Pismo Beach is a small town on the Central California Coast that’s known for its stunning beaches, sand dunes, and outdoor recreational activities. This lively community is a popular destination for Central Valley locals, especially in the summer as temperatures start to pick up.
While the beach is what attracts most of the visitors, other popular points of interest include the Monarch Butterfly Grove, the iconic Pismo Beach Pier, and fresh, drool-worthy seafood.
In this post, we cover 20 of the top things to do in Pismo Beach and many other helpful tips to make the best of your visit. Let’s get started!
If you’re looking for a more quiet beach town getaway, be sure to check out our post on 15 wonderful things to do in Morro Bay!
20 Things To Do In Pismo Beach:
1. Monarch Butterfly Grove
Pismo Beach is home to one of the largest Monarch Butterfly Groves in California. Each year over 10,000 Monarch Butterflies gather at Pismo Beach Grove to seek shelter on the temperate California coast from the cold winter temperatures.
The best time to see Monarch Butterflies in California is in the winter months from October to February. In the spring Monarch Butterflies start migrating north so if you come outside of this time frame, there might not be many butterflies left and you’ll be walking through an empty Eucalyptus grove.
Monarch Butterfly Grove is located next to the North Beach Campground and is free to visit, but parking can be a limiting factor.
If there is no parking available, you can also park at the free beach parking lot next to Fin’s Bar & Grill and take the 0.6-mile-long Meadow Creek Trail to the grove.
Location: Monarch Butterfly Grove
2. Dinosaur Caves Park
Dinosaur Caves Park is a grassy 11-acre oceanfront park within Pismo Beach. From this park, you can head on the Dinosaur Caves Bluff Trail which travels on top of the ocean cliffs. This trail is short and flat making it a great option for families with kids.
The Dinosaur Caves Park is a wonderful place to go for a walk and enjoy views of the coast and the nearby rock formations. From the bluffs, you can also try to spot sea wildlife and do a bit of bird watching.
The park’s name plays a tribute to an old 50-foot-tall metal Brontosaurus that stood in this area in the 1940s. While this giant dinosaur is no longer here, there are a few new playground animals with the dinosaur theme.
Location: Dinosaur Caves Park
3. Pismo Beach Pier & Plaza
The Pismo Beach Pier is a must-see attraction on a visit to Pismo Beach. The pier was originally built in 1923 and has withstood a lot of storm damage and changes over the last 100 years. The pier that we can visit today was reconstructed in 2016 and is 1200 feet long.
The Pismo Beach Pier is a great spot for walking, fishing, and watching the local surfers catch waves around the pier base. There is a large plaza at the beginning of the pier where you can snap a photo of the iconic Pismo Beach sign.
If you’re feeling hungry, stop by the Sunsets at Pismo food truck that is set up on the pier. This food truck offers breakfast, appetizers, lunch, and drinks including wine, beer, and margaritas.
Location: Pismo Beach Pier
4. Oceano Dunes
If you’re looking for something exciting to do, Pismo Beach has a designated area next to the sand dunes where visitors are allowed to drive along the shoreline. Now that is something you don’t get to experience every day!
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) offers day passes that permit you to drive your car on the beach for just $5. The day passes are sold as first-come-first-serve for a limited count. To stay updated check the Oceano Dunes Facebook Page.
With the pass, you’re allowed to stay on the beach from 7 am to one hour past sunset. Most people that visit Oceano Dunes drive down the beach, park, and enjoy a few hours of relaxing next to the ocean.
5. ATV Rentals
If you don’t want to drive your personal car on the beach, you can also rent ATVs and spend a few hours having fun in the dunes! This was a thrilling activity that we splurged on during our visit and had a great time!
There are several ATV rental companies set up near the Oceano Dunes entrance. It is recommended to make reservations ahead of time, especially on the weekends.
I booked our reservations through Steve’s ATV Rentals which has a shop set up right along Pier Avenue. Upon arrival, we had to check in, take a shuttle to the rental location on the beach and watch a safety video. Soon after we were off in our UTV zooming across the endless sand dunes!
6. Relax In a Cozy Oceanfront Hotel
Relaxing by the ocean is one of the best things to do in Pismo Beach. And what better place to do so than from the comfort of a beachfront hotel!
SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel is considered to be one of the top places to stay in Pismo Beach thanks to its prime location overlooking the ocean. Each room is furnished in a bright and elegant style with modern touches.
On the hotel grounds, you can enjoy a soak in one of the 3 hot tubs or take a lap in the pool. The SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel has patios with fire pits and a rooftop terrace where you can kick back and relax after a full day of beach fun!
7. Pismo Preserve
Pismo Preserve consists of nearly 900 acres of wilderness that are managed by The Land Conservancy for protection and outdoor recreation. Pismo Preserve offers over 11 miles of hiking trails that travel through gentle hills and California oak woodlands overlooking Pismo Beach.
A few trail options at Pismo Preserve include the:
- Discovery Trail – 5.2 miles
- Spring to Spring – 3.4 miles
- Lone Oak – 2.2 miles
- Panhandle – 1.1 miles
- Vamanos Canyon – .75 miles
On our visit, we decided to hike the Spring to Spring Trail which is long enough to get a good morning workout in and offers stunning views of the Central Coast. This hike is a great choice for beginner hikers and families with kids and dogs.
The terrain consists of well-maintained but narrow paths that climb up and down rolling hills with some trees for shade. There are multiple benches and picnic tables for resting and taking breaks throughout the hike.
8. Camp Next To The Beach
Is camping season something that you look forward to every summer? You’ll be glad to know that Pismo Beach has several amazing campgrounds where you can camp just steps away from the beach!
When camping in Pismo Beach, we typically stay at the North Beach Campground or the Pismo State Beach Oceano Campground.
Both campgrounds offer grassy, spacious sites and have access trails that lead down to the beach. They also offer amazing amenities including toilets and hot showers.
Oceano Campground has a small lagoon next to the campground where you can go on a serene walk, enjoy some wildlife watching and learn about the local animals from many of the information signs.
In the evening, you can walk down to the beach to enjoy the sunset, or cozy around the fire pit. Most of the local stores sell firewood if you need to pick up any.
9. Observe Ocean Wildlife
One of the best experiences in Pismo Beach includes whale, dolphin, sea otter, seal, and coastal bird watching.
Pismo Beach is part of the West Coast’s Whale Trail. There are over 34 different marine mammals that reside in Central California, many of which can be seen from the surrounding beaches and Pismo Pier.
This summer we got really lucky and we witnessed many humpback whales in Pismo Beach traveling along the shore. We could see the whales breaching out of the water in the distance as they were feeding on anchovies, sardines, and krill.
10. Margo Dodd Park
Margo Dodd Park is one of the best-hidden gems in Pismo Beach. This small beachfront park is located near Dinosaur Caves Park and has a grassy area with a scenic gazebo that is perfect for photography and enjoying views of the ocean.
This stretch of the coastline was dedicated to Margo Dodd in 1983, a local civic and community leader. There are benches for enjoying views, observing sea life, and watching waves crash against the rugged ocean cliffs.
Margo Dodd Park has one of the largest bird congregations you can see in Pismo Beach so bring a camera or binoculars to do a bit of bird-watching!
If you continue walking along the bluffs, you can reach a small, hidden beach at the end of Pier Avenue. This beach is part of Shell Beach Coastal Conservancy Preserve which offers opportunities for exploring tide pools, rock caves, and snorkeling.
Note: The stairs that lead to Shell Beach are currently closed due to erosion and missing support beams.
Location: Margo Dodd Park
11. Take a Surfing Lesson
If it’s your first time traveling to the Central Coast, trying out surfing is a must-do activity. Pismo Beach is a surfing hot spot so don’t miss out on this fun beach sport!
If you’ve never tried surfing before, we recommend signing up for a beginner surfing lesson in Pismo Beach. During this lesson, you will learn surfing basics from experienced, encouraging instructors who will make beginner surfing so fun and exciting.
The surf lesson includes all of the necessary gear so all you need to bring to the beach is yourself and a good time!
12. Meadow Creek Trail
Meadow Creek Trail is a great place to go for a quick walk next to the beach. This 1.5-mile out-and-back trail travels along a wooden boardwalk in between ocean dunes and a golf course. The Meadow Creek Trail is flat and easy making it a great option for kids and dogs. Free parking for this trail can be found in a large visitor lot by Fin’s Bar & Grill.
Along this pathway, you can enjoy beautiful views of the ocean, wildflowers, and eucalyptus trees. We even spotted whales breaching in the ocean so be on the lookout!
The trail ends at the Monarch Butterfly Grove by the North Beach Campground. If you have extra time on your hands, you can continue past the Monarch Butterfly Grove and take sidewalks to downtown Pismo Beach and the Pier.
13. Indulge In Fresh Seafood
One of the best things about visiting the Central Coast is the fresh, delicious seafood that you can find at the local restaurants!
Did you know that Pismo Beach used to be a major hub for Pismo Clam harvesting? Between the years of 1916 to 1947 around 100,000 pounds of Pismo Clams were harvested in Pismo Beach annually.
Due to unsustainable practices, Pismo Clams slowly disappeared and it is no longer allowed to harvest them. The last legal-size Pismo Clam was documented in 1993 (but they might be making a potential comeback!).
Nevertheless, there are plenty of other seafood options that you can indulge in at Pismo Beach. Downtown Pismo has an abundance of seafood restaurants to satisfy any cravings!
A few popular local seafood eateries include the:
In October you can also part-take in the annual Pismo Beach Clam Festival where you can enjoy a parade, music, various activities, and of course, try lots of clam chowder!
14. Pirates Cove Beach & Smugglers Cave
Cave Landing is a small hiking area 15 minutes north of Pismo Beach. Several trails start from Cave Landing including:
- Smugglers Cave
- Pirates Cove Beach
- Shell Beach Bluff Trail
- Ontario Ridge Trail
The Smugglers Cave is an interesting natural landmark that sits on a cliffside. Unfortunately, the cave itself is covered in graffiti, but it offers amazing views from the other side.
We also hiked a part of the Shell Beach Bluff Trail that travels along a bluff overlooking the peninsula and San Luis Obispo Bay. You can also connect the Ontario Ridge and Shell Beach Bluff Trails and turn this hike into a 3-mile-long loop.
If you decide to walk down to Pirates Cove Beach, note that this beach is ‘clothing optional‘.
15. Watch a Sunset On The Beach
Having a difficult time deciding what to do in Pismo Beach? Don’t stress because visiting the coast is all about chillin’ and relaxing beach vibes!
If you’re looking for a tranquil way to spend the evening, head down to the beach and set up a picnic for sunset. Central Coast has some pretty epic sunsets, all year long. The most colorful sunsets typically happen where there are some clouds in the sky, but not too much wind.
Be sure to look up sunset times and arrive about an hour early for the ‘Golden Hour’. The Golden Hour takes place an hour before sunset when everything is illuminated in golden lighting by the setting sun. Golden Hour is one of the best times for photography so bring a camera to snap a few photos for memories!
16. Eldwayen Ocean Park
Eldwayen Ocean Park is a grassy oceanfront park that offers one of the best places to take in views of the shoreline. There is also a set of stairs that leads down to the beach where you can explore interesting rock formations and tide pools at low tide.
Eldwayen Ocean Park is situated slightly north of Pismo Beach downtown so it’s more hidden and not as crowded as some of the other city parks. Free parking is available next to the park.
There are tables and benches where you can enjoy a relaxing lunch by the beach. The park is well-maintained and is a great place to come and spend time with your family.
Location: Eldwayen Ocean Park
17. SeaCrest Hotel & Beach Access
This location provides an access point to a hidden beach next to the beautiful SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel. To reach the beach you can take the scenic Wilmar Stairs that lead down onto the shoreline.
With white cliffs and unique caves, this area looks much different than the rest of the Central Coast. One of the most interesting highlights of this area is the narrow steps built into a cliff.
This gorgeous beach is a great location for couples or family photoshoots. Come at low tide so you can safely explore the shoreline and its caves.
18. Old West Cinnamon Rolls
Food lovers will be excited to know that one of the best California cinnamon roll places is located in downtown Pismo Beach. While you may need to wait in line to try one of their famous cinnamon rolls, the wait is well worth it!
Old West Cinnamon Rolls is a family-owned and operated business since 1972 using recipes passed down for generations. Their cinnamon rolls have a gooey center and simply melt in your mouth.
There are several toppings that you can choose from including almond, pecan, walnut, and vanilla cream cheese. These cinnamon rolls are so delicious that people travel from all over just to try them!
19. Dune Trail
The Dune Trail is an easy trail that starts at the Oceano Campground. This is a great hiking option if you’re looking for something to do while staying at the campground.
The Dune Trail travels along untouched, sandy hills covered in overgrown plants, shrubs, and vegetation. This pathway offers a great way to explore hidden parts of the dunes on foot that look much different from the bare dunes at Oceano Dunes SVRA.
We started the Dune Trail from Oceano Campground and took the trail north for about a mile. The trail ends by Fin’s Bar and Grill at which point we crossed over and walked along the beach back to the campground.
20. Cave Kayaking Tour
If you’re looking to splurge on an exciting activity, a kayaking tour is a unique way to take in the scenery of the beautiful Pismo Beach coastline.
A guided kayaking tour allows you to explore hidden areas, ocean caves, arches, and rock gardens that are typically off-limits to most visitors.
Central Coast Kayaks offers guided morning tours that are 3 hours long and start at 8:30 am. You don’t need to be a kayaking expert to sign up – just have fun and enjoy it!
Where To Stay Nearby
Visiting Pismo Beach from out of town and looking for a place to stay? Here are some of our top picks in the area:
Shell Beach Inn is a cozy boutique hotel with 10 modernly decorated rooms. This top-ranked hotel features a seasonally heated outdoor pool and a sun terrace that is a great place to relax and watch the sunset at the end of the day. Select rooms have a kitchen space with a fridge, microwave, and oven.
The Shell Beach Inn is close to all the top Pismo Beach attractions including a stairway that leads down to a hidden beach. The hotel offers free private parking which is a major plus!
The beautiful Inn at the Cove Hotel sits on an oceanfront clifftop and boasts cozy accommodations with panoramic views of the coast. Most bookings come with private balconies offering incredible views of the ocean or the swimming pool.
In the morning enjoy a complimentary Continental breakfast with waffles, pastries, and muffins. After a long day exploring the coast, relax at the onsite heated pool and hot tub. Inn at the Cove is pet friendly and they even offer an electric car charging station for convenience!
This three-star luxury hotel has incredible hospitality paired with fantastic views overlooking Shell Beach. Each listing features a coffee machine, a work desk, and a balcony.
Spend your time relaxing out on the oceanfront pool, hot tub, or sauna. The Cliffs Hotel and Spa also offers an onsite full-service spa with massages and a restaurant serving Latin cuisine. Or you can treat yourself to their fabulous room service!
We hope this guide has helped you prepare for a wonderful visit to the Central Coast. Here are a few other related posts that you may like:
- 20 Top Stops On a Road Trip From Los Angeles To San Francisco
- Hiking Spring To Spring Trail At Pismo Preserve
- 10 Incredible VRBO Vacation Rentals In Pismo Beach
- 10 Unforgettable Places To Stay In San Luis Obispo On Central Coast
- 15 Wonderful Things To Do In Morro Bay
- How To Hike Irish Hills Natural Reserve In San Luis Obispo
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