Quick—name three cities on California’s coast that don’t start with “San” or “Los.”
If you can’t do this easily, you owe yourself a Golden State road-trip.

Off-radar to many Canadians, California’s Central Coast is rife with opportunities for adventure. White-sand beaches with overhead waves. Lush forests crisscrossed with serene trails. A dusty island chain with more sea caves than anywhere else on Earth. It’s all here, and more.

Running north to south, here is your guide to an adventurous road trip along California’s Central Coast: 

Ride Waves at Carmel Beach

David WebbDavid Webb

The jewel of Carmel-by-the-Sea, white-sand Carmel Beach crests gently from Pebble Beach in the north towards Point Lobos State Park. It is dog friendly. It is also campfire and booze friendly. And it is a sublime spot to watch a sunset. With NorCal waves rolling in year-round, the beach is also a cold-water surfing mecca. According to locals, Carmel gets surfable when the waves hit about one metre, and keeps its shape until the break is well overhead. The best waves are found at the base of 8th Street, a short walk south from the main access. While hard-charging locals get pipelined with impunity at Carmel Beach, newbies will find waves and whitewash to learn on too, with lessons locally available. carmelcalifornia.com

Hike & Camp in Big Sur

California TourismCalifornia Tourism

Occupying a slice of the Santa Lucia Mountains’ western slope as they rise from the coastline, Big Sur is as much an attitude as it is a physical location. It is a locale for Gore-Tex cloaked REI original members and knot-haired surf bums living out of Westfalias. Though the actual Pfeiffer Sig Sur State Park is only 400 hectares, it’s backed by massive Los Padres National Forest—about 20 times bigger—and flanked by Andrew Molera and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parks. Within these redwoods and river valleys, travellers can uncover 300 kilometres of hiking trails, complemented by accommodation at 61-room Big Sur Lodge, 150-drive-to campsites along Big Sur River or hike- or bike-in sites further into the forest. parks.ca.gov

Sunny Days at Pismo Beach

California TourismCalifornia Tourism

Pismo Beach, about halfway between San Francisco and L.A., is a California surf town the way you want one to be: approachable and palpably chilled out. The key draw here is 400-hectare Pismo State Beach. Explore it on a beach-cruiser bicycle or rent a surfboard (and wetsuit) and tackle the consistent shore-break. Pismo Pier, which reaches out 400 metres into the ocean from the beachside promenade, is home to a small farmer’s market. Search out fresh kale and avocadoes—sold for a fraction of what they cost in Canada—as well as locally sourced strawberry lemonade and other agri-treats. classiccalifornia.com

Balloons & Gliders in Buellton

Fully appreciating the Santa Ynez Valley’s unique east-west running topography—as well as its expansive vineyards and dramatic coastline—is best done from a bird’s eye view. Enter Buellton-based tour operators Santa Barbara Soaring (sbsoaring.com) and Sky’s the Limit Ballooning Adventures (santabarbaraballoonrides.com). The former pairs FAA-certified glider pilots with adventurous types who wish to silently soar above the valley in a motor-less airplane. The latter is a more social affair; FAA-certified pilots take romantic folks on a slow-speed airship tour above vineyards and maybe even Neverland Ranch. 

California’s Lost Islands

California TourismCalifornia Tourism

It seems unlikely that one of America’s least-visited national parks could also be located within 100 kilometres of 18 million people. But Channel Islands National Park, accessed via ferry from Ventura Harbor, is exactly that. Most travellers visit the park to kayak into the world’s largest collection of sea caves, although the hiking and camping on this chain of eight volcanic landmasses is just as good. For an exciting day-trip, book the Caves and Coves Tour with Channel Islands Outfitters and paddle through sea caves, over kelp beds and below ragged cliffs. Bonus—watch for dolphins, sunfish and even blue whales on the ferry ride to-and-from the park. channelislandso.com

Oxnard’s Urban Paddling

Rent a stand-up paddleboard at Marine Emporium Landing in Oxnard and paddle past mega-yachts, scenic waterfront and the occasional sunbathing sea lion on a SUP-tour of Channel Islands Harbor’s working waterways. The labyrinth of canals provides a half-day-worth of paddling opportunities. And for insider info on other paddle- or surf-spots, just chat with Channel Islands Kayak Center owner Mike Lamm; a talkative fellow, he’ll happily let you in on nearby locales off-radar to most tourists. cikayak.com

Can I Drive?

Landslides have interrupted travel on several parts of California’s Pacific Coast Highway—particularly in the northern and southern sections of Big Sur. Much of the highway is still open, though, and detours exist to get around other sections. Research current conditions at: quickmap.dot.ca.gov.

Three Places to Sleep Tight

Carmel Lamp Lighter Inn (Carmel-by-the-Sea) The gorgeous century-old cottages of the Lamp Lighter are the quintessence of this cutesy ‘burg. carmellamplighter.com

Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa (Pismo Beach) Perched atop a sea cliff, just five minutes from Pismo State Beach, Dolphin Bay offers spacious suites with sunset views and tasty fare at Lido restaurant. thedolphinbay.com

Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach (Oxnard) Families will appreciate the free breakfast buffet and adults will love the gratis poolside Happy Hour, but the walkout white-sand beach is the real reason to stay. mandalayembassysuites.com


Plan your next great adventure with explore!
Off the beaten path locations, tips and tricks, interviews with intrepid explorers and more.