With its sparkling jade waters and forested white cliffs, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is often called the "crown jewel" of the state park system. The reserve covers a little over 5 square miles and protects all marine life in the reserve; no fishing within its boundaries is allowed.
Walk ten minutes from my house and you will find yourself at San Buenaventura State Beach. From my bedroom window I can see the ocean; when there's not a roaring Amtrak flashing by. Everywhere you go in Ventura, there's a sign pointing toward the beach. There's way too many breakfast joints, liquor stores, and surf shops for this to be anything other than a beach town.
Freshman year of college at UC Santa Cruz and I was living on a floor with three students from Eureka. Whenever someone from San Jose would mention being from NorCal (I was from southern California and had no idea there was a SoCal/NorCal rivalry), these three would roll their eyes and say, "Uh-uh. Eureka is the real NorCal." Geographically speaking they're right: Eureka is much further north than the San Francisco Bay.
Northern California is known for beautiful forests, rivers, and let's face it, marijuana. Plentiful rain and sunshine, the rugged (read difficult to navigate and easy to hide) landscape, and isolation make it a perfect environment for growing weed. Though they are known as the Emerald Triangle, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties have far more to offer than just getting baked.
Over Labor Day weekend, we took a trip up the coast, through the Trinity forest, and over Interstate-5 to volcanic rock country. Here is what we found and why you should go there today.
The Mendocino Coast
The spectacular blue waters and jagged coastline of Mendocino county brings visitors from all over the United States and the world. I found Fort Bragg's glass beach to be rather disappointing, but the coastline is beautiful none-the-less. Further north from Fort Bragg are black sand beaches coupled with turquoise waters. Adventurous folk should continue to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park on the Lost Coast and check out Usal Creek Beach at the most southern end of the Lost Coast.
Mendocino Village and Fort Bragg
Mendocino Village will be popular with the older crowd with its boutique shops and art galleries. The village is adorable: wooden sidewalks, restored water towers, and colorful decorative signs.
Fort Bragg, a bit larger and grimier, is just a few minutes north. As we walked the main road, women in vibrant silk bustled costumes walked the street: it was Paul Bunyan days. Ride on the Skunk Train through the redwoods. Or if you're more laid back, get a bite to eat at Eggheads, a Wizard of Oz themed restaurant. The No Place Like Home Burger with avocado, bacon, and cheese is a fantastic choice with endless cups of coffee. Just a block up the street is North Coast Brewing Company, home of Old Rasputin.
Los bagels in arcata
Los Bagels, opened in 1984, has two locations: one in Arcata and the other in Eureka. We visited the one in Arcata after staying at the rather shady and run-down Fairwinds Motel. Los Bagels has a wide variety of bagels and toppings. We tried the Izzy's Guac 'N Lox (lox, guacamole, and cream cheese) and the Seafood Combo (lox, hot smoked salmon, smoked albacore, and cream cheese). They were so filling that I didn't eat anything else the entire day. Try the Mexican Mocha to go with your bagel.
The Trinity forest
Drive Highway 299 through the Trinity Forest for epic views of mountains, rivers, and forests. The green hued Trinity runs through the dense forest known for sightings of Big Foot. Stop along the way for river rafting, hiking, and fishing.
The Joss House in Weaverville
Wonderfully restored, the Joss House is a prime example of the diverse history of California. The small historic park houses a Joss House, or a "god" house. It was a temple built by Chinese miners in the 1880's where they would make offerings and pray to the gods. It's a surprising find in this small western town.
The stop is worth it, but beware: the tour guide we had was a little intense and kind of racist.
Mama Llama is a solid coffee house in town which seems to be the only place where people under 45 can hang out.
Macarthur-burney falls state park
Living in California during a drought, it's hard to remember there's still running water in places. MacArthur-Burney Falls is one of those places. Over the Labor Day weekend it was ridiculously crowded. The bottom of the falls is packed with people and you can't get a view of the falls without someone's back in the way. But, it's worth it and it's good to see people enjoying the natural beauty the state has to offer. I would love to see these falls snow covered in the winter.
Check out more photos to see the beauty of the real NorCal.
In December 2015 and Memorial Day Weekend 2016, I was a member of two very different trips (one a gathering of college friends in a modern day woodsy fairyland castle and the other a birthday celebration for my boyfriend's mother) to the same place: Inverness, California. West Marin county is home to some of California's most beautiful coastline, rolling green hills with those happy cows from that very successful Californiacentric dairy campaign, and a nationally reserved seashore. Oh, and Tomales Bay oysters. Here are just seven reasons why Pt. Reyes should be your next weekend trip:
1. Beautiful beaches
I kind of think the photos speak for themselves. These are beautiful sandy and rocky beaches. We found a part of the beach that felt like our own private cove replete with caves and tidepools.
2. Cowgirl Creamery
Makers of the famous Mt. Tam and Red Hawk, as well as less known and seasonal cheeses, Cowgirl Creamery's dairy is located in Pt. Reyes. While you can find their cheeses in most grocery stores across the bay and they have their shop at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, there's something about buying their cheese in Pt. Reyes Station. This time around, I bought the seasonal St Pat, a spring cheese wrapped in nettle leaves.
3. Tomales Bay Oysters
I learned two things about oysters this weekend: my boyfriend's eleven-year-old nephew can shuck oysters faster and better than I can and you shouldn't eat them between May and August. They will be filled with milky, slimy not goodness: this is oyster spawning. *shudder* Every other time of year, absolutely take a trip to the Tomales Bay Oyster Company in Marshall, California and pick up a dozen or a couple dozen. My preference is the extra small or kumamotos.
4. Pt. Reyes Lighthouse
At the tip of the Pt. Reyes coast in the Gulf of the Farallones, is the historic Pt. Reyes Lighthouse. 300 steps down and 300 steps up, the lighthouse looks out to the Farallone Islands and is the edge of California. It is home to a beautifully crafted Fresnel lens and a clockwork mechanism.
5. Wildlife Viewing
I think I have waxed poetic about my love of the hideously adorable and gross elephant seals, but I can always say it again: I love these guys! The politics of elephant seal groups are fascinating and I could spend hours watching them.
Point Reyes is home to one of the largest Tule elk populations in California with over four hundred and forty elk. Majestic and imposing, spotting a Tule elk fills me with Bambi-like wonder and awe. This past weekend we spotted a well-antlered male with a harem of females. Right now is rutting season and the elk are traveling in large groups.
The flora changes with the seasons up here and fall's rusty reds, mustard yellows and eggplant purples have changed to the less dramatic but equally beautiful pastels of spring. Right now the grassy hills have soaked up the winter rains and maintain their velvet green winter coats.
7. Outdoorsing It
Kayaking and stand up paddle boarding are popular activities in the Tomales Bay. While I didn't find the kayaking to be as good as Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, we did see a sting ray and the waters are much calmer than Elkhorn Slough. They also have a nighttime bioluminescent kayak tour.
Cycling, hiking, and camping are also popular in the area. Samuel P. Taylor State Park and several private campgrounds provide car camping. Backpacking camps are available in Pt. Reyes National Seashore and these hikes in are a great introduction to backpacking. Pt. Reyes was my first backpacking trip; a college friend and I, me decked out with a falling apart Jansport backpack, met up with two of his friends. Less than five miles, it eased me in and gave me what I hope will be a lifetime love of backpacking.
8. Location, Location, Location
Pt. Reyes is less than a hundred miles from San Jose and even closer to San Francisco and the East Bay. Not far from Napa, the Sonoma coast, or the lushly green Russian River (also home to Russian River Brewing Company), Pt. Reyes is a great first stop on a longer California road trip or a great jumping off point for a long holiday weekend.
9. Incredible Vacation Rentals
Yes, they will be expensive and you will need to plan months in advance, but the two vacation rentals I've stayed at here have been stunning. Gives you a lot more privacy and it's just fun to see what people build.
Not quite the wine country of Napa or some parts of Sonoma, West Marin does host vineyards, breweries, and even a meadery. Several vineyards to check out: Pt. Reyes Vineyard Inn, Corda Winery north of Nicasio, and Sean H. Thackrey & Co. in Bolinas. I have yet to check out Heidrun Meadery, but they have a radish honey mead that sounds fantastic.
"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.
As always, do not rely on your GPS. Print out directions as you will almost definitely lose signal at the end.
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.
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.
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.
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
You could do this, but I don't know anything about it.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beach and Tide Pools
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.
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.
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.
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.