Photograph by David Madison, Getty Images
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The sun sets along the coast of Pismo Beach.

Photograph by David Madison, Getty Images

10 Reasons to Stop in Pismo Beach

The sea meets wine country in this laid-back, picturesque surf town.

Bookended by the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and the fruit-bearing vines of wine country, there's a paradise of simplicity. The slow life reigns in Pismo Beach, a quiet town between San Francisco and Los Angeles on California's Central Coast composed of 73 percent water—like our hearts and brains. It's no accident, then, that the best of Pismo lies in its dominant force. Whether it's the laid-back surf culture or mineral-rich hot springs, there's something in the water here. So slow down, take off your watch, and drench your senses in all that makes Pismo Beach a must-see stop on your travels. But be warned: You may just be seduced into staying to live the slow, salty life.

1. Hit the Waves

Calling all kooks! It's time to suit up and hit the beach, where there's a friendly break no matter your skill level. The locals won't bulldog you here, and while many surfers hang close to the pier, paddling out about a hundred yards to either side of it will give you beautiful waves with less competition to catch them. Water temps get only as high as about 66 degrees Fahrenheit, which can chill you out of a surf session early without a proper wet suit. To rent gear on the cheap, visit the experts at Pismo Beach Surf Shop, the oldest shop on the Central Coast, where you can sign up for a lesson or chew the fat with owner Bill Bookout, who's happy to talk local surf history.

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Beachgoers take in the sun and surf on Pismo Beach, which sits on the Pacific coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

2. Hike the Preserve

Feast your eyes on more than 900 acres of protected coastal land at the Pismo Preserve, which is expected to open to the public for the first time by early fall 2016. There, you can take to miles of ranch roads and trails by foot, bike, or horseback, keeping an eye out for busy beavers and threatened species like the California red-legged frog and southwestern pond turtle as you explore the Irish Hills, Point Sal, and everything in between.

3. Do the Dunes

You don't have to suffer the soaring temps of Death Valley to play in one of nature's massive sandboxes. Just south of downtown, the Oceano Dunes roll deep with more than five miles of coastal sand waves that die out only when they meet the sea. Offshore winds create excellent conditions for off-roading toys like ATVs (available to rent near the park entrance) to explore the buzzing sandscape. Make reservations (which are highly recommended) any time from 48 hours to seven months in advance to camp along the water's edge at California's only state park that allows vehicles on the beach.

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A driver explores the Oceano Dunes in a beach buggy.

4. Socialize With Butterflies

Sheltered by the eucalyptus trees that line Oceano Dunes's south side, some 25,000 monarch butterflies blink their brilliant orange-and-black wings in a shingled canopy at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. The colony—one of the nation’s largest, as any of the grove's docents will tell you during twice-daily seasonal talks—is the result of the delicate insects’ annual migration between late October and February to escape harsh winters farther north. But don't get too attached: This variety, though significantly outlasting its kin, has a life span of just six months.

5. Skim the Surface

On either side of Pismo's wide beach are intricate sea caves, carved into the bluffs by the tides to create arches and secluded mini-beaches along the shore. While a few are accessible by foot, the best way to explore the southern end of the rocky coast up close is to ditch your land legs in favor of a kayak. Even if you're a pro with a paddle, go with a guided tour, like the one offered by Central Coast Kayaks—the guides are wildlife experts and know the area well, and will provide you with photos of the trip (and tow you in should your arms tire while at sea).

6. Taste the Sea

The city once affectionately dubbed “the clam capital of the world” has a salty history with the mollusk: After years of overharvesting and a mid-century gold rush for the bivalves, once found in the sand by the thousands, the local clam population plunged. While digging on the beaches is now limited, you can still get a taste of the sea at the annual Pismo Beach Clam Festival (which celebrates its 70th year in October 2016) or at a casual eatery like Splash Café. This order-at-the-counter restaurant in downtown serves more than 30,000 gallons of clam chowder every year in sourdough bread bowls, an ideal to-go container should you head to the pier for a seaside feast.

7. See the Sunset From the Pier

With any number of pristine vantages to catch the sunset here, the only real rule is that you should be outside to do so. Take to the 1,200-foot pier to capture Pismo's glory—mountains, cliffs, jutting sea rocks, rising mist, and all—in the soft, waning light. Peer into anglers' buckets perched among the diamond outcrops that give the pier its unique lightning-rod shape, or cast your gaze outward to glimpse the annual whale migrations. And as any sunset connoisseur knows, don't turn your back after the sun gives its final wink—it's in those minutes after it sinks that the sky truly lights on fire.

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The sun sets behind the pier in Pismo Beach, California.

8. Drink in the Central Coast

Within 35 miles of four wine regions—including California's fastest growing appellation of Paso Robles—Pismo Beach never runs dry. Its glass overflows with the Rhône blend and laid-back style for which the Central Coast is known, making for can't-miss wine bars without pretense. Just ask Wine Enthusiast magazine, which named Tastes of the Valleys (an otherwise unassuming watering hole) to its top 20 wine bars in the United States last year for its supply of more than a thousand different bottles, hundreds of which are from the Central Coast. A block away at Sans Liege, winemaker Curt Schalchlin and his wife pour regional selections alongside their own vintages, like the 2013 Cotes-du-Coast, which Wine Spectator scored an 89. Better yet, six one-ounce tastings will set you back just $15.

9. Make Friends With Anemones

Nestled along the cliffs at Shell Beach, the serene Eldwayen Ocean Park stretches more than a mile of coast, with grass, picnic tables, and 180-degree views of the Pacific tempting you into relaxation. But the real beauty here lies down the stairway on the beach below, where low tide brings an underwater microcosm to the surface. Look both in the pools and along the rocks for puffy sea stars, urchins, limpets, and tiny crabs waddling over sea anemones, which pucker as the sands tickle their fat tentacles.

10. Get Soaked

People have chased dreams of rejuvenation to the natural mineral hot springs near Pismo Beach since oil prospectors accidentally discovered the pools here at the turn of the last century. Test the waters yourself a few miles up Highway 101 at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa, which rents its restorative baths by the hour. Staggered on a wooded hillside, the 23 clothing-optional tubs are open until midnight daily and naturally maintain temps of 101 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Lean in to late-night steamy luxury and let the geothermal energy of more than a hundred acres of underground water soothe those muscles before continuing on your journey.