From the Sea to the Sky: Road Tripping California's Central Coast

If you are looking for world class adventure on land *and* the sea, the Central Coast of California is hard to beat. Here is how we spent a week of outdoor adventure, food and fun.

First things first, you need an epic road tripping rig, especially for bombing sand dunes and the unmaintained forest roads of Big Sur. We went with the awesome 4x4 Jeep from Pacific Overlander, complete with a rooftop tent. It was a beast!

Day 1, Ventura: Kayaking Santa Cruz Island

No visit to the Central Coast should go without a trip to the Channel Island National Park, and there is perhaps no more breathtaking way to experience them than by Kayaking Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the islands. 

Boats leave from the Ventura Harbor early in the morning, so arrive the night before! Check out the all-new vintage trailer hotel, Waypoint Ventura, for an awesome evening around the campfire with friends.

The crossing to the Channel Islands is spectacular in and of itself so board early for the best seats. If you’re lucky, you’ll see several species of marine birds and mammals as you push through the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Keep your camera handy. You never know when a friendly pod of dolphins will come say hi!


After 90 minutes, you will find yourself gazing at the imposing cliffs of Santa Cruz Island. Ancestral home of the Chumash, it is a stunning spot dotted with wildflowers, foxes, and sea caves galore. Stow your belongings, grab a life jacket, and slather on some sunscreen before hopping in a kayak with the stellar guides from Channel Islands Adventure Company. You will spend several hours paddling around the cove, learning about the local marine life and exploring the caves. Don’t be shy about sampling the local kelp; it is delicious! 


When you’re done, enjoy lunch at one of the many picnic areas that dot the island but don’t leave any scraps behind for the local fox population! Finish up, then take a stroll along one of the islands many trails. The higher you climb, the more impressive the views become. Whatever you do, don’t be late for the final boat of the day or you'll have an unexpected overnight on the Island. 

Once you're back on the mainland, drive north on the coast to Santa Barbara and check into the super unique nature lodging offerings of El Capitan Canyon. You don't need to go far for dinner! The fireside BBQ kit and s'mores at El Capitan Canyon Market is awesome, and the experience alone is worth the trip. Rest up for your next adventure and sleep comfy and cozy in your personal cedar cabins.

Day 2, Santa Barbara: Paragliding in Elings Park

In the morning head to Elings Park for a paragliding lesson with Eagle Paragliding! Their phenomenal staff will guide you through the process of lifting and launching your glider so you can take in the views from an entirely new perspective. Don’t be intimidated by the process; it’s a ton of fun and they will walk you through every tiny detail! If conditions are right, you'll soon have your first flight under your belt and be hooked for life. 

For lunch, treat yourself to some oyster shooters and fish tacos at Hendry’s Boathouse, a local institution.


After a day in the air, continue heading north to the Santa Maria Valley and check into the Holiday Inn & Suites. Enjoy a relaxing night of games and wine with your friends, and you can't miss the famous Santa Maria BBQ at Shaw's Steakhouse

Morning Day 3, Santa Maria: Exploring the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes

Wake up early and hit the trail to explore the Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes! Home to many endangered and threatened species of plants and animals, the dunes are a special place that demand respect. Tread lightly as you walk along the boardwalk and enjoy the sweeping vista of the Pacific when you reach the end of the trail.

Afternoon Day 3, Paso Robles: Wine Tasting

When you are done wandering the dunes, head to Paso Robles and immerse yourself in wine country. Stop by Adelaida Vineyards for a tour of their grounds. Do not be surprised if you leave with a bottle or two of their wine; it is delicious! Make sure you stop at Re:Find on the way out to sample their delicious artisan spirits distilled from saignée, a by-product of wine production that the founders are not letting go to waste. Whatever you do, do not leave without trying their award-winning Limoncello. It will pair perfectly with the next part of your adventure: Camping at San Martin Top.

Evening Day 3, Big Sur: Camp at San Martin Top

Now that the PCH is open, it is a perfect time to head to Big Sur. A great way to escape the crowds and to find isolation is to head up to "The Ridges" to camp, and San Martin Top is one of the least-visited with some of the most epic views. To reach the campsite, take the Will Creek Road (a left at the turnoff to Treebones Resort) for 12 miles. After 10 miles you will reach an intersection, go right till the trail ends at the campground. There are no facilities and the road may be impassible when wet (so be thankful you have that 4x4 from Pacific Overlander).

Set up camp, wrap yourself in a blanket, and brace yourself for a stunner of a sunset. We watched the sunset over a beautiful inversion layer and slept under a blanket of stars. It was an unforgettable experience!

Day 4, Big Sur

What can be said about Big Sur that has not already been said? It is breathtaking, the jewel of the California Coast, and something that should be on everyone's bucket list. Take your time. You can see McWay Falls, the Big Sur Bakery, the Bixby Canyon Bridge, and a hundred other amazing adventures as you head north towards Monterey. 


After leaving Big Sur, check in to the iconic Asilomar Hotel and for a little R&R. Asilomar has beautiful facilities, guides and rentals available, and no shortage of awesome adventures nearby that you should explore before you take off. Work up an appetite before heading to Roy's at Pebble Beach for some award-winning Hawaiian-fusion cuisine. I recommend trying everything on the menu but if you must limit yourself, do not skip the original blackened rare ahi, the seasonal tartare, or the bacon-crusted scallops!


Day 5, Monterey: Stand-up-Paddleboard Lover's Point

Spend the final day basking in the sunshine and hitting the beach. We inflated our paddleboard from Jimmy Styks and hit the water at Lover’s Point, an idyllic, sheltered spot that's great for gentle waves. Keep your eyes peeled for harbor seals and other cool creatures! 


When you are done, pack up and head down the coast for a picnic. Bonus points if you bring some art supplies and wireless speakers for the ultimate chill vibes. Relax and take it all in, knowing that you will leave with a lifetime of memories and the desire to go back and explore even more of the California Coast.

For more information on epic California adventures, visit the California destination page.

Published: July 16, 2018

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Meghan Young

Washington

Meghan is a Seattle-based adventure photographer with a passion for wild places and people who seek them.