An Escape to California’s Central Coast
Old Edna, Oceano Dunes and Nipomo offer winter salvation
By Max Hartshorne
Ask anyone who lives in America’s Northeast and they will regale you with sad stories about the winter of 2015. There was so much snow, so many sub-freezing temperatures, that all you have to do is say ‘polar vortex’ and you’ll elicit groans and beefs about how badly most people there need a warm vacation.
We needed one too, and our February week exploring California’s central coast was the perfect February warm-up. Flying into San Francisco, we began our journey heading south down the 101, passing the titans of tech in Cupertino, Sunnyvale and Mountain View, on to the flatlands where so much of the nation’s vegetables and fruits are grown.
We stopped for lunch at a little town and in the restaurant, ordering in English seemed like a silly idea. No, here the people speak Spanish, as they do all up and down this well-cultivated perfectly flat farmland. Our first destination was just the famously pretty San Luis Obispo, to the Old Edna Townsite.
Old Edna Townsite
We were there to meet who many call the Mayor of Edna, Pattea Torrence, who with her husband Jeff Kocan runs a B&B where you can step back in time in the four-poster beds, meet the animals like the tame turkey named Leonard, and pet the goats sunning themselves in their pen. The Edna Valley is right in the middle of SLO Wine country, where 23 varieties of wine are grown.
Pattea exudes welcome with her broad smile and quick laugh, and she used to run consignment shops in San Luis Obispo. Today her vintage farmhouse cottage and its many outbuildings on ten acres are visited by Europeans and Americans all year ‘round, Pattea said that guests enjoy being able to learn about the farm and pitch in with some of the chores.
The townsite is right in the middle of SLO wine country, so wine tastings are plentiful and only steps away. “You can connect with where you are,” is how Pattea puts it.
We toured some of the beautiful countryside with Pattea as we drove over to one of the many vineyards here, Baileyana. It was a sunny day on a holiday weekend, a relaxing Sunday and customers were enjoying the wine at outside tables as well as on blankets on the grass overlooking the vines.
In the distance we could see the Seven Sisters volcanic mountains, odd mounds that seemed out of place in these rolling green hills, which some describe as Tuscan style. I’d agree.
One of the fun new angles to tourism that’s becoming more and more popular is stewardship travel, where there are opportunities to take part in activities that give a broader understanding of the area’s nature and a chance to do a few good deeds. These include restoring park trails for a few hours, picking up trash in a nature area, or learning about the history in this part of California at a place like the Historic Oceano Train Depot.
A ten minute drive down Price Canyon R
oad led us to Oceano, home of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation area. Here we were introduced to the state’s largest dunes, 15,000 acres along the ocean that provide both recreation and bird habitat for thousands of visitors and locals.
The size and sweep of these brown sand dunes is amazing, and we drove to meet a man who could show us the dunes in a unique way. In ten minutes we were climbing sand walls and driving nearly sideways in a 1986 Humvee, owned by Pacific Adventures.
This activity may not appeal to everyone–my partner Mary wasn’t nearly as eager as the couple in the back seat to experience ‘air’ with big jumps. But being out in this massive dune riding in a cool vehicle like this is a lot of fun for many.
Pismo Beach Camping
Only 1500 acres out of the 15,000 acre dunes allow this parade of macho vehicles—from small ATVs to gigantic 4×4 pick-ups towing monstrous trailers, to all manner of dune buggies fashioned of car bodies like Corvettes or old Jeeps. You can camp here for only $10 a night, making the investment in the equipment worth
it for those who love to go crazy on the bumps and jumps of the big dunes.
My appetite for bouncing around the dunes was sated but I wanted to know more about these dunes, who lived here and what the history was. At the Oceano Depot, a former train depot, I got my answers.
Inside the restored depot, a friendly docent named Mark Weedon took me on a tour of the 1904 depot, that was moved to its current location 400 yards from where it once stood back in 1978. On the walls were old black and white photos of what many Americans believe were the Greatest Generation, men who served as sailors and soldiers in World War II.
There was once a community of misfits and anti-establishment types known as the Dunites, who lived out in the Oceano dunes. But before these bohemians created what they called a Utopian community in the 1930s, big plans were hatched for what a local entrepreneur thought would be a gigantic real estate development, tract houses with lots selling for $50 each right out in the dunes.
Seven thousand houses were planned, roads were built, and many put money down, only to see the entire city washed away in one of many tremendous storms in 1911 and after that left nothing behind. Today there are only the old posters trying to get people to buy the house lots, and out in the dunes, it’s still, well, just dunes.
While the Oceano Depot has been moved away from the passenger railroad tracks it once served, the Central Coast of California is lucky to have its own Amtrak rail service known as the Surfliner, that makes stops in many of these communities, including San Luis Obispo, Goleto and Surf on the journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Home of the Monarchs
In the middle of a large housing development in Nipomo, we met Judy Richards, one of many volunteers who help keep a piece of the land inside it safe for visiting monarch butterflies, who stop there each year on their way to their winter home in Mexico.
In the Trilogy at Monarch Dunes development, you can find this peaceful 14-acre oasis where in the winters, thousands of these beautiful butterflies make their home between Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Every Saturday at 11, tours are offered during the season to see these creatures in certain trees in the preserve.
We had no more time to think about the butterflies, the Dunites and the investors who lost their shirts betting against nature, and we headed to an Oceano landmark for sustenance. That would be the Rock and Roll Diner, where a big omelette topped with fresh avocado was the perfect meal.
Another very popular eatery around Oceano is Jocko’s Steak House in Nipomo, where every night there is about a long wait for those without a reservation.
Jockos is old school all the way, one of those restaurants your parents used to take you to where there are gigantic portions and everyone gets pretty filled up. Their secret is out back, where there oak logs are burning and steaks are sizzling on the grill. Where else could I have ordered beef sweetbreads? At the meal’s end, they rewarded us with a container of their special steak seasoning too!
The road that connects all of these central California communities is Historic Route 1, and there are a lot of great things to discover at Highway1DiscoveryRoute.com
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Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and does exactly what he wants to do every day.