NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California


Exploring Los Padres National Forest

Background

Los Padres National Forest covers about 2 million acres, stretching from Big Sur near Monterey to the outskirts of Los Angeles, a distance of about 220 miles. It encompasses 10 official "wilderness" areas with over 875,000 acres with elevations ranging from sea level to over 8,800 feet. It offers in excess of 1,200 miles of hiking/riding trails plus 459 miles of trails serving the OHV folks. The forest is one of the most fire-prone in California, with an average of 25,000 acres being burned each year since the early 1900's. For our purposes, we will focus on the part of the forest managed by the Monterey Ranger District. That will take you from about Carmel to Santa Maria, north of Santa Barbara.

Within the Monterey Ranger District there are two wilderness areas: Ventana and Silver Peak. The Ventana Wilderness covers 216,500 acres straddling the Santa Lucia Mountains. That wilderness runs to the east and parallel to Hwy. 1 from Carmel south. For us northerners that's our home turf. The Silver Peak Wilderness covers 14,500 acres and offers access to redwood groves and views of the Pacific Ocean. A 20 mile stretch of the Big Sur River in Monterey County has been designated "Wild & Scenic."

Regarding the destinations listed below we've taken some liberties with the national forest boundaries. Some of them are not technically within the forest but they are close and need to be considered within the context of a visit here. Virtually all of these are located along the coast off Hwy. 1 as once you head inland you hit the Ventana Wilderness with virtually no access roads. Also, the Ventana Wilderness is packed with hike-to campsites that will keep the most avid backpacker amused for quite some time. Get a forest service map and hit the trail(s).

What To Do

Fishing

There are about 400 miles of streams serving as trout habitat, some of it stocked by DFG. There are numerous reservoirs with populations of warm weather species like bass, catfish, crappie and sunfish. Coastal areas offer saltwater fishing for surfperch and rockfish. In our area of interest (the Monterey/ Big Sur area) there are limited options for high-quality fishing. The ocean fishing is great. Pinto Lake offers early season fishing for stocked rainbow trout and late season fishing for crappie & bluegill. It also has RV- only camping. The rivers are not highly thought of.

Hunting

Much of the forest is open for hunting. It is allowed for mule deer, black bear, wild boar, rabbit, wild turkey, quail and chukar.

Camping

This is a beautiful area, and campgrounds abound. The downside is that they are extremely popular and are often unavailable. Reservations, where available, are highly recommended.

Sightseeing

Big Sur

This approximately 75 mile stretch of Hwy. 1 south of Monterey is certainly one of the prettiest anywhere; Point Lobos is not to be missed. Another well-known attraction is Pfeiffer Beach. There are numerous places to camp, take photos, hike, picnic, sunbathe, search tide pools, view wildlife and dive. We don't generally tout restaurants so when we do it's got to be special. You must have lunch or dinner (or both) at Nepenthe. And don't go when it's dark; the view is a killer. It's south of Carmel just past Point Sur and Andrew Molera State Park. If you come to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park you've gone too far.

Cuesta Ridge

A great spot to take in the views of Morro Bay with its famous rock, the Atascadero Hills and the Santa Lucia Wilderness.

Wild Horse Viewing

There is a small herd of wild horses that range on the east side of the southern Santa Lucia Range near Black Mountain.

Destinations

New Brighton State Beach.

This ones a cheater, since it's near Capitola/ Santa Cruz and not in the forest. But it's on the way for folks heading south on Hwy. 1 from San Francisco so we've included it. It's also a nice spot. It sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean and has a nice 82 site campground. It's a short walk to the beach, which it shares with Seacliff State Beach. Click the link for New Brighton State Beach for more information.

Seacliff State Beach

Next door to New Brighton but very different. They share the same beach but not the ambiance. The 35 camping sites here are basically parking spaces on a concrete lot marked off as at the mall. So camping rigs need to be self-contained and tents don't work. But there are restrooms and showers nearby. At New Brighton you need to walk down a bluff to the beach; here you are right on the beach. Click the New Brighton/ Seacliff State Beach link for more information.

Pinto Lake Park

Managed by the City of Watsonville, this park offers RV-only camping with 28 sites with full 30 amp hookups for RV's of any length. Picnic tables, BBQ's, restrooms with flush toilets, picnic areas and a boat ramp complete the picture. Rainbow trout are stocked twice a month for early season fishing and there are populations of crappie and bluegill when the water warms up. Open year round. Click the Pinto Lake link for more information.

Manresa Uplands & Sunset State Beaches

These adjacent beaches south of Santa Cruz offer near-beach camping. Manresa is a tent only walk-in campground with 64 campsites, some with ocean views. Sunset has 91 sites for tents or RV's a short walk from the beach. Click the Manresa/ Sunset State Beach link for more information.

Carmel River State Beach

A nice small beach on the outskirts of Carmel for walking and having lunch while taking a break from shopping or driving. Click the Carmel River State Beach link for more information.

Point Lobos State Reserve

Located 2.5 miles south of Carmel, not stopping here is forbidden. This is one of those areas that stand so far above the ordinary that it simply cannot be missed. There' great hiking, wildlife viewing and photo ops galore. Enough said. Click the link for Point Lobos State Reserve for more information.

Garrapata State Park

An undeveloped day-use park located about 4 miles south of Carmel. Within its 2,800 acres one will pass the time walking along the shore, picnicking on a sandy beach or hiking into the Santa Lucia Mountains. Wildflowers abound at times. Sea lions, sea otters and other coastal creatures can all be seen here. Park Rangers lead whale-watching tours in January so you may catch sight of migrating gray whales. Trails of note include a short .2 mile Garrapata Beach Trail 7.6 miles south of Carmel River State Beach, the 1.7 mile Soberanes Point Trail that starts 1.7 miles south of Carmel River State Beach, and the more challenging 4.5 mile Rocky Ridge Saddle- Soberanes Canyon Loop. The latter involves a 1,700 foot elevation change so it's not for the casual hiker. Adjacent to this park is the Palo Corona Regional Park. Click the Garrapata State Park link for more information.

Palo Corona Regional Park

Managed by the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District. 4,300 acres of former ranch land that rises from sea level to an elevation of 3,400 feet. It is permanent habitat for coastal trout and features steelhead fisheries. It is home to some rare species, including the California red-legged frog and tiger salamander. Hikes include Inspiration Point, a 1.3 miler with an 850 foot elevation gain with views of the Carmel coast and Animas Pond, a short .6 mile addition that will lead to a pond that serves as home to a colony of red-legged frogs. Access to the park is by permit, which must be reserved 2 weeks in advance and are limited to 13 per day at the Hwy. 1 entrance and 8 per day from the South Bank Trail entrance. www.mprpd.org (831) 372-3196.

Mill Creek Redwood Preserve

1,534 acres of coastal redwood canyon, managed by the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District. There is a 5.5 mile trail (out & back) into an area settled in 1868 that became an important source of lumber for the Monterey Peninsula. Public access is limited by permits that need to be applied for 2 weeks in advance. Permits are limited to 8 per day with a 5 person limit per permit. Call (831)372-3196 or www.mprpd.org. Directions: drive south on Hwy. 1 ten miles from Carmel to Palo Colorado Rd. (1/4 mile past Rocky Pt. Restaurant). Turn left and drive about 6.8 miles to the preserve.

Point Sur Light Station State Historic Park

How can you not like lighthouses? Located in beautiful places. Historic. Buildings with character. Once manned by people with character who were frequently heroic. This one was ordained in 1889 and is quite short, a mere 40 feet atop a bluff, when compared to some of the more majestic towers located elsewhere on the coast. But it's still a lighthouse. Docent-lead tours are the only way to go as the surrounding land is largely privately owned and off-limits. It's on Hwy. 1 19 miles south of Carmel. Click the Pt. Sur State Park link for more information.

Andrew Molera State Park

A year-round park, portions of which are off-limits during the rainy season; seasonal bridges spanning the Big Sur River are removed. Sited along the Pacific Ocean it offers hiking, biking, horseback riding and camping for tents only. Click the Andrew Molera State Park link for more information and directions.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Another year-round park with lots of camping spots with close access to the coast. This one would not be classified as remote or undeveloped as there's a motel, restaurant, cabins, gift shop, softball field and other amenities that make it feel more like a private camping resort, although the individual campsites are set away from most of those facilities. Click the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park link for more information.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Essentially a day-use park although there are 2 "environmental" campsites that must be reserved in advance. Located right on Hwy. 1 37 miles south of Carmel. Pets are not allowed. There's a much- photographed waterfall, a small beach and several nice hiking trails. Click the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park link for more information. There is diving by permit nearby.

Limekiln State Park

A nicely located park nestled in the redwoods right off Hwy. 1 2 miles south of the village of Lucia, an hour or more from Carmel. It gets its name from the kilns that once operated here, remnants of which are still here. There is camping, hiking, beach-combing and more. Because the access road is steep vehicles exceeding 24 feet in length are discouraged from entering. Click the Limekiln State Park link for more information.

Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument/ Hearst Memorial State Beach

Located across Hwy. 1 from each other, these spots could not be more different yet more compatible. Better known as Hearst Castle, the former offers hugely popular tours of the former retreat of famed publisher William Randolph Hearst. If you are in the area you need to do at least one tour (there are several- all interesting) as there are few places in this country that can match this place in terms of scale and the wealth needed to construct it. A "must-do." The beach is merely what was once his private beach. Totally unadorned and something mere mortals can relate to; it even has a bait shop. Click the Hearst San Simeon link for more information.

San Simeon State Park

A year-round park where you can camp while visiting Hearst Castle. Don't expect to meet any of Mr. Hearst's descendants here; they don't camp. 134 developed campsites, some of which are periodically closed off. Click the San Simeon State Park link for more information.

Cayucos & Morro Strand State Beaches

The former is a small day-use beach offering sunning, swimming, picnic tables, a play area for kids and an outdoor shower. The latter offers much the same, with the addition of what is considered camping in these parts; a parking lot with a few flower pots imitating flora. It's a place for camping rigs to park in a beach setting, but without the sand. Don't do this if you don't like neighbors. Click the Cayucos & Morro Strand link for more information.

Morro Bay State Park

A year-round spot to camp on the ocean. With 135 campsites, some with hookups, and access to a museum, marina, public golf course, disc golf course and more it will appeal to those who like access to the finer things in life while camping. The famous & much photographed Morro Rock is nearby. What is not shown in the photos is the chain link fence blocking access and the nuclear power plant right next door. The town of Morro Bay is within walking distance of the campground. An interesting side trip from January thru June: the Heron Rookery Natural Preserve, home (literally) to great blue heron families along with cormorants and other species of flying critters. Click the Morro Bay State Park link for more information.

Montana de Oro State Park

A somewhat rustic year-round park with in a wooded area near the coast. There is camping for all types of sleeping arrangements, equestrian sites, group sites with hiking and more. Near the town of Los Osos. Click the Montana de Oro State Park link for more information.

Los Osos Oaks State Reserve

A day-use area of 85 acres protecting a stand of California coast live oaks, many standing a mere 6 feet tall, belying their 700+ years. Several short trails provide access and docent tours can be arranged at the nearby Morro Bay Museum. Dogs are not allowed. Click the Los Osos Oaks State Reserve link for more information.

Pismo State Beach- Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area

This is a mixed bag, all of it happening right on the ocean. North Beach & Oceano campgrounds offer traditional campsites while right next door is the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Area, catering to the OHV crowd with 1,000 campsites on the beach. If you want to commune with nature this area probably won't be near the top of your list. But it's a place to sleep if you're enroute to somewhere else. Click the Pismo Beach link for more information.

Point Sal State Beach

A day-use park with no facilities and little use. A nice getaway. To get there drive 1.7 miles south of the village of Guadalupe to Point Sal Road and drive 8.9 miles west to the parking area. The access road is semi-maintained with pavement interspaced with rough or sandy areas. Rains make it impassable at times.

Other Campgrounds in the Area

Bottcher's Gap Walk-in Campground

Location: From Carmel drive south on Hwy. 1 ten miles to County Road 5012/ Palo Colorado Rd. Turn left and drive 9 miles to the campground.

Attraction: Location. Location. Location.

Campsite Description: 12 tent only sites. Picnic tables, fire grills and vault toilets. No drinking water.

Season: Year-round.

Reservations: Not accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees $12   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 2,100 feet
Toilets Vault   Supplies Carmel

Information: Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Ranger District. (831) 385-5434.

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

White Oaks & China Camp Campgrounds

Location: In the national forest. From Hwy. 1 in Carmel drive just past the downtown exits to Carmel Valley Road. Turn left toward Carmel Valley and drive 22 miles to County Road 5007/Tassajara Road. Drive south on Rd. 5007 for 8 miles to the White Oaks campground and 11 miles to China Camp.

Attraction: Proximity to Carmel, Hwy. 1 and trails into the Ventana Wilderness. This can lead to more hike-to campsites in the wilderness. Tassajara Hot Springs Resort is also nearby.

Campsite Description: White Oaks: 7 sites for tents or RV's to 20 feet. Picnic tables, fire grills and a vault toilet. No drinking water. Forest service campfire permits are required. China Camp: 6 sites for tents or RV's to 20 feet. Same amenities. China Camp is at 4,500 feet elevation; White Oaks 4,000 feet.

Season: Year-round for White Oaks; April- November for China Camp.

Reservations: Not accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees None   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 4,000 feet
Toilets vault   Supplies Carmel

Information: Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Ranger District. (831) 385-5434.

Day Hikes in Area: Ventana Wilderness is nearby.

Backpacking Hikes in Area: Ventana Wilderness is nearby.

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

Arroyo Seco Campground

Location: Along the Arroyo Seco River in Los Padres National Forest. On the east side of the forest. Take Hwy. 101 to the town of Greenfield and take the Arroyo Seco/Elm Ave. exit. Go west on Elm Ave. 6 miles to Arroyo Seco Rd. Turn left and drive 6.5 miles to Carmel Valley Road. Turn right and drive 3.5 miles to the campground. Or from Carmel take the Carmel Valley Rd. exit and drive east to the campground.

Attraction: A 49 site campground with showers & flush toilets in a nice area.

Campsite Description: 49 sites for tents or RV's to 26 feet. A group site for up to 50 people. Picnic tables, fire grills, restrooms with flush toilets & coin-operated showers, drinking water and a dump station.

Season: Year-round.

Reservations: Accepted at www.recreation.gov or (877) 444-6777. Required for group site.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access Yes
Fees $20   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water Yes   Lake on Site No
Showers Yes   Elev 900 feet
Toilets Flush   Supplies Nearby

Information: Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Ranger District. (831-385-5434.

Day Hikes in Area: Ventana Wilderness

Backpacking Hikes in Area: Ventana Wilderness

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

Escondido & Memorial Park Campgrounds

Location: From King City on Hwy. 101 turn south on County Road G14 and drive 18 miles to Mission Road. Turn north and drive 6 miles to Del Venturi/ Milpitas /Indian Rd. Turn left and drive 16 miles to the Memorial Park and 20 miles to the Escondido campground.

Attraction: Primarily a basecamp for hikers into the Ventana Wilderness.

Campsite Description: Escondido: 9 sites for tents only. Picnic tables, fire grills & vault toilets. No drinking water. Memorial Park: 8 sites for tents only. Same amenities.

Season: April- November.

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees None   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 2,300 feet
Toilets Vault   Supplies No

Information: Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Ranger District. (831) 385-5434.

Day Hikes in Area: Ventana Wilderness

Backpacking Hikes in Area: Ventana Wilderness.

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

Kirk Creek Campground

Location: From Monterey drive south on Hwy. 1 to the town of Lucia and then 4 additional miles to the campground.

Attraction: This one is kind of special. It sits on a bluff where Kirk Creek meets the ocean. In 2013 Sunset Magazine rated it as one of the 150 best campgrounds in the western states. There is a short trail to the beach and easy access to the Ventana Wilderness.

Campsite Description: 34 sites for tents or RV's to 30 feet. No hookups. Picnic tables, fire grills, drinking water and flush toilets.

Season: Tear-round.

Reservations: Accepted for 1/2 the sites at www.recreation.gov (877) 444-6777.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees $22   Fishing Ocean
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water Yes   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev Sea level
Toilets Flush   Supplies Lucia

Information: Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Ranger District. (831) 385-5434.

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

Nacimiento & Ponderosa Campgrounds

Location: From Hwy. 1 in Monterey drive south to the town of Lucia and continue on 4 miles to Nacimiemto-Ferguson Rd. Turn left and drive 11 miles to Nacimiento & 12 miles to Ponderosa campgrounds.

Attraction: Primarily a basecamp for hikers into the Ventana Wilderness.

Campsite Description: Nacimiento: 8 sites for tents or RV's to 25 feet. Ponderosa: 23 sites for tents or RV's to 35 feet. Both have picnic tables, fire grills and vault toilets. Only Ponderosa has drinking water. Nacimiento costs $10 per night and sits at 1,600 feet. Ponderosa costs $15 per night and sits at 1,500 feet.

Season: Year-round.

Reservations: Accepted at Ponderosa at www.recreation.gov (877) 444-6777. Not accepted at Nacimiento.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees $10/15   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water No/yes   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 1,600/1,500 feet
Toilets Vault   Supplies Lucia

Information: Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Ranger District. (831) 385-5434.

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

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