My favorite road trip escape is the rolling wine country of Paso Robles, California.
I call it “my happy place.”
This sleepy, more-Western-than-thou landscape is set halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and makes a great getaway on its own or as part of a journey around the state’s Central Coast.
If you’re in the middle of saying to yourself, “Where/what the heck is Paso Robles?,” have no worries — you’re not alone. This San Luis Obispo County ranch-and-winery town is a pretty well-kept secret, even in California. It’s not for lack of beauty or things to do, it’s just a little out of the way.
Which is exactly why I like it.
There’s a small private airport here, but unless you have your own plane, you’ll have to get here by car (via the 101 freeway and/or Highway 1) or train (via Amtrak’s Coast Starlight). Personally, I’d opt for the car route, for three reasons:
- Traveling from either the north or the south, the scenery is simply stunning
- The tree-, farm- and winery-lined backroads are a dream to drive
- Parking is plentiful and free everywhere you go
COMING FROM THE NORTH
If you’re coming from the San Francisco area, the most direct route to Paso Robles is the 101 South to the 16th Street exit. The trip takes three hours and 30 minutes.
For the most scenic route from the Bay Area, though, turn off the 101 South onto Highway 156 West, then cruise onto the legendary coastal drive of Highway 1 South. Starting just south of Monterey near Carmel, this route will add at least an hour to your journey, but…
Best reasons to take Highway 1, Northern California edition:
You can make a stop in San Simeon. I wouldn’t recommend visiting the famous Hearst Castle on a travel day (it requires a lot of energy), but do take a brief stop at the elephant seal rookery in Piedras Blancas. You won’t fully appreciate your own humanity until you’ve seen an enormous, hideous male elephant seal…who’s lookin’ for love.
You can take a wander along the Pacific in Cambria. This Hobbit-esque beach community is just a half-hour shy of Paso, but taking a stroll along the seaside boardwalk on inn-lined Moonstone Drive might just help find a second wind after your long drive. Bonus points if you find an actual moonstone down on the pebbly shore.
COMING FROM THE SOUTH
The most direct route to Paso Robles from Los Angeles is the 101 North to the Spring Street exit, which also takes three hours and 30 minutes.
However, my favorite route to Paso from Los Angeles is a four-hour drive: hop on the 101 North, pick up Highway 1 at Morro Bay, then turn off on Highway 46. At the end of 46, pick up the 101 North again for a few exits.
Best places to stop along the first leg of the 101 North: Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo. The latter is adjacent to the delightfully wackadoodle Madonna Inn, which looks not unlike it was decorated by Walt Disney, Liberace and a woodworker with OCD.
Best reasons to take Highway 1, Southern California edition:
You can stop for lunch in Morro Bay. Right on the harborside Embarcadero, the big picture windows at The Galley allow kick-ass views of Morro Rock and the nearby dunes. The decor at this bright, airy little seafood place looks like it hasn’t changed much since the ’80s, but the kitchen turns out some damn fine fish tacos.
You can cruise through the seaside village of Cayucos. The downtown drag, Ocean Avenue, is lined with mid-1800s storefronts and is only a half-block from the sand. If you want to stretch your legs, I’d recommend a stop at the Brown Butter Cookie Company (a second shop opened in 2013 in downtown Paso) and a short stroll to the beach. Back out on the 1, as you speed past the bay, take a listen to a fun, fittingly-named road trip song: “Cayucos.”
IF YOU’RE TAKING HIGHWAY 46, FROM EITHER DIRECTION
Best reason to take Highway 46 (two-way tie): 46 is my favorite road in California for its views over the hills and ocean. Halfway along it, I’d recommend a stop at Jack Creek Farms to have swirled combos of apple cider slushees and pomegranate juice granitas.
And in advance, you’re welcome.
At the very end of Highway 46, pick up the 101 North, and take the Spring Street exit into downtown Paso Robles. Hopefully, you’ve allowed yourselves a long weekend…because there’s an awful lot of exploring, wine tasting and relaxing to do.
Exploring Downtown Paso Robles