California Scenic Drive: San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway

By: Clark Norton

San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway, a segment of Route 1 in north San Luis Obispo County, winds past and through some of the finest views in the western United States. The byway blends the rural beauty associated with much of Route 1 in the northern portion of the state with the convenience and amenities found in the more heavily populated southern sections of California.

Historical Qualities of San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway

The city of San Luis Obispo had its beginnings in the 1772 founding of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa by Father Junipero Serra; it was named for the Franciscan saint known as Louis, Bishop of Toulouse (France).

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Built on a knoll beside a sparkling creek, the mission became the hub of a growing settlement, serving as the center of both the community and the county. Many considered Mission San Luis Obispo to be the most beautiful of all California missions.

During the 1880s, the Southern Pacific Railroad built a railroad south from San Jose. After a five-year delay, the railroad came to San Luis Obispo in 1894. Construction of the railroad helped bring both industry and variety to the small community and changed the face of the city.

Hearst Castle, or the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, is just off the byway. The castle, a living monument to the area's early 20th-century history, was built by publisher William Randolph Hearst, who entertained the rich and famous there. He intended it to be an elaborate getaway, complete with fine art and architecture. This historic treasure now provides a look into the windows of the past; it is one of the most heavily visited facilities in the California State Park System.

Qualities of San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway

The San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway's prominent resource is the ocean, including its sea life and nationally recognized bays: Morro Bay and Morro Bay National Estuary. The bays and ocean along the route often afford travelers views of otters, seals, sea lions, and whales. Morro Bay National Estuary serves a critical environmental function of the Pacific Coast by supporting many species of migratory birds protected by international treaties.

One of the most remarkable recent activities along this

stretch of Route 1 is the establishment of breeding colonies

of elephant seals near Piedras Blancas Point. As you drive, elephant seal colonies are easily viewed from the byway.

In addition, the California Department of Transportation, working closely with Hearst Ranch Corporation, has provided excellent vista points and informational kiosks about the seals, which are the largest of all pinnipeds and can exceed two tons in weight and ten feet in length. Like many marine mammals, elephant seals were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, and, until recently, the huge seals lived in isolated areas far from humans. Then, in 1990, they started colonizing the unspoiled beaches and coves just south of Point Piedras Blancas.

The San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway also bisects lush valleys and rural farmland. The byway skirts the Morro Peaks and the Santa Lucia coastal mountain range and goes through the state's southernmost native Monterey pine forest. Equally important is the fertile land of the area, a significant natural resource for farming, which is one of the important industries of California.

Qualities of San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway

The San Luis Obispo corridor is blessed with pristine opportunities for outdoor recreation. Visitors may hike, cycle, surf, ride horses, watch birds, windsurf, hang glide, kayak, and fly kites, among many other activities. The excellent climate of the area allows for year-round recreation.

This map details San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway.
This map details San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway.

The byway's close proximity to countless cycling routes makes it a desirable destination for cyclists. The highway itself generally has generous shoulders and makes for a great bike ride.

Perhaps the best way to take in the immense scenic opportunities of the byway is to hike or ride horses right along the coastline. Coastal access adjacent to the southern boundary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, for example, gives you the opportunity to experience the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean.

The Harmony Coast contains unique opportunities to explore rocky coastal inlets by kayak. Just north of the California beach community of Cayucos on rural Route 1, rocky sections support some of the state's richest and most extensive tide pool habitat areas. Kayaking allows for in-depth exploration of these intriguing natural habitats.

Find more useful information related to California's San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway:

  • California Scenic Drives: San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway is just one of the scenic byways in California. Check out the others.
  • San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Cambria, San Simeon: Find out what there is to do in these cities along San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

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Highlights of San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway

A morro seen in the distance from San Luis Obispo North Coasy Byway.
A morro seen in the distance fromSan Luis Obispo North Coasy Byway.

The San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway hosts harbors and bays that have undoubtedly served as inspiration for artistic seascape paintings. Morro Bay, a working fishing village and a protected harbor, is also home to the Morro Bay National Estuary and Morro Rock. Morro Rock, abruptly rising more than 500 feet above the bay, provides a dreamy backdrop for activities in the clean harbor.

Other scenic bays along the route include Estero Bay, San Simeon Bay, and the southern portion of part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

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The spectacular shoreline of the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway is backed by a series of coastal terraces that rise to the foothills and then to the high ridges of the Santa Lucia Range. The land is covered with open rangelands, including coastal prairie grasslands, oak savannas, pine forest meadows, and grassland-covered upland slopes.

In spring, these areas are mantled in the lush green of new growth, followed by vibrant displays of orange California poppy, purple lupine, and other colorful native wildflowers. Later in the year, these same grasslands are toasted to a golden brown, providing rich contrast to the somber and dark evergreen forests around Cambria. Softly sculptured hills ring the city, with a series of steep, conical peaks, called morros. Morros are the remains of ancient volcanoes jutting up from the valley floor.

Begin your tour at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and end at Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and Ah Louis Store: Starting at the southern end of the route in San Luis Obispo, visit the 1772 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the fifth of California's historic Franciscan missions. Just up the street is the Ah Louis Store, a center of San Luis Obispo's 19th-century Chinese community.

Montana de Oro State Park: Montana de Oro State Park is a spectacular stretch of coastline and mountain parkland that includes beaches, tide pools, hiking trails, and camping. It's eight miles south of Morro Bay via Los Osos Valley Road.

Morro Bay: Morro Bay is home to an estuary and 576-foot dome-shaped Morro Rock, known as the "Gibraltar of the Pacific." Drive to its base to watch the many seabirds that congregate there. Nearby is Morro Bay State Park, popular for boating, fishing, picnicking, and camping.

Cambria: Continuing north from Morro Bay on Route 1, consider stopping at the pretty little town of Cambria for shopping, eating, or spending the night.

Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument: Farther north on the route is Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, better known as Hearst Castle. The fabulous estate has 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, walkways, and pools. Several different tours are available.

Enjoy the crisp, clean air of the Pacific while you take in some of California's most scenic wonders as you travel on the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway.

Find more useful information related to California's San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway:

  • California Scenic Drives: San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway is just one of the scenic byways in California. Check out the others.
  • San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Cambria, San Simeon: Find out what there is to do in these cities along San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

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