A Full-Time Traveler’s Family Guide to The Five Cities

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The Five Cities area on the California coast is made up of Pismo, Shell Beach, Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano. Though…if you google it, there seems to be a few different versions of “The Five Cities”. What is consistent is that all the cities surround Pismo Beach.

This central hub is a hotspot for beach and off-road enthusiasts alike. You can find great food, picturesque camping, and tons of adventure. This family guide to the Five Cities outlines resources for families new to the area or just traveling through.

Family Friendly Campgrounds

There are a lot of camping opportunities in California, and we tent camp with the best of them. But RV parks are touch and go when it comes to quality and location. This family guide to campgrounds will tell you which campgrounds have activities and environments more suited for children.

Camping on the Beach

This option is AWESOME and one of our favorites!! Because of that, it’s my number one pick. However, it is best as a tent camping site unless you are super adventurous or have a 4-Wheel setup (truck or camper). I discuss this in more length later.

For $10 a night, you can drive straight out onto the beach and camp. There are two main access roads: Grand Ave. and Pier Ave. both off the 101 in Grover Beach, CA. Once through the entrance, you drive down on the hard pack and along the beach. Here are some general tips for camping here:

  • Tides: It is possible to access most of this beach at high tide, but it is sketchy. When the tide comes in (twice a day) the water makes the hardpack sand soft and very heavy vehicles or vehicles without all-wheel drive have a good chance to get stuck. If you arrive at high tide, don’t worry, it’ll change! And it’s worth waiting. You can always check the tide schedule here.
  • Off-Roading: If you’ve brought ATVs and off-road vehicles to have fun on the dunes, then access the beach at Pier Ave. and drive further south. This will place you in close proximity to this area. Just a warning: it is quite noisy and lots of fun, so make sure you are prepared for that!
  • Day Parking: If you are looking for a quieter experience, access at Grand Ave. and stay close to the entrance. The quietest location, in our limited experience at least, was to drive north at this access point. There is only a small strip available for vehicles before you reach the lifeguard station you cannot cross. Since it is such a small area, if you want a spot there you’ll need to come early in the day and preferably during the week (not a weekend). Most people head further south, so there is almost no traffic and quieter crowds to this small northern section.
  • Caution: A word to large Class A’s and Class C’s: After driving around for a few minutes I’m not sure I would bring my 35-foot Class A down on the beach no matter what the tide conditions are. If I was pulling a trailer, with a four-wheel drive vehicle, then I would certainly bring my camper down on the hard pack during low tide but otherwise, my advice is to stick to tent camping.

Quick Tip

I’ve only listed a few of the places that I vetted for camping personally. However, there are a TON of camping options in this area. If you’re coming during summer, book early—it’s super popular!

Quick Tip

Rather than using the State Park website, which is challenging, to say the least, I advise calling the reservation number.

North Beach State Park Campground

North Beach State Park Campground is a beautiful campground with lots of space, grassy areas, and most importantly direct access to the beach through a small set of dunes. There are only a few sites with hookups, so your camping here would be boondocking or tent camping, but the sites are clean and spread out. There is access to the Meadow Creek Trail and the Monarch Butterfly Grove. The best time to go if you are planning to visit the Monarch butterflies is in November. The best time to go if you are planning to spend lots of time at the beach is late July through August. Unbelievably, June–which is when I visited–is their coldest month!

Pacific Dunes RV Park

Pacific Dunes is an Encore owned property and we stayed here on our Thousand Trails membership. To get the not so good stuff out of the way, I will say that I wish it had a pool and a playground. Both of these things are activities my daughter enjoys. However, the great stuff is that if you have older children there are amazing things to do. There is a mini-BMX track that is so much fun for little RC cards. You can go horseback riding and if you are under 7, the pony rides are free and lengthy! You have access to the dunes where there are tons of large, sand-only dunes to play on and you can see families surfing or boogie-boarding the sand. Even Ducky went barrel rolling down the soft hills.

Where to Buy Groceries

When we arrive somewhere, the first thing we try to do is find our local, organic grocery stores. San Diego doesn’t disappoint! However, you may have a bit of a drive if you aren’t staying centrally. This section will give you an idea of what grocery stores are in the area.

Garcia’s Produce

This little produce stand is in a great location, on the way to all the fun stuff to do, and has a wide variety of local, fresh produce as well as dried and pickled. Our two favorite items were the dried chili coated tamarind and the local sage honey. Definitely worth a stop on your way home OR on your way out for a snack.

Walmart

In San Diego, we warned you away from the WalMart but here in Pismo (or technically Arroyo Grand) the WalMart has all your RV needs as well as a decent grocery section. If you are looking for packaged foods that you can find in any grocery store, it would be worth the savings to stop here at WalMart before going to Vons.

Vons

This Vons is the only franchised, large-scale grocery store in the Pismo Beach area. It is located on Grand Avenue in Grover Beach. It is a good sized grocery store, carrying most of the products you would need and has a decent selection of organic. What I was most impressed with is their pharmacy and personal needs section which is larger than we’ve experienced since arriving in California. There are other grocery stores in nearby San Luis Obispo or Santa Maria which I will mention in another section.

Whole Foods

Normally, organic grocery stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts, or Lazy Acres would be near the top of my list but I’m putting it at the bottom because it’s a little bit of a drive. This guide is specifically focused on the Five Cities area and Whole Foods is in San Luis Obispo, approximately 20 minutes away. However, if you are looking to get 99% of your foods local and organic, this is your best option. The fruit stands, while typically local, very fresh and cheaper, aren’t necessarily organic.

Where to Find Friends

One of our greatest concerns was where to find play and socialization opportunities for our daughter. Since she wasn’t going to have regular play-dates with friends, we were worried she wouldn’t learn to share, respect space, and simply chit chat. There are a few standard things we always look for and then we explore the area to see what unique opportunities there might be as well.

Playgrounds

Playgrounds are always a good place to find friends. You can find a playground in almost any neighborhood, but here are two in the Five Cities Area that are pretty cool.

Dinosaur Caves Park

This park has some interesting dinosaur themed structures to climb on. They are low to the ground and great for younger children. The best part of this park is the access to the walking paths which give you a beautiful view of the cliffs and tidepools below. For those looking to take a longer hike, at low tide you can use the stairway from the nearby hotel to access the pools themselves.

Soto Sports Complex

This is a cool little playground with a lot of sand. Bring your beach toys because the little ones can do a lot of digging and rolling around. Since it’s attached to a sports complex, and nestled in a suburb, there are typically a lot of families in the area.

SLO Children’s History Museum

The San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum is not actually in the Five Cities area, but it was such fun I couldn’t avoid putting it on the list.  If you have a child under the age of 4, take the elevator straight to the top and work your way down. The top floor is especially quiet and perfect for babies and toddlers. The second floor attracts more of the older children but has a interesting pendulum swing and lots of pretend play. The first floor and outside have more of the science exploration exhibits. These exhibits were very attractive to my daughter, but when older children arrived it was difficult for them all to share. The older children are so excited, and often running around, it was a bit intense for a 2-year old.

Arroyo Grande Library

Always a favorite, toddler book groups are a great way to meet other children. The Arroyo Grande Library is part of the larger San Luis Obispo library system and located within the Five Cities area. It is small but it has a nice following for their story time. If you don’t make to story time, or like my daughter you prefer spending some time alone, they have a table of puzzles and games. If you allow technology learning, they rent tablets and computers for the toddlers. My daughter loved putting on the headphones.

Family Friendly Fun Stuff to Do!

Slightly different than where to find friends, this category is a list of where to have adventures! Some of them are touristy and some are hidden gems. You may find friends to play with here, but it is not a high chance of likelihood. What’s almost guaranteed is that something in this list will add to your fun!

Hiking at the Butterfly Grove

If you like to go on walks, and love nature, the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Grover Beach is the place to be. The grove itself is easy to access and attached to the Meadow Creek Walking Trail. The approximately 0.75 mile trail runs along the south side of North Beach Campground and has a few access points through the dunes to the ocean. It is a hard-packed trail, perfect for running even with strollers.

Tidepools

Basically, anywhere along the central California coast, you can find an abundance of tidepools. If you are adventurous, you can find small community access points to the beach and try to find hidden gems. There happens to be a pretty good gem in Pismo. Locals call it the Pismo Tide Pools but it doesn’t really have an official name. It is located right below Dinosaur Cave Park and can be accessed by a stairway connected to the nearby “Inn at the Cove”.

Note: As of 7/22/2018, the staircase is under renovation. This article will be updated if we hear that it has opened.

If you are up for a drive north and have some time, there are two extremely popular tidepool locations: Montaña del Oro (approximately 30 minutes) and Moonstone Beach (approximately 60 minutes). Moonstone Beach is popular because it has a one-mile boardwalk with multiple access points to the tidepools all along the coast. Montaña del Oro is a massive state park and worth visiting all on its own. It has multiple hiking trails and great tidepools.

ATV’s and Dune Buggy Rentals on the Dunes

While at the dunes, if you have older children, you simply have to tour on an ATV or dune buggy. There are many places you can rent an ATV if you and your children are proficient. The two that I saw the most often were BJ’s ATV Rentals and Arnie’s ATV. These two companies drive your ATV right out onto the beach and you can rent from one hour to a whole day.

Dune buggy cars and rides are a popular option as well. If you like driving buggies and cars, then, by all means, rent one. However, if you want someone to drive for you and have the whole family experience together, this is the option for you. During my last week in the Five Cities area, I saw three massive, custom HUMVs pull up and drop off a family. They had wind-blown hair and huge smiles. While I didn’t do this type of tour, it’s now on my bucket list when my daughter is older!

Enjoy The Five Cities!

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