I am all in when it is time to explore small, cute and unspoiled towns. And, I feel more exhilarated when those towns are along the California Coast.
After many years living in the state, I can say I have seen the ‘main’ spots along the coast. However, those big attractions (or magnets) would not necessarily make you develop a connection with the craggy bluffs, wild sea and many shades of blue.
In my opinion, true love for the land is developed when the tiny, less popular spots on the coast are visited and surveyed.
That is why I get excited every time I get the opportunity to visit Avila Beach, a town located at the edge of the San Luis Obispo Bay (bypassed by the main road). Today, I am even more excited because I am about to share all the best things to do in Avila Beach.
About Avila Beach
The name Avila commemorates Miguel Ávila, who was granted Rancho San Miguelito in 1842 (during Mexican rule). The town was established, when local pioneer John Hartford built a pier in 1873 and, later, connected it with a narrow gauge railroad to link the port to the Central Coast communities.
Even though the commercial fishing pier (Hartford Pier) still exists and the inland areas have extensive apple orchards, tourism is now the main industry (we are not talking about massive tourism). The town has only about 1,600 residents.
Things to Do in Avila Beach
For such a small place, Avila Beach has plenty of attraction to keep visitors happy. A lot of people are attracted by its chilled environment. The town gets way fewer visitors than other coastal towns in California.
I have a soft spot for this town in my town. It feels delightful to share tons of wonderful things to do in town.
Visit One of the Piers
Seems like size doesn’t matter when it comes to piers.
The town has three piers: Avila Beach Pier (quite long at 1,685 feet) intended for tourist strolling and recreational fishing, the abovementioned Harford Pier, which is for commercial fishing boats to offload their wares, and the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly SLO) Pier, part of the university’s marine research program and not publicly accessible.
The interesting thing about the Avila Beach Pier is that there are stairs that take you underneath the structure. It is the first time I see something like this. When we visited the town, the temperature was in the 90s. Now, none of that was felt under the pier. It was the perfect place to hang a hammock while enjoying the cool breeze and the fantastic views.
In addition, there is a long breakwater (which sometimes it is confused with a pier) at the edge of the bay. Some people claim Avila Beach is the city with most piers in California (I guess it depends on how you define things).
Take a Dip at the Main Beach
The Main Beach itself is less than 0.5 miles (0.8 km) long (it is formed by Point San Luis on the west and Fossil Point on the east). To me, the length of the beach doesn’t matter when the views are spectacular (just look at the photos below). I like this particular beach because it is sheltered and close to all the town amenities.
Along Avila Beach Drive, you will find the dog-friendly Old Port Beach and Fisherman’s Beach. Those wanting to sunbathe au naturel, Pirate’s Cove is located at the edge of town.
Stroll the Town
The town, full of colorful and whimsical buildings, is within walking distance from the beach. That means you can maximize your time near the water. You do not need to go far to have a good meal, drink or shopping experience.
Let me also mention, there are a lot of different events taking place throughout the year. When we visited, it was farmer’s market day. The atmosphere was so festive that I felt like I was at fair by the sea.
Most of Avila Beach is undeveloped, except for a few blocks adjacent to the beach with homes, hotels, and small businesses, and a few recently built upscale housing developments inland, near a golf course.
Go Wine Tasting
Avila Beach is located very close to wine country (Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles). Therefore, finding a wide assortment of tasting rooms in town should not be considered a surprise. The local chamber of commerce and touristic institutions have even developed a wine trail.
Meters away from the beach, you will find Peloton Cellars and Morovino Winery. Both tasting rooms are ample, well-lit and tastefully decorated. The wines are good and the person pouring is probably going to be the winemaker or somebody with deep knowledge of operations. At Morovino, enhance your experience by pairing the wines with cheese. They have some really good stuff (from a specialized store in San Luis Obispo).
Other places to try in town include:
- Alapay Cellars
- PierFront Wine
- Avila Wine Company
For a totally different experience, get into the car and head to Kelsey See Canyon Vineyard (10-minute drive from Downtown). This family-run business serves wines in an area surrounded by orchards, creeks, and vineyards. This is a kid and dog-friendly tasting room.
Money saving tip: Take a look at local magazines specializing in wine and/or local attractions. You can find them for free at visitor’s centers and hotel. You may be able to find discounted (2 for1) or complimentary wine tastings.
Check All Things Local at the Avila Valley Barn
The Avila Valley Barn is a world unto itself. Located a bit off the center of town, it has for sale fruit, vegetables, nuts, flowers, baked good, salsa, chips, picnic supplies and all sort of gift items. Things are beautifully arranged in a way reminiscent of a general store. I spend so much time walking around and taking all in. And, most of the products sold are local.
Outside the main structure, you will find farm animals waiting to be feed. You will find goats, cows, sheep, and even an alpaca. They are a mischievous bunch munching lettuce without care. They are plenty of chickens too.
Things do not end there! In typical fair style, you can get roasted corn, ice cream, and fudge. In season, tractor rides and field trips are available.
Plan to be around 40 minutes to an hour.
Go on a Scenic Hike
If you are willing to sweat a little bit, get ready because the rewards are going to be huge.
Avila Beach has a plethora of hikes to choose from. And, let me tell you, some of them are not even challenging at all.
Let’s start by discussing the Bob Jones Trail. This 3-miles (one way), well-paved, mostly flat path connects Downtown Avila Beach the area behind the Avila Valley Barn. You will find the trailhead (and parking lot) on Ontario Road (after passing the KOA Campground). The trail ends close to the main pier. Or, you can park in town an start walking from that direction. As an alternative, the path can be completed by bike.
Those looking for something more heart-pumping may elect to walk the Ontario Ridge Trail, a path crisscrossing an undeveloped promontory which separates Avila Beach from Pismo Beach. From the trail, you are going to be able to get some truly amazing views of coves, sea stack and arches. Find the trailhead at the end of Cave Landing Road.
The Ontario Ridge Trail connects with the Sycamore Crest Trail. In this case, the path would take you to the top of the promontory and then to the Avila Beach Drive. You can cross the street and connect to the Bob Jones Trail.
Also, at the end of Cave Landing Road, you will find the Shell Beach Bluff Trail. This path will afford you great views of Pirate’s Cove (the nude beach) and other smaller coves on Shell Beach (a neighborhood of Pismo Beach).
Note: The Ontario Ridge and Shell Beach Bluff trail can be accessed from the Pismo Beach side (south of Avila Beach).
Tip: If you plan on hiking, get prepared with proper shoes, sun protection, water, and snacks.
Embark on the Pecho Coast Trail
I am not done with he hiking topic. I know, a bit confusing but this particular trail I am about to describe deserves its own entry on the list.
The Pecho Coast Trail is located on the Pacific Gas & Electric Company property. Access to the area is restricted because of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant. However, in conjunction with several state agencies, the coastline on the property can be visited on a guided tour.
One most popular toured hike is about 4 miles (roundtrip) and takes you to the historic Port San Luis Lighthouse. Tours depart every Wednesday and Saturday. Reservations are a must since space is limited.
More experienced hikers may choose to do the 8 miles (roundtrip) Rattlesnake Canyon hike. Tours depart every first Monday of the month. Reserve in here.
The coast along the trail is untouched. The views are in different level of awesomeness!
Photo by Jerry Kirkhart
Discover Port San Luis and Hartford Pier
If you are in town, do not forget to hop into your car (you can bike or walk if you want) and drive to the end of Avila Beach Drive. In there, you are going to find great restaurants and the notorious Hartford Pier.
As I mentioned, this a working pier. As a consequence, you are going to see several people working on their boats, cleaning fish, selling oysters, etc. Cars can drive over the pier, hence be careful when walking around.
There is another restaurant at the end of the pier (good clam chowder!). Certain platforms under the structure are filled with sea lions. Get a little closer to take a good look at them. Notice I said get a little close, not too close. These seemingly innocent creatures bite. So, be careful!
Next to the pier, you will find Avila Beach Paddle Sports. They offer kayak/paddleboard rentals and guided tours. On a tour, you are going to be able to spot wildlife, dock on a private beach and get views of the San Luis Lighthouse. This a good place to paddle since a breakwater maintains the end of the bay calm.
Take a Dip in the Hot Springs
A lot of people visit Avila Beach for one reason: the natural hot springs. To be honest, that is a great reason to visit.
There are two options. On the budget side, the Avila Beach Hot Springs offer a hot pool, freshwater pool, slides, cabins, tent camping, BBQ facilities, and bike rentals. An adult all-day pass costs $12. Prices are cheaper for after 5:00 p.m. visits, seniors and kids. All facilities are included if you are staying on-site.
If you are looking for something more private, consider booking at the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort. They offer hot tubes, massages, facials, and body treatments. Nightly rates range from $160 to $250 (price depends on the season, day of the week, etc.)
Go Apple Picking
Guess what? Avila Beach has several apple orchards in the See Canyon area. In season, SLO Creek Farms, Creekside Farm and Gopher Glen Organic Apple Farm allow the public to pick fruit for a fee. It doesn’t get more natural than this!
The Avila Valley Barn offers u-pick opportunities too.
Check out Amazing Caves and Views
I have saved the best for last!
I have already discussed the different trails that can be accessed at the end of Cave Landing Road. However, I have not emphasized enough the beauty of this place.
Even if you are not interested in hiking, the views alone are worth visit. I have seen a lot of spectacular places in California but this spot took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to end up so charmed.
We are talking about a short piece of coast full of coves, arches, and views of the Avila Beach’s piers. You can walk down and access the famous Smuggler’s Cave. Make sure to time your visit with the low tide. Also, there is a rope that helps you to get to the bottom. Going down may feel easy but analyze if you are going to be able to push yourself up without problems.
I loved this spot and cannot recommend it enough!
Avila Beach Restaurants
Gastronomy is not Avila Beach’s forte. I have never been a fan and research will show low rated establishments. My advice would be to drive a couple of miles and find a place in Pismo Beach or Morro Bay.
However, if you need to eat in town, check out the following:
Ocean Grill – Good place to get flatbreads, sandwiches, fish tacos, burgers and salads. For dinner, they serve a more sophisticated menu including risotto, salmon and sea bass entrees.
Custom House – Serves breakfast, sandwiches, salads, burgers and a selection of fried seafood (served with fries). For dinner, dishes are prepared with high-quality beef and seafood.
Blue Moon Over Avila – This restaurant with amazing views serves dishes such as steak tartare, filet mignon, escargot, and ratatouille. They have a wide selection of wine, beer, and cider.
For healthy options go to Kravabowl and for coffee stop by Kraken Coffee Company.
On the Port San Luis area, get your seafood fix at Olde Port Inn, Mersea’s Seafood and Fat Cats Cafe. These are good places to try clam chowder. If you are visiting the Central Coast, you need to have clam chowder one or two times.
If you want to see more of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, take into consideration the following places located nearby:
Pismo Beach – This city, located south of Avila Beach, offers the opportunity to ride ATVs along sand dunes, see monarch butterflies, kiteboard, surf and kayak among caves. For more info, check out my complete guide on things to do in Pismo Beach.
Morro Bay (23 miles) – If you are looking for a unique place with plenty of photo opportunities, Morro Bay is the place for you. The famous Morro Rock, a giant volcanic plug, will take your breath away. But, there is much more to do! I have an article with the best Things to Do in Morro Bay
Cayucos (28 miles) – A few miles north of Morro Bay, you will find the sleepy town of Cayucos. Foodies will adore the smoked fish tacos and the brown sugar cookies. Read all about: Things to Do in Cayucos
Santa Ynez Valley – An hour south (60 miles), in Santa Barbara County, you will find the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, another grape growing hub. This area has many charming towns such as Solvang (Danish capital of USA), Los Olivos, Buellton, and Lompoc. I visit this area often and have written numerous guides. Check them out!
How to Reach Avila Beach
Avila Beach is located 184 miles from Los Angeles (3 hours) and 245 miles from San Francisco (4 hours) in San Luis Obispo County. It is located 10 miles from the city of San Luis Obispo (head of the county) and 90 miles from Santa Barbara.
Avila Beach is bypassed by the 101 Freeway. Closest exit is the Avila Beach Drive. If you are coming from Pismo Beach, I recommend taking the Shell Beach Road instead of the freeway.
The closest airport is located in San Luis Obispo. There are ways to reach the town using public transportation but renting a car is recommendable. If you are considering flying, the Santa Barbara airport may be a better option. Anyway, both of these airports are small. Most visitors arrive by car.
Parking is free on the streets.
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