As much as I love exploring new places, California always has a special place in my heart, especially the central coast. I lived there for many years and I still love to go there as often as I can. Have you been? Let me be your guide!
Explore Central California
California has it all: beaches, mountains, rivers, desert. And much of this can be seen in the central part of the state. Let’s explore!
First of all, what and where is central California exactly?
Basically I vaguely think of central California as the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco. According to Wikipedia it is generally thought of as the middle third of the state, including the northern portion of the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast, the Coast Range, and the western central Sierra Nevada.
Central California Coast
A drive along Highway 1 is every road tripper’s dream. People travel from all over the world to rent a car and make the coastal drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And for good reason. The scenery is stunning and the small towns are charming places to stop for a few hours or a few days.
Read on for some of our favorite places to hike, sleep and stop along the coast.
Explore Central California’s State & National Parks
Central California is home to four National Parks. These National Parks are quite diverse but each has spectacular scenery, rock formations and quiet places.
- Yosemite National Park: this famous park needs no introduction. Protected since 1864, it is a popular place to visit for Californians and people around the world. There are many campgrounds, beautiful hikes, stunning rock formations and wonderful waterfalls. Busy in summer, try to visit in spring or early fall.
- Pinnacles National Park: located in the Salinas valley, this beautiful park has striking rock formations and hilly chaparral hikes. Backpacking is not allowed but there is a large campground in the park.
- Kings Canyon National Park & Sequoia National Park: these beautiful parks in the Sierra Nevada have gorgeous hiking trails, rushing rivers and enormous trees. Did you know that Sequoia was the nation’s second National Park?
There are more than 20 State Parks in this area of California, plus wildlife refuges, National Forests and State Beaches. Some of my favorites are:
- Montana de Oro State Park: one of my very favorite places to visit is this beautiful piece of land on the California coast. Waves crash against the shoreline where there is a trail high on the sandstone cliffs, or hike the hills for a great workout on a foggy day. You can camp here by the sea or stay in one of the charming towns nearby like Morro Bay, Pismo Beach or San Luis Obispo.
- Big Basin State Park: hike from the skyline to the sea at this coastal park that has a beautiful redwood forest. Explore the hiking and mountain biking trails in this park just outside of the awesome city of Santa Cruz.
- Andrew Molera State Park: a fantastic place to explore when in Big Sur, Andrew Molera has a beautiful wild beach, excellent campground and great hikes.
- Los Padres National Forest: if you like to backpack and hike, visit this huge National Forest in Big Sur.
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: one of the most famous sights in Big Sur, Pfeiffer has a beautiful waterfall that splashes onto the beach from dramatic cliffs. You can also camp and hike here.
- Piedras Blancas Outstanding Natural Area: located along a pretty stretch of California coastline, this are was officially protected by President Obama during his last days in office. Home to an active elephant seal rookery, it is a fabulous place to stop on the way up Highway 1 to Big Sur.
- Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve is technically in southern California, but it is just inland from Santa Barbara so I’m including it here. Check out the incredible spring blooms of orange poppies, California’s State Flower.
Ready for a camping road trip? Check out our 7 tips for car camping including a packing list.
Central California Outdoor Adventures
Are you into adventure sports like kayaking and rock climbing? There are awesome places to experience excitement in central California.
Whitewater rafting enthusiasts should check out the Kaweah River near Sequoia National Park. Also check out the nearby Kern River. Don’t miss the Remington hot springs and Pyramid hot springs for a warm soak with awesome views.
If flat water kayaking is more your thing, stop at Elkhorn Slough for excellent wildlife viewing. Sea kayakers have plenty of options along the coast, depending on skill level. Some seaside towns will have a place to rent kayaks and a convenient place to put in. Morro Bay has plenty of possibilities, as well as Santa Cruz.
Pinnacles National Park is a popular place with rock climbers. And of course Yosemite National Park is famous for huge rocks like Half Dome, as well as easier climbs. There are other local climbing and bouldering spots dotted around the state. Check out Cabrillo Peak in San Luis Obispo County.
Central California Towns & Cities
Central California has large cities that you may never have heard of including Fresno and Modesto. I prefer to visit the smaller cities and towns in this region.
The central area of California is home to quite a few university towns including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz just to the north. These are some of the coolest places to stop for a few days as they have cheap eats, good brews and a relaxed vibe due to the student populations. However in addition to being college towns they also have million (or billion!) dollar neighborhoods.
Some of the smaller places I like to stop include Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Monterey, the wine country area around Santa Barbara like Los Olivos, and the kitschy Scandinavian village of Solvang. No California road trip is complete without a tour of Big Sur, which doesn’t really have large towns but a few good places to stop and explore. Check out our guide to things to see in that area. Just before you reach Santa Cruz you can stop in sleepy towns like Pacific Grove and Carmel-By-The-Sea.
Towns located in the central valley and Sierra Foothills can also make fun destinations or quick stops. You can still find ghost towns in this area too. Check out Silver City, a composite ghost town made up of buildings from the surrounding Kern Valley. Or visit Bodie just north of Yosemite. The cute municipality of Mariposa is the gateway to Yosemite and the southernmost of the Gold Rush towns.
Do you enjoy wine tasting? Definitely plan a stop in Santa Barbara as mentioned above, but also check out the coastal wine regions around San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. Further north make a detour onto the River Road and visit some wineries in the Salinas Valley. In the central valley you’ll find counties like Madera where you can taste wine.
Central California Scenic Drives
All this beautiful scenery just screams for a road trip, doesn’t it? Look for the golden poppy road sign designating an official scenic route. Some of the most scenic drives in this part of California include:
- The entire Highway 1, especially from San Luis Obispo to Monterey. It passes through the famous Big Sur.
- Highway 101 has some gorgeous stretches too, like the route from Santa Barbara through San Luis Obispo
- The road to Pinnacles National Park, Highway 25, has pretty views, small towns and a few awesome pit stops. Check the guide from Sunset Magazine here.
- State Route 180 is an official scenic highway that passes into Kings National Park and through the famous General Grant Grove.
For more adventures, take an autumn road trip along Minnesota’s Lake Superior to peep at leaves and waterfalls.
Or get out and explore Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin and Starved Rock State Park in Illinois.
And Oregon has amazing state parks where you can stay in yurts and cabins!