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Trip Report Central California Coast: Pacific Coast Highway, Napa/Sonoma and SF

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I spent just over a week in Central California in March: the coast between Santa Cruz and San Simeon, the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma Valleys and San Francisco.

The photos are here: http://www.pbase.com/annforcier/central_california

I had some great info from fodorites in the planning stages. I’m not going to do a day by day trip report, but hopefully by posting my impressions of the places I went it might help those planning future trips.

THE CENTRAL CALIFORNIA COAST: Santa Cruz, Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur – Pacific Coast Highway.

I started in Santa Cruz, which I liked a lot more than I thought I might. I choose it for the first night as I had flown from the east coast, into Oakland, and thought I might not want to go too far that day. But Santa Cruz is a pleasant little city. The West Side Drive goes along the coast a few miles up to Natural Bridges State Park, and there are several 'natural bridges' along the way - rocks which have been carved by the sea to form arches. In Santa Cruz itself is the boardwalk which I had read was 'tacky' but I didn't think so at all. Nice old amusement park and boardwalk right on the beach. Unfortunately everything was closed on a Thursday in March. And just south of Santa Cruz is Capitola, a cute little, although very touristy, town. I didn't go back out to Highway 1 to get there, just followed the road along the water, past lighthouse, marinas, etc. It's main feature is a row of pastel colored houses that reflect nicely in the tidal pools. There's a stretch of restaurants with deck seating facing the water.

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    From Santa Cruz to the Monterey Peninsula is about a 45 minute drive. Not terribly scenic, mostly agricultural land, with only an occasional glimpse of the ocean. But you can go 60mph on that stretch. You pass Moss Landing which I had planned on stopping at but it wasn’t that high on my list so didn’t.

    Monterey – I was actually rather disappointed with Monterey. The harbor and fisherman’s wharf are pleasant enough – I thought the harbor looked a lot like New England, in fact I have a photo of Camden Maine that looks just like it. However, one thing Monterey does have is harbor seals. They were adorable, lounging on the rocks right off the beach. Cannery row was neither scenic nor interesting, at least to me. The drive out along the water to Pacific Grove was pretty but nothing compared to the coast south of the Monterey Peninsula so I took the advice of the fodorites who said skip the 17 mile drive.

    Carmel-by-the-sea - an attractive little town, clearly one of the most affluent places in the country. The buildings housing the shops and galleries are varied, some are kind of Spanish looking but there are also some with thatched roofs that look like they belong in Ireland and some little cottage type places that look like they belong in the Hobbit and others with a distinctly English flavor. Carmel has the highest number of art galleries per capita in the US.

    Carmel Mission – (San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission). I really liked this. Beautiful old Spanish mission, just gorgeous architecturally and with a nice garden. Very European feel to it. But it’s not that large, it’s right off Hwy 1 and can easily be seen in less than an hour.

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    We're glad you enjoyed your trip. We really enjoyed the whale watching cruise out of Monterey. We came north from Orange County, and stopped to see the seals along the beach. Driving Hwy 1 was one of the highlights of our trip.

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    Hi Nikki- California was good - except for the weather. Not quite the same level as Paris but a nice change.

    DadRob - I agree about the wild life - the seals and sea lions really were my favorite part.

    Just about 5 minutes south of the Carmel Mission (past a Carmelite Monastery) is Point Lobos State Reserve, $10, I first stopped at Whalers Cove, and thought it seemed familiar. I went into the little Museum and discovered that because the area so resembles the coast of New England, they used it to shoot movies there. But the water is very blue, even turquoise in areas. The landscape includes headlands, irregular coves and woodlands and meadows. From the Whaler’s Cove parking area, which was full of divers getting ready to go into the water (probably at least 40 of them) I did the Granite Point Hike to Coal Chute Point which looks out to Granite Point. Then I drove the mile further into the park to the information center and did two hikes – Sand Hill Trail and Sea Lion Point Trail. And I saw sea lions! And harbor seals! Cool, they are so loud! You can hear them long before you can see them. There were a ton of them out on a huge rock outcropping off shore, the ‘Sea Lion Rocks’, but also a few others on rocks and swimming in coves. The huge sea lions are up to eight feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds. The name Point Lobos refers to the sea lions – The Spanish name Punta de los Lobos Marinos translates to Point of the Sea Wolves. There were also some harbor seals – smaller, only 5-6 feet long, they are very spotted so they blend in really well with the rocks. I think I saw one Sea Otter – floating on it’s back which is the position they apparently prefer. They are smaller still, only about 4 feet long and 45-65 pounds. According to the brochure, the other critter I saw was a large swimming bird called the ‘Brandt’s Cormorant.

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    After Point Lobos starts the most scenic and famous part Highway 1, aka Pacific Coast Highway, the 90 mile stretch between Carmel and Cambria, known as Big Sur Highway. It was constructed in the 1930s. Much of it is winding hairpin turns right along the edge, with steep drop offs on one side, and significant hills on the other. Speed limits along these sections are often 25mph. But there are also sections where it’s perfectly safe to go 60. And there are plenty of turnouts – some nice and wide with parking for many cars, others rather precariously perched on the edge with space for only two or three cars. I had read many discussion here on whether or not this is ‘scary’ or dangerous. I loved it, but I could see if you were either prone to car sickness or had a fear of heights that it might not be your thing. You certainly need to be paying attention to your speed in the curvy bits, and watching your driving but the pull off areas are so numerous, in some areas every few feet.

    From Point Lobos State Park to the first main ‘site’ (the site of course if the coast itself), Bixby Bridge, is about 10 miles, 20 minutes. The cement open spandrel arched bridge is featured in numerous movies, not to mention car commercials. It is one of the highest. There are turn outs both north and south of the bridge offering great views.

    Point Sur Light Station – Just south, sitting lonely and isolated out on it’s own cliff, connected to the mainland by a thin piece of earth, it’s only accessible with guided tours, and the lighthouse itself is pretty tiny. But it’s the only complete 19th Century light station in California that can be visited. First lit in 1889, it’s now fully automated. It was last lived at in 1974.

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    Thanks for filing a post trip report. Wish more people did that.

    And those sea lions can get big - and normally are friendly when one sees them up close and personal when scuba diving, but still best to give them a wide berth.

    Those dang sea otters are just thieves - eating all the Abolone, etc.

    Did you get to see the Elephant Seals - soth of Big Sure - but just north of San Simeon?

    Also - if you want to see real wealth - next time take the 17 Mile Drive - one of my favorites. :)

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    OMG: Just looked at your incredible photos. What an eye you have - and glad you did get to Elephant Seal Beach and toured Hearst Castle. You also got to one of my favorite old "haunts" - Sausalitio - where I enjoyed my daily "commute" into the City on the ferry.

    During the week - on the ride "home" - sometimes you could see the sun set under the Golden Gate bridge -while enjoying a nice glass of Chardonnay. :)

    Again, super photos.

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    It looks like the weather was just right for your stunning photography. I have covered much of the same ground over the past couple years since my daughter moved to California.

    While you were in California, I was in Paris. I've finished the trip report, now I have to work on the photos. But looking at your photos always makes me want to go back and take better ones.

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    Tom - thanks. And yeah, loved those elephant seals, they were a lot of fun to watch. I saw them in the early afternoon before I did Hearst Castle and then after it, almost sunset, I thought maybe they'd be more active and they were. It was great watching them move into the water from the beach.

    Nikki - the weather was only good the first few days of my trip. Had five days of a LOT of rain. And California in the rain is just not the same as Paris in the rain. I've been following your trip report, sounds like you had a great time.

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    About 10 miles, 15 minutes further south from Point Sur is an area with several ‘general stores’ and places to get gas and groceries, plus several restaurants, campgrounds and motels in this area. River Inn is a hotel, restaurant, gas station and general store with a burrito bar.

    Only another mile or two further is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park – There is an entry sign on the highway itself, plus there is a road to the east that looks like the main entrance, and just past it an info center signed “Big Sur Station”.
    About a mile south of that, is the famous Pfeiffer Beach – Thanks to directions I got here I found it with no problem. It is the first right turn that is not gated after the Big Sur Station sign if you are going south. A very sharp right turn, the only sign visible from Rt 1 says something about narrow, windy road. But just past that, not visible from Rt 1 is a very large sign that says “Pfeiffer Beach”. Then it’s a two mile, one lane road (places to pull over when you meet oncoming cars) to the entry station ($5) and parking lot. There are numerous houses along this road, most not visible from the road itself. This is THE Big Sur Beach, the one thousands of photographers have made famous. It’s a tiny beach, but there are several huge rocks with arches through which the waves crash, very forcefully and dramatically.

    Then it’s just another couple miles to:
    Nepenthe – the restaurant famous for it’s views and it’s $16 hamburgers. The views are of course, wonderful, though no better than the pull outs in that area, but you can enjoy that view while you eat. In addition to the main restaurant there is a slightly less expensive café, and there is a gift shop.

    8 miles, 15 minutes further is
    Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – the short entry road is east of the highway (away from the water). There is a $10 entry fee but it’s self pay. From the parking area it’s a ¼ mile hike under the highway to a semi paved path, The Overlook Trail, leading around an incredibly turquoise cove with an 80 foot waterfall (McWay Falls) cascading down the cliff onto the sand next to an arched rock. Absolutely my favorite spot. It was like heaven. Wildflowers lined the hillside above, as well as the very, very steep hillside down to the water. There were actually two people and their beach towels down there. No idea how they got there, there was no even remotely passable way down from the path, it looks like they may have had to swim in from around the other side.

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    Very cool video, that's the exact area I did. Thanks for posting it. Although as he says in the video, not the best idea for most people to try to get down there, extremely dangerous. Anyway, it was gorgeous from up above.

    Deb - why yes, that was my traveling companion. He goes on all my trips with me.

    I'm glad people are finding this useful. One of the first places I go now when planning a trip are the trips reports on this forum.

    I'll post more when I get home from work.

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    From McWay Falls south the next 60 miles (about an hour and a half of actual driving, took me 2 hours but that included several photo stops and a 20 minute bakery stop) there are no ‘sites’ other than the coast itself. If anything, this stretch is more challenging driving that the area from Santa Cruz to here. Lots of hairpin turns and stretches where there really is not much land between the pavement and the drop off. Then the road straightens and widens out and you can speed up.

    Piedras Blancas Light House looked a little strange as the top (the part with the light) was missing – it’s actually sitting on the ground in the town of Cambria next to the town hall. I think they are building a new light. There are tours a few times a week, you can’t get very close on your own.

    Another two miles brings you to Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery (four miles north of the entrance to the Hearst Castle). There were hundreds of seals on the beach (about 1 pm) – a few large males with the ‘elephant’ like nose – but mostly pups, although they were pretty darn big. I believe they are born in January or February so they would be a few months old. The location is ideal for the seals: it is protected by the Piedras Blancas point from storms from the northwest; it has wide, sandy beaches offering pups protection from high water; and it is protected from predators by a kelp forest. Also important to the seals are the shallow rocky areas just off the beach. These areas are protected by the rocks from breaking waves and provide an ideal location for recently weaned pups to learn to swim and for the males to spar. The first time I was there they were all sleeping. But I went back later, after Hearst Castle, it was close to sun set and they were moving into the water. Great fun watching them move, you can really see the blubber.

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    Hearst Castle –one of America’s grandest estates, consisting of a main building – the size and shape of which roughly resemble a Spanish cathedral – plus three smaller ‘cottages’, two large pools, tennis courts and lots of gardens. Hearst went on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe with his mother when he was ten, and fell in love with the art and architecture he saw, especially that of Spain and Italy. Hearst purchased historic European art, architectural elements, and had copies made of still more, all of which he incorporated into steel and concrete earthquake-resistant structures, creating the illusion of southern European Renaissance buildings. He built all this high above the California coast with spectacular views and named the place “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill).


    The main terrace acts as a central plaza for the estate, show casing Casa Grande as well as the views of the Pacific Ocean to the south and Santa Lucia mountains to the north. The lily pond reflects Coast Live Oaks and Southern Magnolia and provides the sound of water, an important effect in Mediterranean gardens. Several Italian artists sculpted the statues in the gardens. There are also 19th and 20th Century statues as well as some ancient sarcophagi that Hearst collected. There are copies of some of the most famous works of art in Europe including Le Petit Faun from Pompeii, The Three Graces from Italy, Venus Gazing at her Reflection, Europa, Raphael’s David, and the boy with the thorn in his foot that is in the Capatoline Museum in Rome. It was really cool for me to see these works and remember where I had seen the originals.

    There really is no ‘town’ of San Simeon. There’s a few buildings (post office, general store) near the pier/beach. Then 3 miles south is a collection of motels and restaurants – but no other stores or houses, at least that were apparent.

    Paos Robles Wine Country - Rt 46 – goes through some nice enough agricultural and wine country, lots of semi green rolling hills. Not terribly beautiful but ok. But as I discovered a couple days later, this area really is not comparable to Sonoma and Napa Valley. Hwy 101 is mostly a 4 or 6 lane highway. Boring but gets you up to the GG Bridge in about 4 hours and it was not strenuous driving. Since I had spent the better part of two days driving down, up and back down the Pacific Coast Highway, and this day it was cloudy, I opted for the ‘easy’ route.

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    Driving Across the Golden Gate Bridge

    Once in San Francisco the highway ends and you are on ‘city’ streets. I had worried that it might be extremely slow or easy to get off track and be lost but it was very straight forward, and although there were lights it went pretty fast (this was a Sunday afternoon though). Just before the bridge there is a parking area so I thought I’d try and see if I could get out and walk around, or even over the bridge. No such luck. The parking area had at least three cars waiting for every space. It was crazy. I gave up in five minutes but it took another fifteen to get out of there. Driving over the bridge it was sunny and the bridge was gorgeous.

    Immediately on the north side of the bridge is another parking lot – signed ‘Vista Point’. This one was a lot less crowded, only a short wait for a parking space. The views are pretty wonderful, of the city across the bay and the bridge itself, although it was afternoon so the sun behind the bridge so not that great shocking red color. Then took the next exit which is Alexander Ave, towards Sausalito. It was pretty clearly marked – you can go back under the highway to the areas west of the bridge, or down to a small wharf area to the east of the bridge. It’s labeled Fort Baker/Bay Area Discovery Museum. You are almost under the bridge with nice views, and the closest to the city of all the views. Leaving there I headed back towards 101, went under the highway and then just as you are about to go over the bridge you take the right. If you miss it you are definitely stuck heading back into SF and would have to turn around and pay the toll to get back. But if you are watching for it, and in the right lane, it’s not hard. The first viewing area was totally full, with several cars ‘waiting’ for people to leave. There is another area just a few hundred yards further and I got a space at that one, and there is a path to connect the two. These view points have the closest views of the bridge. But then there are several more as you go up the hill, each with different views. The sun was in and out of the clouds changing the color of the bridge.

    The road continues up to the Point Bonita Lighthouse – at one point it becomes a one way road and that little stretch is probably even scarier than anything down in Big Sur. It is a sharp downhill and it looks like you are literally going to drive off the road into the water far below. I literally took that stretch at five miles an hour. If your breaks failed you would die. The area out by the lighthouse is pretty but the lighthouse access itself was closed – supposed to open in April.

    Went back the way I came and continued on to Sausalito. Cute little town but nothing really special – nice views across the bay to SF. But going out of town in the other direction (north) there are several marinas of houseboats – this is something Sausalito is famous for. And fortunately the sun was out and water calm so I got some good reflection shots.

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    We really enjoyed the Paso Robles wine country, but we got off route 46 and drove around in the hills where most of the vineyards are. Very scenic, and we also stopped at a great olive mill to taste olive oils.

    We only knew to do this because we had met one of the vineyard owners at a restaurant in Cambria the previous night and we were looking for his vineyard.

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    I'm sure on a nice sunny day, off the main road, that Paso Robles is lovely. But I think I'm still glad I went to Sonoma/Napa which I really liked, even in the rain, even though my taste in wine runs to €4 bottles of wine from Monoprix (known to my friends as a wine dummy - in my defense, I know chocolate better than most people).

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    Sonoma and Napa Valleys

    My original plan was to continue up the coast for a day and then head over to wine country, but all week they had been forecasting horrendous weather was coming so I decided to use my last dry day to see Sonoma and Napa Valley. But first I did stop to see Muir Woods. Some very nice tall redwoods in a pretty park like setting. Even though it was sunny at the time, it was quite dark in the woods – all those tree will do that. There are obviously miles that you can hike, but I just did a short half mile or so on the ‘path’.

    It was a fairly short drive up to Sonoma, and it went by Angelo’s Wine Country Deli which I had read about on Fodor’s so got a sandwich for later. So thank you to which ever Fodorite gave me that tip.

    Sonoma – another cute little town – large central plaza with pleasant looking stone town hall in the center. On one side are some old adobe buildings – a barracks that you can apparently tour – I just peaked in as there was no one around to buy a ticket from. Next to it is the Solano Mission – nothing compared to the one in Carmel, but nice simple white adobe church. A large theatre, a few other wooden, western style buildings.

    Driving north on Rt 12 through the Sonoma Valley it quickly became very lovely. Bucolic describes it. It helps that there were flowering trees and yellow mustard flowers on the ground and while there were clouds around the sun was mostly out. The little town of Glen Ellen was a non event, not really worth the two minute detour. Ledson Winery is a pretty little French Chateau type building. Not exactly on Loire Valley scale (really just a big house).

    The drive to Calistoga was less pretty but only half an hour or so. I took the left just before the town and checked out Chateau Montelena Winery – very pretty main building, kind of generic European stone building. Nice little pond with Japanese pagoda and bridges. All made especially nice due to the flowering bushes/trees and daffodils, etc. Plus that yellow mustard again in the vineyards surrounding it.
    Just down the road is the Old Faithful Geyser of California. I almost didn’t pay the $10, but it was worth it I guess, to see one of supposedly only three truly ‘faithful’ geysers. It was going off every 10 minutes and there were picnic tables so I ate my sandwich (wonderful) and watched it go off three times. Would have been a lot more impressive with blue sky. Having the palm trees in the back ground was interesting, not something I associate with geysers.

    The town of Calistoga has a few blocks of western style false front buildings, some wine stores, coffee shops, bookstores, etc. One store, Mud Hens, with candles, lotions, etc. – sign says ‘we have mud’. But both times I tried to go there it was closed. The Village Bakery has very yummy pastries and coffee.

    Three miles south is Castello di Amorosa – really, really impressive. More European castle like than 90% of the actual European Castles – maybe not quite that good, but close. And set among miles of vineyards, with Cyprus lined drive and very Italian looking outbuildings it really is the ‘best’ winery in terms of buildings. Add grazing sheep, a flock of chickens with crowing rooster and a pair of peacocks and the atmosphere is very much that of a European castle – kind of a combination of Irish and Italian. Probably the green setting was what made it feel more Irish than Italian. That and lack of sun. I walked around the exterior and went over the drawbridge through the main gate. The nice lady working there said I could climb the tower and look around without a tour. Nice stone stairs to a reasonably impressive tower and with great views of the surrounding vineyards.

    Then I drove down Rt 29 to Napa. It’s less pretty, busier than Rt 12 through the Sonoma Valley, but the wineries are more interesting. Lots of them of course are just boring buildings – the wine may be spectacular, but the building and settings less so. But there were enough that were architecturally interesting. Beringer is supposed to look like a German Rhine house – don’t known about that, don’t recall too many places in the Rhine valley that looked like it, but it was an impressive house. V. Satuii has a very Italian looking building, nice grounds and fountains. Del Dotto Vineyards building is not all that impressive but it has a great fountain and some very nice stone lions. Grgich Hills Estate has a building that I think would be beautiful if the ivy had it’s leaves. Peju Provence looks like a French country house – as you would assume with the name – though I’d put it more in Burgundy than Provence. As you get down between Yountville and Napa it’s a four lane highway. Napa is an actual small city, around 80,000 I think so I didn’t even bother going there and just turned west back towards Sonoma.

    The next two days the rains they had been promising arrive. Constant rain, windy, cool, extremely unpleasant. I am not a wine lover, and I was alone so wasn’t really able to do a lot of tastings. I stopped at several though. Some have tasting areas that are like a bar – you just show up and select about six wines from the menu and they pour you ‘tastes’ – about a third of a glass. So you get about two glasses. They start around $10 and go up from there. Other vineyards have scheduled tastings so if you just show up you’d need to wait till the next one, and some even require reservations. V.Satuii has a large deli with great cheeses and meats, etc. – perfect for a picnic (and they have picnic tables) but alas, not in the drenching rain. Some of them have gift shops.

    At the Castello di Amorosa you can take a tour/tasting ($33). I figured that would be a good thing for a rainy day as much of it is inside/underground. I had made a reservation for 10:30 and when I got there the power was out. It had rained so hard the night before that a tree fell down and took out their power line. So they did the tour in the dark!- they had flashlights and candles and torches but still, much of the time you could not see anything. The generator came on for about two or three minutes every fifteen or so. A little disappointing but the castle really is amazing. It is a very impressive castle – apparently cost $38 million to build, they had things like the wooden doors, iron fixtures, etc. all made in Europe and brought over and they did their research so it was very true to a medieval era castle. And the views from the upper areas are gorgeous, even in the rain. There was a nice little talk about wine making and there was one tasting right out of the barrel down in the cellar (in our case by candle light), then the actual ‘tasting’ upstairs with a selection of six wines from a list of about 20. I really like a couple of the desert wines.

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