A stunning coastline, rich with marine life, leaves visitors awash with memories from this sun-kissed region.
We invite you to hit the road and shift into carefree gear on one, or even all of these suggested itineraries.
Cruising California’s Central Coast is the ultimate eco-road trip and gives you plenty of opportunities to let your hair down and see its wonderful wild side. From exploring the “American Galapagos” to hiking past sea lions, butterflies and free-roaming zebras, there are countless eco-tours, wildlife experiences, and adventure tours, all to satisfy lovers of nature and the great outdoors.
VENTURA COUNTY IS FOR THE BIRDS
The mighty and endangered California Condor, North America’s largest land bird, can sometimes be spotted soaring above the hills north of Fillmore. Although their population had dropped to an alarming 22 birds in the late ’80s, conservation efforts have succeeded in raising the numbers. In Heritage Valley, guests can join a refuge tour with Friends of California Condors Wild and Free Tours to see them up close in the wild. Moving from land to sea, visitors can book a boat tour in Oxnard to visit Channel Islands National Park and view dolphins and sea lions, Western Seagulls, the Island Fox, shorebirds, seabirds and land birds. This thriving ecosystem is even more wondrous when visitors snorkel, scuba or kayak through the natural caves to view everything up close.
EXPLORE “THE AMERICAN GALAPAGOS”
The Channel Islands National Park, referred to as “The American Galapagos,” encompasses five remarkable and remote islands right off the Ventura coast: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara. The Channel Islands and encircling waters are home to over 2,000 plants and animals, of which 145 are found nowhere else in the world, including the Island Fox. Several trails and roads traverse eastern Santa Cruz Island, providing visitors with spectacular hiking opportunities. These trails and roads range from the maintained, relatively flat, signed trails of Scorpion Valley to the unmaintained, rugged, paths of the Mountainous area.
Located out of Ventura Harbor Village, Island Packers offers two options to get on the water with ease, including several wildlife cruises. Guests can choose a half-day wildlife cruise, the family or three-quarter-day wildlife cruise. Both trips scout for wildlife found in the Santa Barbara Channel. Passengers will often see harbor seals, California sea lions and the Common dolphin. Humpback, Gray, Blue and Orca whales, as well as Pacific White-sided and Risso’s dolphins may also be sighted.
For the more adventurous, an Adventure Sea Cave Kayak Tour is the most popular Channel Islands National Park tour. It’s a half-day exploring some of the most beautiful sea caves in the world, around Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island.
COUNTRYSIDE DELIGHTS IN FILLMORE
It’s well worth the experience to see the natural wonders of Southern California’s last pristine agricultural valley, Heritage Valley with its working ranches, farms, apiaries, fruit stands, and wineries. Soar above the valley in a hot air balloon, take a hike, dive into the punch bowls and explore the Sespe wilderness and Los Padres National Forest.
MARINE LIFE UP CLOSE IN SANTA BARBARA
Guests who’ve never witnessed Pacific Grey whales migrating, will be wowed by a fall or winter cruise with The Condor Express on the pristine Santa Barbara Channel. Guests will also be thrilled by the phenomenal views to the palm-lined coast from the sea, and by the dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions they’ll spot. The fleet boasts eco-friendly vessels, specially built for safety around wildlife.
The Santa Barbara Adventure Company is another exciting way to interact with the wildlife of the region up close. The popular sea cave kayaking tours allow guests to float through kelp forests in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Islands are home to a variety of endemic species, including the Island Fox and Island Scrub Jay. In the fall and winter seasons, visitors will witness Gray whales migrating up the Santa Barbara Channel and island fox babies, or “kits,” growing rapidly over the winter months.
HISTORY & HIKING IN LOMPOC
La Purisima in Lompoc is home to Mission State Historic Park Trails, offering 25 miles of hiking trails over 2,000 acres, connecting to the back country. Most of the trails are sandy and lead through a mix of chaparral and oak, with a variety of wildlife. The Vista Del La Cruz Trail starts right behind the Visitor’s Center and leads up to the cross on the hill overlooking the Mission, about a half-mile round trip.
A scenic 30-minute drive from Lompoc is Jalama Beach County Park. En route, working ranches, vineyards and hillside vistas are around every bend, culminating in an overlook before descending toward the beach. Jalama Beach is ideal for surfing, kite surfing, bird watching, nature photography, fishing, hiking and camping. It’s open year-round.
Rancher Katie Parker McDonald offers private 90-minute horseback rides through the historic 714-acre Fess Parker home ranch in Los Olivos. Guests explore the ranch via horseback with a guide who shares stories of the family’s history on Foxen Canyon. Riders can also choose a luxury picnic lunch from The Bear and Star, or wine tasting at the Fess Parker Winery.
SEALS, WHALES AND ZEBRAS IN SAN SIMEON
Designated as a part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, San Simeon is teeming with sea life. Whale watching at W.R. Hearst Memorial State Beach is a delight, with Gray and Minke whales frequenting the area, along with harbor seals, California sea lions and sea otters. From the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort or San Simeon Pier, visitors might be lucky to spot the gray whales migrating south in the fall. As if whale spotting isn’t exciting enough, how about something a little more black and white: Zebras. Yes, Zebras. They roam the fields off Highway 1 near the 73,000 acres of land where Hearst Castle (a National Historical Landmark) sits. Once, the animals belonged to Hearst’s personal zoo, but now visitors can spot them roaming freely, along with elk, goats, deer, and sheep too.
BACK COUNTRY FUN IN SANTA MARGARITA
Carrying on from Carmel, Santa Margarita offers back country opportunities, like with Margarita Adventures. Visitors explore and learn more about the animals of Santa Margarita on a 3-hour guided tour around the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, including riding on a vintage Humvee to observe animals in their natural habitat. Or experienced equestrians can saddle up for a trail ride, taking two hours to ride around and above the lake for an impressive view of the surrounding Santa Margarita landscape. The ride includes complimentary wine tasting at Ancient Peaks.
HEART-POUNDING ADVENTURES IN ARROYO GRANDE
For action-packed adventure and to test the skills, Vista Lago Adventure Park requires strength, balance and agility on the “unlimited adventures” course including zip-lining and an obstacle course. Or visitors can navigate things by jeep with Big Adventure Motorsports. They allow customers to take jeeps out on the dunes for some real action-packed challenge.
AN OCEAN OF FUN IN MONTEREY
Monterey County is one of the only places in the world where visitors can whale watch year-round. Located along Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Submarine Canyon (the underwater equivalent of the Grand Canyon) provides the perfect feeding ground and habitat for many whale species. Visitors may spot Humpbacks, Blue whales, Gray whales, Minke whales, Sperm whales and Orcas.
Embark on a boat cruise at Moss Landing to explore one of California’s largest wetlands, Elkhorn Slough, and take in sea otters, harbor seals and hundreds of bird species. A naturalist accompanies the tour, providing an in-depth look at the slough’s ecology, history and animals.
Experience the Monterey Bay Sanctuary with Fast Raft Ocean Safaris, who offers six persons tours through the surrounding ecosystem on a 33-foot rigid inflatable. The cold waters around Monterey are also ideal for beach-access scuba diving excursions. Monastery Beach showcases its eerily beautiful kelp forest and pinnacles, while the San Carlos Beach breakwater wall is covered in sea life and receives visits from California Sea Lions. Nearby, the Point Lobos State Reserve features reefscapes and critters.
And for the ultimate family experience? How about a sleepover at Monterey Bay Aquarium where guests fall asleep with the fish in front of one of the exhibits.
During the month of January, downtown Monterey officially celebrates the return of gray whales to the Monterey Bay region during this free event that includes a two-day symposium with world-renowned marine experts, dozens of exhibit booths, a wildlife release, activities interactive displays and more. For a fee, visitors can go whale watching on a boat tour out of Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
SIGHTS FOR SORE EYES IN CARMEL BEACH
Located at the foot of Ocean Avenue, Carmel Beach is one of the most iconic spots on California’s Central Coast and rated “One of America’s Top Beach Towns.” Visitors and locals alike come to take in the majestic scenery and incredible sunsets, white sands and scenic walking path along the bluff, lined with Cypress trees. Electric bikes are ideal for the moderately hilly landscape. Pedal past impressive architecture (like the famous Comstock and Frank Lloyd Wright houses) as well as a myriad of gardens and groves. Bike rentals are available at some of the hotels as well as the newly opened Mad Dogs & Englishmen, offering premium brand standard and electric bikes for rent or purchase.
SANTA CRUZ WILL HAVE YOU ALL A-FLUTTER
A butterfly is always a beautiful site with its carefree fluttering and vibrant colors. But perhaps most spectacular is observing the giant-sized tropical black and orange Monarch butterflies in the tens of thousands at the Monarch Grove at Natural Bridges. The area has been declared a Natural Preserve, thus protecting these butterflies in their winter habitat from human encroachment. They begin arriving from early October, moving with the warmer weather while migrating south. On a Monarch Butterfly tour or visit to the Monarch Dunes Butterfly Habitat, visitors will be awed by the spectacle of 60,000 butterflies in the nineteen-acre sanctuary. Habitat is open year-round from sunrise to sunset and is free to all.
Download or request a Central Coast Visitors Map here.
To further assist you in planning your Central Coast Road Trip, check out this helpful Itinerary here.
Discover all of California’s Central Coast Regions here.