Pismo Beach is a classic California beach town that lures you in with its laid-back charm. There’s surf and sand, an iconic pier, green preserves, and delectable coastal food. There are age-old monarch butterfly migration routes coupled with newly created recreation opportunities like the Pismo Preserve and Pier Plaza. It’s a place where, depending on your mood, you can choose to do everything or just sit back, relax and do nothing, and enjoy it all the same.
The place gets its name from pismu or tar, which the Chumash Indians living at least 13,000 years ago found here. The city is part of the original 8,838 acres Rancho Pismo granted to José Francisco Ortega, a soldier who was part of the Portolá expedition during the Spanish colonization of the Americas. From being sold for 477 heads of cattle to being used as payment in lieu of wages in gold, the rancho changed ownership under interesting circumstances over the years. It was incorporated in 1946 and the city celebrated its 75th anniversary last year.
The city lies in the southern part of San Luis Obispo county in Central California. It is an enjoyable and easy stop along the Pacific Coast Highway. Or you can base yourself in San Luis Obispo which is just a 15-minute drive away. Regional Transit Authority (RTA) also offers wide connectivity in San Luis Obispo County. Pismo Beach is just less than half an hour bus ride away on route 10 from downtown SLO if you’re looking to avoid the rising car rental and gas prices.
And once you arrive, here’s a list of 5 fun things to do in Pismo Beach, CA that will give you a taste of the chilled Californian life! There’s also a handy map at the end with all these points of interest.
1. Admire the monarch butterflies
It feels like there is nothing unusual when you first look up at the trees in Pismo’s monarch butterfly grove. But gradually you realize that what appears like drooping leaves are actually dense clusters of butterflies hanging from the limbs of towering eucalyptus trees. They hang still, one below the other with their wings closed. You can observe the pale orange, triangular backs marked with black veins and white spots. Every now and then, a butterfly opens its wings to brighten up the dark green leaves with a splash of orange.
This dazzling sight is the result of an annual migration pattern as the monarchs seek shelter from freezing northern winters. This grove is a special place, one of only five sites in California that sees over 10,000 butterflies every year from late October to February. At the time of our visit in November 2021, there were 22,000 butterflies in the grove. These numbers used to be as high as 2,30,000 in 1990 but have dwindled drastically over the years with a measly 188 in 2020. The monarchs that leave in March will never return again to the grove given their lifespan of only six months.
Knowledgeable docents equipped with binoculars help you take a closer look at these creatures and learn more about their migration. There is a docent trailer at the entrance open from 9 am to 4 pm with information and merchandise. The grove is easily accessible from the Pacific Highway 1 at the south Pismo Beach city boundary and is a seasonal must-visit spot in Pismo Beach.
A nice extension to the butterfly grove visit is an easy hike along Meadow Creek Trail. This path takes you along the beach and peripheries of the North Beach Campground and Pismo Beach Golf Course. The dunes covered in ice plant, grass, and Monterey cypress trees offer a unique backdrop to enjoy the sunset.
2. Relax on the sands of Pismo State Beach
The long and wide sands of Pismo State Beach are the perfect place to soak in the Californian sun. The beach is very spacious for playing games, building sandcastles, and walking along the water. There’s ample room for adults to plop on their beach chairs with books and children to frolic around in the ocean.
Surfing is one of the best things to do in Pismo Beach, CA. You’ll even see kids venturing out in full-body suits with colorful surfboards tucked under their arms on the north and south sides of the pier. There are several surf shops like Pismo Beach, Esteem, and Pancho’s offering surfing rentals and merchandise right around the beach. Surf schools like Sandbar and Central Coast offer lessons if you’re keen to learn the sport.
Adventure lovers can head south to adjoining Oceano Dunes to experience the thrill of off-roading along the wet sand and soft, rolling dunes. You can take your own ATV or rent an ATV or buggy and ride along the only drivable beach in the country.
3. Walk along the iconic Pismo Pier
Pismo Pier is the centerpiece of Pismo Beach rolling out into the Pacific Ocean with its unique structure featuring four diamond-shaped decks. It is the 16th longest pier in California at over 1,200 feet.
A walk along the entire length of this pier is a great way to get a close look at the ocean and surfers riding the large waves on their colorful boards. You can witness marine life as brown pelicans and gulls fly overhead. Depending on the time of the year, you might even be able to spot dolphins and whales in the distance. Fishing enthusiasts can cast a line and enjoy a catch of perch, flatfish, and the occasional Halibut.
The pier was originally constructed for commercial needs in 1881. Over the years, the pier has changed shape, form, and function. It has been destroyed by storms and recreated to suit the changing needs of the community. The present and final configuration came into existence in 1985-86. A promenade and plaza have been recently added with seven-foot-tall neon-colored letters spelling out Pismo Beach and a playground that features a humpback whale breaching and creating waves.
On the way back, there are beautiful views of mountains and sandy shores filled with houses and hotels along the coast. Stop at the three Vintage Airstreams along the way that house a visitor information center, a food stand aptly named Sunsets at Pismo, and family-owned Sheldon’s Bait Shack that takes care of your fishing and snacking needs.
4. Hike to stunning ocean views in Pismo Preserve
Pismo Preserve is an incredible space for outdoor enthusiasts to savor expansive ocean views and get a different perspective of the iconic Pismo Pier.
This is a relatively newer addition to Pismo Beach conveniently located off exit 191B from US Highway 101. The Land Conservancy recently converted this 900-acre private ranch to a public preserve. The preserve opened in late January 2020 but went through some temporary closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened in September and continues to stay open from dawn to dusk, 30 minutes after sunset.
The preserve encompasses over 11 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. A great way to explore the preserve is to hike the 5.2-mile Discovery Trail Loop which offers the best vistas. As you go inland, you are treated to views of green rolling hills and turkey vultures taking flight against the clear blue skies. Along the coastal ridgelines, you’ll see the long Pismo Pier rolling out into the boundless Pacific Ocean.
Between the ocean and the hills lie miles and miles of sandy beaches, palm trees, and small houses of the coastal communities all the way up to Point Sal in the south.
5. Dig into award-winning clam chowder
Splash Cafe’s small blue and cream building painted with beach scenes usually has a long line trailing all the way to its side. The cafe opened in 1989 and has been owned by Joanne and Ross Currie since 1991. During this time, the chowder sales have grown from 5,000 gallons a year in 1991 to over 40,000 gallons a year! There’s also a second location in neighboring San Luis Obispo with a full-service bakery.
You can place an order outside its blue framed windows, then proceed to grab a table in the cordoned-off seating area outdoors or in the small, lively space indoors. There’s also a specialty hot sauce and a trio of BBQ rubs that you can order to take home. The inside has a fun beachy vibe filled with bright yellow and blue furniture and walls replete with surf and sand scenes featuring cartoon clams.
There are framed news articles, vintage photographs, and award certificates from the annual clam festival for Splash’s famous clam chowder. Go all in with the thick bread bowl and top it off with additions like seafood, clams, and bacon. Or try the large lobster roll if you’re looking for a sandwich-style meal. Make sure to leave some room for the warm and soft cinnamon and raisin bread pudding which easily deserves an award of its own.
That concludes my list of 5 fun things to do in Pismo Beach, CA. Hope the map above helps you plan your way around the city. It’s amazing how each of the places along California’s Central Coast like Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and Cambria have their own unique vibe. If you are wondering where to travel next, check out this step-by-step guide and see if Pismo Beach or any of these lesser-known Californian destinations emerge as top contenders for your next trip.
Aside from these, Pismo Beach also has some pretty cool events throughout the year. There’s the Classic Car Show in June and the Clam Festival in October. Be sure to check out the events calendar and plan your visit accordingly to partake in these local festivities.
Over to you. Would you like to visit Pismo Beach? What are your favorite stops along the Pacific Coast Highway? Feel free to share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!