Go Back  Fodor's Travel Talk Forums > Destinations > United States
Reload this Page >

Big Sur Bound in April - outdoor adventure + wine

Big Sur Bound in April - outdoor adventure + wine

Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 06:18 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 42
Big Sur Bound in April - outdoor adventure + wine

Hi everyone!

I've been reading tons on the forum in the last couple weeks and have put together an itinerary based on many of your suggestions. So, already - thank you! Would love some help in refining. My boyfriend and I will be coming to the area for the first time. For reference we're in our 30s/40s and are both very outdoorsy, and love to be active in a natural setting. Love a good hike, quiet time in the woods and a scenic vista. We're also interested in cute towns, botanic gardens, historic landmarks, lighthouses, art galleries, animals in their natural habitat, good food, and drinking wine

On this trip in particular, we'd love to see the redwoods, the coastline, get a little active, but not feel like we're rushing around. I've heard the roads can be busy, and I'm curious if we're packing too much in. Or doing activities that could be better served in other locations.

We haven't booked flights yet, but plan to stay about a week. Looking at arriving in San Jose and flying out of Santa Barbara. Any advice/insight on logistics, weather (road closures?), hiking spots, activities (or anything else) is appreciated! Are there hot springs we could visit?

Here's what we have so far:

Day 1
- Arrive San Jose 11 am, pick up car
- Big Basin Redwoods, Henry Cowell State Park, or both?
- potentially stop in Santa Cruz and watch surfers
- stay in Monterey, Carmel, or Pacific Grove

Day 2
- Potentially visit Elkhorn Slough for a kayaking tour
- Explore Monterey/Carmel area: Point Lobos, Carmel Beach, town, wharf
- stay (same place as previous night) in Monterey, Carmel, or Pacific Grove

Day 3
- Is this the day to do 17 mile drive-- as we're heading out of town?
- Explore the top half of Big Sur: Bixby Bridge, Pfeiffer Falls
- stay at a place like Big Sur Lodge
- hot spring?

Day 4
- Explore the bottom half of Big Sur: McWay Falls, Ragged Point, Piedras Blancas
- stay in San Simeon area

Day 5
- tour Hearst Castle in the morning
- visit a couple Santa Ynez wineries - any recos?

Day 6
- Lotusland
- relaxing day in Santa Barbara

Day 7
- fly out of Santa Barbara

s9frey is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 07:31 AM
Join Date: Nov 2010
Posts: 10,662
There are only 3 hot springs sometimes open to the public in the Big Sur area. One is at a Buddist monastery but opens in May. Another is at an Institute that only allows general public in the pool from 1 to 3 AM. The other had the trail to it damaged by a fire in 2017 and is often overcrowded anyway.
If there is a drop fee to drop the car in Santa Barbara, I advise heading back at the end of day 4 to San Jose and returning where you rented it. At 10AM on day 5, be at the Diridon station in San Jose for the trip south on the Amtrak Coast Starlight (leaves 10:07AM when on time). You could take it as far as SLO and rent a car there for a day of wineries in that area or you could go to Santa Barbara arriving about 6PM. The Santa Barbara station is within walking distance of the famous pier which has several restaurants on it. It is a good hike up to the Mission if you don't want to use the buses that go up there. I also like the Santa Barbra Zoo.
North of Santa Cruz, you can see big Coast Redwoods at Big Basin.
tomfuller is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 07:59 AM
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 21,204
Day one is crowded. A walk in the redwoods is obligatory for the two parks you mention, unlike a drive on the Avenue of Giants up north. So I would pick Henry Cowell it is more accessible from CA17. You'll want to take the CA9 entrance to the park. The other entrance is to the campground.

As for surfers, my impression is that they tend to go to areas north of Santa Cruz, Waddell Beach being the place where wind surfers ca be seen from the road.
Michael is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 10:24 AM
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 66,901
Two quick comments:

• You only need to do one park and you don't have time for both anyway, so Henry Cowell would be the easiest, most time efficient for the rest of your route.

• There really isn't any need to do the 17 mile drive unless you simply 'have to' for some bucket list or other reason.
janisj is online now  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 10:32 AM
Join Date: Sep 2006
Posts: 131
Where are you coming from? And car dropoff will be your main problem re expense.

For animals Elkhorn Slough is good, you could combine it with a whale watch from Moss Landing or Monterey. And although the Aquarium is not nature in the wild it is really worth a visit.

In Pacific Grove we stay at Lovers Point Inn. Just a motel but right on the shore. 17 mile drive is not mandatory; usually Point Lobos is recommended. Hearst Castle? Never bothered.

Santa Barbara is a pleasant place for walking along the shore and the two piers. Try for a hotel near the water. But I'm not sure you have time for Santa Barbara.
emmajm is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 02:30 PM
Join Date: Sep 2005
Posts: 3,047
Cambria has more lodging and restaurant choices than San Simeon and is only a five-ten minute drive away. There are some very nice nearby wineries in nearby Paso Robles if you don't want to drive all the way to Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley area wineries
jamie99 is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 02:44 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 13,096
If you want to include 17 Mile Drive, I'd do it on Day 2 and do Point Lobos on Day 3 on your way to Big Sur. You can just do the coastal portion between the Pacific Grove Gate and Carmel Gate or vice versa. If you do this, I'd add Ocean View Blvd/Sunset Dr in Pacific Grove which also follows the coastline and you'll pass Point Pinos Lighthouse which is open Thursday through Sunday. I'd start or end at Hopkins Beach which is next to the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. This is our largest harbor seal rookery and April is pupping season. There's another small rookery near 5th St in Pacific Grove.

Point Lobos will be less busy if you go when it opens at 8am. There are two harbor seal pupping areas here, China Cove and Whalers Cove.

April is a good time for whale watching as gray whales may still be passing through on their northbound migration to Alaska, orcas are a possibility (they hunt gray whale calves) and humpbacks are starting to arrive for the season in greater numbers. It's best to get on a whale watch boat but also look for spouts any time you're near water.

The trail to Pfeiffer Falls is still closed. It was supposed to reopen early this year but there were some downed trees and other recent damage that set them back. Valley View is open and there are some nice redwoods at the beginning of the trail.

Limekiln is a nice park with 3 short trails including one that leads to an inland waterfall.

We've had a relatively dry winter so unless it rains a lot in March, there shouldn't be any issues with Hwy 1.

Last edited by Patty; Feb 23rd, 2020 at 02:46 PM.
Patty is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 03:13 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 42
tomfuller Bummer to hear about the hot springs. I found that 1-3 am pool, and was hoping there was some sort of error Fortunately the rental fee for a different drop spot is the same as returning to the same place, so we'll plan to keep the car for the whole journey.

janisj and Michael Thanks so much for the insight and photos! We'll plan to skip Big Basin and de-prioritize Santa Cruz. Has anyone been to the Roaring Camp train? Wasn't sure if it was a fun and quirky activity that provided access to some different scenery or if it was more catered to kiddos?

Also, I'm shocked to hear 17 Mile Drive isn't a "must", but I suppose there is beautiful scenery along the way 🤷‍♀️ It just popped up in research and isn't on any bucket list for us, so if its not worth the time, we can adjust.

Patty I appreciate your narrowing in on which bits of 17Mile Drive are the best to visit, and re-ordering our time in the Monterey area. Thanks for all the seal info and the hikes! I'm especially happy to hear we shouldn't encounter any road issues. Do you have any recommendations on whale boats/tours?

emmajm We'll be coming from Detroit. Love the idea of a whale watch! And had considered the aquarium, so I'm glad to hear it is worth the stop. Also, thank you for the hotel recommendations, that's the next item on the list

How is the wharf in Monterey? Is it a fun place to grab a bite to eat? Ot is it super crowded and touristy like the Santa Monica Pier?

Last edited by s9frey; Feb 23rd, 2020 at 03:28 PM.
s9frey is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 04:27 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 13,096
Whale watch tours leave from either Moss Landing Harbor which is very close to the Elkhorn Slough kayak tours or Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey (the wharf itself is fairly touristy). I've gone out with different operators (Sea Goddess, Princess Monterey, Monterey Bay Whale Watch) at both locations and had good experiences so I'd look at the schedule/location that works best with the rest of your activities. You'll need to drop something else if you go whale watching which I do highly recommend.

If you don't end up doing the kayak tour or whale watch out of Moss Landing, it's still worth a stop on your way south from Santa Cruz to look for otters in the slough. Drive to the end of Jetty Rd at Moss Landing State Beach and park in the small lot on the left. Look down into the slough where there are usually rafts of otters.

Last edited by Patty; Feb 23rd, 2020 at 04:30 PM.
Patty is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 05:41 PM
Join Date: Nov 2010
Posts: 10,662
It's great that you found a rental car at a price you are happy with and no drop fee. If you like lighthouses, check out the Pigeon Point Lighthouse about 50 miles south of SFO. It also has a HI Hostel there if you are interested in that type of lodging. Just south of Pigeon Point is Ano Nuevo State Park with a few miles of dunes. I have walked over the dunes on a trail to a bench with a view of the ocean. On the other side of CA 1 is Butano State Park which also has a grove of Coast Redwoods that you can drive up to (dead end road).
tomfuller is offline  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 06:11 PM
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 66,901
" . . . the Pigeon Point Lighthouse about 50 miles south of SFO." They are not arriving at SFO but at SJC. Pigeon Point really won't work because it would add more than an hour to the drive having to go north and back south on Hwy 1 from/to Hwy 17/Santa Cruz
janisj is online now  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 06:28 PM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 2,143
There are two wharf areas in Monterey pretty close together, Fisherman’s Wharf and a commercial working wharf. Lots of restaurant choices on Fisherman’s Wharf, I like Abalonetti with its locals menu (don’t have to be a local, just request). The working wharf has Lou Lou’s and our favorite the Sandbar and Grill.

Agree with others about the 17 mile drive. Nothing wrong with it, but lots of great coast views on the drive through Big Sur.
curiousgeo is online now  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 06:46 PM
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 6,176
I don't think you should skip Santa Cruz. If you drive up to W. Cliff drive you can usually see a lot of surfers- problem is finding a parking place if its a nice day on a weekend. Interesting surfing museum to visit. We spent most of a day there just walking, watching surfers. Walked down to a wharf where there are several outside dining options- all vey casual.
If you like small beach towns, put Capitola on your map. Not far from Santa Cruz.
I have kayaked Monterey Bay and Moss Landing and I enjoyed Monterey Bay more but both were good. Lots of sea otters at Moss Landing. Also at Moss Landing is Phil's Fish House- not to be missed.
Arriving in San Jose at 11? Maybe stop in Los Gatos for lunch.

sunbum1944 is online now  
Old Feb 23rd, 2020, 06:49 PM
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 6,176
Restaurant in Moss Landing is Phil's Fish Market- not Fish House. And the Crows Nest Restaurant in Santa Cruz is also a fun place to go- right on the water, great views and sunsets. Gets very crowded for happy hour.

Last edited by sunbum1944; Feb 23rd, 2020 at 06:53 PM.
sunbum1944 is online now  
Old Feb 24th, 2020, 05:01 AM
Join Date: Nov 2008
Posts: 25,863
If you like cioppino, definitely stop at Phil's. We've often stopped on the way home to pick up a bucket. That and some sourdough bread makes a terrific meal (you can get it at the restaurant too, not just the market).
sf7307 is offline  
Old Mar 1st, 2020, 12:48 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 42
Thanks so much for all the great recommendations! I'm even m ore excited about our trip to Carmel/Monterey/Pacific Grove now! We'll definitely be looking into whale watching, so I really appreciate the companies Patty and the wharf food recos sunbum1944 curiousgeo and sf7307

As I was doing some planning for the second half of the trip, I realized that we'll be somewhat close to Sequoia National Park. Does anyone have any insight on the trees in comparison Henry Cowell State Park and throughout the Big Sur coast? Are they much different, bigger, more in quantity than the ones we'll be seeing along the coast? AND how much time would it warrant to visit?

Day1: Leave Cambria (maybe do a tour at Hearst Castle?), head to southern end of Sequoia
Day 2: Sequoia
Day 3: fly out of Santa Barbara

I know it's not ideal, but we got a little trigger happy on flights before this idea hit. Thanks!

s9frey is offline  
Old Mar 1st, 2020, 01:01 PM
Join Date: Jan 2006
Posts: 2,021
Giant Sequoias are different from the Coastal Redwoods. The first is very wide and quite the sight to see. Google General Sherman Tree. The Coastal ones are the tallest trees. Both are spectacular and awe inspiring. If you must squeeze in Sequoia National Park, do not go to Hearst Castle before. Leave Cambria as early as possible.
AustinTraveler is offline  
Old Mar 1st, 2020, 01:12 PM
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 66,901
Sequoias are a completely different animal - and much as I enjoy sequoia/kings canyon, I wouldn't try to squeeze in a jaunt ove there. First of all, you won't be all that close, and much of the park will still be off limits due to snow and many trails won't be open
janisj is online now  
Old Mar 1st, 2020, 02:51 PM
Join Date: Jan 2006
Posts: 2,021
Just so as not to confuse, both trees are Sequoias, just different species.
AustinTraveler is offline  
Old Mar 4th, 2020, 07:37 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 42
I had no idea that snow would be an issue. Thanks for the heads up!

Based on last year early April, there is quite bit!
s9frey is offline  

Thread Tools
Search this Thread

Contact Us - Archive - Advertising - Cookie Policy - Do Not Sell My Personal Information