Playgrounds Adventure Havens

My Playground: California’s Central Coast

It's 200 miles of stunning beauty and home to 'America's Happiest City'

While California’s Central Coast is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, you may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of Californians are unfamiliar with its existence. Though it sits midway between two of the world’s most populous and influential cities—it’s three hours north of Los Angeles and two hours south of San Francisco—most Golden Staters would have a tough time pointing to Big Sur on a map.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's beautiful surroundings are one reason why Yahoo Travel ranked it #3 on its list of the Best College Towns. Photo courtesy: San Luis Obispo Chamber

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s beautiful surroundings are one reason why Yahoo Travel ranked it No. 3 on its list of the Best College Towns. Photo courtesy San Luis Obispo Chamber

Truth be told, this empty quarter of California is considered flyover country by its busy commuters. While it’s home to historic missions, a handful of little farming towns, and plenty of vineyards, the closest thing to a cultural hub is San Luis Obispo, population 44,000. San Luis Obispo rarely makes national headlines, but it did last week when its lowly Cal Poly Mustangs hoop squad made their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. While they were getting destroyed by the Wichita State Shockers (64–37) in their first round loss, the commentators politely mentioned the team’s beautifuly hidden home.

Related: America’s Top 10 college towns

No need to feed the parking meter up here. Just be sure to bring your hiking shoes. Surfing on the Central Coast. Photo: Chris Burkard/Surfer magazine

No need to feed the parking meter up here. Just be sure to bring your hiking shoes. Surfing on the Central Coast. Photo by Chris Burkard/Surfer magazine

The last time San Luis Obispo got that much notoriety was in 2011, when Oprah Winfrey dubbed it “the happiest city in America,” citing its beautiful downtown, the friendly people, its surrounding vineyards, and the laid-back outdoor lifestyle.

Indeed, this region’s slow pace and vast amount of empty space is the draw. San Luis Obispo is proudly referred to as “SLO Town,” a complete physical and mental respite from the rat-race pace that people suffer from to the north and south. The easygoing pace exists throughout SLO county, which includes gems like Cambria, Paso Robles, and San Simeon.

Hearst Castle is routinely cited as one of America's greatest. Photo courtesy of HearstCastle.org.

Hearst Castle is routinely cited as one of America’s greatest attractions. Photo courtesy HearstCastle.org

Of course, the largest testament to this area’s beauty comes from William Randolph Hearst, the late media mogul. Back in the 1920s, Hearst commissioned the construction of his amazing castle in the sprawling Santa Lucia range that overlooks San Simeon, on part of his father’s old ranch. Hearst spent several summers in his youth camping in those hills and considered it his favorite retreat.

Once built, Hearst Castle was home to legendary parties, and it was a popular stop for Hollywood stars and the political elite up through the ’40s. Nowadays the venue is open to everyone as part of a state historic park. In February, Lady Gaga used the grounds as a backdrop for the production of her latest music video, “G.U.Y,” hearkening back to its glory days.

Big Sur's highest peaks reach more than 5000 feet above the Pacific, and they're filled with hiking trails. Photo: Chris Burkard/Surfer magazine

Big Sur’s highest peaks reach more than 5,000 feet above the Pacific, and they’re filled with hiking trails. Photo by Chris Burkard/Surfer magazine

Hearst donated his castle and the 14 square miles of pristine coastline to the State of California upon his death. As a result, the vast majority remains untouched by development. This remarkable stretch of sparsely populated coastline is a feast for the eyes and makes for a pleasurable drive. If you’re a fan of breathtaking views, then the drive along Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo to Carmel belongs on your bucket list. The highlight, of course, is passing through the coastal range of Big Sur, driving windy roads that dangle more than 1,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

The rugged coastline and empty hills of Big Sur are a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, but it’s merely one of several Central Coast areas worth exploring. Whether hiking, biking, surfing, or just taking your horse for a trot, this seldom-seen side of California is the ultimate playground and the perfect place to escape.

Surfing on the Central Coast has a decidedly wilderness feel, adding to the sense of adventure. Photo: Chris Burkard/Surfer magazine

Surfing on the Central Coast has a decidedly wilderness feel, adding to the sense of adventure. Photo by Chris Burkard/Surfer magazine