state park

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 

Northern California Should be Your Next Road Trip. Here's 6 Reasons Why.

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.

Winter in Henry W. Coe State Park

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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.

My Top 5 California Discoveries of 2015

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I tend to shy away from list posts and best this and best that. I normally find it trite. However, I would like to do a wrap up of 2015. 2013 led me to Mexico, 2014 had me in London, and in 2016 I'll be making my way to Vietnam, but in 2015 I never even left the state of California. In spite of that, I discovered new places and had great experiences even if they weren't the most exotic locales. To make the grade: had to be in 2015 and had to be a place I'd never been before.

5. Mother Lode/Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Railtown 1897 Hetch Hetchy
Railtown 1897 Hetch Hetchy

Riding antique steam locomotives, hotels that smell like corn chips, mysterious domes, and REALLY big trees. While it was a little hokey and homegrown, the Mother Lode has enough local California lore to give Huell Howser a permanent boner. 

Skip Angels Camp when it's not jumping frog season, only go to Columbia State Historic Park if you've got kids or a real hankering for gold panning, and definitely check out the steam locomotives Railtown 1897.

4. Henry W. Coe State Park

Henry W. Coe State Park
Henry W. Coe State Park

Henry W. Coe makes it onto the list not only because of it's spectacular fall foliage, but how surprisingly nice it was. I had quite low expectations for this enormous state park, but was presently surprised by the trees, views, and how nice the rangers were.

About an hour drive south of my San Jose apartment, Henry W. Coe State Park provides great recreation opportunities for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. Just avoid it during the summer months.

3. McWay Falls

wpid-wp-1439093805274.jpeg
wpid-wp-1439093805274.jpeg

It's almost unbelievable, quite possibly sacrilegious that after living in Santa Cruz for a decade I never visited McWay Falls. Waterfall on a beach with water the color of Listerine. Yeah! It is a definite must stop for any road trip on the Big Sur coast.

So why is it not number one? Because while this 80 foot waterfall located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is incredibly special, it is overcrowded with selfie taking tourists and you're not allowed on the beach.

2. Fort Ross Historic State Park

Fort Ross Chapel
Fort Ross Chapel

Did you know about the history of Russians in California? Well, I only knew vaguely; Russian River kind of gave me a hint. We did not initially plan to visit Fort Ross Historic State Park on our trip to Salt Point State Park, which does not make this list, but thought we might as well see it on our way back to the bay area. Things did not initially bode well with the pouring rain and complete lack of other visitors at the park. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the informed docents and how well preserved the buildings were. Frankly, it was just kind of a chance for me to nerd out on a piece of California history that I was ignorant of.

Fort Ross is close to a number of other noteworthy places: Jenner, Salt Point, Bodega Bay and the Russian River.

1. Channel Islands National Park

Scorpion Ranch
Scorpion Ranch

My visit to Channel Islands National Park was special for a number of reasons: it was my final national park to visit in California, it's in my home county, and endemic foxes. You have to take an hour long ferry to get to the islands, and no a trip to the mainland visitor's center is not enough. Do you want to see a place that has more endemic species than the Galapagos? Then fork out the sixty dollars and spend a day or two on the islands.

I grew up seeing the islands from the coast and being able to finally see the coast from islands made me feel all giddy inside. I had mixed feelings about the experience when I was on the island, but looking back it was my best travel moment of 2015.

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

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"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.