Cave Landing, a craggy headland between Avila Beach and Pismo Beach, is a storied stretch of the Central Coast that stirs potent reveries in the beholder. While most such dreamy shores are remote or off-limits, Cave Landing is just a short drive off the 101 Freeway. The promontory’s singular feature—a tunnel that pierces its upper heights—is only one of its gifts. It’s also a launching-off point for exploring caves and tidal rocks or basking on secluded sand in adjacent Pirate’s Cove.
You can park right at the landing, but why not make it an adventure? Hiking in from Sycamore Mineral Springs, a spa resort nestled in a wooded canyon just up the coast behind Ontario Ridge, is an invigorating option. This 3-mile round-trip starts just behind the resort on Sycamore Springs Trail, a fire road that winds through dense oak woodland, climbing roughly 500 feet to the ridge in just over three-quarters of a mile. Flanking oaks bend over the trail to create natural arbors.
At the summit, you hit Ontario Ridge Trail and emerge into open sun and eye-popping vistas of San Luis Obispo Bay. Chaparral and grass hug a treeless slope descending south to ocean bluffs. You have two options for the descent. The first, straight down an extra-wide fire road, is comically steep, but nonetheless well-trodden. The other way follows Ontario Ridge Trail eastward and tags on about 2 miles one-way before it dumps you onto Bluff Drive. Continue west onto Shell Beach Bluff Trail to trace the coast to Cave Landing.
At the lot’s east end, head down a singletrack through tall coastal scrub to a T-junction at bluff’s edge overlooking Pirate’s Cove. Take the rightward path to reach Smuggler’s Cave near the end of the headland. This popular local hangout is a tunnel burrowed through the rock promontory. It opens onto a sheer cliff some 40 feet above the surf with spectacular views of open ocean and wave-battered rocks just off the coast.
At the promontory’s eastern point, you can scramble down to a tidal zone where swells pummel rocks and penetrate the unseen depths of a sea cave, producing a foam-spewing blowhole if the tide’s just right. Doubling back to the junction, you’ll find steps crudely carved in a rocky bluff that take you down to Pirate’s Cove Beach, a secluded, clothing-optional haunt since the late ’60s.
During sunsets, Smuggler’s Cave becomes a near psychedelic window on the Pacific. Human silhouettes are bathed in fiery hues, the sea surface transmuted to luminous silver, textured like blown glass, reflecting the hot neons at the horizon and deepening blues above, while pelicans congregate on surf-pounded rocks below. Truly a knockout sight. For those staying till dusk, consider taking a cab back to Sycamore Springs rather than braving the chill and darkness.
EAT & DRINK: For a delicious, affordable meal, try Avila Market, a restaurant and mercantile on Front Street that caters to the beach crowd. This fast-casual eatery serves up burgers, fish and chips, clam chowder, burritos, acai bowls, and more. The dining space opens to a breezy side patio and is steeped in retro-chic beach decor. Just thirsty? Choose from a menu of smoothies, or hit the center bar, which taps over 25 local microbrews and pours nearly as many Central Coast wines. Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. It’s even dog-friendly!
From the 101 Freeway, exit Avila Beach Dr. and head west. After about a mile, the entrance to Sycamore Springs will be on your left. Park in the lot and walk west. You’ll see signs pointing you in the right direction for the trailhead. Dog-friendly!