The village of Cambria along California’s Central Coast is more than a pit stop along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway. It is a must-visit destination in its own right with a variety of things to do for travelers of all types, particularly nature lovers.
The expansive views of the ocean, the loud swishing of waves, the rugged cliffs and jagged rock formations, windswept trees, and a plethora of birdlife make it easy to forget that you are only a four-hour drive away from Los Angeles or Silicon Valley.
One of the best things about nature in Cambria is that it is accessible for people of all skill levels and ages with long boardwalks and easy trails that let you soak in the splendor of this charming oceanside village. I was only supposed to spend a couple of hours here but couldn’t stop myself from returning for more. Here is a rundown of 5 refreshing things to do in Cambria to reconnect with nature and your inner self.
1. Hike in Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is a breathtaking, protected, open land along the coast in the heart of Cambria. It is comprised of a variety of habitats like coastal bluffs, mixed forests, creeks, wetlands, and grasslands including one of California’s last remaining Monterey pine forests.
Originally inhabited by the Chumash and Salinan people and later purchased by the Fiscalini family in the mid-1850s, this land could have been the site of multi-million dollar houses today. But thanks to the efforts of a local citizen’s group, Friends of the RanchLand, money was raised to buy it by working with American Land Conservancy after the ranch changed hands in 1993. It was only recently in 2001 that the preserve was permanently protected as a public open space through a collaboration between several organizations and residents.
There are eight entrances to the preserve and 17 hiking trails of varying skill levels including a couple of ADA-accessible ones are etched in its 437 acres. I chose to take the East Village Entrance from Main St that starts along Santa Rosa Creek Trail and connects to the Ridge Trail on the left at the fork. This connecting section is steep and fires up your calf muscles. Continue along the Ridge Trail and slowly you will veer off towards the ocean on your right by taking the Dolphin and Seaclift Trails before finally reaching the Bluff Trail. If you’d prefer an easier option, you can directly start at the Bluff Trail from the North or South entrances.
The 0.9-mile Bluff Trail is the most popular trail in the preserve for its ease and proximity to the ocean. The coastal bluffs and marine terraces plunging straight into the blue ocean create a very dramatic effect. This area marks the southern boundary of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of the nation’s largest national marine sanctuaries, larger than even Yellowstone National Park.
The sanctuary continues northwards along the Moonstone Boardwalk, Leffingwell Landing, and beyond for about 276 miles of coastline and 6,094 square miles of ocean. This means you’ll find the ocean teeming with hundreds of birds like pelicans, cormorants, and Western gulls that circle the water and rest on rocks near the shore.
A characteristic feature of this preserve are the unique benches lining up the trail. These large, wooden benches with carved dolphins or pieces of wood curling to form a wave feel like public works of art rather than plain benches at a lookout, fitting for the incredible views they showcase.
2. Walk along Moonstone Beach Boardwalk
The Moonstone Beach boardwalk is about 1.3 miles long bookended by the Santa Rosa Creek area near Cambria’s Main St in the south and Leffingwell Landing Park in the north. There is also a road, Moonstone Beach Dr, running parallel to the boardwalk but I’d highly encourage you to leave the car behind and explore this area on foot.
The boardwalk is wide and offers sweeping views of the ocean rushing against the brown, rugged coastline. Don’t bother plugging in your AirPods as the constant swelling and crashing of waves will provide all the music you need. There are several benches along the path that encourage walkers to pause and admire the majestic coastal landscape from a variety of angles.
The area around the boardwalk is as calming as the views. A carpet of grass and iceplant covers the ground in most places. Monterey cypress trees hold their ground with their slanted tops pointing away from the ocean. There’s one that even forms a perfect canopy above the boardwalk. Across the road, small inns and lodges with apt names like Pelican, Sand Pebbles, and Fogcatcher beckon you to linger a little longer at this ethereal place.
The two lookout points – Seal View Point and Moonstone Beach Boardwalk Deck – bring you even closer to the coastline and offer fantastic views from a vantage point. Take the stairways along the way to get on the level of the ocean at Moonstone Beach to examine the shiny, smooth stones, dip your feet in the icy water or just marvel at the boundless, restless ocean and let tranquility wash over you.
3. Watch wildlife at Leffingwell Landing
Leffingwell Landing is a scenic spot at the northern end of the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk offering wide-ranging views of the ocean and all the life that thrives in this ecosystem. While you can see wildlife along the entire stretch of the boardwalk, this place invites you to pause and relish the experience even further.
The ocean that you’re looking at isn’t just any regular stretch of water. It is also part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary described earlier which is the largest marine sanctuary in the continental United States. This federally protected marine area stretches all the way from Cambria to Marin and is home to 36 species of mammals, more than 180 species of birds, and at least 525 species of fish.
I was enthralled by the sheer number of birds whose daily lives unfolded before my eyes. Dozens of cormorants flew close to the water in straight formations and rested together on the rocks along with Western gulls. A pelican surveyed the water and plunged into the ocean from time to time for a catch.
Depending on the time of the year and your luck, you can even spot gray whales during their migration season from late October to February or March to May. Humpback whales, blue whales, dolphins, sea turtles, seals, and sea lions also pass through or reside in this region aptly referred to as the ‘Serengeti of the Sea’.
Leffingwell Landing is equipped with all the amenities for a picturesque meal – picnic tables, BBQ pits, benches, and restrooms. There are also steps leading from the overlook to a small cove by the ocean. Do take the time to check out the trails through the park’s Monterey cypress groves that steer you to additional vistas and benches.
4. Meditate in Shamel Park
Shamel Park is a small community park with a gazebo, picnic tables, playground, and swimming pool. But what really sets this place apart is its enviable location by the ocean. A small flight of steps at the back leads you to an intimate beach where you can walk along the shore and watch the rich birdlife sustained and flourished by the ocean.
A visit to Shamel Park can be easily combined with the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk or Fiscalini Ranch Preserve given its convenient location between these two attractions. It is only a short walk away from the North Entrance of Fiscalini or the southern starting point of Moonstone Beach Drive.
I chanced upon this hidden gem by accident when making my way back to Moonstone Dr from Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. The sun lowered in the sky, slowly dimming its warmth and light. The birds, waves, and wind provided soothing music surpassed by any meditation soundtrack. I closed my eyes, almost as a reflex, for a few quiet moments of meditation and reverence before heading back.
5. Enjoy a cup of coffee on Main St
A visit to Cambria would be incomplete without stopping by Main St lined with one-of-a-kind stores and restaurants including Tudor-style buildings that lend a European flair. Just the names like ‘Once Upon a Tyme’ for a watch shop and ‘Granny had One’ for an antique store are enough to put a smile on your face.
Grab a coffee from Cambria Coffee Roasting Company paired with a warm croissant and sit outside to enjoy the street view. Or head over to Lily’s Coffee House and take your beverage coupled with a sandwich or a slice of banana bread to one of the cozy nooks outside.
That concludes my roundup of 5 refreshing things to do in Cambria. Cambria is a special gem in Central California that nudges you to pause, relax and savor your surroundings.
If you think exploring California’s coast can only be achieved with the luxury of a car, you’ll be surprised to learn that isn’t true. RTA (Regional Transit Authority) offers great connectivity in San Luis Obispo County so the rising cost of gas and rental cars need not put a break on your travel plans. Or increase your apprehension about the left-hand drive if you’re traveling from another country.
I took the bus 12N headed to Morro Bay from downtown San Luis Obispo then transferred to 15N headed to Cambria. The Token Transit app lets you conveniently buy and scan passes directly from your phone. It was freeing to leave the driving to someone else and make the whole trip with a regional day pass of just $5.50, not to mention the lower cost to the environment.
Are you planning to head to Cambria anytime soon? And if you weren’t, I hope this post has added the place to your travel radar. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about Cambria in the comments!