The Piers of the Central Coast
Story and photos by Katherine McMahon
If you visit a beach on the Central Coast this summer, you may find yourself strolling out over the water on a wooden pier. Today, these structures are popular tourist destinations, but most were built for a very different reason. Back in the 1800s — long before Highway 101 was built — ships were the main suppliers of goods to this quickly-growing region. Piers allowed ships to offload their passengers and cargo much faster (and safer) than using the small barges of the past. These piers quite literally helped build the cities they belonged to.
Once the railways and highways were built, the piers weren’t needed like before. Several of them fell into disrepair and were removed, but some were repurposed and have become beloved recreational features in their beach communities.
The iconic Ventura Pier juts out 1,600 feet from the San Buenaventura State Beach. Built in 1872, it is the oldest pier in California, but hasn’t been used for shipping since the 1940s. At the base of the pier are Beach House Tacos, Eric Ericsson’s Fish Co. and the MadeWest Brewing Company taproom. Ericsson’s is a popular local seafood restaurant and MadeWest is a great Ventura-based beer company. But I always end up at Beach House Tacos. The menu includes incredible tacos and burritos and are known for the seafood choices like ahi and calamari tacos. My go-to order is the beach house burrito, which is stuffed full of grilled pasilla chile, cheese, rice, black beans, avocado, tomato, lettuce, and chipotle cream.
The Ventura Pier can appear separated from downtown Ventura by Highway 101, but just head toward the water on California Street and you’ll find your way to the beach. Where California Street meets the sand is a pedestrian promenade, the Crown Plaza Ventura Beach hotel, a pair of restaurants (Moofish Café and Aloha Steakhouse), and a city parking structure. There is also Wheel Fun Rentals where you can rent bikes or four person surreys to pedal along the beach path. So, after an afternoon spent in downtown Ventura, walk a few minutes to the pier, order some tacos and walk out to the end to watch the sunset. On a clear day you can see the entire arc of the coast — from Hollywood Beach in Oxnard to Santa Barbara — with the Channel Islands out in front.
Further down the Ventura County coastline is the lesser-known fishing pier at Port Hueneme Beach Park, which stretches out into the Pacific for a quarter mile. Forget all the historic background at the start of the article; this one is relatively new. There are no structures or services on the pier, but there is a great casual seafood restaurant, Surfside Seafood, on the beach nearby. At the end there are several benches. On a clear day you can see the Channel Islands in one direction and the Santa Monica Mountains in the other.
This winter’s storms damaged portions of the Ventura Pier, resulting in its temporary closure. There is no reopening date set, but estimates range from late fall to early 2024. The restaurants, however, remain open.
Santa Barbara County
What’s the difference between a pier and a wharf? Technically, a pier sticks out straight from the shore, and a wharf goes along the shore. Stearns Wharf is like an extension of State Street after it meets Cabrillo Boulevard at the ocean in Santa Barbara. It starts out like a pier, heading straight out from the beach, but then curves and by the end is almost parallel with the shore.
For several decades after it opened in the 1870s, Stearns Wharf was where passenger and freight ships from Los Angeles or San Francisco would arrive. When a restaurant was built on it in the 1940s, it shifted from being used for transportation to dining and recreation. Over the years, it’s been battered by storms and fires alike but has always been restored and remains one of Santa Barbara’s most popular attractions.
Unlike most of the other piers, you can actually drive out on Stearns Wharf, though parking is limited. The best way to experience it is to stroll off the beach and out over the water. Of all the piers on the coast, it contains the most amenities and could entertain you for an entire afternoon. There are several excellent restaurants, an ice cream shop, a bait and tackle shop, and gift shops, all with fabulous views. Close to shore, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center is a great little aquarium featuring regional marine life. Its many interactive exhibits make it a neat place to explore, no matter your age. Another of our favorite places to visit (for the 21-and-up crowd) is the Deep Sea Tasting Room, where you can enjoy Conway Family Wines from the deck that looks out along Santa Barbara’s beach. If you’re feeling the need to get out onto the water, Celebration Cruises of Santa Barbara offers a variety of ocean cruises year-round. For a shorter ride (and a quick way to get over to the Harbor), hop on the Santa Barbara Water Taxi’s famous Lil’ Toot boat. For both, you can buy tickets and board right on the pier.
Further west up the coast near the Santa Barbara Airport, a fishing pier sticks out from Goleta Beach Park. Goleta once had a shipping pier in the 1800s that was used to send farm produce down the coast, but that has long since gone. The existing one was built in the 1940s when the area was a U.S. air base, but it was given to the county a few years later. This one is very popular with fishermen, although all public piers in California tend to have at least a few poles in the water. It’s also a beautiful spot, more serene than Stearns Wharf, with the Santa Ynez Mountains looming up from the north, and the Channel Islands visible on the horizon. The County Park is a wonderful place for a family picnic or just to relax by the ocean. There used to be a café right at the base of the pier, but it closed in 2021. The county is working to bring in a new restaurant later this year.
At Gaviota State Beach, about 25 miles west of Goleta, there is another fishing pier also built in the 1940s, but it was damaged in a storm in 2014 and has been closed to the public ever since. Technically, there is one more public pier in Santa Barbara County: at Prisoners Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, which is where visitors to the Channel Islands National Park arrive.
San Luis Obispo County
The focal point of Pismo Beach is the plaza with the seven-foot tall colorful letters spelling out the name of the city. Behind it, the pier sticks out for 1,200 feet into the surf. There was a historic and much longer pier at the location, but it was destroyed by storms decades ago. The current pier was built in the 1980s and features four diamond-shaped bump-outs spaced along the pier. Three classic Airstream trailers are parked on the pier in the first two diamonds. One is Sunsets at Pismo, a beach food and beer restaurant, with tables and chairs on the pier and food served from the Airstream. The second one contains a visitor center, and the third is Sheldon’s Bait Shack. While fishing is definitely popular and encouraged from the pier, it is also very popular with folks just enjoying the ocean air. On either side of the pier is a path that connects hotels, restaurants, and shops along the beachfront. Restaurants in Pismo are known for their chowder, shrimp tacos, barbecue, and the not-to-be-missed Old West Cinnamon Rolls.
About 10 minutes north is the town of Avila Beach, which has three piers right in a row. Harford Pier was built in the late 1800s to help with shipping to San Luis Obispo. It’s the only pier in the area other than Stearns Wharf that you can drive on, and it’s more of a working pier than a recreational one. There is a seafood restaurant, Mersea’s, with a deck that looks across the bay. Patriot Sportfishing offers ocean fishing, whale watching, and private boat charters.
Next to the Harford Pier is the private Cal Poly Pier, which was built in the 1980s for the oil industry but is now operated by Cal Poly University for marine research. Unfortunately, it isn’t open to the public. The third pier is Avila Pier, which stretches out from downtown. Originally built in 1908, the pier suffered damage from several storms, and in 2015 when humpback whales appeared in the bay, the effect of large crowds on the pier led to a realization that it wasn’t structurally sound anymore. It has been closed for restoration since. It is still an eye-catching part of the view from the Front Street promenade which features restaurants, stores, a farmers’ market, and cafes like my favorite, Kraken Coffee Company.
After Avila, there isn’t another pier on the coast until Cayucos. In 1875 Captain James Cass built the Cayucos Pier so the Pacific Steamship Company would stop at his town. The current pier is a replacement, and even it has suffered from storm damage, being renovated most recently in 2015. It’s a perfect spot to watch the surfers, look for dolphins, and admire Morro Rock in the distance. Not only is the Cayucos Pier fantastic in itself, but it connects right to the downtown area with so many super places to dine, stay, and shop. Favorites of mine are the amazing breakfast tacos at The Hidden Kitchen, the sausages at Cayucos Sausage Co. or the cookies from Brown Butter Cookie Company (see Cruising Cayucos in the summer 2022 issue).
At the northern end of the county is the William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach Pier, more commonly referred to as the San Simeon Pier, at the Hearst State Beach. A few miles north of Cambria and just before you get to the elephant seal sanctuary by Piedras Blancas Light Station, the pier juts out into San Simeon cove across Route 1 from the entrance to Hearst Castle. The original pier, built in the mid-1800s by the Hearst family, was a shipping stop for the area — it’s how Willam Randolph Hearst brought in building materials, art, and furniture for the Castle. The original pier stopped being used after 1916, and the county built the new one in 1957. I have found this to be a peaceful spot to stop for a reflective moment during a road trip. The coastline in either direction is dramatic and undeveloped, and the cove is part of a National Marine Sanctuary. If you are lucky, you might see a group of dolphins or even whales passing by.
Piers are a special part of our region. They have largely lost their original historic purpose, and are constantly under threat from ocean storms. Yet there is something special about walking out along the wood planks; about being out among the surf without being in the water; and about looking back at the land and taking in the expanse of the beautiful California coast.
Follow more of my adventures at California101Guide.com or on Instagram at @vineyardsandvoyages.