its good waves and fine white sand. The beach also has a fishing pier and picnic tables.
This cute beach town is a pleasant place to stop on the drive from San Luis Obispo to Hearst Castle (10 miles away) to get lunch or dinner in between sightseeing. It's also a good location for an overnight stay. The town has many enticing boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and cafés. Tourists will enjoy taking a leisurely stroll through the town to browse the shops, and nature lovers will enjoy Cambria's pristine Moonstone Beach for walks along the seashore.
About 25 miles south of San Luis Obispo, the historic community of Nipomo has a quaint Old Town with several important landmarks. Be sure to see the Dana Adobe, a registered historic landmark that was constructed in 1839 from the area's distinctive clay soil. Another famous landmark is Jocko's Steak House. One of the most well-known photographs of all times, Dorothea Lange's iconic image of a "Migrant Mother," was captured here during the Great Depression. The town has an important heritage of agriculture, and farming is still the driving force of the local economy. Citrus orchards, avocado plants, and fields of strawberries and vegetables surround the town. Nipomo also has three important golf courses and is nicknamed "Little Pebble Beach."
7 Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve
Drive about 30 miles from San Luis Obispo to discover this incredible nature site. The world's largest coastal dune ecosystem, Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve is an expansive 15,000-acre coastal stretch that features striking sand dune formations. Visitors can hike through the preserve to admire wind-swept mounds of sand covered with rare, endangered plants and colorful seasonal flowers. The dunes are also home to birds, butterflies, lizards, and other wildlife. Visitors will enjoy spotting the California Brown Pelican as well as protected bird species such as the western snowy plover.
8 Paso Robles
This rustic-chic country town is nestled in the vine-covered rolling hills about 30 miles away from San Luis Obispo. The town has a slow pace and quaint old-time ambience, with lovely tree-lined streets and many restaurants featuring outdoor dining.
9 Mission San Miguel Arcángel
Take a 35-minute drive from San Luis Obispo to San Miguel, a rural town surrounded by a pastoral landscape of almond orchards and cattle ranches. The main tourist attraction is the Mission San Miguel Arcángel. Founded over 200 years ago, this National Historic Landmark has an impressive arcaded portico, exquisite murals inside the church, and a picturesque koi pond. Address: 775 Mission Street, San Miguel, California
10 Lake Nacimiento
Lake Nacimiento lies 39 miles (about a 45-minute drive) from San Luis Obispo. Appreciated for its warm and sunny weather, the lake is a destination for water skiing, boating, kayaking, paddle-boarding, and swimming. Lake Nacimiento's 165-mile shoreline invites visitors to spend time relaxing and sunbathing. In the pine forests and oak groves surrounding the lake are more than 100 miles of trails for hiking and nature walks.
It's worth taking the hour drive from San Luis Obispo (66 miles away) or stopping on the way to Santa Barbara (34 miles away) to visit Solvang, the "Little Denmark" of California's Central Coast. Nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley, this enchanting destination resembles a Danish village complete with a windmill and authentic Danish bakeries. Solvang is well-designed for visitors with more than 150 unique boutiques, many hotels, and excellent restaurants that serve international cuisine. Tourist attractions include art galleries, the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, the Elverhøj Museum of Danish-American history & art, and the historic Old Santa Inés Mission. Solvang also has a Summer Theater Festival with performances of Broadway musicals and Pulitzer Prize-winning shows from June through September.
12 Cachuma Lake
Just 23 miles from Santa Barbara, Cachuma Lake is a serene nature site surrounded by the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains. With its sunny skies and mild weather year-round, the lake is a top destination for trout fishing. The area has many wonderful trails for hiking and nature walks. An especially scenic trail at Cachuma Lake is the Sweetwater Trail, a moderate five-mile roundtrip hike. Swimming and boating are not allowed because the lake is used as a drinking water supply.
13 Los Olivos
Los Olivos is a jewel of a town in the bucolic setting of the Santa Ynez Valley. Dating back to 1861, the lovely small town is nowadays a popular weekend getaway or day trip destination. The proximity to San Luis Obispo, 60 miles away and Santa Barbara, 35 miles away, make Los Olivos an easy escape to the countryside. Along the charming old streets of the historic town, visitors will find many artisan boutiques, upscale home decor shops, art galleries, and restaurants. The Corner Coffee House is a locals' hangout that has a rustic look and feel. Olives are grown in the area and some establishments sell locally produced olive oils.
14 Montaña de Oro State Park
For an escape to a pristine nature site, take a 45-minute (20-mile) drive from San Luis Obispo to Montaña de Oro State Park, one of California's largest state parks. The park's hiking and horseback riding trails traverse beaches and fields that blossom with wildflowers during springtime. For a challenging outdoor adventure, hikers can ascend up to the 1,347-foot peak of Montaña de Oro. The breathtaking, panoramic views from the summit reward hikers for their efforts.