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California dreaming

Exploring El Camino Real by air

Before California became the Golden State, it was just one part of the vast and expanding Spanish empire.
Photography by Chris Rose.
Zoomed image
Photography by Chris Rose.
Photography by Chris Rose. A view of moored sailboats and the Santa Barbara mountains from Stearns Wharf. Stearns Wharf is a fun stop for both adults and children. .Photography by Chris Rose. Photography by Chris Rose. Photography by Chris Rose. The pink Mission Santa Barbara is known as the Queen of the Missions. Eating fresh uni over raw scallops and lime at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. Photography by Chris Rose.

A key component of Spanish imperialism was spreading Catholicism, and in an effort sponsored by the Spanish crown, El Camino Real—literally the royal road, or more poetically, the King’s Highway—began. Along the road, 21 Catholic missions were built in intervals from the first mission in San Diego to the last in Sonoma. These buildings and the route had an immense influence in shaping the state. Present-day cities don’t have missions; the cities exist because of them.

The King’s Highway still defines California, and each of these cities that began with missions is now a vibrant and key part of the state—and conveniently for us pilots, they also have their own airports. Three stops in particular highlight the best of California’s central coast and are perfect gateways for aviators looking to explore the King’s Highway by air.

Santa Barbara

Named for Saint Barbara, patron saint of artillerymen, miners, and mathematicians

The occasional home to A-listers like Oprah, Kevin Costner, producer Dick Wolf (ever seen Law and Order?) and previously the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Santa Barbara is a luxurious slice of California coast catering to the ultrawealthy. Should a third or fourth home there fall out of your budget (check out Zillow for Montecito, California), a visit by air is still worthwhile.

Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA) is a relatively quiet Class C airport with a mix of traffic, and a stop here would be a gentle introduction to Class C operations. If you approach VFR from the south, ATC will likely have you follow the modern incarnation of the Camino Real—the 101 freeway—before clearing you to land. Keep your eyes peeled for the pale pink Mission Santa Barbara (the so-called “Queen of the Missions”) on the east side of the 101.

SBA has a couple jet centers with fees to match the zip code, which can be lessened with the purchase of fuel, and the airport also offers a few air carrier flights a day. The field is across the street from the beach and landing and departure provide sweeping views of the coast and, on clear days, the Channel Islands. SBA’s proximity to the ocean also means that the morning marine layer may be a factor, so keep that in mind when flight planning.

Santa Barbara is one of the premiere places in the world for fresh seafood, in particular crab and sea urchin (or in Japanese, uni). For lunch or dinner with a view, make the short hop into town and head to Stearns Wharf. There you’ll find a favorite of both locals and tourists: the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. Buy box crab and California king crab by the pound and enjoy uni so fresh that its prickly purple exoskeleton is still moving on the plate, all with a view of the harbor, which is a particular treat at sunset. If that’s not your style, they also serve fish and chips or pasta. Reservations are not accepted, so expect a wait for dinner every day and lunch and dinner on weekends.

For those who imbibe, Santa Barbara also offers tasting rooms representing Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez area wineries. This is a great option for those who want to try a variety of wines but don’t have time or inclination to visit the actual vineyards themselves. It certainly takes care of the need for a designated driver or taxi hire since the downtown area, which is primarily centered around State Street, is walkable.

The pool at the Madonna Inn is a perfect place to relax and have a drink after a long day of exploring San Luis Obispo. Photography by Chris Rose. ACI Jet at SBP is a GA-friendly FBO. Alex Madonna’s Goldrush Steakhouse is almost entirely pink. Photography by Chris Rose. Rolling hills surround the San Luis Obispo Airport, and can contribute to afternoon winds and turbulence.

San Luis Obispo

Named for St. Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, patron saint of Valencia, Spain

Further north along El Camino Real and in the heart of the central coast you’ll find San Luis Obispo Regional Airport (SBP). This Class D gem is tucked among coastal hills and is a more approachable alternative to Santa Barbara if you don’t feel quite ready for a Class C airport. This would even be a solid choice for a student’s long solo cross-country, or a confidence-building trip after some time off.

While only a Class D airport, SBP does have some scheduled airline service and jets as well. Flying from Santa Barbara VFR, you’ll likely be vectored for a straight-in to Runway 29. On warm days, the local terrain can create gusty winds and turbulence, so if you’re bringing anyone prone to airsickness, keep that in mind and plan for an early morning arrival. On your way in or out (or as its own scenic flight) head over to Morro Bay and the Pismo Dunes, and for a challenge, stop in to Oceano County Airport (L52) and its 2,325-foot-long, sand-sprinkled runway.

San Luis Obispo has one of the best, most GA-friendly FBOs around: ACI Jet. With a wealth of complimentary provisions, friendly service, and reasonable overnight fees, ACI Jet makes a trip to SBP easy.

A visit to SLO (as the locals call it and read like “slow”) is not complete without stopping by the Madonna Inn. Named for founder Alex Madonna and welcoming guests since Christmas Eve 1958, self-aware kitsch meets good plain fun at this whimsical destination resort. Often compared to Disneyland, the Madonna Inn is a great base for a couple days of exploring while also being compelling enough in itself to spend a whole day or two on the property.

Constructed ascending a hill, each building of the Madonna Inn is styled like a fairy tale chalet, and each of the 110 rooms is uniquely themed. There are no “bad” rooms, but everyone has their preferences; an alpine escape in the edelweiss-adorned and forest green “Matterhorn” room might be a better fit for you than the gilt cherub-heavy, Baroque “Just Heaven.”

The highest point at the inn is the pool, and from it, you can get an occasional view of departures from SBP, and always a view of the surrounding area. Day trippers can snag a delicious breakfast or lunch at the Copper Café to get a taste of the inn without spending the night. And you can’t pass up the Pepto-Bismol pink Gold Rush Steakhouse for dinner and dancing. Don’t forget to take a peek at the dining room’s marble balustrade that previously called Hearst Castle home.

Photography by Chris Rose. Photography by Chris Rose. Gainey Vineyard is a short walk from IZA, where you can enjoy a snack under the umbrellas and watch landing traffic through the vines. Gainey Vineyard is a short walk from IZA, where you can enjoy a snack under the umbrellas and watch landing traffic through the vines.

Santa Ynez

Named for St. Agnes of Rome, patron saint of girls and gardeners

Heading back to the south, just on the other side of the mountains from Santa Barbara lies nontowered Santa Ynez/Kunkle Field (IZA). The most low-key of these three gems, Santa Ynez and nearby Solvang, which both feature in the Oscar award-winning movie Sideways, is a wine-lover’s dream. There are many lodging options in town, and taxis are available.

This field is smaller than Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, but don’t give in to the temptation for a long and lazy straight-in approach. The area is busier than it may seem at first, so be courteous and safe and enter the pattern.

The cozy and welcoming airport-run FBO has a well-maintained grassy lawn and picnic tables that are perfect for bringing your own lunch. If you’re looking to branch out, you can easily visit IZA’s on-the-field winery, Gainey Vineyards, whose neat vines surround most of the airport. Walk over to Gainey from the ramp and, if you’re staying overnight, enjoy a tasting and watch landing aircraft through the rows of grapes. One great way to enjoy this place is pack a picnic—you can set up on Gainey’s lawn with the purchase of a bottle (which you can take to go). A popular choice for California pilots is to join Gainey’s wine club. If you’re somewhat local (or even if you’re not and just want a reason to fly), consider joining as well—you’ll have a new quarterly reason to fly over to IZA.

There are many other saintly stops along El Camino Real to add to your logbook, each one a treat. Enjoy the exploration and let us know your favorite King’s Highway destination.

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Alyssa J. Miller
Alicia Herron
Publications Content Producer
Publications Content Producer Alicia Herron joined AOPA in 2018. She is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot with advanced ground and instrument flight instructor certificates. She is based in Los Angeles and enjoys tailwheel flying best.

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