A Central California beach town with a nostalgic sand-and-surf vibe that’s straight out of a Beach Boys song, Pismo Beach has long stretches of beach lined with volleyball players, kids building sand castles, and families searching for seashells. If you want to catch a wave, surfing, skim boarding, and boogie boarding are all popular, and downtown is a pedestrian’s delight with surf shops, casual dining spots, and retro mom-and-pop stores.
Located in San Luis Obispo County midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Pismo Beach is less than four hours by car from both metro areas, making it a great add-on to California family vacations based out of either city. For West Coast families, Pismo Beach an easy drive destination with a big payoff.
Top Things to Do in Pismo Beach for Families
Many of the best things to do in Pismo Beach revolve around the ocean, but there’s lots to do on terra firma too, including visiting an organic winery with a grape juice tasting for kids and hiking at Pismo Preserve. Here are my picks for the best kid-friendly activities in and around this Central California vacation gem.
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1. Stroll the Pismo Beach Pier
Jutting into the blue Pacific, the Pismo Pier is a seaside classic. Stroll the full length of it yo get get a birds-eye view of the surfers, or try your luck at fishing, no permit required. When hunger strikes, the vintage Airstream concession Sunsets at Pismo sells flavorful fish tacos and assorted snacks. Snap a photo next to the colorful illuminated giant letters spelling out Pismo Beach at the pier’s entrance. Allow time for the kids to romp at the Whale Surfing Playground, which has a show-stopping slide that leads straight down to the sandy beach.
2. Kayak the Central Coast Off Pismo Beach
If you’re traveling with kids who are at least eight years of age, book a tour with Central Coast Kayaks. The two-hour Morro Bay wildlife kayaking tour is flat-water experience that’s a fit for novices as well as experienced kayakers. Paddle between kelp forests and rock outcroppings as you glimpse sea otters, seals, and dolphins. Explore the tide pools filled with sea stars, anemone, and urchins. The guided tour includes instruction, all equipment, a wetsuit, snack, water, and souvenir photos.
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For more of an adrenaline rush near Pismo Beach, the company’s Dinosaur Cave Excursion (ages 12 and up) is made-to-order. Wind through a series of grottoes, arches, and coves as you paddle in and around the Dinosaur Caves, only accessible from the water.
3. Sample Clam Chowder in Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach was once known as the Clam Capital of the World. Over-harvesting has made these briny bivalves harder to find, though clam chowder is still a mainstay on nearly every menu in town.
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If you want to try authentic Pismo Beach chowder, I recommend Ada’s Fish House. It’s a low-key family-run restaurant serving a creamy New England-style chowder brimming with fresh-shucked clams. After a day in the ocean, a soothing bowl really hits the spot. The restaurant has a kid’s menu, too, making it a good choice for families looking for things to do in Pismo Beach.
4. Learn to Surf with Central Coast Surf School
It’s fun to watch the surfers, but why not take the opportunity to learn to hang ten yourself? Pismo Beach is packed with opportunities for kids and adults to learn to surf, windsurf, or kitesurf in the Pacific. I recommend Central Coast Surf School, which offers surf lessons for all ages, with board and wet suit included. It also runs all-day surf camps from June until September.
5. Hike at Pismo Preserve
Owned and operated by the Land Conservancy, this 880-acre Pismo Preserve offers more than 10 miles of recreational trails for hiking and mountain biking. The nature preserve’s well-marked paths meander through oak woodlands and coastal ridge lines with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean thrown in for good measure. There’s ample parking and clean restrooms, and it’s open daily from dawn to dusk.
6. Watch Winged Beauties at the Monarch Butterfly Grove
From late October through February, thousands of monarch butterflies flee the colder climates and head to the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove at the southern end of the beach in Pismo, forming one of the largest butterfly colonies in the country.
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Monarch Butterflies favor a grove filled with fragrant Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine trees, where they cluster on the limbs, each orange and black butterfly hanging with its wings down over the one below, for a shingled effect. The butterflies resemble leaves, explaining why locals call this phenomenon the Butterfly Trees.
7. Stroll San Luis Obispo
Downtown San Luis Obispo, known as SLO, is a small city just 15 minutes from Pismo Beach. Its compact pedestrian-friendly core is where you’ll find the historic mission, shopping and dining along Higuera Street, and the hands-on San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum, perfect for a rainy day.
8. Glimpse Bygone Days at Price Historical Park
Step back in time at this historic ranch and house of Vaquero Juan Miguel Prais, later John Michael Price, and his family, the first non-native permanent settlers in Pismo Beach. Between 1850 and 1880, Price accumulated thousands of acres of ranch land. Today, self-guided and docent-led tours of Price Historical Park give you a window into 19th-century ranch life.
9. Go Grape Juice Tasting at Castoro Cellars
Pismo Beach is a good jumping-off point to dive into Central California’s wine country. Castoro Cellars is a certified organic estate in the heart of the Paso Robles wine appellation. The helpful staff makes Castoro Cellars a fabulous family outing.
The magnificent grounds and award-winning wines attract oenophiles, but it’s the complimentary grape juice tasting that’s the real hit with kids. While parents sip Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, kids sample juice made from the same luscious grapes.
10. Enjoy Pristine Nature at Montaña de Oro State Park
Drive 25 minutes north of Pismo Beach and you’ll arrive at Montaña de Oro State Park. The Spanish name translates into Mountain of Gold, thanks to the abundance of golden-yellow wildflowers that thrive here. Secluded beaches, including tide-pool rich Corallina Cove, feel a million miles away from civilization.
Montaña de Oro’s Bluff Trail is a fairly easy 3.4-mile walk that’s a super fun things to do with kids when you visit. The path skirts the rugged coastline, with bluffs, tide pools, and ocean vistas galore. Breathe in the scent of the eucalyptus trees as you soak in the stunning scenery.
11. Explore Morro Bay Just North of Pismo Beach
The laidback atmosphere and abundance of natural beauty make Morro Bay a fun family outing just 30 minutes north of Pismo Beach. Book a whale-watching cruise, rent bikes, and take a self-guided tour of the colorful outdoor art on Mural Mile.
Drive to the base of landmark Morro Rock, formed 23 million years ago from the plug of a long-extinct volcano. Watch the local fishermen before you sample the fresh catch at one of the numerous seafood restaurants on the Embarcadero.
12. Head to Cambria for Tide Pools and Pie
Moonstone Beach’s one-mile-long boardwalk in Cambria, a serene town approximately 45 minutes north of Pismo, is a relaxing spot for a stroll with the kids. The north end of the boardwalk is home to several tide pools brimming with spiny purple sea urchins, snails, and crabs. Keep your eyes peeled for the sea otters, whales, and dolphins who frolic in these waters.
Don’t miss a stop at Linn’s Easy as Pie Shop and Café for a slice of fresh-baked Olallieberry Pie. These delectable berries, part blackberry and part raspberry, are grown on the Linn’s family farm. Baked in a flaky crust, it’s a mouth-watering treat for kids and parents, and well worth the 45-minute drive from Pismo all on its own.
13. Visit an Elephant Seal Rookery
The Piedras Blancas Rookery is the only elephant seal rookery in the world that’s easily accessible, free, and open to the public every day. It’s located seven miles north of San Simeon on Highway 1, approximately a one-hour drive north of Pismo Beach. Visiting with kids is a rare opportunity to view these large earless sea creatures, with males weighing up to 5,000 pounds.
The marine mammals may be seen year-round, though October through May is when you may catch the action of birthing and breeding. Loud noises may disturb these massive animals, so remind the kids to respectfully keep their voices down. Docents wearing recognizable blue jackets are on hand to answer questions. No reservations are needed and parking is free.
Where to Stay in Pismo Beach with Kids
I’m a huge fan of Shore Cliff Hotel in Pismo Beach. Perched atop a coastal cliff, this dog-friendly and kid-approved hotel has a pedestrian bridge leading to the California Coastal Trail and is steps from Pismo Preserve for the ultimate immersion in nature.
The property features oceanfront tennis and bocce ball courts, complimentary grab-and-go breakfast, in-room for sea life viewing, and the largest heated oceanfront pool and hot tub in town. Each of the 100 rooms has a private patio or balcony. Sleep with the balcony door ajar and be serenaded by the sounds of the sea.
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