The Central Coast of California is known for many things: agriculture, seafood, wineries and the many small towns that dot the Pacific Coast Highway north of Los Angeles County. As a youngster, my family took many trips up this coast, but we were constantly chasing an agenda. Whether visiting friends or family, we always seemed to be on a tight schedule—leaving little time for wandering and exploring. So with my 20th high school reunion as the perfect excuse to return to the Golden State, (after becoming a tried and true Coloradoan of ten years), I leapt at the chance to discover the secret pockets of California’s Central Coast that had eluded me as a child.
With a desire to embrace spontaneity and take things at a slower pace, we opted for an Airstream trailer towed by a Chevy Suburban to escort us on our adventure. We kissed hotel check-in and check-out times goodbye and embraced our tiny home lifestyle for the duration of the trip. Our swanky metal entourage gave us a simple place to call home, but was by no means simple in design. The kitchen, dining, and living space comfortably accommodated us as we made our way through California’s coastal roads. The trailer was also a fantastic conversation starter—onlookers and strangers regularly asked us questions and wanted to take pictures of Airstream’s newest modern and almost futuristic model, the Basecamp.
We launched our trip by leaving the concrete jungle of Los Angeles. Within just a couple hours, we began snaking our way through fields of orange groves and tree farms, heading straight for Ojai, a small, sleepy town know for health and wellness. We arrived at our camp at Dennison Park just as the sun was setting and tucked in for the night under a canopy of massive oak trees. A cacophony of birds greeted us in the morning as we sipped our coffee while gazing at the view across the valley. And the trees! I forgot how massive and gorgeous the trees are in California.
In town, Ojai’s mission-inspired architecture perfectly framed the funky art galleries and breezy boutiques that lined the main street. With multiple hip coffee shops and cafes, Ojai lived up to its healthful promise, offering vegan, gluten-free cuisine and responsibly sourced coffee at every turn. Bart’s Books, Ojai’s outdoor used bookstore, was the perfect place to get lost among the stacks, a luxury I hadn’t allowed myself for a long time.
We pressed on from Ojai, making camp in Oceano, a beach town south of San Luis Obispo. With Oceano as our home base, we began to explore what the central coast really had to offer. Mornings were filled with homestyle breakfasts out of the trailer followed by long walks on the beach adjacent to the campground. With the scent of eucalyptus filling each breath and the sweet salty air against my face, I felt the California girl in me re-ignite and wondered if I could ever call this place home again.
Our beach days were spent at Avila beach. While most beaches succumb to the daily marine layer (a thick foggy like occurrence that doesn’t burn off until the afternoon), this particular enclave of beach is perfectly tucked away from the expansive ocean, resulting in sun all day long. Soaking in the sun’s rays and burying my toes in the sand was the kind of slow I was looking for and left me salty and satisfied. We followed one of our beach days with a late afternoon visit to Sycamore Hot Springs, where individual, private hot springs prepped us for luxurious spa treatments.
For a more refined experience one afternoon, we headed north to experience Santa Margarita Ranch from a different perspective. Santa Margarita Adventures’ zip-line tour brings guests face to face with the complexities of the massive property. While soaring over pine trees, companion oaks, and golden vineyards, we learned about the Ranch’s deep history, sustainable winegrowing, and natural beef program. And of course, the tour finished with a tasting of the property’s wines at Ancient Peaks Winery in downtown Santa Margarita.
Our last night in the area was spent noshing on a proper crab boil at the Cracked Crab in Pismo Beach. With seafood-soaked hands and full bellies, we headed south for some unexpected entertainment. In a throwback to the western days of yore, we attended the Great American Melodrama, where kitsch and comedy met the audience in an old town saloon-like setting.
In an effort to brush off some of the trailer lifestyle before heading back to Colorado, we treated ourselves to a proper night’s stay at The Landsby, a modern hotel in the Dutch town of Solvang. A major standout in this quaint little town, The Landsby’s contemporary decor, sophisticated bar, and delicious happy hour was the perfect celebratory setting to bring our trip to a close.
As we drove south on Highway 1, taking in the Steinbeckian expanse of rolling golden hills, the California girl in me quietly celebrated visiting the Central Coast on my own terms. And while it wasn’t enough to move me back to my childhood home, it may be enough to last another ten years.
Most major airlines offer multiple non-stop flights from Los Angeles from Denver. Airstream and car rentals are available in Los Angeles from Airstream 2 Go, airstream2go.com.
Where to Stay—
There are many camping options on the Central Coast. For inland camping in a more rural setting, try Dennison Park, near Ojai ventura.org/inland-parks/dennison-park-ojai or Cachuma Lake Recreation Area countyofsb.org/parks/cachuma.
For beach camping, try Jalama Beach on the northern edge of Santa Barbara County countyofsb.org/parks/jalama.sbc, North Beach Campground in Oceano slocountyparks.org/camp/oceano or Morro Strand Campground in Morro Bay.
For a luxurious RV experience, Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground is a high-end glamping campground in Buellton. highwaywestvacations.com/properties/flyingflags
Hotels and Inns
If camping isn’t your thing, there are a plethora of options for those who prefer to stay in a traditional setting. The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa is a resort that spares no experience and boasts 220 acres of recreation and relaxation. Immerse yourself under old oak trees at Inn Paradiso in Paso Robles. Stay in a Spanish- and Mexican-inspired hotel at the beachside Avila La Fonda or satisfy your inner cowboy at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in Santa Barbara County.
Where to Dine
California has a leg up on almost anywhere in the country with its almost year-round growing season and this is fully reflected in its dining options. For authentic hole-in-the-wall Mexican fare, visit Ojai Tortilla House. For a casual and playful meal, check out Copenhagen Sausage Garden in Solvang. Big Sky Cafe in downtown San Luis Obispo will satisfy your comfort food cravings with a fresh and light twist. For a modern take on traditional brunch dishes, Mint + Craft in San Luis Obispo has you covered. Finally, traditional seafood can’t be beat at the Cracked Crab in Pismo Beach.
Where to Play
Kayak through the Dinosaur Caves under the cliffs of Shell beach or SUP in Avila Beach’s calm, predictable waters. Wine tasting is at its best with regular events and live music at Penman Springs, Michella, and Barr wineries. Pick up the perfect remembrance of your trip at The Shops at the Garden Shed in Cambria’s adorable downtown. Hiking trails abound in the area, hike Bishop’s Peak for a quick in-town jaunt or enjoy one of the many trails with sweeping ocean vistas at Montaña De Oro State Park.
After growing up in Southern California, Jordan Martindell moved to Boulder, Colorado where she discovered a natural connection to the Rocky Mountain lifestyle. Martindell documents adventures that are delicious, comfortable, exciting, and sometimes unexpected. She has written for Almost Fearless, Dorado Magazine, Elevation Outdoors Magazine, rootsrated.com and offyonder.com.
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