Suntracking SLO, “The Happiest Place in America” San Luis Obispo
By Lindsey M. Cooley
We all travel in search of something.
For Elizabeth Gilbert, in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, it was the meaning of life. For The Alchemist’s Santiago, it was destiny. And for Hemingway’s Old Man, it was the last great catch.
For me, last summer, it was the sun. And I found it on California’s central coast in San Luis Obispo.
I found the sun in The Golden State. And I couldn’t think of a better way to chase the sun than driving California’s Pacific Coast to San Luis Obispo– a town dubbed “The Happiest Place in America.” Locals call it SLO.
By academic standards, I earned an A-plus for my sun-tracking efforts. A significant heatwave currently swept the west coast, making it the hottest June on record.
Landing in L.A. and on the heels of the sun, we hopped into our rented SUV and took off with a touch of naiveté towards its beautiful but reckless rays.
Taking US 101, we made a stop halfway between L.A. and SLO in Santa Barbara.
The iconic red-roofed town is always worth visiting if you’re ever driving through or near, especially for lunch at La Super-Rica Taqueria.
This little taco joint trimmed in the color of mint will undoubtedly have a line wrapped around it, but don’t let that scare you off. Their soft taco shell alone is worth the wait.
You’ll smell these freshly battered corn tortillas frying up just feet away, providing you patience. And the sauces on the side, a red tomatoey sauce with a sweet heat and a lime-forward spicy green one, will keep you coming back for more.
After a post-lunch stroll through the downtown, appreciating its Spanish architecture and the late-blooming Jacaranda, we hopped on State Route 154, heading north.
Driving Scenic 154
I love the Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway 1, as much as the next gal. But there’s something special about the stretch of road on 154.
Two lanes run through a pastoral landscape near the coast. Dark green oak trees speckle massive flax-colored hills, and with a clear blue sky, California’s color palette comes to life.
It also leads to Los Padres National Forest, California’s third-largest national forest and a perfect spot to explore the coastal mountains.
If you’re not the hiking type but still crave the views, this route provides plenty of vista points to pull off and enjoy the surrounding scenery.
Just beyond Los Padres lies Santa Ynez Valley, a perfect opportunity to drive through wine country, maybe even make a stop and sip.
You’ll find over 100 wineries here, not to mention Solvang, the Danish Capital of America.
We visited Sunstone Winery in the peak afternoon sun. Grapevines sweltered and blistered as we tasted from flights and charcuterie boards.
The grounds were breathtaking, reminding me of a Tuscan landscape. I could have spent the entire afternoon here, watching a bright blue sky turn to a dusky purple.
But our destination awaited. Just beyond Santa Ynez Valley, the 154 quickly turns back into US 101, and then it’s smooth sailing to SLO.
Downtown in SLO
Sprinkled with vineyards, beaches, and orchards nearby, SLO is a perfect spot to settle in and enjoy the fruits of the sun. Its typical warm but breezy weather is ideal, with sunshiny days leading to cool evenings that might require a sweater.
SLO is home to California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), facilitating the town’s laid-back college feel. But the boutique shopping, delicious food, and weekly summer concerts also keep it fresh.
The local farmer’s market, one of California’s Spanish missions, and a beloved historic movie theater add to that charismatic small-town-on-the-west-coast vibe.
Higuera Street is the central hub. You’ll find most of the downtown attractions here, some incredibly unique, like SLO’s cheerful museum filled with local art and an alley adorned with used chewing gum, aptly named “Bubblegum Alley.”
Close by sits Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, one of California’s 21 Spanish missions. The church’s hand-rung bells sound daily, also adding to SLO’s charm.
Downtown SLO Hotel
We stayed at Hotel Cerro, neatly centered downtown and steps away from Higuera Street. Situated perfectly, this boutique hotel manifests respite and relaxation. Spa Cerro offers a range of wellness treatments.
The hotel’s restaurant, Brasserie SLO, serves fresh coastal cuisine utilizing their own garden’s produce. Mission Fig Patio, named after the patio’s resident fig tree, provides a tranquil space for a morning coffee or a glass of wine in the afternoon.
And the rooftop pool, with views of SLO’s downtown and surrounding terrain, makes a lovely retreat day or night.
A Storybook Landscape
We arrived in SLO late in the afternoon, and the downtown unfolded like a storybook or movie set.
Stately trees strung with twinkling lights provide a dreamy, glowing canopy for pedestrians.
And from most vantage points, giant peaks embrace SLO county, and they glow orangey-pink as the sun lowers late in the day.
These quintessential peaks are a collection of volcanic hills named The Nine Sisters. Five of the nine are hikeable, Bishop’s Peak the most popular for hiking and the tallest of the sisters.
Some are privately owned- one partially owned by the California National Guard with a dedicated training space aptly named Camp SLO.
Morro Rock Beach
A particularly sought-out peak is Morro Rock. It’s known to be the most photogenic of the sisters, with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.
Though climbing the rock is not permitted, nearby Morro Rock Beach provides excellent views of the peak.
Another sister piquing public interest is Hollister. Although privately owned and off-limits to climbers, this one is visible from Highway 1 and shaped like an elephant.
Along with Morro Rock and Chumash Peak, Hollister is significant to the Chumash people.
The Morro Bay Oyster Company sits within a 10-minute walk from Morro Rock Beach. Its owner, Neal Maloney, runs an all-female crew and harvests Pacific Gold Oysters right in the bay. The Maritime Museum is also a must-see— it’s the best place to learn the history of Morro Bay from locals who sit on the museum’s board.
In a different lane, Morro Bay boasts a vibrant artistic community inspired by the surrounding natural beauty. Art Center Morro Bay, as well as privately owned galleries and art stores, provide a taste of the local art and culture scene that is truly one of a kind.
There are over 20 murals throughout town that reflect the City’s artistic community along Main Street, The Embarcadero, and beyond. If you’re looking for photo ops these murals are perfect! A downloadable guide to the Morro Bay Mural Mile can be found online.
SLO wouldn’t be the same without this “Morro” dynasty, looking over the town like a protective tribe of siblings. But the idyllic tree-studded streets won me over like nothing else.
Two types of trees, in particular, stuck out to me. One presents like an umbrella with twisty trunks and pillowy foliage- the Indian Laurel Fig, a type of ficus tree.
The other grows tall and sloughs off its multicolored bark, looking like a Van Gough painting and making me question whether it’s an actual tree versus a public work of art.
“No, those are real,” insisted a waiter local to the area. “They’re Eucalyptus, and the trunk turns all shades of pastel.” Even a native to the area gushed about their beauty.
While we filled our daily itinerary with sunny road trips, we preserved the dusky nights for walking these lovely streets, a routine we grew fond of before and after dinner.
On our first night, we explored Higuera Street on foot. Being Saturday night, a celebratory mood washed over the downtown activities, the rowdy energy denoting our warm welcome.
We made a stop at the Mission Plaza on nearby Churro Street and toured the grounds of Mission de Tolosa while admiring the surrounding eucalyptus.
It was Pride Month, and the town decorated the plaza in the colors of the rainbow. The multicolored eucalyptus trunk fit in like part of the decor.
From Churro Street, we followed our noses to Luna Red and snagged a table on the patio.
Here we dined al fresco with a view of the mission’s bell tower while jazzy flamenco beats played in the background.
Under ficus tree shade and string lights, we ate the most deliciously crispy paella paired with a local Zinfandel.
The following day, we woke to the mission’s church bells. After leisurely getting ready, something the hotel’s spacious and well-laid-out room encouraged, we walked to breakfast.
In contrast to the night before, SLO’s morning spirit was calmer and quieter. We ended up at Big Sky Cafe with a table half inside and half outside the building, enjoying an unrushed meal in the cool morning air.
I chose a hearty lentil stew with poached eggs that both satisfied and made me feel lighter.
Our chase was off to a good start. Even in a heatwave, SLO proved the ideal place to find the sun, delivering on its reputation of mild temperatures. However, in nearby wine country, temperatures rose.
A Mediterranean Experience
Paso Robles, an agricultural wonderland, sits 30 minutes away from SLO. The region is well known for wine, with over 200 vineyards, but its hilly landscape and Mediterranean climate also make it an ideal home for olives.
We spent a toasty morning at Kiler Ridge, a 15-acre olive farm with seven Italian olive tree varieties.
Finding olives luxurious and romantic, I’ve always wanted to tour a grove, and this experience lived up to the hype.
Walking through orderly aisles of breezy limbed trees transported me to the hills of Florence, not only in sight but in sound and smell.
Here leafy branches tickle and applaud while the wind carries their herbaceous aroma.
With senses so entranced, I overlooked my fair-skinned scalp turning pink until I thoughtlessly combed my hands through my hair and found it sensitive and sore.
By 10 a.m., temperatures were 105 degrees.
We quickly retreated to the shade for an olive oil tasting.
Our guide was a young bubbly agriculture student at nearby Cal Poly who directed a perfect tasting, describing flavors to note with each silky mouthful- buttery, peppery, grassy, herby, and even notes of banana. Her enthusiasm enhanced our own.
SLO Olive Oil and Ice Cream
Each tasting ends with an offering of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.
The surprisingly decadent treat cooled our palates and gave us the energy to push on through the day’s heat.
Only 15 minutes from the olive farm sits Bianchi Winery. We enjoyed half our time under an umbrella with a view of the vines and an entertaining koi pond.
And when the umbrella wasn’t enough to shield us against the raging sun, we retreated to the lovely tasting room indoors.
It was a full day of agriculture and high temperatures. Drained and dry by the end, we ran back to SLO.
Her spirit remained calm and quiet through the evening, revealing how Sundays in town slow down.
We showered off the heat and walked to dinner, appreciating the crisp evening air that cooled our tender scalps.
Craving more Italian, we grabbed a table at Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica. Born from a Cal Poly senior project in 1988, Giuseppe’s farms a lot of their ingredients- figs, olives, San Marzano tomatoes, and Meyer lemons, to name a few. Plus, they make their bread, pasta, sauces, and gelatos in-house.
Everything we ate tasted fresh and authentic. After dinner, we grabbed their creamy gelato to go, moseying back to our hotel on foot while sharing creamy spoonfuls.
Dreaming Up Another San Luis Obispo Visit
We discovered a special place in SLO. The surrounding wine country and charming coastal towns provide plenty to do.
Having a centralized and relaxed hub should not be taken for granted, especially in a heatwave.
The sun battered us back to our air-conditioned cars more than once during our daily escapades.
SLO turned out to be a haven from the worst of the record-breaking temperatures.
After a full day of chasing the sun, we were ready to be back in her cool evening embrace, huddling close like a child behind a parent.
But after the overnight respite this town provides, it’s easy to thirst for more sun.
And there’s so much more to explore nearby: lovely Pismo Beach, the fishing village of Cambria, a run up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur and Carmel-by-the-Sea. In other words, this won’t be our last visit.
I think SLO runs on magic. Whether she draws her power from the Nine Sisters, the mystical downtown trees, or the suspiciously mild climate, this bewitching college town lures its guests back like an enchantress.
If you go, be prepared to visit the happiest place in America more than once.
Lindsey Cooley is a Dayton, Ohio-based freelance illustrator and blogger. Her work centers around travel, local and far, with a passion for agriculture, boutique hotels, and beautiful architecture. You can find her writing and illustrations at lindseyprompted.com
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