The California Coast is filled with amazing destinations making it difficult to decide just where to go when you are looking for a quick escape. We have found the answer with a weekend in San Luis Obispo County (SLOCAL). Sitting in the middle of the Central Coast, SLOCAL offers tons of adventure, nature and of course some luxury too!
San Luis Obispo County is a fun place to visit for families as there is no shortage of beautiful nature scapes, awesome food, and plenty of family fun that will easily keep you busy for several days. Read on for our recommendations on how to have an epic family weekend getaway in San Luis Obispo County.
ADVENTURE: A California Family Weekend in San Luis Obispo County // NATURE: Sailing with Captain Mark // CRAZY FUN: Sand Dune Buggies // LUXURY: The Cliffs Spa & Hotel
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An Epic Family Weekend in San Luis Obispo County
Located in the heart of California, only 3.5 hours north of Los Angeles and about 4 hours south of the Bay Area, San Luis Obispo County is the perfect weekend destination for families throughout California. San Luis Obispo County encompasses some of California’s favorite destinations on the Pacific Coast Highway as well as some of the best beaches for water sports. From the well known towns of San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach and Cambria to more off the beaten path places like Atascadero, Morro Bay and Paso Robles there is so much on offer that it will be difficult to see it all in just one weekend!
Things to Do in San Luis Obispo County
Much of what makes San Luis Obispo County perfect for families with kids of all ages is the abundance of outdoor activities. The slow paced beach life that permeates the county provides a great escape from city life while also providing all that travelers look for like great food and luxury accomodations. We have provided our top picks on the best things to do for an adventurous family weekend in San Luis Obispo County from the top of the county to the bottom!
Sailing with Captain Mark and SLO Sailing
One of the best experiences we have had in all of California was a private charter sailing trip with SLO Sailing. Captain Mark who runs this operation is a knowledgeable captain as well as fun person to hang out with for a few hours. SLO Sailing offers sailing trips that provide general information on sailing, how to put up the sails and drive the boat while also giving guests a detailed history of the area from the animals in the water to the humans who once inhabited the area.
This is a unique offering at Avila Pier that is well worth checking out during a visit. SLO Sailing offers several types of sailing trips as well as catamaran trips for families with kids of all ages. From March to October, Mark takes visitors out specifically in search of whales that are migrating up and down the coast. During our trip we didn’t see whales, but we saw a ton of sea otters, seal lions and harbor seals that made it more than worth our while! This is well worth the cost and hands down a much better experience than the big whale watching outfits in other cities. A definite MUST DO!
Off Roading on Sand Dunes with SunBuggy
If being out on a sailboat wasn’t enough adventure, an epic day on the sand dunes in a sand buggy will surely get your adrenaline flowing! One of the most unique parks in California is the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. This park not only sets aside massive areas for wildlife preservation, it also allows vehicles to drive into the park for the purpose of off-roading. One of the best companies out here is Sun Buggy which offers ATV (adult and kid sizes) and sand dune buggy rentals. This experience is like nothing else you will find in California, much less SLOCAL. Sun Buggy offers hourly rentals of their equipment allowing families the opportunity to try their hand at something totally different. We highly recommend making time to visit the park either for off-roading or just some good old sand sledding! We cannot wait to go back and give it a go again.
Bonfire on Grover Beach
One of the coolest things about this area is the ability to have a campfire on the beach wherever you want. There are not many places left in California where you can do this, which makes this a fun thing to do when in town. Load up on firewood at the local convenience store and drive your way onto the beach (or park in the lot and walk like we did!) to find your spot. Dig a hole and build your fire. It is all the fun of camping without having to actually sleep outside! Definitely a fun family activity that shouldn’t be missed. Don’t forget the marshmallows and s’more kits!
San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum
If you are looking for a little indoor time or if it’s cold and rainy, the place to visit is the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum in downtown SLO. We have visited our fair share of kids museums and this one had a lot of fun offerings we hadn’t seen elsewhere, making it worth the stop! From the science based ground floor to the imaginative play 2nd floor, my 8 year old had a blast exploring all the different hands on activities on offer. We loved the large fire truck complete with dress up materials and ride on police motorcycle. After your visit, walk over to Rocket Fizz and Bubblegum Alley to leave your mark in town!
You cannot visit San Luis Obispo County without stopping by the infamous Bubblegum Alley in downtown San Luis Obispo. Equally intriguing and a little gross, this mainstay of downtown is a fun stop off. Head to Rocket Fizz a few blocks away to buy some gum (we prefer Razzles) to make your mark. Kids will LOVE it here, adults maybe not as much!
Monarch Butterfly Grove
It has long been on our bucket list to visit the Monarch migration in Mexico. What we didn’t know is there is one right here in Pismo. From November to March, the eucalyptus trees at Monarch Butterfly Grove are covered in “wintering” butterflies. While there are a few flying around when the day gets warm, for the most part they are just clumped together in the trees. It is not quite what you might imagine, but regardless it is super cool to see this in person.
Volunteers set up high powered telescopes for viewing the Monarchs up close since they are often high up in the trees. You don’t need long here, but it is well worth the visit since this is one of the few spots you can witness this amazing phenomenon. If you can, plan your visit to coincide with the daily talks given at 11 a.m. and 2 pm. where you can learn all about the monarchs who come here to rest.
Elephant Seal Beach
One of the top stops on my Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary is Elephant Seal Beach at the northern end of San Luis Obispo County. This is a great stop on any road trip itinerary through California, but is also worth the drive on a weekend visit to SLO CAL. The Elephant Seal Beach overlook is always teeming with visitors, and docent volunteers who can provide up to date information on what is happening at the beach. During our visit, the mama elephant seals were coming ashore getting ready to give birth to their pups while the male elephant seals were jockeying for their mating status. While not a lot of action happens here, it’s super interesting to learn more about the elephant seals, their migration pattern and how they come to this beach every year.
On your way, keep an eye out near the San Simeon sign for the Hearst Castle’s herd of zebras! My son thought it was so cool to see them on “foreign” ground, i.e. out of their natural home of Africa.
Moonstone Beach & Shamel Playground
A fun stop for families in Cambria is Moonstone Beach and Shamel Playground. This one stop allows kids fun collecting beautifully colored rocks on Moonstone Beach as well as time to play like kids at Shamel Park. On every visit we make to the area, this is our preferred stop! While the beach isn’t super sandy, it’s a great place for rock collection and running around as it’s wide and almost always empty. Check out even more to do in Cambria for a longer visit.
Charles Paddock Zoo
For animal lovers looking for some time with exotic creatures, a must visit is Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero. This small zoo can be seen in just a quick stop over en route to other parts of the county. My son especially loved that many of the animals here are either from the Andes Mountain or Madagascar. Unique sightings like an anteater and the King Vulture make this a fun stop for families who love animals.
The zoo is continually working to create a space for animals that are at risk of extinction from a few hotspots around the world, while also helping keep gene pools alive for future possibilities of breeding. It’s a cute place worth a stop if you are in the area.
There is even more things to do in SLO CAL that we didn’t have time for, but would love to get back to check out including a visit to Hearst Castle, kayaking on Morro Bay with sea otters and hiking along the coast and at Bishop’s Peak.
Where to Eat in San Luis Obispo County
We love to check out local diners and eateries and SLOCAL is filled with them! While there are tons of amazing places to eat, our favorites from our recent visit are recommended here. If you have others, let us know and we will sample them next time.
Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach
A must visit while in the Pismo Beach area is Splash Cafe which has some of the best clam chowder in California. Your chowder can come in a bowl, but go ahead and order the delicious sourdough bread bowl. It really makes it! California natives will argue if Splash is better than the Fisherman’s Wharf clam chowder – if you are on a road trip up the coast try them both and let us know your thoughts!
Marisol at the Cliffs
Marisol at the Cliffs is the restaurant at The Cliffs Spa and Hotel. We only had breakfast here, but it was outstanding and one of our favorite meals of the trip. Portions are huge and service is quick. And who can complain about eating breakfast next to a sizzling hot fire! Note, if you want to eat breakfast at Marisol’s you will need to purchase a voucher from the hotel lobby before going to the restaurant.
SLO Provisions is fast becoming a local favorite for takeaway or dine in options providing rotisserie meats, family style meals and gourmet sandwiches. We loved the ham, pear, and brie sandwich! Located in downtown SLO, this is a perfect place for lunch. Go early as it can get packed!
Madonna Inn Copper Cafe
Even if you don’t stay at this iconic hotel, you can still visit their whimsical Copper Cafe. Breakfast is quick and super tasty with large portions. I must recommend that you order iced tea just for the awesome sugar rock stick that comes with it! It’s a great place to go back in time and share a little fun with the family.
Tin Canteen at Tin City
Tin City is a cool area right off the highway offering a collection of fun breweries, a delicious ice cream shop as well as amazing food options. We particularly enjoyed our meal at newly opened Tin Canteen. My son loved the garlic shrimp while I devoured my cheese and sage pizza. Yum! Save room for ice cream at Negranti Creamery (only open Thursdays to Sundays) just down the road.
Penny’s All American Cafe in Pismo Beach
We love our diner options and Pismo Beach has plenty on offer. In a tough battle of where to eat for our last meal in town, we settled on Penny’s All American Cafe and were not disappointed! This classic American style diner is always packed, so go early if you don’t want to wait. What brought us here was their biscuits and gravy. Not quite southern style, but pretty close and enough that I left a happy camper. Kids will love their Mickey pancake that comes with eggs and bacon!
Where to Stay for a Weekend in San Luis Obispo County
The great thing about traveling in California is the abundance of unique accommodation options like the Madonna Inn, small beachside motels, as well as luxury hotels and resorts. In our opinion, the best place to stay in the SLO area for couples, families and those traveling with pets is none other than The Cliffs Hotel and Spa.
The Cliffs is centrally located in Pismo Beach right off the 101 and right on the beach. It provides gorgeous luxury rooms and suites for all types of guests. We loved the ground floor dog friendly rooms that walk out onto the grass or small yard areas. Not only are these rooms great for people traveling with their pets, it’s also perfect for families with small children. There is nothing better than being able to open the door and let your littles get out a little steam right outside of the room.
If you happen to be traveling to the area during the holiday season, you must book the Christmas Suite. This was the most amazing room we have ever stayed in. It was fully decorated for Christmas with it’s own full size tree, stockings, mistletoe and more. We were not quite in the holiday spirit when we arrived, but this room turned it all around for us. It is a must stay while on the coast during the holiday season. Or better yet, book it for Christmas day and host your celebrations here!
If you are looking for a great getaway in California, San Luis Obispo County is the perfect destination providing access to adventure, nature and luxury for all families. There is so much to do, that you might just need to book a week here!
Have you been to SLO CAL? What are your favorites?
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