Camping Road Trip: California's Central Coast

Bixby Bridge at Sunset - Big Sur, CA

Chris Axe / Getty Images

It's the quintessential California road trip: Following Highway 1 along the rugged coastline, stopping at campgrounds each night for bonfires against a backdrop of Monterey pines and redwoods. There are few places as scenic as the Central Coast. The Pacific Coast Highway's roadside attractions include pristine beaches, lush forest, wineries, charming towns, and the best oceanfront camping California has to offer.

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Santa Barbara Region

Jalama Beach Park, Santa Barbara.

Monica Prelle

Santa Barbara is 95 miles by road from Los Angeles and it's the first major attraction on a south-to-north Central California road trip. It's known for its idealistic location between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea and its recognizable Mediterranean-style buildings with red-tile roofs. It's a playground for Hollywoodites, but a major camping destination, too. Just 12 miles south of Santa Barbara is Carpinteria State Beach Campground, a mile-long sandy beach that offers tent camping and RV sites.

El Capitan is a surfer-centric beach that also has a 6-mile roundtrip walking path that connects it to Refugio State Beach and offers scenic vistas and wildlife viewing. El Capitan State Beach Campground offers 133 campsites, but it's one of the first ones to sell out.

The 66-site Refugio Campground also sells out early, but you can still enjoy day-use picnic areas, kayaking, fishing, and the tide pools while you're in the area. If you do manage to get a spot, aim for sites 34, 35, 36, which offer the best ocean views.

Located just north of Point Conception, near Lompoc, Jalama Beach Park is a county-maintained park that has a store and restaurant area. Jalama is popular with windsurfers, surfers, beachcombers, and dogs. To get one of the coveted beachfront sites, 53 through 64, you'll have to arrive midweek or patiently wait for a site to vacate; only group sites are available by reservation. There are also yurts and cabins for rent and an RV dump station.

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San Luis Obispo Region

Spooner Cove at Montaña de Oro State Park.

Monica Prelle

San Luis Obispo is a region defined by academics, sparkling ocean scenery, and an old, Spanish-style Mission. It spans from Pismo State Beach to Morro Bay, offering much in the way of entertainment and overnight accommodation for the coastal road tripper. Pismo State Beach has two popular campgrounds that are connected by a nature trail: North Beach and Oceano. The former features grassy lawns for tent pitching, hot showers, and easy beach access. The latter is better situated for RVs and trailers. Campsites are open to year-round reservations.

Montaña de Oro State Park is a favorite among outdoors enthusiasts, as it offers hike-in sites that require 10 to 20 minutes of walking to reach. Dogs are not allowed at environmental sites or on any trails within the state park, but they are allowed at the five horse camps. Islay Creek Campground is Montaña de Oro's main camping area. It's rustic, offering only pit toilets, water faucets, and standard sites, but what the campground lacks in amenities it makes up for in solitude and natural surroundings. Each campsite in the first loop, sites 1 through 22, has spectacular ocean views.

The campground at Morro Bay State Park is located between the lagoon and golf course and is within walking distance of Morro Bay's Embarcadero. The area's most prominent feature, Morro Rock, is visible from most areas of the campground. There are 28 RV sites with electricity hookups and a total of 126 campsites with restrooms and showers.

North of Morro Bay and south of Cayucos is Morro Strand State Beach Campground, offering classic beachfront camping with 3 miles of state beach and waterfront campsites. This is a more exposed area, so prepare for wind. There are 76 standard campsites and restroom facilities, but no showers or hookups.

The Hearst San Simeon State Park and nature preserve is one of the oldest units in the California State Parks System. It includes two campgrounds: San Simeon Creek Campground, located near the San Simeon Nature Trail (which has ranger-led interpretive walks during busy summer months) and Washburn Campground, located a mile inland on a bluff overlooking the Santa Lucia Mountains. The camping is primitive with flush toilets and water spigots.

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Big Sur

Sand Dollar Beach, Big Sur.

Monica Prelle

Big Sur is perhaps the centerpiece of the Central Coast. Located south of Carmel and north of Cambria, this region puts California's most stunning bit of coastline on display. The Los Padres National Forest spans a large portion of the area, lending to nine state parks. McWay Falls—an 80-foot waterfall that drops into a small, remote beach—is one of the most famous landmarks here.

Nestled in a Monterrey pine forest and situated just east of Highway 1, Plaskett Creek Campground is a short walk away from the nearby Sand Dollar Beach and Jade Cove. The campsites at Plaskett Creek are spacious and many have ocean vista views. It's perfect for last-minute planners seeing as it offers first-come-first-served sites, too. Site 21 has the best ocean view and the closest beach access while sites 35 and 23 are the most private and shaded.

The best ocean-view camping in Big Sur is located at Kirk Creek Campground. Also located in the Los Padres National Forest, the campground is situated on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Sites 9 and 10 are the most popular, but all campsites have views and are in close proximity to hiking trails. Directly across the highway from the campground is the Vicente Flats Trailhead, which leads into the Ventana Wilderness.

Further north are state park campgrounds and a few private campgrounds located on the Big Sur River and in the Santa Lucia Mountains. There are just 24 campsites at Limekiln State Park, which is nestled in the Limekiln River canyon on the east side of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Andrew Molera State Parks both have walk-in and environmental campsites, but no car camping or dogs are allowed at either. The largest of the Big Sur area campgrounds is at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which has 158 riverfront campsites situated on the Big Sur River, surrounded by redwood, chaparral, and oak trees. There are 8 miles of hiking trails within the park and 200 miles in the bordering Ventana Wilderness.​

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Central Coast Activities

Spring Arrives in Santa Barbara Wine Country
George Rose / Getty Images

A drive through the Central Coast wouldn't be complete without a stop at one of the region's famed wineries. The coastal area is known mostly for its pinot noirs and chardonnays. Stop by and taste the wines or buy a bottle to take back to your campsite at Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande or Cayucos Cellars in Cayucos. With its adrenaline-pumping zipline tour, Ancient Peaks Winery's Margarita Adventures combines wine tasting with thrills.

One of the region's most famous historical landmarks is Hearst Castle, located in San Simeon about 40 miles north of San Luis Obispo. The mansion—a colossal Spanish Revival palace with gardens, fountains, charming cottages, and free-roaming zebras on the property—was designed for the American newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst, and donated to the California State Park system in 1957. It is now a national historic landmark whose impeccably decorated rooms and manicured grounds are toured daily.

Then, there's the Point Sur Lighthouse in Big Sur. Erected on a chunk of volcanic rock in 1889, this landmark rises 361 feet above the Pacific. It still operates from the rocky headland today and visitors can climb to the top to see the light and the sweeping ocean views below by a walking tour.

This region is also known for its hot springs, commercialized by the likes of Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in Avila Beach, whose in-room hot tubs are filled with natural spring water, and Esalen Institute, which has a communal, cliffside hot pool with an ocean view. For a more primitive experience, though, visit Sykes Hot Springs, a backcountry pool that sits at the end of the 10-mile Pine Ridge Trail in the 234,000-acre Ventana Wilderness. Adventurers who love hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding shouldn't skip the trails at Montaña de Oro State Park. Highlights include the Bluffs Trail, the Valencia Peak Trail, and the Hazard Mountain Trail.