Exploring California’s Empty Central Coast

Central Coast of California
Driving the Cabrillo Highway toward Ragged Point, California with nothing but mountains and green hillsides. Max Hartshorne photos.

From Lonely Gorda to Morro Bay the Central Coast is Delightfully Undeveloped

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Guest suite at the top of Hearst Castle featuring a 3D ceiling from Italy on California's Central Coast.
Guest suite at the top of Hearst Castle featuring a 3D ceiling from Italy.

A few weeks ago when the mornings were still chilly here in the Valley of Massachusetts, I hopped on a plane to San Luis Obispo, California for some time on the uncrowded central coast. 

When I stepped off the plane in the sun outside of San Luis Obispo’s airport terminal, it set the scene, with a comfortable sunny outdoor seating area complete with a small stand selling local wines and microbrew beers.  Welcome to the Central Coast in California!

Gorda and Morro Bay

California has always been my favorite place to visit in the cold winter months, and this area of the coast, between Gorda and Morro Bay, is stunning because it is so undeveloped. 

Miles and miles–about 68 miles of coast– is simply open grasslands, mountains and the Pacific ocean. 

Mike and Noreens lot

To be able to drive this far and avoid what we usually find along the ocean anywhere is a refreshing experience.

We have the Hearst Corporation to thank for preserving the 83,000 acres they own here, 17 miles in either direction from the Hearst Castle’s entrance.

Mike and Noreen’s New House

As we traveled north about a half hour from SLO, we headed to the Vina Robles winery in Paso Robles, a building with a sweeping, modern design. 

My hosts, Mike and Noreen, were excited to show me the rolling hills in the back of the winery where a new house site was planned. Their house would be the first, in an area with no other buildings. Just 14 houses will be built here.

They would enjoy wide open spaces with a magical view of wine grapes on one side, and farmland on the other.  Mike explained that he and Noreen wanted to get out of crowded, traffic-choked San Diego and this nearly empty part of the coast was to be their new home. 

Ragged Point, on the Cabrillo Highway. In another 40 miles the road is closed in Gorda due to landslides, and there is no way to drive further north.
Ragged Point, on the Cabrillo Highway. In another 40 miles the road is closed in Gorda due to landslides, and there is no way to drive further north.

For our visit we stayed in a moderately priced hotel, the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort.  Each room had views of the Pacific and a little wood stove, adding to the comfort and ambience. We would spend the trip rolling up and down this scenic stretch of Highway 1, or the Cabrillo Highway, which in 2024 goes no farther than the small town of Gorda, about 12 miles north.

The End is Gorda

The view of the Pacific from the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in San Simeon, California.
The view of the Pacific from the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in San Simeon, California.

Just this year the highway department had repaired a major mudslide, and were about to reopen, but recently the damage got worse so the road remains totally closed—the only road heading north to Big Sur and the San Francisco peninsula. 

Locals say that there is no way to travel any farther north and ongoing repairs are going to take many months. 

Ragged Point is about as far as most travelers go, which affords an incredible view of the ocean, looking at cliffs as the ocean crashes into the desolate shoreline here.

Some of California’s most expensive gasoline can be found at this last gas station on this part of Highway 1, prices hover just below $6 a gallon!

Seeing the Elephant Seals

A worthy stop on Highway 1 in San Simeon is the Piedras Blancas Northern Elephant Seal colony, the turn-off and parking area are just across from the entrance to Hearst Castle.

The best advice here is to find the local seal experts in the blue windbreakers.

These local naturalists can rattle off interesting facts about these strange-looking mammals, including that they swim thousands of miles at very deep depths in their annual migration.  This is their rookery where they have their babies before taking off again for the waters of the Arctic ocean. 

Seals Swimming Thousands of Miles

Hearst Castle, 185 magical rooms atop a mountain in San Simeon.
Hearst Castle, 185 magical rooms atop a mountain in San Simeon.

It’s fun watching them laze around and interact, and their numbers have never been higher, owing to their being protected from hunting. Bulls can weigh up to 8800 pounds, yet they can swim and dive down to 2000 feet, according to the seal-loving experts on the cliffs we met.

Elephant Seals laze around at the Piedras Blancas preserve in San Simeon.
Elephant Seals laze around at the Piedras Blancas preserve in San Simeon.

This is a place where some people can spend hours and hours watching these goliaths do just about nothing all day long.

Across from Piedras Blancas is the long driveway that takes you to a large shopping mall…no, wait, that’s the visitor’s center for the famous Hearst Castle, called Casa Grande by the builder, William Randolph Hearst. 

The selection of castle tours here ranges from simple–visit the upstairs suites and see the movie–$30 for adults– to fantastic, all-day private tours that can set you back $2500 per person.

But whatever way you see this remarkable castle built starting in 1929 you take the 15-minute winding bus ride up the former bridal path and see for yourself.  

If you want the chance to swim in the castle’s famous Neptune outdoor pool, you can join the Hearst Foundation, attend a gala and have an expensive dip!

A Mind-Bending Ceiling

The famous Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle. You can swim in this pool if you donate enough to the Hearst Foundation.
The famous Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle. You can swim in this pool if you donate enough to the Hearst Foundation.

Some of the rooms at the Castle bend the mind, like the bedroom suites including the impressive Gothic Suite of Casa Grande that showcases beautiful three dimensional ceilings. Visitors on the Upstairs Suites Tour will enjoy the 14th Century ceiling in Mr. Hearst’s bedroom with its panels of medieval figures. 

This man’s collection was so impressive that most of the treasures were kept in storage…he simply had too much to show it all, even in Casa Grande!

You’ll take more time than you think seeing the castle and you’ll be glad you did. Seeing WRH’s private airfield and the blue Pacific from high up at the top of Casa Grande makes you want to go back in time and snag an invite to one of his legendary parties held in the castle’s elegant ballrooms.

Moonstone Beach in Cambria features a mile-long boardwalk.
Moonstone Beach in Cambria features a mile-long boardwalk.

Along the Cabrillo Highway there are small towns with local shops and cafes with old posters, antiques and fun fashions to explore. One of them is Cambria, population 6000,  which got its start as a mining town in the mid 19th century. 

A dining highlight here is Robin’s Restaurant, which features seating in a lovely green outdoor garden and in a charming greenhouse featuring Indian themed dishes and fresh local seafood. 

On our last evening in California, we set out from our hotel to the popular Moonstone Beach in Cambria.

A fireplace and a supply of wood was a surprise at the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in Cambria. Nice touch.
A fireplace and a supply of wood was a surprise at the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in Cambria. Nice touch.

This one-mile boardwalk winds along the coast and the rocks below, and we spotted pelicans and other seabirds relaxing in their nests.

As the sun set over the Pacific, this walk was the perfect way to enjoy the smell of the ocean and to contemplate another seafood dinner in Central California, until we return again.

Central California Websites

Find our more about Central California’s coast visitsansimeonca.com/

Visit Hearst Castle hearstcastle.org/

Cavalier Oceanfront Resort  www.cavalierresort.com

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