THE CENTRAL COAST is full of drive-through towns and quaint seaside villages. The rugged coastline is a magnet any time of year. Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is often a bucket-list adventure. Social media accounts flooded with images of empty beaches, soaring cliffs holding back crashing waves, and rolling hillsides blanketed in that famed California haze.
A little known fact is that you can’t drive the entire coastline. The fundamentals of engineering roads says so. Our destination is Morro Bay, so let’s head north from Malibu. The 101 and the 1 work in tandem for almost the entire drive. The U.S. Navy facility at Port Hueneme makes the first detour inland a necessity. But in no time you’re spit back out on the coast as Ventura looms on the northern horizon, and the blue waters of the Pacific stretch west toward forever.
The second detour from the coastline comes in the heart of Santa Barbara. While one of the most picturesque Central Coast cities, Santa Barbara’s stretch of the 101 won’t spoil all the views from the freeway. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long before you’re motoring along the continental edge once again.
North of Santa Barbara you’re forced into a sharp right at Gaviota (population 70), pushing inland past the state park of the same name. Soon thereafter, you can choose the 1 to Lompoc (slower) or the 101 as it snakes through hills lined with vineyards (faster).
Since we’re in no hurry, we’ll take the 1 through Lompoc, which is known for many things, including its federal prison, its wildflower fields and Vandenberg Air Force Base (technically now the Space Force; the website has fun rocket launch “hype” videos).
Still inland, we stay west of Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande as we navigate toward the coast. The dreamy enclave of Pismo Beach is a fleeting romance — seductive, beautiful, gentle. Once again we are pulled from our lover (yes, that would be the coastline) before a northwesterly curve near the underrated town of San Luis Obispo dumps us into the uniquely quirky Central Coast town of Morro Bay.
Let’s talk about Morro Bay. Best known for Morro Rock, a 576-foot volcanic relic that rises from the floor of the Pacific. It’s a dramatic sight — at once looming, haunting, serene and stoic. Morro Rock is one of the most photographed spots on the West Coast, and with good reason. The Central Coast’s weather patterns are moody. Sunshine, dense fog, gentle mist and sharp winds can all be experienced in a day, or an hour. Colorful sunsets paint Morro Rock in a palette of whimsy, while clouds and fog can snuggle its top like a silk-woven tuque.
Just to the north, Morro Strand offers incredible beach access. The camping left a little to be desired. Although proximity to the beach was perfect, the campsites are spartan, with very little space between sites and no privacy. My neighbors were a friendly, extended family from Mexico who traveled in three Volkswagen Vanagons. We might as well have been staying together, we were thatclose.
The evening brought an inspired display of colors and light. I roamed the beach for a couple of hours, witnessing first-hand how nature's story unfolds. The setting sun proved dramatic, with pinks and reds filling the sky and reflecting off the water.
The following morning I packed up, as the destination that day was Santa Cruz. The beach was covered in a thick marine layer and a light mist made everything damp. Rather than cook at the site, I headed into town for a coffee and breakfast sandwich, and took some time to check out the marina district (very touristy) and the harbor.
This didn’t disappoint. With a chill in the air and the fog machine in full force, the silent waters of Morro Bay breathed a cinematic essence. Ever present, Morro Rock loomed under a stocking cap of clouds.
The Libertine Brewing Co. has roots in this town with the Libertine Pub. Grub, house brews and guest taps means there’s always something to try.
Bring your bike! Roadies and MTBs have unimaginable options.
Radiohead’s second album, The Bends, is a throwback to the alt-rock ‘90s. If there’s one song on that album that captures the cinematic essence of this slice of heaven, it’s “Fake Plastic Trees” with its opening acoustic melody and soaring finish.