California state park

September Travel Round Up

September Travel Round Up

September is over and October is here. Autumn is in full swing: the colors of leaves are changing, the air is crisper, and every white woman in yoga pants is buying all things pumpkin spice flavored. After it was a million degrees in northern California at the beginning of September, the temperatures have finally fallen and I can start wearing sweaters again. Life is good. 

24 Hours on California's Central Coast: A Guide to Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo

24 Hours on California's Central Coast: A Guide to Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo

At the southernmost point of the Big Sur coastline lies the communities of Morro Bay, Los Osos, and Baywood and two state parks, Morro Bay and Montana de Oro. Named for the California poppies carpeting its hillsides, Montana de Oro includes stunning beaches and cliffsides, sweeping views of the central California coastline, and tidepools. Morro Bay State Park is best known for its monolith, Morro Rock, but is also home to a golf course, lagoons, and a marina. 

Travel in 2016: A Year in Review

I love me some lists. Color coding, numbers, Excel spreadsheets, bullet points, to-do lists, I love them all. The following is my 2016 list of numbers, best moments, highlights, and challenges from my year of travel and working remotely in 2016. Life changed dramatically from living in San Jose and moving to Ventura. I switched from teaching to working for a tech company. I started working remotely in October and I am still figuring that whole thing out. I wrote an article on sexual harassment in the national parks that I am so very proud of. I traveled more than I ever have before, and I'm hoping 2017 will bring even more adventures. 

Paint the Numbers

Miles flown: Approximately 32,000 (counting my upcoming trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Number of Flights: 19
Countries Visited: 4 (Vietnam, Iceland, China, and Sweden)
US States Visited: 2 (Michigan-soon and Nevada)
National Parks Visited: 6 (Pinnacles National Park (2 times), Pt. Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Thingvellir National Park, Vatnajokull National Park, and Phong Nha-ke Bang)
State Parks: 10 (Henry Coe, Henry Cowell, McArthur Burney Falls, Weaverville Joss House, Tomales, McNee Ranch State Park, Mendocino Headlands, New Brighton State Beach, Natural Bridges State Beach, Ventura State Beach)
Glaciers Hiked On: 1 Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Times I Saw the Northern Lights: 1 in Iceland
Caves Visited: 2 (Bear Gulch Cave at Pinnacles National Park and Phong Nha Cave in Vietnam)
Waterfalls Visited: 5 (Elephant Falls in Vietnam; Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skogafoss in Iceland; and McArthur-Burney Falls in California)
Museums: 9 (Joss House and Rosicrucian Museum in California; Phallological Museum, Viking World, and Reykjavik 871+/- 2 in Iceland; Vasa Museum and Royal Palace in Sweden; and War Remnants Museum and Vinh Long Museum in Vietnam)
Rivers: (3) Trinity, Mekong, and Sacramento
Camping Trips: 1 (New Brighton State Beach)
Disc Golf Courses: 5
Hotels: 7
AirBnB: 2
Hostels: 3
Homestay: 1
Armchair: 1
Road Trips: 2

Best Meal in 2016, side of the road dumplings in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Best Meal in 2016, side of the road dumplings in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Best of the Best

Best Meal: dumplings on the side of the road with Jeff in HCMC
Best Coffee: Vietnam
Best Road Trip: Northern California
Best View: Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Best Hike: Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Best Domestic Destination: Trinity National Forest
Best City: Ho Chi Minh City
Best Airport: Las Vegas, Nevada. The design of the Las Vegas airport is light years ahead of most airports I've been to. They have different levels for which type of vehicle you are: one level for cars, another for buses, and another for taxis and Uber. So efficient! Plus, security takes no time at all to get through and the food is cheap compared to other airports. 
Best Hot Dog: Tunnbrodsrulle from Stockholm, Sweden
Favorite Destinations
Vatnajokull Glacier
Da Lat, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
McArthur-Burney Falls State Park

Vatnajokull Glacier, Iceland

Vatnajokull Glacier, Iceland

Traveling to Asia for the first time and hanging out with my cousin Jeff in Ho Chi Minh City. I fell in love hard with Ho Chi Minh City. The sights, sounds, smells completely engulfed me. The food was spectacular, which is not to say we did not have bad meals in Vietnam, but there’s an enormous gulf between the Vietnamese food in Vietnam and the Vietnamese food in the United States. Vietnamese food in Vietnam layers flavors and textures with fresh ingredients; the garnishes, the sauces, the broths, and the interplay of textures within one dish is like nothing you can get in the United States. The variety of street food, it’s quality, and the price made it so much fun to go out and eat our way through the evening. The coffee alone would be enough to get me to move there. Oh, the coffee, I feel nostalgia already...Should I book a ticket?
Getting to explore the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang was truly something else, the train ride from Hue had some of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life, and chilling out in Da Lat was a perfect way to end the trip. 
Don’t be fooled, Vietnam is not an easy destination by any stretch of the imagination, but the people are friendly if reserved, the tourist infrastructure is getting better than it was before, and it’s quite safe for tourists. 
Also, I turned thirty years old, I traveled to mainland Europe for the first time, and I got to eat so many hot dogs. Seeing a rainbow ending at a glacier next to a waterfall with ponies in the foreground. Yeah, that was pretty fucking spectacular. 

Eating all the hot dogs! 

Eating all the hot dogs! 

Challenges

2016 was the year of challenges and tragedy, as many of us have observed. My father passed away in February, and I am still grieving his loss. America saw the largest mass shooting in its history. The people of America voted in a racist, hateful Krampus Cheeto into the highest office in the land. Countless celebrities died including the extremely talented Prince, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie. And just a week ago, my previous home of Oakland witnessed the largest and most devastating fire in its history. 

This is Krampus, the evil central European Christmas figure. 

This is Krampus, the evil central European Christmas figure. 


I experienced my second bout ever of waterborne illnesses in Vietnam; the previous time was over ten years ago on my study abroad trip to Costa Rica. Vietnam was also the trip of the bus breakdown and consequent bumpiest bus drive ever; my boyfriend describes this as the most physically uncomfortable as he’s ever been in his life. 
Then, there was traveling through the airport at Guangzhou. Traveling through Guangzhou when sleep deprived, and later suffering from food poisoning (not me, boyfriend), requires a level of patience and pushiness that I’ve never had to deal with at an airport before. Do you like being herded like cattle with thousands of other people into a dimly lit unventilated hallway only to have people in uniforms scream at you in a language you don’t know? Do you like it when they cut randomly into the crowd and separate groups with a rope? Then, Guangzhou airport is for you. This was not the case with Wuhan Airport, so I consider this issue to be a Guangzhou airport thing, not an all Chinese airports thing. 

Working remotely! Fuck, I never thought it would be that hard to find wireless internet in Western Europe, even the very much still developing socialist republic of Vietnam has better wireless internet than Sweden. Trying to work on trains in the United States, apparently not possible even with the advanced technology of hot-spotting and tethering. I'm still figuring out this working from home, working on the go, spending hours of my life on a computer instead of teaching children thing; it's definitely going to continue to be a challenge and you will hear more about the challenges in upcoming blog posts. 

My keyboard actually glows red. So many hours on my laptop. 

My keyboard actually glows red. So many hours on my laptop. 

Coming up in 2017

  • San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Croatia 

Fall Creek Unit or the Magical Fairy Forest

Technically part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Fall Creek Unit is tucked away up the street from downtown Felton on the way to Bonny Doon. I reverently refer to it as the "Magical Fairy Forest." Towering redwoods, a creek running full year round, and historic lime kilns, it is a favorite of locals and trail runners. The hikes run on the short side, but they are perfect for an afternoon hike in the hot California autumn. 

 

If you want a beautiful, cool walk in the woods without the crowds you find at Henry Cowell or Nisene Marks, then Fall Creek Unit is the place for you. 

Winter in Henry W. Coe State Park

henry-coe-state-park.jpg
Henry coe state park 2

What do you do when you think you're coming down with a cold? Rest in bed, put on Netflix, get a bowl of chicken soup? Maybe. Do you know what I do? I get my boyfriend out of bed at 7:30 am and tell him we're going on a hike even though my throat is sore and that soreness is working its way into my ears. Body aches? Check. Tickle in the throat? Check. But the sun is shining and I want nature.  

Henry Coe state park 4

I thought Henry W. Coe was beautiful in the fall with rolling hills and the foliage, but this late winter/early spring border time the rain creates hills with a neon Crayola spring green velvet fuzz. Grass is not just a well trimmed lawn. It's flowing green sprinkled with the silver locks of an aging death metal singer. Trampled with mud and soggy with run off from the impromptu creeks. Scratchy stiff stalks buzzing with bees.

Oh, the bees. As much as I value those black and yellow deliverers of honey and beeswax, they mildly terrify me when they are anywhere above the knee, which is why I screamed when my hand grabbed one from my hair. I will probably never live that moment down nor the later one when I requested my boyfriend remove a bee from my sleeve and had to look away when he did so.

trail wash out

The rain brought many surprises: washouts, bees, and seven salamander friends. In the redwood forest, I normally count banana slugs as a hiking ritual but Henry W. Coe is not their habitat; however, it is the home of salamanders. Initial salamander, we thought, must have been a rogue. Kicked out of the creek side congress, it sought higher and dryer ground away from the rain swollen torrents. But no, this was a community exodus. First among seven sighted salamanders, it was a leader guiding its compatriots to comfortably moist freedom.

The trail leaves the creek side and salamanders as you progress back toward headquarters. Meandering away and from the California black oak and ponderosa pine studded hillsides, run off cross-hatches the trail making what would be a rather mediocre dry weather trail into something fun and muddy.

Henry W. Coe: The Largest State Park in Northern California

henry-w-coe-state-park.jpg

Henry W. Coe State Park, located outside of the Morgan Hill/Gilroy area, is the largest state park in northern California at 89,164-acres. In the fall, the park's fall foliage truly shines and after even the limited amount of rain we've received this year, the hills were hinting at green. Though I've lived up in the SF bay area for nearly twelve years, I've always avoided Henry W. Coe because I thought it would be boring, barren brown hills with the occasional stand of trees to take shelter from the sun under. But Henry Coe surprised me with its stands of Ponderosa pines, silvery shimmering fields of native California grasses, and mountain vistas. Getting There

We went from San Jose south on 101 and exited at East Dunne in Morgan Hill. Take a left after exiting the freeway and take East Dunne up the hill and into a swank neighborhood bordering Lake Anderson. Be careful to watch street signs up here; it's easy to take a wrong turn and end up on a private road. This curvy, nearly single lane road up to the East Dunne entrance and visitor's center is fun for people who enjoy driving, but I wouldn't try taking your RV or motion sickness prone compatriots up there.

There are apparently other entrances, but this was the closest to San Jose and according to the website it has the most amenities.

The Trail

While there are stands of trees, most of the trails are steep and exposed, so this is definitely not a park to visit in the summer, early fall, late spring, or the random month of summer that always happens in February. We hiked from the Visitor Center at Coe Ranch Headquarters along the Corral Trail to Springs Trail. The single track trails are well maintained as are the fire roads. There was a controlled burn earlier in the week and the ground was still smoking in some areas. The up and down was steady in this area, but not overly steep. Other areas of the park have some apparently gnarly hills that are great for mountain biking.

Overall I would love to go back to Henry W. Coe for a longer visit. There's backpacking camps and swimming holes that still need exploring.

Photo Essay: Railtown 1897

Railtown 1897
Railtown 1897

The theme of this week's posts was my Memorial Weekend trip to California Gold Country. Here are some of my best photos from our afternoon spent at Railtown 1897 Historic State Park:

The rusting engine in front of the park. 

Railtown 1897 Engine 2
Railtown 1897 Engine 2

A steam engine in repair. 

Railtown 1897 Engine 34
Railtown 1897 Engine 34

Steam engine No. 34

Railtown 1897 Rail Cab
Railtown 1897 Rail Cab

Early 20th century steam rail cab

Railtown 1897 Hetch Hetchy
Railtown 1897 Hetch Hetchy

The Hetch-Hetchy speeder

Railtown 1897 Fire Speeder
Railtown 1897 Fire Speeder

The fire brigade speeder following us on our trip

Railtown 1897 Roundhouse
Railtown 1897 Roundhouse

Getting ready to bring the speeder into the Roundhouse

Railtown 1897 Hair Cut BW
Railtown 1897 Hair Cut BW

Who doesn't need a free beer while getting a hair cut?

Jamestown Shovel Art BW
Jamestown Shovel Art BW

Shovel art!

California Gold Country: Jamestown and Railtown 1897

The Mother Lode. For me this name conjures an image of an intergalactic flying space turd. Kind of a horrifying image, right? But perhaps I watch too much Futurama. A Mother Lode is a principle vein or zone of mineral veins, typically gold, silver, or ore. In California, the Mother Lode is an area in the southeast Sierra Nevada extending from El Dorado County in the north and Mariposa County in the south. This area produced more gold than almost any other area in the United States in its heyday. Now it is an area that relies on tourism to bring in money and has a number of state parks devoted to the story of gold. Our journey centered on Toulumne and Calaveras counties. The majority of Toulumne county is taken up by Yosemite National Park. As we were venturing out on Memorial Day Weekend, and I already have a Yosemite trip planned for later this summer, we wanted to avoid crowds and experience the rest of the area. Toulumne county is small: it is home to approximately 55,000 people and has only one incorporated city, Sonora, which is also the county seat. In spite of its small size, Toulumne has a lot to offer the tourist, especially one who is a state park and California history enthusiast such as myself.

Getting There

Getting to Jamestown, and the rest of the Mother Lode, is an easy drive from the bay area. It takes about two and a half hours in good traffic, plus there are a number of In 'N Out locations which are an essential to any California road trip. In fact, I only eat In 'N Out on road trips.

In N Out
In N Out

Directions to Jamestown from the South Bay

From the 237 east (we were coming from Mountain View), get on 880 north and take this to 680 north. From the 680 get on 580 east toward Tracy over the Altamont pass. Get on 205 east and take this to 120 east and follow this and the 108 toward Jamestown.

Downtown Jamestown

Jamestown Sign
Jamestown Sign

Jamestown is a census designated place in Toulumne county with a population of around 3,000 (though the population sign for Jamestown says there is only around 900). Antique stores, historic hotels and saloons line Main Street Jamestown. We wandered around here for about an hour, purchased an old set of Boggle which was in excellent condition and Girl Scout handbook from the 1960's at an antique store. There's also a legit gold panning store where you can sign up for gold panning expeditions. Honestly, downtown Jamestown was not really our type of place and an hour of wandering through antique stores was plenty of time, but the buildings dating back to the 1850s through the Victorian era are quite well restored.

Railtown 1897

The real reason for our visit, and pretty much any visit, to Jamestown was to go to Railtown 1897. Railtown 1897 is a California State Historic Park situated several blocks from Main Street Jamestown. We arrived too late on Saturday to ride a train, but we explored the other parts of the park.

Color Railtown 1897 Historic Park
Color Railtown 1897 Historic Park

Railtown 1897 is a state historic park commemorating the historic Sierra Railway Company started in 1897. The roundhouse at the park is only one of two operating roundhouses in the United States which maintains steam engines. These steam engines have been lovingly restored with the expert knowledge of volunteer mechanics and millions of dollars in donations from people like Clint Eastwood. Also at the park is a Blacksmith Shop and an exhibit of the movies and television shows these trains have featured in, including Back to the Future 3, Unforgiven, and Petticoat Junction.

Color Railtown 1897 Trains
Color Railtown 1897 Trains

On Sunday we journeyed back from Sonora to ride the train at 10:30 in the morning. The train ride costs $15 per adult and includes admission to the park, a thirty minute tour of the roundhouse (which is not accessible otherwise), and a forty-five minute ride on a steam train. The steam trains generally operate on weekends and during the week they run diesel trains. I highly recommend waiting for the weekend and riding the steam; it is definitely a unique experience. We had the especial privilege of riding Engine No. 3 which was featured in Back to the Future 3 and is an engine they typically do not use unless it is a holiday.

To start with, we went on the thirty minute tour of the Roundhouse. Our tour guide Ken was informed enough and a pretty good story teller, though we were afraid to ask him any particularly difficult questions because his knowledge did seem limited. This is not a tour for young children who just want to ride the "choo-choo". We had a number of families who started off with us and dropped off about five minutes into the tour. As train enthusiasts, we were fascinated by the engines that were in current repair and the history behind them. My particular favorite was the Hetch-Hetchy Speeder which was used to traffic people to and from the Hetch-Hetchy dam project.

Outside the Roundhouse is an actual operating platform that turns the trains around. On Saturday we got to see them moving Steam Engine No. 3 and a speeder into the Roundhouse. It was an incredibly cool and well timed performance by the engineers to watch. I am amazed that people have passed down the knowledge to keep these trains operating and maintained.

Color Railtown 1897 Sierra Railroad
Color Railtown 1897 Sierra Railroad

After the Roundhouse tour, hop on the train and find a seat in the back where the views are the best. We unfortunately were not able to find a seat in the back of the train and settled for a two person seat near the front of our train. The train ride is smooth and fairly slow as you make your way through oak studded hills passing ranches and creeks. The best part is when the steam escapes from engine and makes that classic train sound. When they reach the top of the line, the engine decouples from the cab and moves to the back of the train. The ride back to the park is faster as the ride is downhill.

Overall

Unless you are a freak for antique stores or want to enjoy a whiskey in a historic saloon, you can skip downtown Jamestown and go straight to Railtown 1897. Railtown 1897 is absolutely kid friendly, affordable, and will provide the special experience of riding a steam train. We saw a number of children, and adults, having a fantastic time.

Fort Ross: Our Unknown Russian History

"In 1812, Russian and Alaskan explorers and traders established Fort Ross at Metini, a centuries-old Kashaya Pomo coastal village"

Situated approximately 12 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1 and on our way back from Salt Point State Park, Fort Ross is a fascinating piece of American, and particularly Californian history, that I knew very little about. I'm not going to go into great deal about the history of Fort Ross, or really at all. That can be better explained by the literature on the Fort Ross Conservancy website. What I will tell you about is how much our group enjoyed the trip here.

We were not expecting much. Our group was rather moody after a morning rain woke us up at our campsite at Salt Point. After packing up in pouring rain, we drove south. Though members of the group were less than enthusiastic about stopping at Fort Ross, I urged us to do so and it turned out much better than expected.

Fort Ross Wind Mill 2
Fort Ross Wind Mill 2

At the edge of the parking lot lies a replica of a wind mill, recently created to celebrate the bicentennial of Fort Ross. We thought it was so cool that the signs were in Russian and English. Most impressive about the wind mill, and the rest of the construction of Fort Ross, is the lack of nails and the level of craftsmanship.

From there, I convinced the others to continue to the fortress down the hill. It helped that there was a paved walk way and the rain had stopped. The first building we stopped at was Rotchev House, a national historic landmark. The Rotchev House is unique; it is the only surviving original Russian built structure in the United States outside of Alaska

Moving on from the Rotchev House we checked out the blockhouses, there are two: one with seven sides and the other with eight. The blockhouse closest to the ocean provides beautiful views. On the opposite end of the fortress is the Russian Orthodox chapel. This chapel is the first Russian Orthodox structure in North America outside of Alaska. Outside the building is a bell etched with angels and Russian text.

Fort Ross Chapel
Fort Ross Chapel
Fort Ross Bell
Fort Ross Bell

The most impressive structure in the fortress is the Kuskov House, the administrator's house from 1817 to 1838. On the first floor is the armory and replicas of farming tools. When we were there, a volunteer was cleaning replica muskets and told us the history of Fort Ross. He probably could have talked to us all day and really knew his stuff, but the smell of metal cleaning chemicals turned me off. Upstairs are bedrooms, a spinning room, and the Voznesenskii Room, set up for the naturalist and artist Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii.

Fort Ross Replicas
Fort Ross Replicas

Final Thoughts

Check out Fort Ross. It is an interesting piece of history that most people don't know about. I recommend not going when it is raining.

Salt Point State Park: Pygmy Forests, Tafoni, and Pouring Rain

"At some point, you just get pretty overload and stop seeing anything, but this just rejuvenated my pretty processing." -Member of My Camping Group

Salt Point State Park, approximately 120 miles north of my apartment in San Mateo, can be just that: exhaustively beautiful with towering redwoods, aquamarine coves ringed by golden sandstone tafoni (I'll explain later what tafoni are), and meadows of wild grasses. Spring is the time to go: the even minimal winter rains we received this year were enough to make this landscape verdant, an electric spring green only previously found in your Crayola box.

Getting There

As always, do not rely on your GPS. Print out directions as you will almost definitely lose signal at the end.

Gerstle Cove
Gerstle Cove
From the South (As in, you're coming from the Bay)

This is a beautiful and fun drive, especially for people who enjoy twists, turns, and cliff sides. Not particularly great for people who suffer from motion sickness, but I managed okay and I can get car sick when I'm driving.

There are several routes you can take and they all offer up their own unique enjoyments.

Route Through Bodega Bay (101 North to Highway 1 North from Rohnert Park)

This route will take you through hills that are likely featured on those happy cow commercials. Idyllic green pastures studded with meadows of wild flowers and iconic black and white cows line this twisting path. Bodega Bay is one of the larger outposts on the Sonoma Coast and is home to multiple seafood restaurants, galleries, and salt water taffy shops. It's not a particularly picturesque bay, but it's a nice place to stop and stretch your legs before the final leg of the journey. We stopped here on our way back from Salt Point and enjoyed fresh oysters on the half shell and slightly under-seasoned clam chowder in a bread bowl at the Fishetarian Deli.

Route Through Guerneville (101 North to 116 West to 1 North)

This is a great route to take and check out the Russian River from Johnson's Beach in Guerneville. Guerneville is a quaint tourist spot of about five thousand people tucked next to the Russian River and the redwood forests. It has some fairly good restaurants, is close to Sonoma county wineries, , and is home, of course,  to the Russian River Brewing Company makers of Pliny the Elder and an amazing porter.

Each of these paths will take you past Jenner, where the Russian River empties into the Pacific, a town of about 100 people with several motels and an Indian restaurant.

Salt Point Coast
Salt Point Coast

Camping

Space

We originally started as a group of 12. I reserved two camp sites to accommodate the number of cars we would have. As in all state parks, they limit the number of cars to two for each site. Each site includes the price of one vehicle, each additional vehicle is ten dollars. Eventually, our group dwindled down to six, but the campsites at Woodside Campground are small, so we were thankful for the extra space. The sites are well spaced and shielded from each other with thick trees and brush.

Noise/Quiet Hours

Quiet Hours: 8 am to 10 pm

We're a fairly loud, raucous group of mostly drunk people in our late twenties, early thirties and we did not appear to bother anyone staying up past the quiet hours. It helped there was another group being just as loud as us. And none of those people in RVs were running their generators past 10 pm.

Can I Get Drunk Here and Not Be Bothered?

Sure! While it is not legal to drink outside of your tent, because that would be in public and that is illegal, offensive, and outrageous behavior, we were able to drink plenty without getting bothered by anyone. Those of us with cards were able to imbibe in other substances without any complaints. Just be fairly quiet and don't be an insensitive asshole. If you're a real stickler for the law, then drink it in your tent or not at all.

Cell Phone Service?

Those of us with Verizon and Sprint had no coverage, but the one person with AT&T was able to get one bar. Don't rely on it. Turn it off and enjoy being detached from your electronic leash for a couple days.

Amenities

The bathrooms were right across from us, which was convenient for drunken stumbling in the dark, and people were fairly quiet about using them in the morning. The toilet paper was fairly good quality and well stocked by staff. They were well maintained, but there is no soap provided so bring your own or don't care.

There are no showers here, so just plan on being grimy for a couple of days.

Firewood is available from the camp hosts, who were completely inept and had no idea how camp site reservations worked, but they could certainly sell you firewood. It was 12 dollars a bundle and two dollars for a bundle of kindling. It does not come in boxes or with ties, so bring the car down or your own box.

Things to See/Do

Abalone Diving/Fishing

You could do this, but I don't know anything about it.

Mushroom Hunting

You could do this, but don't take more than five pounds per person and don't do it if you're not absolutely familiar with the species around here.

Hiking
Gerstle Cove Trail

While Salt Point State Park does not offer a great amount of hiking, the hiking it does provide is varied and enjoyable. We spent an evening and one full day in the park. On our full day, myself, boyfriend, and a co-worker of mine went on a morning hike to Gerstle Cove. Gerstle Cove is a horse-shoe shaped cove of aquamarine waters surrounded by golden sandstone. The sandstone features the unique tafoni formations. Tafoni, an Italian word for cavern, refers to the divets, holes, and ridges formed in the sandstone through thawing-freezing cycles, salt weathering, and structural variation in permeability.

tafoni
tafoni

The trail from the campground to Gerstle Cove is mostly downhill through Bishop pines, coastal redwoods, cypress, pine and rhododendrons (that do not blossom until late April) which opens up to coastal grasses and rocks. There is a picnic area at South Gerstle Cove, which we did not use.

Fisk Mill Cove
Fisk Mill Cove
Fisk Mill Cove

Walking north from Gerstle Cove is the Visitor Center, which was closed at 1:30 pm despite the sign on the door stating it was supposed to be open. From there you can take a path down to Gerstle Cove where there are tide pools, which most of us found to be mediocre. This is a protected marine sanctuary, but we saw very little marine life compared to most areas along the central and northern California coast. There was one seal who was hanging out near a rescue Jet-Ski.

Sentinel Rock
sentinel rock carving
sentinel rock carving

Going north from Gerstle Cove on the Salt Point Trail will take you to the Sentinel Rock viewing point. From there you get an excellent view of Fisk Mill Cove, another incredibly beautiful horse-shoe shaped cove. On the viewing platform are benches and the names of previous carved into the soft wood. It's not a particularly reassuring platform and I wouldn't go jumping up and down on it.

Pygmy Forest
pine cones
pine cones

At the park's highest point, lies the pygmy forest; this is at the end of a fire road. Along the fire road, are informational placards about the native flora, which I always appreciate as a total California native plant nerd (talk about niche interests!). This road passes several large wooden water tanks and finishes at the forest. I've encountered these types of forests before in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and other areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The high acidity and lack of nutrients, as well as a hardpan layer, stunts the growth of cypress, pine, and redwoods in this area. It sounded cuter than it looked, but we still really liked it.

Final Thoughts

This was a great trip! It was just the right distance from home; we did not feel exhausted from the drive, but it was far enough away that we felt we were on a vacation. I might come in the summer next time, especially after having to take a tent and pack a car in the one downpour this spring.

Zebras, Swallows, Elephant Seals: A San Simeon State Park Adventure

zebras-san-simeon-2.jpg

"I love the sea and I love the mountains and the hollows in the hills and the shady places in the creeks and the fine old oaks and even the hot brushy hillsides . . . I would rather spend a month here than any place in the world.”- William Randolph Hearst

While Hearst was a controversial figure in journalism and politics for much of the late 19th and early 20th century, and his extravagant wealth and aggressive personality was in the inspiration for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, his perspective on the central California coast is to be admired. An undeveloped and often overlooked area, outshone by the sandy, sunny beaches of the southern coast and the mystical, looming redwoods of the north, and of course the jewel of the California coast, Big Sur, this section of coast has much to offer the traveler: Hearst Castle, elephant seals, Morro Bay with its similarly named monolith, and a string cozy, quaint beach towns.

 Hearst San Simeon State Park, located between Cambria and San Simeon, is one of the oldest parks in the California park system. Established in 1932, it consists of over 3,000 acres of vast wetlands, riparian zones and the unique mima mound topography. Found at the park's beaches and further up the coast at Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve, elephant seal rookeries.

baby elephant seals
baby elephant seals

Getting There

From the North

From Santa Cruz we took the scenic route along Highway 1 through Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness. There are other ways to get there, but they aren't nearly as beautiful. Be prepared for hair pin turns, sheer cliffs, and road construction. I like to make a stop at Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve where you can observe the complicated politics of elephant seal harems.

Big Sur Coastline
Big Sur Coastline
From the South

From Los Angeles area take US 101 to San Luis Obispo then get on Highway 1 North. This is also a beautiful drive at times, taking the traveler along the Santa Barbara coast line and wine country. Stop in at the kooky Andersen's Pea Soup restaurant for the eponymous pea soup with accompanying cheese, onion, ham, and bacon.

Camping

There are two campgrounds at the park: San Simeon Campground and Washburn Campground. San Simeon is the larger of the two, closer to the highway, and allows for RVs. Neither campground currently has showers or flush toilets, but there are chemical toilets and running water. Each site has a fire ring and a picnic table. The sites at San Simeon Campground are huge and fit our four tents and three cars.

The sites are packed in and the campground is noisy. We were definitely one of the more raucous groups at the campground; most of the other campers were family groups. We were the people having a few drinks and there was the famous vomiting incident of San Simeon which inspired several children to become teetotalers for life.

The campground is very close to the beach, there were great trees for hanging a hammock and overall we enjoyed our camping experience here.

San Simeon Camping
San Simeon Camping

Places of Interest/Activities

There's not particularly a whole lot of things to do around here except go visit Hearst Castle. We walked all the trails in the park within a couple of hours and hung out at the beach. Mostly this was a way for us to experience the beautiful drive and hang out with our friends from Los Angeles. The trails that are there take you through some nice wetlands and I enjoyed exploring on the beach, which is more driftwood and rocks than sand. If you are used to the sandy beaches of southern California, this might not be your idea of beach.

Hiking

San Simeon trail is a short hike through the riparian zone and wetlands with a few trees and grassland. In the winter season visitors will be able to view monarch butterflies coming through on their migration. We were here in June so we did not see any butterflies.

Grasses along the San Simeon Trail
Grasses along the San Simeon Trail

There was a peaceful clearing along the trail that we sat at for a while on a large log. It's not a terrible hike and is for most level of hikers. Part of it is a wooden boardwalk, which is nice for those who are very low key nature enjoyers or require an accessible hike.

Log San Simeon
Log San Simeon
Beach and Tide Pools
Hearst San Simeon
Hearst San Simeon

As I mentioned above, this is not your typical white sandy beach. At first look it can look a little dirty and is close to the highway, but if you walk past the entrance it is actually quite nice. Our first we enjoyed a beautiful sunset. Be careful of the snowy plover area where they lay their eggs.

Crane San Simeon
Crane San Simeon

I enjoyed a sunrise walk to the beach our first morning there and photographing the sea plants, rocks, and swallows who build their nests underneath the highway bridge. If you walk north along the beach you will find more rocks and tide pools with sea anemone, urchins, and snails.

Hearst Castle

The main reason why people come to camp at Hearst San Simeon State Park is its easy access to the state and national historic monument: Hearst Castle. Hearst Castle is expensive and requires reservations through most of the year to tour. However, there is a free museum in the lobby which we checked out. It features the history of the Hearst Family, their relationship with architect Julia Morgan, and artifacts the family collected through the years. Our favorite part of Hearst Castle were the zebras we saw from the side of the road. My boyfriend was completely astonished, having no clue the Hearst family collected exotic animals. It's definitely not everyday you see zebras roaming the golden hills of California.

zebras san simeon
zebras san simeon

Hearst San Simeon State Park is not a quiet campground get away and there's not much to offer in terms of hiking, but it's proximity to Hearst Castle makes it a great place to stop for the night. I enjoyed the beach and tide pools, as well as hanging out with my friends for a night. It was great as a central meeting place for people coming from different ends of the state. Overall, a good escape from the daily grind.