The Santa Maria Valley is a sweet, low-key spot for laid-back adventures of the culinary, outdoor and treasure hunting variety. More than 30 wineries await exploration—pinot noir lovers, in particular, are in for a delicious ride. There’s a burgeoning local Ale Trail for craft beer fans, while the region’s signature style of barbecue has roots dating back 150 years and is a must-try. When you’re not sipping and swirling, you can enjoy wide-open natural spaces and breathe in the fresh country air. From beaches and bike trails to mountains and golf greens, being outdoors is always easily accessible. Round out your excursion in Santa Maria Valley with some retail therapy. Shop a farmers’ market, browse for antiques and visit quaint one-road towns for more local flavor. The next time you’re in the area, be sure to add these five must-dos in the Santa Maria Valley to your checklist.
#1: Eat Barbecue
Santa Maria-style barbecue is legendary for good reason. The 150-year-old tradition took root when Spanish settlers prepared giant feasts for their fellow vaqueros (cowboys) who pitched in to help out during the spring cattle branding. The hallmark smoky flavor comes from simply seasoned meat being slow-roasted over red oak coals. Native to California’s Central Coast, the signature red oak gives tri-tip, top-block sirloin and chicken a more hearty, distinctive flavor. Today, Santa Maria-style Barbecue is typically served with sides of pinquito beans—also grown locally—as well as garlic bread and salsa.
Visitors can sample this unfussy, utterly delicious and award-winning culinary masterpiece at local steakhouses like the original Hitching Post in Casmalia and roadside barbecues that take place on weekends for community fundraisers. The annual Santa Maria Barbecue Festival held in May is an extra fun time to get indoctrinated to Santa Maria barbecue. Professionals and home chefs gather to grill, roast and toast an iconic part of Central Coast history, serving up plenty of opportunities to savor the local barbecue, beer and wine.
#2: Taste Wine
In Santa Maria, wine and barbecue are a quintessential pairing. The Santa Maria Valley is home to the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) to be formally established in Santa Barbara County. The valley’s wine country encompasses 34 wineries and tasting rooms best known for producing highly rated pinot noir and chardonnay—among other varietals. The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail is particularly majestic and features 13 wineries along 30 miles of scenic country road. It’s the perfect stretch to cruise on a bicycle if responsible sipping and spinning are in your wheelhouse.
One of the most convenient, affordable and pleasant ways to tour and taste car-free is on the seasonal Santa Maria Valley Wine Trolley. The Trolley runs on Saturdays and Sundays from May through October. The route is a hop-on, hop-off loop from Old Town Orcutt with optional stops and picks-ups at three premium wineries: Presqu’ile, Cottonwood and Costa de Oro.
Another memorable way to experience Santa Maria Wine Country is by attending the annual Santa Barbara Vintners Festival. On Oct. 14, Vega Vineyard and Farm plays host to the festival’s Grand Tasting extravaganza featuring 70 wineries, 30 food purveyors, live music and more entertainment. The glorious spring afternoon tradition is equally popular with locals and visitors alike.
#3: Sample Craft Brews
The beer scene in Santa Maria Valley is a-buzzing. Whether you’re taking a break from wine tasting or simply want to sample the local suds, expect to be treated like family and know that “another round” is always given at the region’s four craft breweries. Located in Old Town Orcutt, Naughty Oak Brewing Company is one of the newest on the scene (the name is a nod to the red oak of Santa Maria Barbecue). Stop by Santa Maria Brewing Company’s original Nipomo taproom or their production facility and tasting room in Santa Maria proper for a tasting flight of their award-winning beers. Blast 825 Brewery is a taproom and eatery where you can pour your own beers from their 40+ selection, including house brews and cider. Santa Barbara County’s prolific Figueroa Mountain Brewery also has a Santa Maria taproom where you can sample regional specialties like the Strawberry Flash and Figueroa Mountain Mosaic.
#4: Get Outside
Mother Nature always beckons in the Santa Maria Valley. Hikers have 24 hiking trails to choose from that run the gamut from easy to challenging. Take your pick of landscapes from rivers, ranches, ridges, parks, lakes, lagoons and so much more.
When the coast is calling, there are 15 beaches, including the incredible Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, home to a wildlife preserve, where hikers can see rare birds and other plant and animal life. Film lovers will also appreciate that this is where the largest set in movie history—Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments—was buried post-filming in 1923. Adrenaline junkies can rent an ATV and hit the Oceano Dunes. This is one of the only places in California where you’re allowed to ride dune buggies on the beach, right next to the ocean.
If cycling is your jam, take a spin along the plethora of local cycling trails. Mountain bikers can tackle the Orcutt Hill challenge. The Santa Maria River Levee Trail offers a family-friendly 3-mile stretch, and Waller Park is another great option with kids. For an urban experience with eating, drinking and shopping peppered in, Old Town Orcutt is very bike-friendly.
#5: Go Treasure Hunting
By treasure hunting, we mean shopping. Browse for antiques at Deja Vu Antique Mall and Vintage Veranda Antiques & Mall in Old Town Orcutt.
The Santa Maria Valley is also home to some phenomenal farmers markets and antique shops. The Orcutt Certified Farmers’ Market takes place Tuesdays from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. In addition to local farmers selling produce, eggs and honey, you can pick up artisan jams and baked goods. The Santa Maria Farmers’ Market is held Wednesdays from noon to 4:00 p.m. at Town Center West on the corner of Broadway and Main. The Downtown Fridays farmers’ market is a lively evening affair (5:00 – 8:00 p.m.) that features live music, food trucks, kids’ activities, and more.
Bonus Tip: Mark Your Calendar
Plan your Santa Maria Valley adventure around a major annual event, like the West Coast Kustoms Cruisin’ Nationals classic car showcase in May staged at the Santa Maria Fairpark. Admire the pre-1961 American-made vehicles during the “Show & Shine,” shop the swap meet and rock out to live entertainment. The Santa Maria Elks Rodeo & Parade kicks off the summer season in late May with four days of rodeo action, from mutton bustin’ and bull riding to team roping and steer wrestling. And every October, the Central Coast AirFest takes over the Santa Maria Airport, inviting visitors to enjoy local food and craft beer while taking in-flight demos, performances and aircraft displays.