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Running as a Vacation: The Coastal Trails of Central California

When you boil it down, runners are travelers.

Photos by Jamie Mieras

We move through space faster than walkers and hikers and, at times, we venture to different parts of the world to run on new roads and trails. Running away from home, or, rather, running while traveling, is somewhat of an acquired skill and this guide provides some shortcuts and does so contextually, in the central coast of California.

Highway 1 Discovery Route is to roads what many of the trails in communities along the scenic coastal drive are to running trails: they are both iconic. As such, the region provides an excellent example of how to shape your next active vacation, one that balances a generous amount of running with relaxing activities that let you experience the destination while also replenishing your vacation-needing, hungry and thirsty self.
California Central Coast Bay
One of the best things about California Highway 1 Discovery Route is that it offers so many destinations, including Avila Beach, Los Osos/Baywood, Morro Bay, Cayucos, Cambria, and Ragged Point/San Simeon. It is a veritable smorgasbord of outdoor activities with plenty of trail running delicacies.

Locating the Best Runs

Traveling runners know that asking a hotel concierge where to run frequently results in sidewalk-heavy runs that are too short and too trafficked. While a run can’t really be too safe, that is essentially what you’ll get from such a source. The better routes, however, are located through social media, local run clubs, specialty running retailers or by asking real runners where to go.

Strava, Suunto’s Movescount and other GPS-based technologies are another source, through a feature called “heat-mapping” that allows you to see the most frequently used roads and trails in a particular area. Strava also offers “Segment Explorer” to highlight the area’s challenges where runners virtually race one another on local roads and trails, noting the fastest times for those routes.

Inquiring at a running shoe store is one of the best ways to get hooked up with an ideal running route, as is finding the area’s running clubs and joining them for a run. You can also check in with the region’s hiking and biking groups, especially if they have websites with maps.
Harmony Headlands State Park

In the San Luis Obispo area, there plenty of available resources. RaceSLO recently put on the first SLO Ultra, a 50-miler with other shorter races offered, too. The race director, Samantha Pruitt, is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to advice and recommendations. She sings the praise of Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers (CCCMB), an outstanding organization whose website is a wealth of information, with maps and more and, more importantly, they go to tremendous lengths to build and maintain sustainable, scenic and friendly trails in the region.

Dave Peter, who owns the Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, is the unofficial “Mayor of Running” when it comes to his hometown of Morro Bay. Ask David and he’ll dial you in for the perfect run in Morro Bay State Park, up and down Black Hill, the Morro Rock area, any of the other Nine (or Seven, really) Sisters, the volcanic chain of mounts that runs east-west through San Luis Obispo County, or, just south of Morro Bay, in Los Osos, Montana de Oro State Park boasts some tremendous well-maintained trails with spectacular Pacific views.


In addition to those mentioned above, such as Black Hill, a rather chill 3-mile trail to the summit from the Morro Bay campground in Morro Bay State Park that provides a great vantage point for plotting other runs in the area, there are some wonderful options for trail running in the Central Coast region.

If you enjoy running on the beach, you can check out the half marathon “Rock to Pier” course that runs from Morro Bay’s famed Morro Rock to the recently-restored Cayucos Pier along the miles of beautiful beach at low tide. Be sure to check the tide chart for ideal timing.

Between Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo, the trail running in Irish Hills and Johnson Ranch, with a short connector trail, is a delight that CCCMB has made all the better, especially with runnable switchbacks and the fact that the organization provides bells for mountain bikers to carry as warning to pedestrian users. The views from these trails are fantastic.

Similarly, the trails in Morro Bay State Park are well maintained and offer tremendous ocean vistas and vantage points of and from the Nine Sisters. As a cool down or warm-up, you can run the boardwalk of the Marina Peninsula Trail which starts at the south end of the Back Bay Marina for a little less than a mile overlooking the estuary with great wildlife viewing.
Descending Black Hill towards Morro Bay

For a paved bike path that makes for some cruiser miles, the Bob Jones Trail runs along Avila Creek and out to the Harford Pier from Avila Beach to near San Luis Obispo so you can get up to 8 miles of car-free running.

As you head north on Highway 1 Discovery Route, check out Leffingwell Landing and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve Nature Walk, with about six miles of trails, accessible from Moonstone Beach, just outside of Cambria. A highlight run, especially as a shakeout because it is relatively flat and short, is in Harmony Headlands State Park is just shy of three miles south of the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Harmony. The trail heads west from the trailhead and then along the ocean with its ribbon-like undulations that just pull you along and make you feel as though you are in the Scottish Highlands.

If you like boardwalks, Moonstone Beach offers a great out-and-back that affords Pacific views, ones that, upon sunset, are so compelling they normally halt traffic. The wood planks make for a resilient running surface that will lull you into picking up your pace, as do the waves breaking below.
Moonstone Bay boardwalk

Taking the Moonstone Beach walkway to the north, it conjoins with Highway 1 and you can run on the wide shoulder for about half a mile to meet up with San Simeon State Park. The trails in the park are mostly singletrack and hilly and you can get a solid workout while enjoying a feast for your eyes as you wind your way through forest, pasture, wetlands and foothills with mountain views.

Food and Drink

In addition to its well-earned reputation for fine wine, produce and seafood, California’s Central Coast has engraved its name on many a distinguished list of foodie destinations. Some excellent spots along Highway 1 Discovery Route include the aforementioned Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, a staple since 1966, where you can enjoy fresh seafood while overlooking the beautiful harbor views.

Another seafood location for casual fare and outstanding outdoor seating is Mersea’s on the Harford Pier at Port San Luis, just north of Avila Beach. It is the newest restaurant in Avila.

Ocean Grill in Avila Beach has great fare for hungry runners. Located in downtown Avila, the Ocean Grill has soothing views of the Pacific and local farm ingredients, including appetizers, pizza and salads, offering many gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian options.

For a real local feel, the Bayside Café is right on the Back Bay Marina, a fun and friendly walk-up café with both casual indoor dining and comfortable outdoor patio facing the bay with relaxing views of the marina.

Libertine Pub, which was the starting point of what is now San Luis Obispo’s Libertine Brewing Company, offers hand-crafted brews focus on barrel-aged, sour, “wild ales” and up to 48 craft beers on tap at all times. The menu has some delicious and generous appetizers so be sure to come in thirsty and hungry. Patrons enjoy a vivacious atmosphere and the pub overlooks the bay, with regular live music.
Libertine Pub, Avila Beach

For more of an upscale and buttoned-up feel, Dorn’s Original Breakers Café on Market Street above the Embarcadero overlooks the harbor and rock and is a romantic sunset dinner venue. It has been a going concern since 1942, with fresh, local seafood, steaks, chicken, pastas and salads.

If you go to Cambria, stop in at Linn’s Restaurant, which offers hearty fare, carryover from its origin as Linn’s fruit stand. The pot pies are delicious and the famous Olallieberry pie for dessert is worthy of the acclaim.


If snacking and dessert are high on your list, Avila La Fonda Hotel should be, too. The 19th-century Mexican village feel with views out your balcony doors that are clearly California beachfront may leave you scratching your head but you are sure to rest it well in this quaint yet luxurious hotel. Every night there is a Manager’s wine reception of wine, hor d’oeuvres and appetizers, as well as sweet treats and coffee. From noon to 2 pm you can enjoy a chip and cheese bar with fresh local salsas and imported beer and soft drinks but save room for the nightly ice cream and fresh Avila Valley Barn Pie.

If you want to be right on the water, the Inn at Morro Bay is located within the Morro Bay State Park and right across the street from Morro Bay Golf Course, which is also the base of Black Hill. The recently-renovated Inn’s Cape Cod-style buildings overlook the beautiful bay and feature a bar and restaurant with spectacular Morro Rock views.

Recovery and Non-Run Activities

Clean, cool air from the ocean, temperate climate, consistent warmth without heat, and soothing scenery make the Central Coast a wonderful place for a runner to chill. Easy access to trails and non-running activities make this an obvious destination, given its reputation as one of the world’s “healthy pockets.” The water adventures, such as kayaking, sailing, and surfing are a great balance to running, as is the excellent hiking and biking, whether mountain or road.

For a unique and active way of seeing Morro Bay, join Sandi Twist, co-owner of the Paddleboard Company, for a stand-up paddleboard tour of the harbor. Twist is an experienced and patient guide and is also trained as a fitness and yoga instructor for paddleboarding and SUP surfing.

If you like to soothe your body with hot water, try the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa for a soak in natural hot springs, just up the road from Avila Beach.
Avila Beach

Right nearby, you can stop at the Avila Valley Barn, where you are sure to laugh at the goofball goats. For more than 20 years, the Barn is a local favorite for the freshest fruit and vegetables of the area. And the pies are awesome too. Walk around the grounds to visit goats, ponies, horses, sheep, donkeys, and some exotic animals as well.

And, speaking of farms, San Luis Obispo’s Farmer’s Market is of a grand scale, attracting vendors and shoppers from the entire Central Coast area.

Finally, if you really need to recover from all that running check out Moore Sports Recovery, Athletic Recovery Lounge for ice wraps, compression boots, and massage.


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