Three Days Down California’s Central Coast
Harrowing wildfires and mudslides have cost the region billions, but the resilient and eco-minded communities along Highway 1 are open for business and as dazzling as ever.
Photographs by Alec Lesser
Since 2016, the region surrounding the Pacific Coast Highway, one of America’s most iconic road-trip routes, has been hit by both natural disasters and the perception that the entire state is out of commission. But if anything, the residents and businesses along this stretch — which has been home to a vibrant sustainability movement for decades — are more committed than ever to protecting their natural resources. Take to the road anywhere between Los Angeles and Big Sur, and you’ll find revitalized downtowns, a plethora of farmers’ markets, overlooked neighborhoods with under-the-radar food scenes, and unadulterated nature at virtually every turn.
Day 1: Los Angeles to Ventura
Once you leave L.A. and pass Malibu’s thrilling coastal views, it’s easy to miss the cultural gem that is Oxnard. Square buildings line both sides of the highway, offering no clue that uncrowded beaches lie just a few miles west. After some quiet time on the sand, stop by the town center. “Heritage Square is a lovely place to walk around. The courtyard is surrounded by Victorian and Craftsman architecture and gardens,” says Airbnb host Kati Dawson. Oxnard’s population is more than 70 percent Latino, so you’ll see plenty of cafés like Xielo, known for its Oaxacan cinnamon-spiced café Jesuita; Selena-blaring tortillerías; and a market called La Gloria, complete with a taco stand, a nevería for shaved ice, and a bakery with pan de muerto.
Nearly every town you’ll visit along the route is walkable. In the still-blue-collar surf town of Ventura, park at a free lot downtown, stroll to the dozens of family-run shops around Main Street, and rent a bike to go everywhere else. Even buzzy Ojai — another fire-affected but now thriving-again community — is accessible via the nine-mile Ojai Valley Trail.
“In Malibu — an amazing stop on Route 1 — more than 96,000 acres were scorched. It was shocking to see that happening around us. But it was encouraging that so many people mobilized quickly to help.”
— Kati Dawson, Airbnb host
“Ventura is a funky beach town,” says Airbnb host Lesley Daley. “It hasn’t been influenced by L.A. and wants to keep its ’70s vibe alive.” The area’s many longboarders often end the day at Ventura Coast Brewing Company, whose staff diligently fundraised after the 2017 Thomas Fire. “Everyone helped everyone — I could write pages about the kindness that came from the experience,” says Daley of the fire’s aftermath. “All of this love continues even a year later.”
The blaze had burned to the edges of downtown, devastating the Botanical Gardens, which reopened in November with expanded trails and a modern welcome center. Findings Market, down the street from the brewery, carries a stock of rugged-chic goods made on Ventura Avenue, where creatives have turned warehouses into workshops and galleries. Back downtown, stop for a Channel Islands Mai Tai at VenTiki Lounge & Lanai before spending the night in the sleepy Pierpont neighborhood, close to the water. Don’t leave town without a box of single-origin bonbons from Ex Voto Chocolates and Confections; the mother-daughter owners lost everything but their shop in the Thomas Fire.
Day 2: Carpinteria to Cayucos
Pick up a matcha latte at Lucky Llama Coffee House, and quickly check out SoCal locals’ favorite folksy town of Carpinteria. Then it’s worth looping through Montecito to see what one year and a persevering community can do. Jeannine’s bakery and restaurant, a post-mudslide hub for volunteers and a purveyor of superb scones, is on the main artery of Coast Village Road. Photos of this road engulfed in mud shocked the nation in 2018. It has been fully revived, while the Upper Village retail hub — which escaped the destruction away from the main drag — is still trying to stabilize sales.
Take the less direct route along Highway 101 through ’60s-surfer hideout Gaviota and dusty Los Alamos, a tiny town that looks like the set of an old Western. Many of its repurposed 19th-century general stores and saloons are now part of an exciting culinary scene. Grab lunch at Bell’s, a newish French bistro run by alums of Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Plan on a slow meal — the wine list favors the Santa Ynez Valley, providing an excellent introduction to the area’s lauded producers.
For the next 101 miles, nearly a dozen seaside hamlets dot the skinny strip between Highway 1 and the Pacific with hidden coves, wild-oat-lined trails, and salt-weathered cafés. These towns are underrated even in the high season, but tourism evaporated after the 2017 Big Sur mudslides, which shut down their Highway 1 lifeline for 14 months. Still, the towns and their small businesses offer a refreshing crop of reasons to visit this stretch of the coast — from festivals to boat-to-table eateries to a goat farm.
After a brief jaunt through the secret hikers’ paradise of Montaña de Oro State Park, where short trails overdeliver on views, downtown Morro Bay’s glut of thrift shops and oyster joints will keep you busy for hours. Walk the docks to find the best shot of the 576-foot extinct volcano peak the town is named after. Have dinner at the grill at nearby Cass House Cayucos. Both the kitchen and the dining room here are open-air, and the menu celebrates San Luis Obispo County’s abundance of wonderful farmers’ markets with fuss-free yet elegant dishes like oak-grilled prawns over arugula.
Day 3: Cambria to Big Sur
Swing through the cute little beach town of Cambria. From Main Street, it’s only a ten-mile drive to playing with baby goats and sampling artisanal cheeses at Stepladder Ranch & Creamery, a preview of Highway 1’s agricultural side. Back on the main road, you’ll hit a cluster of small towns, from San Simeon to Gorda, where civilization gives way to a roller coaster of cliff-hugging blacktop.
In 2018, after being stranded for over a year, the Big Sur area was overwhelmed by tourists when the highway reopened. In response, a new “Big Sur Pledge” urges visitors to be conscious of the environment. Before losing service, enter these landmarks in your map app: the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a Benedictine monastery with an open-door policy up in the clouds at 1,300 feet, where monks bake Holy Granola to keep the compound running; the beatnik-loving Henry Miller Memorial Library, where folk bands play under skyscraping redwoods; and Pfeiffer Beach, which has no obvious signs pointing to the forested road that dead-ends at a purple-sand beach. Most of the way is a white-knuckle drive, but it’s stunning. If you see a car pulled over in an unlikely spot, chances are the owners scampered down some scruffy opening along the cliffs. Follow suit, or just take out a real map and give yourself permission to wander. You’ll quickly understand why locals all along the coast are willing to live at the mercy of the land.
About the author: Stephanie Granada is a Colombian-American freelance writer, who splits her time between Florida and Colorado. She’s into books, her dog, all things ocean-related, and small towns. You can also find her work in Sunset, Woman’s Day, National Geographic Traveler, Southern Living, and others.