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Stops You Have to Make Along Highway 1

The Discovery Route is your ticket to amazing places and beautiful sights. This part of the Central California Coast features a "wow" moment around just about every curve. Awe-inspiring sunsets? Check. A world-famous castle known for its opulence? Check. World-class wineries? Check. California beach towns? Check.

You'll discover restaurants with seafood caught within sight of your table. You will experience California history, sand dunes that'll make you think you're in the Sahara, and fun places to shop.

This could be your best California vacation ever!

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01See the Piedras Blancas Light Station

Piedras Blancas Light Station and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological research station. CampPhoto / Getty Images

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse was first lit in 1875 and remains one of 30 working lighthouses in California. Originally 100 feet high, an earthquake on New Year's Eve 1948 resulted in the top three floors of the lighthouse being damaged and subsequently removed.

Piedras Blancas became automated in 1975. The light station has been restored to its condition from 1940 with public access via guided tours.

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02Say hello to 17,000 elephant seals

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, home to roughly 25,000 Northern Elephant Seals. htrnr / Getty Images

Two miles south of the Piedras Blancas Light Station is the largest elephant seal rookery on the West Coast. You'll likely hear them while you're visiting the light station.

You'll generally find around 17,000 seals lounging on the beach or relaxing in the Pacific, and they are here year-round. There's plenty of free parking, and there is a flat, wheelchair-accessible path above the beach.

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03Hearst Castle, "What God would have built if He had the money."

Hearst Castle Outdoor Pool Vlad G / Shutterstock.com

The quote is from George Bernard Shaw, and it sums up the opulence and grandeur of the palatial estate William Randolph Hearst had built in San Simeon. This is the most well-known landmark on the Discovery Route, and it has to be seen to be believed.

Hearst Castle features 167 rooms filled with art and furnishings from every corner of the world. In addition to the 167 rooms, the Castle is surrounded by 127 acres of gardens, pools, and walkways. Be sure to allow at least three hours to see it all.

 

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04Escape from it all in Cambria

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

The village of Cambria is the perfect complement to Hearst Castle. It sits between a beautiful coastline and pine forests, offering visitors beaches, hiking and biking trails, wonderful restaurants, shopping, and boutique hotels.

Cambria is home to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, 437 acres extending from the coast through a grassy terrace and a forested ridge. Visitors can see migrating whales and birds, all while enjoying miles of trails from the ocean to the pines.

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05Visit a Volcano in Morro Bay

Sunrise on Morro Rock in CA JFTringali / Getty Images

Morro Bay is famous for Morro Rock, part of the Nine Sisters chain of volcanos from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay. This is a seaside fishing village with activities for everyone in the family: shopping, galleries, coastal golf courses, kayaking, and kite flying.

Morro Bay also features the finest ocean-to-table seafood, oysters from two local, sustainable oyster farms, and farm-to-table fares such as steaks and barbeque.

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06Hike California's mountain of gold

The rugged cliffs that makeup part of Montana de Oro State Park. Ron and Patty Thomas / Getty Images

Montana de Oro State Park includes 1,347-foot Valencia Peak, which got the name Mountain of Gold because it is covered in yellow wildflowers in the spring. The beaches of this state park have spectacular scenery produced by millions of years of volcanic activity.

This is a perfect location for those looking for solitude. There are primitive campsites available in addition to RV and equestrian sites.

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07While you're here, enjoy a glass of central California wine

Edna Valley vineyard set a few miles from the Central California coast. swalls / Getty Images

The vines along the Discovery Route are some of the oldest in California, having been planted in the 1700s by Franciscan monks as they moved north. The climate along the Central California coast is perfect for Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Two areas to explore are Arroyo Grande and the Edna Valley. Arroyo Grande is a few miles inland and is a typical Central Coast village. You'll find tasting rooms all along the main streets. The wineries in Edna Valley are more bucolic, set against rolling hills and vineyards. It's the perfect place for a picnic.

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08Enjoy the microclimate of Avila Beach

Avila Beach pier at sunset. piola666 / Getty Images

The locals call it the Avila Bubble because when all the other beach towns are fogged in, Avila is bathed in sunshine. The reason: Avila is surrounded by hills that keep out the fog and low clouds.

The Central Coast Aquarium is here, as are natural, mineral hot springs, and more Central Coast wineries. The Bob Jones Trail is a great place for some exercise; this paved bike and walking trail starts off Highway 101 and ends in downtown Avila Beach.

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09Pismo Beach and the monarch butterfly

Downtown Pismo Beach. tupungato / Getty Images

Pismo Beach is a classic California beach town. It features long white shorelines, perfect for surfing, walking, tossing a frisbee, or fishing. There's a boardwalk adjacent to the Pismo pier, with a playground and a giant slide that will take you from the pier to the beach below.

About those butterflies. There is a grove of eucalyptus trees south of town that attracts migrating monarchs every November through February.

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10Oceano Sand Dunes in Pismo Beach

Oceano Sand Dunes near Pismo Beach. halbergman / Getty Images

The Oceano Dunes are part of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex, covering 18 miles of coastline. The state is beginning to limit vehicle access to the dunes but walking the dunes is not only allowed, but it's also fun.

Bring a disc sled because you'll want to ride down the steep hills. Walk the dunes, and you'll think you're in a desert when, in reality, you will only be a few miles from the Pacific.

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