The Santa Maria Valley in California has good wine, good food, and plenty of fun. Find out why you shouldn’t miss it in this Wander Guide.
Located about halfway between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, the Santa Maria Valley flies under many travelers’ radars. And I’m kind of glad. Because the Santa Maria Valley reminds me of everything I love about Sonoma, minus the crowds. It has good wine, good food, scenic trails, and a few surprises that make it well worth visiting. Ready to pack your bags? Here’s our ultimate guide to 2 days in Santa Maria Valley, CA.
Wineries in Santa Maria Valley, CA
The Santa Maria Valley American Viticultural Area (ACA) includes 7,500 acres of vineyards that boast a Mediterranean-like climate. The Santa Maria Valley AVA produces exceptional Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. You can sample these—as well as Cabernet, Merlot, and other varietals—at the 14 wineries on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. Or you can visit the more than 30 wine tasting rooms in the area. These are my favorite picks.
This architecturally stunning property feels like it was plucked out of Napa and set on a hill overlooking Santa Maria vineyards and the distant Pacific Ocean. Since you need a reservation to visit, I recommend booking the Wine and Food Experience to savor estate wines with five or six small plates. This was one of the highlights of my Santa Maria Valley visit. The wines were so good that I bought two bottles to bring home.
You can also book a horseback ride through the vineyards that ends with the Wine and Food Experience. Or you can take a guided walk through the winery’s 240-foot cave followed by small plates and single-vineyard wines on Presqui’le’s private terrace. Groups up to 16 can opt to enjoy the regulation-sized bocce court with food and drink instead.
Rancho Sisquoc Winery
Located about two miles off Foxen Canyon Road, Rancho Sisquoc Winery offers a casual atmosphere where adults sip flights at shaded picnic tables and kids run across the lawn, making this a family-friendly winery. Watch for San Ramon Chapel as you turn onto Forest Route 10N06 and the ranch’s cattle as you make your way to the rustic tasting room.
You’ll need a reservation on the weekends, available for $5 per person. In addition to wine flights, you can purchase individual pours, bottles, and charcuterie boxes.
Fess Parker Winery
Founded by Fess Parker, the actor who starred as the lead in Disney’s Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, this winery has multiple labels and tasting rooms. At Fess Parker Winery, you can enjoy a 90-minute tasting or sip a glass of estate-grown Syrah, Pinot Noir, Viognier, or Chardonnay. In Los Olivos, Epiphany sells Rhône varietals, and the Bubble Shack features Fess Parker’s Fesstivity sparkling wines. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends.
Fess Parker also has a 19-room boutique hotel in Los Olivos and cabins behind Epiphany. Its brewery, Third Window Brewing Co., is located in Santa Barbara.
Cultural Sights in Santa Maria Valley, CA
Santa Maria Valley remains an agricultural community, so don’t expect to find many attractions or museums here. Still, what the valley does have warrants a stop. Come sometime April through October for u-pick strawberries and other produce.
The second-largest dune system in California, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, stretch 18 miles north along the coast from Guadalupe to Oceano. Located in a house in downtown Guadalupe, the Dunes Center offers insights into the dunes’ formation, as well as the plants and animals that thrive in the sands there.
The main draw at the Dunes Center is the Lost City of DeMille. Constructed in the dunes by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, the set served as the City of the Pharaoh in his silent 1923 film The Ten Commandments. DeMille ordered his crew to dismantle and bury the set when filming ended, presumably so other directors couldn’t use it. It remained hidden until 1983, when film buffs found the set location. Although you can’t visit the site today, which remains buried in the sand, you can see some recovered artifacts at the Dunes Center.
Want to experience the dunes? Staff at the center can direct you to access points.
The Luffa Farm
I always thought luffa came from the ocean. After all, they look like sponges. To my surprise, they grow on vines and look like giant zucchini. On a trip to The Luffa Farm, you can take a free tour, see for yourself how they grow, and purchase a few to take home. The gift shop also sells bath products.
Plan to spend some extra time walking the grounds to see painted rubber tires and other repurposed items turned into decorative garden art.
The Hitching Post
It may seem odd to include a restaurant under cultural sights, but The Hitching Post in Casmalia isn’t just any restaurant. For starters, it was featured in the 2004 movie, Sideways. Or, at least, its sister restaurant, The Hitching Post 2 near Solvang, was featured in the film. But, more importantly, The Hitching Post, established in 1952, is the place to go to experience Santa Maria-style barbecue.
Dating back to the 1880s, when local cattle ranchers hosted feasts for their vaqueros, Santa Maria-style barbecue traditionally features tri-tip seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. It is then roasted over a red oak fire. Unfortunately, tri-tip isn’t on the menu at The Hitching Post. Instead, you can choose from several cuts of steak, pork, poultry, lamb, and seafood. I ordered the New York strip steak, which came with a fresh vegetable tray, shrimp cocktail, salad, side, and garlic bread. I skipped the complimentary dessert.
Outdoor Activities in Santa Maria Valley, CA
From hiking to birdwatching, Santa Maria Valley gives you plenty of reasons to explore the Central Coast. Start by visiting one of the 13 beaches in the region. Or burn off those barbecue calories on a hike. Golfing and cycling are also popular pastimes in the area.
Oso Flaco Lake
If you have time for just one hike, make it the 1.7-mile, out-and-back trail at Oso Flaco Lake. The trail begins at the parking lot and takes you to a 75-acre freshwater lake named for a “skinny bear.” According to legend, the native Chumash hunters fed the bear tainted meat so it wouldn’t compete with them for food. This made him “skinny.”
Watch for the more than 200 species of birds found at the lake as you take the boardwalk across the water.
On the other side, a slatted wood trail takes you through the dunes to a lookout to see the Pacific Ocean.
You can see mountainous dunes rising at a few points along the way. I imagine this—or someplace like this—is where they filmed The Ten Commandments and where the Lost City of DeMille is buried today.
Los Flores Ranch Park
This 1,778-acre park is an excellent place for hiking, birdwatching, mountain biking, and horseback riding. If you love to hike, you can explore its 15 miles of trails on your own. Or you can visit on the second Saturday of the month for a free docent-led nature walk. Like Oso Flaco Lake, Los Flores Ranch Park attracts various birds. Keep your eyes open for donkeys and goats, too.
If you want to mountain bike in Los Flores Ranch Park, you’ll have to bring your own. Rentals will need to be transported from San Luis Obispo or even further out and may require specific bike racks to already be in place on your vehicle. Unfortunately, it’s the same for horseback riding. You’ll need your own horse to explore the trails from a saddle.
Where to Stay
I loved my stay at the Wine Stone Inn in Santa Maria Valley. From the moment I entered this 12-room boutique hotel in Old Town Orcutt, I felt welcome and relaxed (it helped that the staff handed me a glass of sparkling wine as I checked in). I spent a good deal of time on my second-story balcony enjoying the sunshine.
Downstairs, you can order a glass of wine from the sleek bar to sip inside or around one of the firepits on the terrace. The hotel also has a small restaurant and serves a complimentary, self-serve breakfast. But one of my favorite things about the Wine Stone Inn is its location. You can park at the hotel in the evening and walk to half a dozen excellent restaurants. These include Pizzeria Bello Forno, Blast, and Trattoria Ulivetos.
How to Explore Santa Maria Valley, CA
Santa Maria Valley encompasses several Central Coast communities, including Santa Maria, Orcutt, Nipomo, and Guadalupe. Flights arrive at the Santa Maria Public Airport. If you intend to rent a car, book a flight that will arrive midday or earlier if possible. My flight was delayed enough that by the time I made it to the counter, the rental car company had closed 10 minutes earlier at 4 pm. I had to Uber to my hotel that evening and back to the airport to get my car the following day.
Pack layers. In the spring, expect highs between 60- and 70-degrees Fahrenheit. Summer heats a little to an average of 70 degrees but still drops into the 50s at night. As fall approaches, the chance of rain increases, and temperatures drop. By winter, the temperature averages 60 degrees. Skies are overcast roughly one out of every three days, and there’s a 20 percent chance of rain throughout the season.
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Reset and Renew with a Relaxing Getaway to Santa Maria Valley
You can explore much of what Santa Maria Valley offers on a long weekend visit. But don’t rush it. Part of the area’s charm is its relaxed pace. I recommend picking out a morning activity from our ultimate guide to two days in Santa Maria Valley, visiting a winery for lunch (or just after lunch), and ending the day with a hike or drive. Repeat the next day. And the next.
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Ultimate Guide to 2 Days in Santa Maria Valley, CA