Alta California Guide: Central Coast
Dense forests, plush vineyards, and, oh, that stretch of Highway 1, which offers postcard-perfect vistas.
Low, sweeping grasslands collide with secluded sandy beaches up and down the Central Coast area that hugs the shoreline between Monterey and Ventura, while out in the water one of the country’s least visited national parks shelters dozens of plant and animal species not found anywhere else. From hot springs hikes to the bounty that is Big Sur, the area offers the state’s ultimate road trip.
Whether you’re a foggy-morning kayaker or a deep-sea angler or just looking for an escape from other humans, the hard-to-reach Channel Islands National Park is for you. It’s a collection of five uninhabited (save for the seals and seabirds) islands that lie approximately 20 miles off Ventura, accessible for day trips or pack-in camping from several coastal ports. The sheer remoteness of the park is part of its allure for rare-bird-watchers and all-around nature admirers; families can find a lot to like on Anacapa Island, where a looping trail takes visitors to the last permanent lighthouse built on the West Coast.
The nearly 17-mile hike to this Ojai-area backcountry destination is best done over multiple days, starting via Highway 33 north of the city. The worthwhile journey culminates in a wealth of spring-fed pools that range from bathwater warm to almost scalding, depending on their proximity to the underground source. While free campsites are plentiful, those unwilling to push it to the overnight experience will find the closer Willett Hot Springs a shorter—though, at 20 miles round-trip, still ambitious—alternative. But for grandeur and heat, it’s hard to beat Sespe.
Outside Guadalupe in the shadow of Vandenberg Air Force Base, you won’t find angry homeowners eager to hold on to their pristine beach access. No, the stunning isolation here is earned by way of a 10-mile round-trip hike that drops day-trippers onto one of the least accessible beaches anywhere in California. This rarely visited state park is among the last of its kind, a bit of coastline unspoiled by houses or even paved roads. Bring snacks, a beach blanket, and lots of sunscreen. It’s a schlep, but it pays off.
The Central Coast’s biggest addition to the state’s folk art scene is Nitt Witt Ridge, a supremely funky house and historic landmark in dozy Cambria. Visitors can tour what’s been maintained of eccentric Arthur Beal’s old home, built over the years from bits of abalone shell, rusted scrap metal, and lots of stone and concrete. Beal reportedly used only primitive tools to carve his residence out of the hillside, working on the property between 1928 and the late 1970s.
With its treetops-to-seashore landscape, Big Sur is a true paradise. The rugged terrain is filled with hikes, campgrounds, and quiet coves, but few places capture a piece of the local history as well as its limekilns. Now part of a state park, the kilns date to 1887, when lime was quarried and processed in the surrounding area. The four towers stand as monuments to another time, jutting from the earth beneath giant redwoods and a quick hike from a year-round waterfall. •