Along the Pacific Coast Highway, there are hundreds of famous spots that visitors add to their road trip itineraries, but in fact it’s the lesser known secrets like Avila Beach that truly make California a special place to visit.
If you have not heard of or visited Avila Beach then you need to keep reading this article! Avila Beach is located on the coast of California, right off Highway 1 about an hour north of Santa Barbara.
In this article I will share the 11 best places to visit and things to do in Avila Beach during your California road trip!
Planning Your Roadtrip
I came across Avila Beach through the app and website Roadtrippers and added the route to my wish list.
Roadtrippers is a fantastic way to plan a road trip whether its an epic journey across the USA or a shorter weekend getaway. They have hundreds of routes to select from, with useful information for each point of interest on the route.
It’s a great way to discover places you may not have realised existed when you started planning your road trip or simply would have driven right by if you had not had the guide! And make sure to use my Roadtrippers Guide for Avila Beach to help with the planning.
1) Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards
Starting the list with one of my favourite stops in Avila, the Kelsey See Canyon Vineyard.
This is such a magical and cosy place to enjoy an afternoon wine tasting. Plus it’s incredibly affordable, with 5 wine tastings costing only $12, and the tasting price is offset if you spend more than $29 on wine.
Talking with some of the friendly staff we discovered that the 2015 Red Delicious Rose and Apple Blend is commonly referred to as the hot-tub wine, since so many empty bottles of it were found beside the hot tubs at Sycamore Mineral Springs Hotel!
In addition to the delightful wines with interesting stories around them, the venue is just picture perfect. You can sit in the garden, enjoy your wine whilst listening to live music, watching peacocks pass by and play a few games of corn-hole.
The perfect place to spend a few hours, you will find it difficult to leave – but you must as there is still so much more to see in Avila!
2) Bob Jones City To Sea Trail
A 2.5 mile trail that runs right up to Avila Beach, the Bob Jones City To Sea trail is extremely popular with runners, hikers, cyclists and a lot of yummy mummies (we saw more women jogging with strollers than we saw regular runners along the trail!).
We planned to rent bicycles at the ‘city’ end of the trail and had previously read bikes were available to rent near the parking lot, however upon parking and walking around the whole parking lot area we could not find the bike rental.
Instead we decided to go back to our Sycamore Mineral Springs hotel and rent bicycles from there, and conveniently they have a bridge that leads over the road and meets the beginning of the trail.
You can try your luck looking for the bike rental, otherwise I suggest getting them through your hotel. Our rental from was $10 per bike per hour or $25 for the day.
The trail itself is easy and flat, and is simply a leisurely way to take in the nature and beauty of Avila Beach. You will pass some vineyards, beautiful rolling hills and many different bird species around the river.
We spotted a large heron fishing and it was tempting to stop and sit at one of the benches and admire the nature! But we pressed on and ended the leisurely cycle at Avila Beach.
3) Avila Valley Barn
Most people wouldn’t think of a barn as one of the most fun and photogenic stops on a road trip, but the Avila Valley Barn is just that!
The Avila Valley Barn is one of the most charming and quaint spots I’ve ever been to, and it’s so quintessentially American that I fell in love with it.
The shop area has so many fresh food options, if you live in Avila I can imagine you would want to do your weekly shop here! But if you are a visitor, I would suggest that you head here to fill a picnic with their ripe strawberries and fruits, fresh baked pastries, cookies, nuts, and a never ending list of other delicious goodies!
You can stop at Avila Valley Barn at any time of day and find fun things to do and eat.
In the morning it’s a great stop for breakfast, at lunchtime there are barbecue options and freshly roasted corn available. And for families you can spend time enjoying all the farm animals (especially the baby goats) that you can visit at the barn.
Overall it’s a must stop in Avila, and I dare you not to go more than once. (We went three times!)
4) Avila Hot Springs
Established in 1907, the Avila Hot Springs offers camping and cabins for visitors wanting to stay or if you just want to visit for the day you can use the freshwater heated pool and lounge in the natural mineral pool.
The source of the mineral pool is a geothermal spring deep beneath the Earth’s surface, the Avila Hot Springs has a well that pumps the water to the surface and it is then cooled to 104 degrees from 135 to make it the perfect temperature to relax in!
There is a spa if a treatment is your preferred way to relax, and also a waterslide for the kids. Entry for the day is $12 for adults and $10 for children.
5) Pirates Cove / Mallaghs Landing
Pirates Cove is a stunning beach in Avila that cannot be missed!
Where To Park
To get here, navigate to the address 1551 Cave Landing Road, San Luis Obispo rather than Pirates Cove into Google Maps. If you do the latter you will end up in the wrong place!
On arrival, you will find a dirt parking lot where you can park for free. From here there are trails to the left and right (looking out towards the ocean). Take the left trail that leads you to Pirates Cove, a clothing optional beach, and to the Sea Cave.
Walking The Trail
The trail is less than 5 minutes down to a fork where you can go left to the beach and right to the sea caves. I recommend going to the sea cave first.
This offers a stunning and unique view of the ocean as you look through the cave. Then from here you can wander back and head down to the beach with swimwear on or off – depending on your preference!
Whilst the beach is beautiful, the views out over the ocean and along the cliff face were what really impressed me. Take some time to stop at the top and admire the true California beauty that you get at this spot.
6) Central Coast Aquarium
The Central Coast Aquarium is a perfect stop on your trip around Avila Beach if you are travelling with your family and young ones.
The aquarium is located around 50 yards from the beach and benefits from having a large children’s play area right next to it. The aquarium has been open since 1994 and has since become an integral part of the Avila Beach community.
Its founder Russel Kiesseg was driven by a passion to teach others about marine life and ocean stewardship and began this with classroom lessons on Harford Pier before the aquarium was opened. Russel’s passion for ocean stewardship has been continued with the current staff focusing on educating students about marine life.
The aquarium is quite small and conveniently located, so a visit here can easily be added to your trip. If you time your visit well then you will be able to join the monthly Sharks After Dark event, the Shoreline Explorers guided visit to the tidepools or even join one of their beach or dive clean ups to help maintain the beauty and integrity of our oceans.
7) Avila Beach Pier
A visit to Avila Beach would of course not be complete without a wander along its pier!
The pier is located right in the centre of the beach and one of the fun things to do there is to laze in one of the hammocks strung underneath it! You may also see some young tightrope walkers set up there rope and practice in this area.
Whilst Avila Beach is by no means a busy beach compared to other California beaches, if you want to experience it before the families and groups descend for the day head there early in the morning. Or if sunset is more your thing, wait until late afternoon and hang out on the pier as the sun goes down.
Once you have had your fill, you can cross the road and take your pick of the restaurants that over look the beach. Popular options include Blue Moon and Ocean Grill, but we opted for the Custom House based on the fact it had my favourite meal choice – wedge salads!
8) Harford Pier
Harford Pier is one of those places that doesn’t scream out ‘come visit me’, but if you do its open to revealing its history to you.
We walked up to the un-assuming pier and before even stepping on the boards we decided to clamber over the rocks to the beach beneath – down on the beach walk to the right, climb over the rock boulders that sit snuggly to the cliff edge and round the corner you will be rewarded with an empty private beach that is only seen from the ocean!
Once you have had you fill of your own private cove, go back up to the pier and slowly walk all the way to the end. As you walk along the pier, you will see sea otters playing in the water, some sea lions bathing in the sun and coastal views that truly reminded me of the Dorset Coast in England, where my family lives.
As you reach the end you will find that the pier is actually a working pier, with fisherman spending the day throwing their hooks out, boats coming back in with their daily haul and merchants selling fresh fish, crab and oysters directly from the fisherman.
As well as enjoying the views you can stop for lunch right here on the pier at one of the two restaurants overlooking the ocean, go on whale watching tour or hire some paddle boards and take in the area by water!
9) Olde Port Beach
As you drive away from Harford Pier you will find Olde Port Beach to the right of the road and you can pull over and park on the shoulder here. Whilst of course the beach is another beautiful spot to visit, its especially fun as it’s pet friendly so you can take your dog along to run around on the beach and in the ocean.
Another romantic and fun feature of this beach is the fire pits. They are available for public use from March to November, so arrive early in the evening to snag a spot and make sure to bring along some marshmallows to roast as the sunsets.
10) Pecho Coast Trail
The Pecho Coast Trail is a 3.75 mile round trip hike that is favoured with many hikers exploring the California Coast.
It’s famed for its spectacular views of Avila Beach and for avid hikers it also offers a good active hike. Since the trail is only open for guided hikes, you will also benefit from the naturalists sharing information about the surrounding area, the geographical formations, native plants and animals.
There are two hiking options, the first is the 3.75 mile hike which takes you to the Port San Luis Lighthouse and the second an 8 mile hike up to Rattlesnake Canyon. Both hikes are suitable for hikers who are able to hike moderately strenuous with uneven terrain, steep cliffs and grades, narrow trails, and crumbling earth so a good pair of hiking shoes are required!
Tour Timetable and Pricing:
- Lighthouse Hike: Wednesdays (20 hikers maximum) and Saturdays (40 hikers maximum)
- Rattlesnake Canyon Hike: First Monday of every month (20 hikers maximum)
- All hikes begin at 8.45am and leave from Fisherman’s Memorial in Port San Luis Harbor
- More information and to reserve your place on the hike on the official website
- Docent led tours of the lighthouse at the end of the trail is $5
11) Port San Luis Lighthouse
The Port San Luis Lighthouse was completed in 1980 following the sinking of steamship Queen Mary Of The Pacific that attempted to navigate into the harbor in the dark of night. The lighthouse was later de-commissioned in 1974, and in 1995 a non-profit was established to restore the lighthouse and open it to the public.
Today the lighthouse is open to the public to visit for historical tours where you will learn about the lighthouse its keepers and their families that once lived there.
To visit the lighthouse you are required to take one of the docent led tours that happen on Wednesdays and Saturdays only and are 1.5 hours. There is no car access, so to get the lighthouse you can either join the aforementioned Pecho Coast Trail or take the trolley from the Wild Cherry Canyon Parking area. You must pre-book tickets for the tour online.
Tour Timetable and Pricing:
- Wednesdays 1pm
- Saturday 12 noon, 1pm and 2pm
- Adults US $20 and children under 12yrs US $15
- Book Tickets
Where To Stay: Sycamore Mineral Springs
Sycamore Mineral Springs is a very popular hotel for visitors to Avila Beach and is my recommended place to stay.
The property focuses on creating a relaxing and rejuvenating retreat for its guests. At the centre of this aim is the mineral water that is used throughout the hotel.
The hotel is not connected to the normal city water supply and instead all the water in the taps, the swimming pool and hot tubs are natural mineral water from the nearby springs.
We stayed in a recently renovated large king room with doors that opened onto a small balcony to the front, and also a large separate private terrace. The highlight of the terrace is the private hot tub, open to the elements and looking out to the forest.
If you really want to up your hot tub game you could hire one of the woodland hot tubs that are built into the hillside behind the hotel or reserving the Oasis Waterfall Lagoon.
I recommend grabbing a bottle of wine at one of the local wineries, such as the previously mentioned Kelsey See, to enjoy whilst you luxuriate in the tub.
The order that I have included the 11 places is not necessarily the order that you would want to visit these spots.
Whilst some are very close to each other, some take a little longer to see or have specific times to visit, such as the hikes, and others may mean you can no longer drive after stopping there, like the winery! The order in which you take the trip really depends on whether you are giving yourself just one night and two days or more nights to explore this area.
Personally I would recommend at least a two night stay in Avila Beach, as this will allow you plenty of time to relax and enjoy the area without missing any of the main activities. Here is an example itinerary for a two night stay.
- Arriving later in the day to Avila Beach, stop first at Kelsey See Canyon for a quick wine tasting and then head to Avila Beach Pier to watch the sunset and enjoy an evening meal on the main street overlooking the ocean.
- Alternatively, you could drop your car at the hotel first, pick up a bike and then bike the Bob Jones City To Sea Trail which you can reach nearby to the winery and will take you all the way to the beach.
- Get up early and head to Pecho Coast Trail and the Point San Luis Lighthouse (as aforementioned make sure to book this in advance).
- Once you have completed your hike, I suggest a quick stop at the nearby Harford Pier and then the Olde Port Beach.
- Hopefully you will have packed a picnic (a quick stop at Avila Valley Barn at some point before will equip you with all the goodies you need) and you can then head to Pirates Cove to spend the afternoon and enjoy lunch.
- Start your morning at Avila Valley Barn (if you have not already been) when it’s quiet and you can enjoy some of their freshly baked breakfast pastries and buns.
- From here head to the nearby Avila Hot Springs for a leisurely dip.
- Then head back over to Avila beach by car or bike along the Bob Jones Trail again to enjoy lunch and a visit to the Central Coast Aquarium.
This itinerary is just an example, and all the locations are within a very short distance of one another so you can easily decide the itinerary as you go. Just make sure to all the time for the hiking trails and to check opening times of all the places you want to visit.
- If you are European and not used to the additional tax and resort fees applied at American hotels and accommodations, make sure you check the booking price thoroughly. The final nightly price usually increases with these added on top.
- If you want to hike along the Pecho Coast trail or visit the lighthouse make sure to book your place on the hike in advance as there is a limit to the number of hikers allowed on the trail and hikes only take place on Wednesday, Saturday and the first Monday of the month.
- Make sure to leave enough time on your road trip for Avila Beach. Everything on the list is within easy reach but you will love every stop and be hard pressed to leave to the next point of interest so you will want plenty of time to explore and relax at them all without having to rush!
- If you have extra time in Avila Beach then you could further explore the surrounding area. Places like the insta-famous Madonna Inn are also close by and there are plenty more wineries to try!
Thank you for reading! I hope that you are inspired to visit Avila Beach on your next trip to California. If you have any of your own road trip tips I would love to hear them and if you have further questions about Avila beach, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below!
Plan Your Trip To Avila Beach
- More information on Avila Beach
- Read about Highway 1
- Plan your road trip on Roadtrippers.com
- Follow my exact Avila Beach route on my Roadtrippers Guide: Avila Beach – Highway 1’s True Hidden Gem
- Book your stay at Sycamore Mineral Springs
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