The Eager Traveler's Destination Guide: Santa Maria Valley

July 13, 2021

I’ve lived in California for 30 years and had no idea there was a gem of a place called Santa Maria Valley just few hours away from my home in San Francisco! Santa Maria Valley is located on the Central Coast in northern Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County, and it’s an up-and-coming wine region. However, that’s not all it is. It’s also an ideal spot for a weekend getaway due to its location. In this destination guide, let’s dive into this region and talk about all the things to do in Santa Maria Valley.

Wineries to Visit:

  1. Cottonwood Canyon Winery

Cottonwood is a small boutique winery that specializes in handcrafted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. In the Santa Maria Valley, it’s located on the edge of the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail in Santa Barbara County wine country. Their estate is a total of 78 beautiful acres. You’ll get to enjoy gorgeous outdoor patios, and their wines are only sold at the winery and to their members. Quite the exclusive experience!

This gorgeous boutique hotel has 12 rooms where you can stay and experience their award-winning wines. This region is known for producing top-performing varieties like crisp chardonnays, famous full-bodied pinot noirs, and lush syrahs. You can stay at the Wine Stone Inn and make wine a focal point of your trip, or you can just come for a quick tasting. It’s totally up to you! Either way, make sure you try the Riverbench Pinot Noir.

I fell in love with this winery’s gorgeous patio and grounds when I visited. Make a reservation if you’re in the area and visit this quaint little winery that has been crafting quality wines in small quantities for over 40 years. They make a rare white wine variety called Sylvaner, and it’s a must-have!

Dine

There are some great restaurant options in the Santa Maria Valley. Here are some that I loved during my stay:

  1. Cups and Crumbs

This is a stellar breakfast spot, especially for healthy food lovers. If avocado toast and acai bowls are your idea of the perfect start to the day, then you can’t get much better than this. You’ll also get to enjoy the surrounding views with an outdoor patio. Check out the menu here for more information.

I loved this spot for breakfast and enjoyed sitting out on their award-winning patio! This spot is beloved by locals and has some really interesting history. Here’s a brief overview of what you should know before you add it to your things to do in Santa Maria Valley.

History

One of the most frequently asked questions that Moxie staff receives is “What’s with all the planes?” This region has quite a bit of military history that surrounds the land — primarily pertaining to Vandenberg Air Force Base. A good portion of the local population works at this base, and locals have the ability to watch space exploration multiple times a year.

As a result, Moxie Café honors brave servicemen and local military history through their décor and everything else that they do. For example, you’ll see this in their menu item names, mascot, and logo! Visit the link if you want to read more about Moxie’s views on Santa Maria and its Contribution to WWII Aviation.

This is an iconic restaurant located in Casmalia. It’s located about 30 minutes from Santa Maria Valley. Casmalia is considered a “former cow-town” of the Old West, and it’s where California-style barbequing was perfected by the pioneered. As such, you’ll eat some of the most delicious steaks and salads you’ve ever had. They also have great back patio seating with a koi pond area. It may not look fancy to the naked eye, but the food will have you wondering why you’re dressing up to go to any other steakhouse.

Who can go on vacation without eating pizza for at least one night? Anyone? Certainly not me! Pizzeria Bello Forno serves up delicious wood-fired pizza creations with unique toppings! It has a wonderful outdoor patio that’s perfect for a casual night out. Just remember, the restaurant is closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly if you happen to be in Santa Maria Valley during the week!

Dunes

So what else is there to do beyond wine tasting?! Dunes! The Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve is a unique nature preserve that features 550-foot-high dunes. These dunes are the tallest on the West Coast and the Santa Maria River Estuary, which makes them ecologically significant and exciting to visit. Head over to the dunes preserve to surf, fish, hike, take photos, view wildlife, enjoy nature, and catch great light for sunrise. Funnily enough, I also saw a cow on one of the dunes during my visit. Who would’ve thought?

Bonus: If the dunes don’t sound super exciting to you, then at least go for the beach. The dunes are set in a little bit from the water, but you’ll see the ocean just beyond them.

Luffa Farm

Have you ever used a luffa to exfoliate your skin in the shower? Did you know that luffa is grown like a pumpkin, squash, or melon on a flowering vine inside a hard-shelled pod? Probably not. Most people don’t know the true origin of luffas. They think of them as a cousin to the sea sponge, and they’re utterly bewildered when they learn about how they actually grow.

Growing a luffa

Santa Maria Valley has its very own luffa farm, and it’s located in the town of Nipomo, which is less than 20 minutes from Santa Maria. On my trip to the valley, I found it interesting to see a luffa growing inside a zucchini-shaped gourd. I’d recommend this as one of the top things to do in Santa Maria Valley.

Buy local:

Unfortunately, most luffas that are currently used in the U.S. are imported from China. There are commercial growers in China, and they fumigate luffas, which ruins them. However, buying local, non-fumigated luffas that are biodegradable and compostable is a great, environmentally friendly option.

Hike

Another one of the top things to do in Santa Maria Valley is hike. I found this to be a rewarding activity because you have the opportunity to explore scenery you may not otherwise see on your trip. Here are the trails that I hiked and what you need to know about each.

This is a rare, undeveloped gem on Southern California’s coastline. The hike itself is easy-going as it takes you over a nearly level boardwalk and across dunes to a tucked-away beach. You’ll even get to see a viewpoint overlooking the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Here’s a play-by-play of what you can expect.

Where the hike begins:

The hike begins from Oso Flaco Lake Day Use Area. There’s a parking lot off of Oso Flaco Lake Road in Arroyo Grande. You should walk around the gate and set out on a section of the road that is closed to vehicle traffic. This is a paved road, but you’ll only be walking on it for less than a quarter of a mile. Stay straight through a cottonwood forest and keep on the trail.

What to expect:

Overall, the hike is just 2 miles roundtrip, but you may get some extra mileage from walking on the beach. I found it to be the perfect trail to do during sunset. The views are gorgeous and offer a sweeping coastal panorama.

This is another great place to go if you’re looking for recreational spots in Santa Maria Valley. The park offers environmental education, land preservation, and recreation. There is a daily access fee for all adults ages 16 and up, so make sure you keep this in mind if you’re planning on visiting.

Guided tours:

Guided toursGuided docent tours are available. At certain times of the year, guided nature walks will be held on the second Saturday of every month from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. If you’re interested in hiking or walking on your own, make sure you go early in the morning as it can get hot!

Stay

Santa Maria Valley is an ideal weekend getaway. There are a number of things to do and it’s situated close enough to LA or Bakersfield that you can go with family or a significant other for a few days before heading back to reality.

If you’re looking for a hotel to stay in, I recommend the Hampton Inn and Suites Santa Maria. The rooms are spacious. There’s free Wi-Fi, a free hot breakfast, and a pool and fitness center as well.

Final thoughts

There you go! The top things to do in Santa Maria Valley. This destination guide is ideal for anyone who needs to hit the road for a weekend and explore California’s Central Coast. Santa Maria Valley may brand itself as wine country, but wine tasting isn’t the only activity. Enjoy and let me know in the comments below if you have been to this region!

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