The very best day trips from Pismo Beach

Between the legendary surf, sought-after clams, and annual whale and butterfly migrations, there are few reasons to be bored in Pismo Beach. But if you’re spending the summer on this stretch of the Central California Coast, you’ll be little more than a leisurely drive from majestic shorelines, towns steeped in history, and one of the most curious landmarks in the state.

Read on to learn about our favorite day trips from Pismo Beach—each within a 90-mile radius.

sunset making a purple sky over the dunes of pismo beach

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area

Distance from Pismo Beach: 3 miles

You’ll hardly have time to tune the radio on the way to the Pismo sand dunes, known officially as Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. These five and a half sandy miles encompass California’s only state park to allow vehicles (preferably four-wheel drive vehicles) on the beach, which is also a draw for surfers, swimmers, birders, and equestrians.

But for a truly memorable experience, stop by Arnie’s ATV or Sun Buggy Fun Rentals to pick up a ride that matches the thrilling landscape.

a band playing at the San Luis Obispo farmers market

San Luis Obispo farmers market

San Luis Obispo

Distance from Pismo Beach: 12 miles

It was the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa—the fifth of the California missions—that gave the city affectionately known as SLO its name. Since the mission’s founding in 1772, San Luis Obispo has grown up to become the home of California Polytechnic State University, the host of a bustling Thursday night farmers market, and a charming downtown full of restaurants and boutiques.

Book yourself a treatment at the Spa at Madonna Inn, grab a latte at Scout Coffee Company, and hit the coast at Avila Beach with a picnic lunch in hand—you’ll soon see why SLO bills itself as the happiest city in America.

a pier going out into morro bay, with sail boats docked nearby

Morro Bay

Distance from Pismo Beach: 24 miles

As the home of the 576-foot monolith known as Morro Rock, it’s little wonder that the city of Morro Bay is an epicenter of outdoor recreation. Although the Rock is off-limits to everyone except the locally endangered peregrine falcon, day-trippers can still go birding at the heron rookery in Morro Bay State Park, wander the tidepools in search of starfish, or pay a visit to Montaña de Oro State Park to view the spectacular fields of wildflowers that bloom each spring.

the sun setting over the ocean in cayucos


Distance from Pismo Beach: 30 miles

In a way, it is what the beachfront town of Cayucos lacks that makes it such a pearl of the Central California Coast. Frequently dubbed “the last of the California beach towns,” Cayucos will transport you to a simpler, friendlier time—one that has not yet seen the scourge of overdevelopment, traffic, and chain restaurants.

Join the local surfers on Cayucos State Beach, drop your line to fish from the historic Cayucos Pier, and catch at least one ocean sunset in Estero Bluffs State Park. Just don’t leave town without a snack for the road from the legendary Brown Butter Cookie Company, which is, without a doubt, one of the best (and most delicious) things to do in Cayucos.

a view of the rolling hills stretching over paso robles

Paso Robles

Distance from Pismo Beach: 42 miles

When it comes to world-renowned wine country, it’s no secret that California is home to some of the best. But what remains (relatively) under wraps is the allure of Paso Robles, whose 11 viticultural areas, 200 wineries, and 32,000 vineyard acres give Sonoma and Napa a run for their money. There are so many activities at your disposal:

It’s a friendly and casual wine country experience, made even better with a dinner reservation at La Cosecha.

the pool at Hearst Castle surrounded by ancient style architecture

Hearst Castle Neptune Pool

Hearst Castle

Distance from Pismo Beach: 54 miles

In 1919, the American newspaper publisher and politician William Randolph Hearst inherited thousands of acres near San Simeon on the central coast of California. Over the next several decades, the former congressman, with the help of architect Julia Morgan, created Hearst Castle, an elaborate palace of 165 rooms and 123 acres of opulent pools, terraces, and gardens.

It’s an over-the-top experience best enjoyed with a pre-booked guided tour, a burger at Sebastian’s in San Simeon, and a quick detour north to glimpse the elephant seals near Point Piedras Blancas.

the pier on a sunny day in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

Distance from Pismo Beach: 83 miles

It’s a sun-splashed city of white stucco, red tile, and a coastal lifestyle fit even for Oprah Winfrey. But even if you’re not in the market for a sprawling estate or two, you’ll find harmony beneath the palms on the streets of Santa Barbara.

Rent bicycles to cruise uptown and downtown on State Street, walk in the footsteps of Julia Child as you grab tacos at La Super-Rica, and explore the aptly named Funk Zone and its collection of galleries, restaurants, and tasting rooms. If it feels like you’ve wandered onto a Nancy Meyers movie set—well, that’s because you have.

So no matter how enthralled you are with the sunsets on Pismo Pier, remember that there are countless day trips from Pismo Beach to showcase the wonders of the Central California Coast.

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Featured photo courtesy of Austin Neill. Additional images courtesy of Sarowen, Sandra Foyt, Keith Cuddeback, Genji Arakaki, Jason Tenenbaum, Jan Andersen, Michael Theis.

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