Beach camps, mountain trails, and Monarch butterflies help make this the happiest of little cities.
Nestled between the ocean and Santa Lucia Mountains, this Central Coast city ranks among America's happiest places. The landscape is part of life in San Luis Obispo, from the rugged mountains to whales breaching in the bay. The small city has more than its share of culture, with wineries, museums, and an 18th-century Spanish Mission in the historic downtown. Three public beaches are within 15 miles: Avila, Pismo, and Morro Bay. The closest, Avila, is small, secluded, and recently constructed. This beach is popular with families and sunbathers. Nearby are the Avila hot springs, where you can find private campgrounds with pleasantly warm mineral pools. Pismo is a classic California beach town. Surfers favor this long stretch of white sand for its smooth, ride-able waves. A historic pier reaches over the water for fishing and sunset strolls. Pismo State Beach is a wintering spot for Monarch butterflies, who land by the thousands on the Eucalyptus trees. To stay close to the action on Pismo Beach, pitch tent at North Beach Campground. The spacious sites are close to the sand and activities near the pier. For wildlife, head a few miles south to the campgrounds on Oceano Lagoon. This freshwater spot is a great place to spot birds and turtles. Close by is Oceano Beach—a dune buggy paradise. This is the only beach in the state where you can drive all-terrain and off-road vehicles on the sand dunes. Trailers can even camp right on the beach if they stay south of Post 2. A short drive up Highway 1, the sheltered waters of Morro Bay are a hang-out for sea otters, birds, and whales. The Morro Bay State Park has tent and trailer sites close to the marina. The park also has a public golf course known for its challenging putting. Nearby Morro Strand Beach is a sandy, 3-mile stretch popular for surfing and long walks. The campground is right on the beach—a rarity in California. The trade-off is you have to drive to Morro Bay State Park for showers. Back in the mountains, you could spend days hiking the trails of the 2-million acre Los Padres National Forest. Cerro Alto Campground has amenities enough for bare-bones camping, including drinking water and toilets. In the mountain foothills, Lopez Lake is a peaceful spot for boating and fishing. Run by San Luis Obispo County, the campgrounds have full hook-ups for RVs, plus tent camping and cabins.