Text and Photos by Cheryl Levitan
t continues to be a challenging time for travelers. Flight schedules change like shifting sands, rendering passenger capacity assurances meaningless. Few international destinations welcome U.S. travelers. Even places within our own country continue to impose restrictions on out-of-state travelers. Cruises and land tours are suspended this fall, with many companies extending that through the spring of 2021. To date, cruise lines frequented by American passengers appear relatively solvent and, despite the grounding of most global flights, experts believe that countries will prop up their airlines until this crisis passes.
The good news? Travel options should still be there when we’re ready. But for now, road trips close to home and vacations largely spent outdoors are “it” for the foreseeable future. Fortunately for Californians, our state’s inherent beauty could have been designed for this. With 840 miles of some of the world’s most beautiful coastlines, beaches and spectacularly visual trails, driving westward is a great option. To the east, the Sierra Nevadas and those beloved national parks are a travel topic often covered and commonly visited by Central Valley residents. And while we tend to think of San Francisco as the state’s northern point, almost one-third of California lies farther north with magnificent mountains, forests, lakes and streams waiting to be seen. With COVID-19 keeping millions of out-of-state tourists away, we also have California virtually to ourselves. In a state with more sights than one could explore in a lifetime, while we may experience COVID-19 fatigue, it’s doubtful that we’ll suffer from California fatigue.
With so many options, which way to go? We chose a familiar area — coastal San Luis Obispo County along Highway 1. But rather than re-create previous trips, we sought out new activities, especially those outdoors. Thankfully, those abound in this stretch of Pacific coastline, where we found distancing, masks and other safety measures in place and widely followed.
We began in Avila Beach. Largely protected from coastal winds, this town’s beach and promenade are a hit with Central Valley residents. Few may appreciate its history. Avila has experienced successive struggles and rebirths. This concept of resilience and renewal was the artistic inspiration for the spiral tile mosaic (patterned after a nautilus shell) on the pedestrian promenade. Just as the nautilus retains old chambers as it forms larger ones (creating a beautiful shell in the process), Avila has saved the best remnants of its often tumultuous past while moving forward.
- Shipwrecks in the 1800s spurred construction of a beacon in 1892. The only surviving Prairie Victorian-styled lighthouse on the West Coast, it now beckons visitors to visit rather than warn them away. Currently closed due to COVID-19, it can still be reached by kayak to view its exterior. (avilabeachpaddlesports.com)
- Avila’s breakwater (protecting both Port San Luis and Avila Beach) was formed by extending Whalers Island out into the sea and attaching it to the mainland with large boulders dynamited off Morro Rock. Harpooned whales were once towed to this island to render their blubber into oil, “lubricating” the Industrial Revolution before the advent of petroleum. This port, where whales were once hunted and killed, is now a safe harbor for both whales and their watchers.
- Whale oil was the 1800s, and petroleum dominated the 1900s. Petroleum was piped from fields to storage tanks overlooking the beach, making Avila Beach the busiest oil port in the world by volume. Tankers loaded at Harford Pier in early days (now home to iconic Mersea’s restaurant and comical harbor seals) and later from Avila’s middle pier (donated to Cal Poly in 2001 for marine research). Bizarrely, it was the 1990 discovery of a catastrophic seepage of gas, crude and diesel (with subsequent cleanup and settlement) that transformed Avila Beach into a beauty. The entire business district, beach and six square blocks of private dwellings were razed and rebuilt after 400,000 gallons of petrochemicals were removed.
- The natural artesian mineral hot springs (a tourist draw) were discovered in 1907 by oil drillers (who were none too happy about it). We stayed at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, an upscale 100-acre property in the woodlands of Avila Valley. The spacious, well-appointed and quiet Meadows suites connect to the main resort by elevated walkway over Avila Beach Drive. While the publicly rentable mineral baths are closed, suites have their own private hot tubs. The restaurant’s patio is open for excellent dining and the resort accesses two trails:
- Bob Jones Trail: This 2.5-mile trail from the Ontario Road trailhead to Avila Beach (a mile less starting from the resort) is a pedestrian-/bike-/pet-friendly walkway. Meandering alongside the creek, it mirrors the route of the Pacific Coast narrow-gauge railway that once connected Avila Beach to San Luis Obispo. It was named in honor of environmental engineer Bob Jones for his tireless efforts conserving California’s land and water.
- Sycamore Crest Trail: This 1.5-mile round-trip hike departs from the resort and ascends the north slope of Ontario Hill. Looking right from the 700-foot summit are views of Avila Beach, the port and the old oil tank farm slated for resort development. It intersects with Ontario Ridge Trail, so you can extend your hike down to the caves and coves at Pirates Cove Beach. The Etna Valley wineries are nestled in the nearby San Luis Obispo hills, which boasts one of the longest growing seasons; the cool Pacific winds and morning fog create an ideal microclimate for pinot noir and chardonnay. Unable to currently host events or large gatherings, most wineries continue to offer wine tastings outdoors. We visited two:
- Kynsi: This small family-run operation produces limited quantities of varietals sourced from select wineries and a great pinot noir from its own estate’s Stone Corral Vineyard. With 30 years experience in the wine industry, owner Don Othman is largely known for his invention of a gas pressure racking wand to transfer wine from barrels without oxidation or agitation. Located in a renovated 1940s dairy, it once had a serious gopher infestation, which a barn owl rectified. The winery’s logo is now an owl and the name, Kynsi, means talon in Finnish. Our tasting was conducted by Othman’s son-in-law’s brother … family all the way!
- Tolosa: Owner Robbin Baggett moved to the area 40 years ago with dreams of owning a cattle ranch. Realizing a more productive use of the land was needed, he took inspiration from Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, whose monks began the area’s grape-growing tradition. The first vines were planted in 1988; Tolosa Winery was founded 10 years later with a logo modeled after a mission tile pattern and is housed in a warm yet modern building. The estate has 728 acres with six distinct growing areas, each chosen to match the needs of the varietal rootstocks. From beginning to end, Tolosa’s winemaking process is centered around minute attention to detail. It works!
With COVID-19 restrictions clearly posted, lifeguard stands decorated by local artist Colleen Gnos reflect Avila Beach’s past, present and future.
Leaving Avila, we wandered up the coast to picnic and people watch near Morro Rock. Next was a hike at Cambria’s Fiscallini Bluff Trail. A collaboration between government and residents allowed the 437-acre property originally slated for homes to remain public open space. With miles of trails, the standout is the 0.86-mile Bluffs Trail. Forty feet above the ocean vista, there’s access to tide pools teeming with sea life. COVID-19 safety rules direct walkers in one direction only, while hand-crafted benches offer spots for contemplation, each one a unique work of art.
Next up — Baywood Park in Los Osos. An artsy, funky, laid-back spot, it has an array of long-established eateries, an impressive community garden and bed-and-breakfast lodging. Speaking of lodging, ours had neglected to mention major renovations, rendering the parking lot unusable. But we found a back-door entrance. Once inside, we were showered with wine, CDC-approved prepackaged goodies and directed to our “themed” suite … very Madonna Inn-ish with less kitsch.
The next morning, we woke to quite a sight — Morro Bay’s tidal basin at low tide. The lovely bay was rendered a mud flat because of the shallowness south of Morro Bay State Park. The 90-acre Elfin Forest’s short-looped boardwalk was just blocks north (named for its pygmy oaks) and just south was the Sweet Springs Nature Preserve with its very short loop through eucalyptus groves and Monterey cypress.
In order of appearance (click on thumbnails for larger views):
Fat Cats Cafe, an iconic Avila Beach eatery near Harford Pier, has greatly expanded its safely distanced outdoor eating.
Avilla Beach Paddlesports rents kayaks with masks. One can kayak in port or go to Point San Luis Lighthouse. Note, in the background are new terraced lots being made for RVs to park, allowing uninterrupted views of the ocean along Avila Beach Drive.
The lovely outdoor tasting area at Kynsi Winery explains all of its COVID-19 safety measures.
Tolosa Winery’s warm amber interior has its history displayed on an interior wall.
Los Osos’ Baywood Community Garden is a spot to grow vegetables, flowers or just to come and chat (with masks) or watch artists sketch.
Then it was on to nearby Montana de Oro State Park to walk the Bluff Trail. One of California’s largest state parks, it has 8,000 acres of rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, canyons, streams and hills, including 1,400-foot-high Valencia Peak. The trailhead begins 2.6 miles past the park entry for this stunning 4.6-mile loop. Nothing could have prepared us for the sheer magnificence of the rugged coastline, stratified rock formations and prehistoric-looking sea grasses deposited on the beach.
Heading towards home, we stopped at Sculpterra Winery in Paso Robles. The wine was good but the sculptures and display honoring local history? Fantastic! Even if you don’t drink, you must visit.
To plan your own safe road adventure along SLO’s magnificent 100-mile coast, visit highway1discoveryroute.com, download The AllTrails app (alltrails.com) to track your trail progress; highway1discoveryroute/coastal-trail to see all SLO coastal trails; interactive Avila map at avilabeachpier.com, and current SLO openings and closures at slocal.com.
The trip that resulted in this article was a media familiarization opportunity through Highway 1 Discovery Route.