8 Stunning State Parks to Visit Along California’s Central Coast
The Pacific Ocean is the undisputed star of the state parks and beaches that dot California’s central coast, but visitors don’t have to look far to find plenty of supporting sites as well.
From eye-catching cliffs and groves of gnarled oaks to a glitzy castle on a hill, the section of the Golden State that stretches along the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco features an array of state parks and beaches with a serious star power.
It’s all connected by a beautiful stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, which hugs the coastline and offers stunning views of rocky coves, sandy beaches and crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Overall, the state of California has 280 state parks, beaches, and preserves. Some of the most beautiful are located within an hour or two of each other in the region known as the Central Coast, encompassing communities such as Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, Cayucos and Pacific Grove.
Here are 8 spectacular state parks and state beaches along California’s central coast.
1. Estero Bluffs State Park
If you like your ocean experiences to have a touch of nature, Estero Bluffs State Park is the perfect place to find it. Located near the historic town of Cayucos, the cliff region features an unspoilt coastline punctuated by uniquely shaped sea stacks and craggy tidal pools. Visitors will also find wetlands, low cliffs, coastal terraces, perennial and intermittent streams, and a pocket creek.
Due to its diverse terrain, the area is home to a rich biodiversity including sea marshes, coastal salt marshes, freshwater marshes, riparian scrub and grasslands – all of which provide habitat for a number of species. endangered species including the snowy plover, a seabird known to wade through the waves.
The windswept splendor of Estero Bluffs is accessible via an easy half-mile walk from the highway to the sea. The state park is accessible along the Pacific Coast Highway approximately 6 miles north -west of Cayucos, where parking areas are available along the highway.
Although the views are great from the highway, the short walk to the ocean is well worth it. You will pass through a mostly flat grassy area before arriving at the steep cliffs that overlook the sea. A walk along the cliffs will reveal a number of places to scramble to the beach, where visitors will find tidal pools, exposed rocks and crashing waves.
The park has 4 miles of trail, but visitors can easily shorten their walk to include just a mile or two. Depending on the itinerary, a visit to Estero Bluffs can take 1-3 hours.
Pro tip: Dogs are allowed, on a leash, in the southern part of the park, but horses and bicycles are not allowed anywhere in the park.
2. Asilomar State Beach
Its name is derived from Spanish words meaning “asylum (refuge) by the sea”. Upon arrival at Asilomar State Beach, it’s immediately apparent that the stunning beachfront lives up to its name.
Located in the town of Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula, Asilomar offers a mile-long sandy beach and rocky coves and offers many scenic walks such as the three-quarter-mile Asilomar Coastal Trail with its great views of the ocean and the nearby dunes and the quarter-mile boardwalk through the Asilomar Dunes Nature Reserve, located opposite the beach.
Visitors lucky enough to arrive in spring or early summer are likely to be treated to an explosion of wildflowers in a range of colors, from magenta to pink to yellow.
Founded as a YWCA camp in 1913, the 107-acre state park is officially known as Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds State Park. The Conference Grounds offers overnight accommodation, which is available for reservations here.
Pro tip: Pacific Grove and nearby Monterey are part of the California region known as Steinbeck Country, named after famous American author John Steinbeck. For ideas on things to do there, see Exploring Steinbeck Country: 8 Fascinating Things To Do.
3. Montaña De Oro State Park
The buff-colored cliffs perfectly complement the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean in the central coast standout, Montaña de Oro State Park. Although ocean views rule the park, there are plenty of other activities besides sightseeing. Hiking, camping, bird watching, and kayaking are all popular park attractions.
Montaña de Oro is located approximately 10 miles south of Morro Bay and 16 miles west of San Luis Obispo, making it a central location along the Central Coast. The smaller communities of Los Osos and Baywood Park are even closer, providing easy access to a laid-back beach scene.
Pro tip: Montaña de Oro State Park was originally a ranch, and the area remains popular for horseback riding. The park’s main campground, Islay Creek, offers a number of campsites that can accommodate horses.
4. Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve
Just a few miles from the sunny seaside towns of Los Osos and Morro Bay lies a deep forest that features moss-draped, fantastically gnarled trees in an area known as the Los Osos Oaks State Preserve. The 90-acre grove consists of 800-year-old dwarf live oak trees that occupy ancient dune habitat.
In addition to coastal oaks (stunted for various reasons related to their location), the reserve also includes coastal sagebrush, buckbrush, hollyleaf and coastal buckwheat, as well as riverine trees such as sycamores, willows and poplars. The shady forest is home to a variety of wildlife, including horned owls, possums, coyotes, and raccoons.
Los Osos State Reservation is located 8 km east of Morro Bay and 13 km west of San Luis Obispo.
5. Morro Strand State Beach
For ocean lovers who love long beach walks, Morro Strand State Beach is hard to beat on the Central Coast. The stretch of flat sandy beach seems to go on forever, and at 3 miles it offers plenty of room for solitude.
Just 2 miles north of the famous Morro Rock, Strand Beach offers great views of the area. The beach is also known as a wonderful place for picnicking, fishing, windsurfing, jogging and kite flying.
Pro tip: The Morro Strand State Beach has a 76-site campground with spaces for tents and RVs. Online reservations can be made six months in advance.
6. Pismo State Beach Butterfly Grove
If the idea of thousands of monarch butterflies fluttering in a grove of eucalyptus and cypress trees by the beach sounds too good to be true, then the Pismo State Beach Butterfly Grove should definitely be on your travel bucket list.
The grove, located in the quaint seaside town of Pismo Beach, is known to attract large numbers of Western monarch butterflies due to its mild winter climate that provides a sheltered area from cold temperatures, storms and wind.
“Monarchs look for places with ideal microclimates for their winter habitat,” the grove’s website says. “The coastal environment along central California and specifically along the coast at Pismo Beach provides the perfect microclimate for the Western Monarch to rest during the winter months.”
Pro tip: Butterfly season at Pismo Beach runs from November to February. Virtual tours are available on the grove’s YouTube site.
7. Cayucos State Beach
Anchored by its enormous fishing pier, Cayucos State Beach offers a taste of small-town beach life at its finest. The state’s wide sandy beach stretches 10 km from Morro Rock to the seaside village of Cayucos.
At virtually any time of year, the white-sand beach serves as a gathering place for dog walkers, families on picnics, or children exploring the tide pools.
Although the beach is simply stunning, the fishing pier will likely be the first thing visitors notice in Cayucos. At over 950 feet long, it stretches far out into the Pacific Ocean and is a tourist magnet. It also has plenty of history to back it up. The pier was first built in 1872 by the first settlers, Captain James Cass, and served for years as an important shipping port. After the years took their toll on the pilings, the pier was rebuilt in 2015.
8. Hearst Castle State Park
With its star-studded Hollywood and mogul past, Hearst Castle is a highlight of any visit to California’s Central Coast state parks. From the lavish pools and fabulous great halls to the extravagant tile art that decorates the staircases, the castle is sure to take your breath away.
So even though Hearst Castle State Park remains closed to the public (late 2021), the estate is still a must-see on any future list of California’s Central Coast state parks. A notice on the state park’s website reads, “Due to significant storms (January 2021) that damaged the causeway leading to the historic landmark, Hearst Castle is temporarily closed.” The notice added that once the work is complete, “Hearst Castle will once again welcome visitors”.
Visitors are encouraged to check the state park’s website for reopening information. Once reopened, the state park will require advance reservations to visit Hearst Castle and/or the Visitor Center.
Pro tip: For things to know before heading to Hearst Castle, check out 8 Tips for Visiting Hearst Castle.