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My route north from LA to San Louis Obispo.

Sometimes you just want to get in the car and drive with no destination in mind. I had a little business in San Louis Obispo, about 3 hours north of Los Angeles, so I decided to stop whenever the mood struck on my journey north. What I found is there are so many spectacular must-see places, even to experience some of the spots again, years later. The entire drive had me in awe of the majesty of California. I was constantly pulling over to take photos of the ever-changing light on the ocean, canyons, vineyards, and valleys.

California Spots North of LA That You Must See:

Carpinteria – My first stop – 12 miles south of Santa Barbara – What a charming town filled with so many boutiques, antique stores, candy stores, and cute restaurants. I found the shops to be much cheaper than LA prices. This would be a perfect getaway for a family so close to the beach with breathtaking mountain views. Carpinteria State Beach offers a mile of beach for swimming, surf fishing, tide pool exploring and camping.

Firestone Vineyards – This is probably my fourth time here and it never gets old. I watched the sun set in Los Olivos as I drank a glass of vino with miles of vineyards in the distance. Become a member and you can have snacks in the private room in the back while you wine taste. As I spiraled through the Santa Ynez valley, I was on my way north with not much light left. Not having time to stop in Santa Barbara, it was still a beautiful drive through the small city with the ocean to my left.

San Luis Obispo for dinner – Enter this bustling city and have some exceptional seafood at Ciopinot Seafood Grille. My fettucine alfredo with jumbo shrimp, scallops, and mussels was superb. Don’t forget to have a sampler of oysters before your meal. My friend had the “No Work” Cioppino which I would just like to nickname the Ocean Floor – YUM!


The Madonna Inn with its kitschy cool feel.

Madonna Inn, a landmark resort hotel. It has been years since I have wanted to check this place out after several east coasters telling me I must stop in for a drink to see this kitschy cooly decorated spot. OMG! They were not kidding. Pink everywhere. Pink cakes, pink sugar, pink leather seating, pink floral rugs. A feast of fun decor and neat architectural design, this makes a fun spot for brunch. I have seen numerous pictures that old students have showed me of all the neat rooms since each is uniquely decorated in some wild themes.

One of the funky rooms inside The Madonna Inn.

Avila Beach – WOW WOW WOW! This place in the San Louis Obispo Bay knocked my socks off. I have never seen such clear water on the CA coast. The views are just phenomenal. This is an outdoor junky heaven for surfing, swimming, scuba diving, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, and more. As I walked down the long narrow docks, they were selling giant crabs for $10 for dinner and on my right were enormous sea lions, bigger than ones I have ever seen just lounging under the docks. Leaving the docks I saw a deserted private beach that looked like the perfect spot to bring up a kayak and have lunch. I can’t imagine having this slice of paradise in your own back yard.

Montaña de Oro State Park – Via winding beach roads and eucalyptus trees and unbelievable carved rock cliffs due to weathering and erosion, you find yourself at this beautiful sandy beach with some giant rocks. I climbed the big one in the middle for exceptional views from the top. I couldn’t stop picking up and collecting the smooth stones on the beach with their multitude of pale shades and natural designs. This is a top 10 spot with view of Morro Bay and the giant rock in the distance. perfect for mountain biking, dolphin and whale watching, or bringing your dog for a walk.

Carhartt Vineyard – Heading home I stopped in the Santa Ynez valley to stretch my legs, but another reason is I had heard about this family vineyard called Carhartt. The small town charm captured me instantly and I was lucky to stumble upon this tiny tasting room owned by Mike and Brooke Carhartt in Los Olivos. The couple has created a reputation in wine circles for their meticulously crafted artisanal wines made from grapes grown in a mesa above their home. Right away I was tasting wine and talking to everyone in the room enjoying my new favorite 2009 red blend Fourplay made from four red wines.

Avila Beach


Chase Carhartt (on the right) when he was little and now, helping his parents stomp the grapes at Carhartt Vineyards.

Click here to see my driving route. Other incredible stops north of LA and in and around San Louis Obispo could include Montecito, Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Solvang, the Hearst Castle, and Morro Bay.

Hop and your car and explore California. You will never be disappointed.

Avila Beach/San Louis Obispo Bay
Montaña de Oro State Park

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