Northern Santa Barbara County, and the California coast beyond, offer tourist attractions worth spending a few days enjoying. There are a number of natural wonders and great tourist stops to be seen driving north from Santa Barbara. This trip is suitable for both couples and families.
Take the San Marcos Pass road as you leave the city of Santa Barbara. This is a breathtaking mountain drive that heads up the side of La Cumbra Peak on Highway 154. Along the way to the highest part of the highway, there are many scenic turnouts for a panoramic view of Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands National Park and the many miles of coastline.
Once over the pass, you’ll drive by Cachuma Lake. This is a state recreation resource for camping and fishing.
Santa Ynez, for which this valley and region are named, is an old California mission town. Here you will find a number of fine art galleries and the county’s fine wineries. Notable celebrity homes here include President Reagan’s ranch and the Neverland retreat of entertainer Michael Jackson.
The quaint community of Solvang is just a few miles west of Santa Ynez on Hwy. 246, just west of Hwy. 101. It is a remarkable replication of an old Danish village, complete with a giant windmill. The town boasts some of the best Danish bakeries and buffet smorgasbords in the country. Spend a few hours here for lunch, and to visit the Scandinavian craft and souvenir shops. You’ll forget, for just a while, that you’re in the heart of Southern California horse and wine country.
The beautiful state beach parks just a few miles north of the city are yet another group of attractions. Leaving town, travel north along the coast on Highway 101. The road today retraces the historic El Camino Real, or King’s Highway. Check out El Capitan, Refugio or Gaviota state beach parks. They offer fishing, camping, and picnic sites on remarkable beaches.
Santa Maria is the next town up the highway. Santa Maria Tri-Tip barbecue is a local tradition. It’s not like anything you’ll find in Texas or other barbecue meccas. This is rubbed and marinated barbecued sirloin roast. It’s sliced thin, and is usually served rare. Typically it is eaten with corn tortillas or on a sandwich bun, and along with Santa Maria’s slow-baked Poquito beans. It’s well worth the stop to try.
Less than half an hour north of Santa Maria is the picturesque seaside town of Pismo Beach. Most of the motels and restaurants are on the ocean side of the highway, set on the cliffs overlooking a view of miles of coastline. Pismo Beach claims to be the world’s clam capital, owing to the unusually large, tasty and abundant Pismo clam. Several versions of clam recipes are available in a number of the local restaurants.
The nearby Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. It is a 1,500 acre sand dune state park for ATV and 4-wheel vehicles. There are camping and RV facilities available. This is one of the few places in California where driving on the beach is permitted. Bringing folding beach chairs is a good idea.
Continuing north from Pismo Beach, you can drive up the tiny coast road to the town of Morro Bay. It’s a town with a distinctive New England coastal flavor. This is where the Pacific Coast Highway becomes part of the National Scenic Byways Program. Enjoy the road stretch from Morro Bay on the south, along the Big Sur coastline, up to Monterey at the north. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most beautiful and breathtaking roads anywhere in the world.
Exploring the central California coast is a great and affordable journey. There’s no need to forgo travel plans because of today’s high cost of living.