The Best Time to Visit California’s Central Coast

Aerial view of waves washing up on rocky beach
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Whether you seek a wine country weekend, a beach getaway, an adventure in agri-tourism, or a rugged Highway 1 road trip, the Golden State’s Central Coast has all that and more. The best time to visit California’s Central Coast and cities like San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and Big Sur, depends on what you want to do there. For surfing, visit in fall or winter; for less-crowded wine tasting, spring is ideal; if you want to spend time in the region's cities, aim for the summer when the college students are away.

The Weather of the Central Coast

Like much of California, the Central Coast—which consists of San Luis Obispo County, the southern part of Monterey County where Highway 1 winds up to Big Sur, and the northern swath of Santa Barbara County—enjoys a Mediterranean climate with minimal humidity, mild winters, and warm to hot summers.

The region's diverse terrain results in a variation in climate, but the average range throughout the year is 33 to 93 degrees F (1 to 34 degrees C). As a general rule, areas and cities close to the ocean tend to be cooler and have less temperature fluctuations from season to season. The farther inland and the further up you travel, the greater the range of temperatures you’ll experience throughout the day and the seasons.  No matter where you are in the Central Coast, there's a drastic temperature drop when the sun goes down, so you should always pack layers.

The Central Coast gets a majority of its annual rainfall between December and March. Monterey County can receive up to 70 inches annually while interior locations like Paso Robles see 10 or less inches a year on average. Coastal fog, low clouds, and northwest winds through valleys are key features of Central Coast summer.

The Best Time to Visit College Towns   

SLO is home to California Polytechnic State University, commonly called Cal Poly, a school with almost 22,000 students. Cal Poly adds vibrancy, resources, and activities, to San Luis Opsipo but the large about of students can affect the visitor experience. During the summer, the city’s population is noticeably smaller. It can mean that waits at restaurants are shorter, downtown bars are less rowdy, and area trails and beaches are less congested.

However, the opposite can be true when school’s in session, particularly whenever parents might also be in town like during fall freshman drop-off (September), around the beginning or end of a break, parents’ weekends, and especially graduation (June). Not only are hotels more expensive, they’re also harder to book. The same goes for the higher-end restaurants so advance reservations are recommended.

The Best Time to Go Surfing

Coastal enclaves like Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Cayucos, Avila Beach, and Cambria have all the hotels, rentals, restaurants, and other vacation essentials you’ll need. Outside temperatures are highest in summer and early fall, but the Pacific Ocean stays between 55 and 65 degrees F (13 to 18 degrees C) year-round. Surfing is best in fall and winter when northwest swells are common. Beginners should practice in early summer. It’s not uncommon for waves to surge above boarders’ heads in January and February.

The Best Time to Go Wine Tasting

Paso Robles is the fastest growing wine region in California and SLO has two more AVAs (Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande). In the mid-1990s, the area was home to around 35 wineries and 13,000 acres of grapes whereas today there are more than 250 wineries and 26,000 vineyard acres growing more than 40 varietals. For oenophiles, wine country during harvest is a no-brainer. Harvest usually runs about two months between late August and October with the exact timing fluctuating due to climate conditions. Know that hotels charge higher nightly rates, plans need to be made farther in advance, and towns and tasting rooms get crowded. Spring is also a great time for a wine weekend as ground cover is blooming, buds are breaking, the weather is warm enough to sit on the patios, and winemakers are more readily available. 

January

The second coldest month has average highs around 60 degrees F (15 degrees C) and lows between 35 and 45 degrees F (2 and 7 degrees C). Most spots receive the highest or second-highest amount of rainfall in January. 

Events to check out:

  • Foodies can fill their bellies at the Big Sur Foragers Festival and Fungus Face-Off. They can also get discounted three-course meals at participating Central Coast eateries as it’s Restaurant Month.
  • Late January is one of the best times to visit the 17,000-strong elephant seal pod that makes a Highway 1 beach a few miles north of San Simeon their home. Although they can be seen all year long, the greatest numbers occur in January, April, and October.

February

Winter brings the biggest and most powerful waves for advanced boarders, green mountaintops, romantic hospitality programming, and is the closest thing the region has to a slow season.

Events to check out:

  • Surf’s up in Morro Bay at the SLO CAL Open, a World Surf League tournament, at the end of the month.
  • Raise a glass, or five, at the SLO Craft Beer Fest. You might even learn something at the beer seminars and food pairings.

March

Forecasts calling for rain are highly probable as most of the region still averages more than 2 inches this month. (Big Sur gets closer to 3.5 inches.) Days are in the 60s Fahrenheit; nights in the 40s Fahrenheit.

Event to check out:

  • The SLO Film Fest is a must for movie buffs. Catch premieres at SLO’s incredible art deco Fremont Theatre and enjoy nights that pair local wines with cinema classics.

April

Spring has arrived and with it the rain typically starts to dry up and wineries start seeing buds break in the vineyards.

Events to check out:

  • The Big Sur International Marathon course sends runners from Big Sur to Carmel along Highway 1, the nation’s first nationally designated Scenic Highway, and across the bridge seen in HBO’s "Big Little Lies."
  • Cowboy (and cowgirl) up at the annual Cal Poly Royal Rodeo, which has been galloping along under the college’s direction for 80 years. 

May

May is prime time for wildflowers and hitting the trails. Agri-tourism programming ramps up, especially on the SLO County Farm Trail. This is also a good time for beginners to try surfing.

Events to check out:

June

School’s out so SLO’s population dips a little but it’s also the start of peak tourism season. Days are longer and the sun’s out (with most afternoons reaching into the 80s and 90s Fahrenheit) so beaches get busier.

Events to check out:

July

Inland cities, especially Paso, often feel the burn of triple-digit heat although the average highs are in the 90s Fahrenheit and humidity is relatively low. Still, pack a jacket as the temperature drops into the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit at night. 

Events to check out:

  • The 12-day Mid-State Fair encompasses big-name concerts, a horse show, carnival rides, fried food, and exhibits on livestock, farming, art, and home and garden trends.
  • Be loud and proud at the Pride In The Plaza party in at the SLO mission.
  • Another jewel in SLO County’s cultural crown is Festival Mozaic’s summer music series, which features chamber, orchestral, jazz, world, and contemporary concerts as well as master classes held in venues from Nipomo to Shandon’s private Serra Chapel.
  • The SLO Triathlon has been held every fourth Sunday in July for 40 years.

August

Summer visitation is still going strong as August is typically the hottest month and has the second-lowest chance of rain.

Events to check out:

September

School’s back in session, but family crowds tend to be replaced by wine lovers as the grape harvest is in full swing. The weather’s still warm enough to be outside in fact, it’s Big Sur’s hottest month.

Events to check out:

  • Help maintain the playground with a series of beach, dune, and coastal city clean-up days in Cambria, Avila Beach, Oceano, Cayucos, and San Simeon State Park.
  • Paso Robles’ Castoro Cellars puts on the Whale Rock Music and Arts Festival, which also includes kid crafts, yoga, food trucks, and drinks to benefit a local arts organization.    
  • The SLO Bicycle Club’s annual Lighthouse Century rolls through Morro Bay, Highway 1, and the steep Highway 46. Not up for 100 miles? There are also 45- and 75-mile routes.

October

As the wine harvest winds down, the fall bounty of berries, pumpkins, and apples is ready for u-pick opportunities at Avila Valley Barn and other farms under cloudless skies. Temperatures start to drop, but it's still pleasant for strolling. 

Events to check out:

  • Paso Robles’ winemakers and wine drinkers celebrate another successful bounty with more than 140 events including grape stomps, winemaker dinners, and barrel tastings during Harvest Wine Weekend.
  • Big Sur Jade Festival is about as Big Sur-ish as it gets as it features drum circles, arts and crafts, jewelry vendors, and lots of jade in a natural setting without cell service. It raises money for the volunteer fire brigade and educational summer programs.

November 

The air is getting crisper and leaves are starting to drop, but the mild winters here are child’s play compared to the polar vortexes experienced in the Midwest and East.

Events to check out:

  • Four days of foodie fun like the Bennies & Bubbles brunch and Hiking With Stemware make up the Big Sur Food & Wine Festival.
  • SLO's Día De Los Muertos celebration honor those who have passed before you and is worth attending.

December

Take advantage of clear night skies and minimal light pollution especially in Big Sur for stargazing. But bring a jacket because it’s cold outside with lows around 34 degrees F (1 degree C) and average highs around 59 degrees F (15 degrees C).

Events to check out:

  • The holidays are upon us and that can only mean one thing—holiday events. SLO hosts a themed parade in downtown. Paso Robles has a lighted Christmas Parade, and holiday craft bazaar. Oceano’s Melodrama puts on a holiday triple bill including a vaudeville revue.
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