12 best beaches in San Luis Obispo County

Here on the sun-soaked Central Coast, any time of year is a good time to hit the beach.

Fortunately, San Luis Obispo offers locals and tourists about a dozen beaches to choose from. They range from tranquil lakes to secluded coves, from quiet campsites to bustling beach towns.

Whether you prefer the white-capped surf of the Pacific Ocean or the gently lapping waters of a country lake, there’s a beach out there for you.

Here’s our rundown of the county’s beaches, big and small. Day use, overnight and parking fees vary by site.

Avila Beach

Joe Johnston The Tribune

How to get there: From Highway 101 South, take the San Luis Bay exit. Turn right on Avila Beach Drive and follow the road into Avila Beach.

What you’ll see: Avila Beach is a quirky California beach town with a family-friendly setting, a scenic pier and a cute boardwalk brimming with small shops and eateries. The beach faces south, guaranteeing sunny weather and comparatively warm, welcoming water most of the year.

What locals know: Although Avila Beach itself is lovely, beach-goers in the know head to the more secluded stretch of sand near Port San Luis for bonfires and barbecues.

Cayucos State Beach

Jayson Mellom Photography Jayson Mellom Photography

How to get there: From Highway 101 South, take the 13th Street exit. Turn right on South Ocean Avenue for a leisurely drive down Cayucos’ main drag.

What you’ll see: Most Cayucos residents live just blocks from the beach, and who can blame them? The cozy coastal town attracts families and kids with its easy-to-access beaches, small secluded coves and Cayucos Pier, which offers sight seekers stunning views of Estero Bay.

What locals know: This quaint seaside town is an antique lover’s paradise. Antique shops crowd the main commercial stretch, selling everything from furniture to jewelry to art. More goodies can be found at the Peddler’s Faire, held every Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend at the Cayucos Creek downtown lot.

Lopez Lake

Lopez Lake0591
David Middlecamp

How to get there: Take Highway 227 south to Biddle Ranch Road and turn left. Go right on Orcutt Road and turn left onto Lopez Drive.

What you’ll see: Located just 10 miles east of Arroyo Grande, Lopez Lake seems worlds apart. Rolling hills studded with oak trees give the lake a fairytale feel, while the lake’s shoreline offer countless opportunities for outdoor adventure. While the drought has lowered the water levels in San Luis Obispo County lakes, there are still ample recreation opportunities available. Like the county’s other lakes, Lopez Lake attracts boatloads of hikers, campers, canoers and fishing enthusiasts in search of the perfect catfish or crappie.

What locals know: Lopez Lake shares its grounds with a popular family attraction, Mustang Waterpark. Attractions include two 600-foot curving waterslides, kid-friendly wading pools, hot spas, sun decks and the 38-foot half-pipe known as the Stampede.

Montana de Oro State Park

montana de oro

How to get there: Take Highway 101 to Los Osos Valley Road. Continue through Los Osos as the road becomes Pecho Valley Road.

What you’ll see: This precious park has a particularly appropriate name: “Mountain of Gold.” Beach-goers will discover treasures of their own while exploring the park’s eucalyptus groves, sand dunes, tide pools and rocky beaches. Attractions include Spooner’s Cove, Hazard Canyon, Point San Luis Lighthouse and the Point Buchon trail, which takes hikers within sight of the Diablo Canyon power plant.

What locals know: Disney film crews temporarily built a 52-foot lighthouse on a Point Buchon bluff while filming the 1977 movie “Pete’s Dragon,” about a boy and his scaly friend.

Moonstone Beach

Joe Johnston The Tribune

How to get there: From Highway 1 North, turn left on Windsor Boulevard. Turn right on Moonstone Beach Drive.

What you’ll see: With its rugged bluffs, rocky beaches and tall stands of Monterey pine, Moonstone Beach and the nearby Fiscalini Ranch Preserve represent the more rugged side of the Central Coast. To experience the North Coast’s natural splendor, wander the well-maintained network of walkways that wind along the coast. They offer stunning views of ocean cliffs and wildflower-dappled fields, as well as glimpses of wildlife such as birds, whales and sea otters.

What locals know: Quiet Cambria is a cultural mecca. Sample fine cuisine, shop for antiques and art or take in a show at the Cambria Center for the Arts.

Morro Strand State Park

morro strand
Joe Johnston The Tribune

How to get there: Heading north on Highway 1, turn left on Yerba Buena Street and continue past Beachcomber Drive to the ranger station.

What you’ll see: Two landmarks dominate the skyline at Morro Strand State Beach: the three tapering smokestacks of the Morro Bay power plant and majestic Morro Rock. Popular with surfers and locals, the beach features a long, quiet stretch of golden sand flanked by homes on one side and sparkling waves on the other.

What locals know: In July, Morro Bay plays host to the annual Brian Waterbury Memorial Rock-to-Pier Run, a six-mile-long fun run between Morro Rock and the Cayucos Pier. Warm up with a short stroll along the boardwalk to the Embarcadero.

Lake Nacimiento

Nacimiento Water044
Joe Johnston

How to get there: From Highway 101 North, take the 24th Street exit. The road becomes Lake Nacimiento Drive, also known as county highway G14.

What you’ll see: Nestled deep in the golden-brown hills north of Paso Robles, Nacimiento Lake is a haven for boating, fishing and water sports enthusiasts. The lakes’ sapphire blue waters provide cool relief to North County pleasure seekers, as well as habitat for trout, bass, catfish and stripers.

What locals know: Paso Robles is home to some of the finest vineyards and wineries in the county. Grab a bottle for a lakeside picnic, but please, drink responsibly.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area

Joe Johnston The Tribune

How to get there: Head south on Highway 1. The north park entrance is located at the end of Grand Avenue in Grover Beach, while the south entrance is at the end of Pier Avenue in Oceano.

What you’ll see: Back in the 1930s, a community of freethinkers known as the Dunites migrated to the Oceano Dunes in search of artistic inspiration and spiritual enlightenment. Today, the silvery slopes — which rise as high as six stories before plunging back down — are a powerful draw for off-road enthusiasts and nature lovers. Some visitors seek thrills in all-terrain vehicles and quad-runners. Others prefer to park their RVs and watch kite boarders skim the waves.

What locals know: Just as rip currents can snag unwary swimmers, the ever-shifting Oceano Dunes can mean danger for off-roaders. All ATV operators should take a formal safety training course, wear helmets and protective clothing, familiarize themselves with the terrain and drive cautiously.

Pismo State Beach

Joe Johnston The Tribune

How to get there: From Highway 101 South, take Price Street into downtown Pismo Beach. Highway 1 also splits off at this point, heading south toward Oceano.

What you’ll see: One of the county’s most popular tourism draws, Pismo Beach offers everything a beach-goer could want: surf, sand, souvenir shops and steaming hot clam chowder served in sourdough bread bowls. (Thanks, Splash Café!) For those tired of soaking up sunshine, there’s also camping, fishing, surfing and, during the mild winter months, butterfly-watching.

What locals know: Weather on the Central Coast varies greatly by microclimate, so sunny skies in San Luis Obispo may mean unseasonal chills in Pismo. Your best bet? Arrive in the afternoon, after morning clouds have a chance to burn off.

San Simeon and William Hearst Memorial State Beach

Joe Johnston The Tribune

How to get there: Travel about eight miles north of Cambria on Highway 1. The park is located on the west side of the highway, across from the turnoff to Hearst Castle.

What you’ll see: Hearst Castle isn’t the only attraction in this tiny coastal town on the edge of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. For hikers, there’s a pleasant trail through eucalyptus, cypress and pine trees to San Simeon Point. Sunbathers, swimmers, kayakers and whale watchers will enjoy the eight-acre park named after newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. It offers a pier, picnic areas and a protected beach.

What locals know: Don’t miss the large elephant seal colony located a bit farther up Highway 1, just south of Piedras Blancas.

Santa Margarita Lake

Santa Margarita Lake1309

How to get there: From Highway 101 North, take the Santa Margarita exit. Drive through Santa Margarita, turn right on Estrada Avenue (Highway 58) and then left on Santa Margarita Lake Road.

What you’ll see: Originally created to provide water to thirsty soldiers at Camp San Luis Obispo, Santa Margarita Lake is an outdoor paradise today. Boating, fishing and camping are the main draws here. However, the surrounding area boasts thousands of acres of unspoiled open space accessible to hikers, bicyclists and equestrians.

What locals know: Keep traveling down Highway 58 and you’ll come upon the historic Pozo Saloon, where world-renowned recording artists rock out under the stars.

Shell Beach

shell beach
Joe Johnston

How to get there: Take Highway 101 South to Shell Beach Road. From there, a number of residential roads lead to beach access paths, including Silver Shoals Drive, Ebb Tide Lane and Beachcomber Drive. You can also take the path to the right of Dolphin Bay Resort and Spa.

What you’ll see: Backed by steep bluffs and rocky shores, this slim stretch of beach may be one of the county’s best-kept secrets. It’s a popular hangout for Cuesta College and Cal Poly students as well as surfers in search of tasty waves. More adventurous beachgoers can head south to Pirates Cove, a secluded nude beach where sunbathers bare all.

What locals know: Silver Shoals can get crowded fast, especially on weekends. To snag the best spot, head to the beach before noon.

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