NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California

San Francisco to Morro Bay- Itinerary

Ano Nuevo

Critters on the Beach- Ano Nuevo State Park

First up are two sections of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Milagra Ridge and Mori Point. Neither has any formal facilities but offer hiking opportunities no further away than Pacifica. Mori Point is named for an early farming family that operated there from the late 1800's until the 1940's.

After passing Pacifica, Gray Whale Cove and Montara State Beaches one comes to the Pt. Montara Lighthouse, one of two to be encountered on this trip. There is a hostel there. The village of Princeton has a photogenic harbor. Then comes Half Moon Bay, with its State Beach that offers camping. Further on the villages of San Gregorio and Pescadero host beaches as well as Pescadero Marsh, where birders can amuse themselves for a time. After Been Hollow State Beach comes the second lighthouse, Pigeon Point, also with hostel facilities. This one is a State Historic Site, open to the public. A walk around the grounds makes for an idyllic few hours. If you are in the mood to rent a room at one of the lighthouses, and they are not just for youth, click this link: Lighthouses for Rent.

Just past Pigeon Point one encounters a triumvirate of State Parks; one of particular scenic interest and the other two offering camping. Ano Nuevo State Park and the adjacent State Reserve protect elephant seal rookeries and frequently adults may be seen on the beaches molting and partaking of some valuable leisure time. There are seals on the beaches much of the year. During the breeding season, December through March, hiking access is limited to protect the pups. But hiking in the area is recommended nonetheless.

Nearby, Butano and Big Basin Redwoods State Parks sit adjacent to each other. Butano is a small park nestled in a redwood grove. It offers some hiking trails and a small campground. It is for shade-lovers only.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park offers hiking, biking and camping opportunities for a range of visitors, and nearby Waddell Beach attracts surfers, wind-surfers and surf fishermen.

Swanton Berry FarmJust north of Santa Cruz be on the lookout for the Swanton Berry Farm. We stop there every time we're in the neighborhood. If strawberries are in season, pick your own. If not, buy some jam, a berry pie or the best scones sold in North America.

Continuing south to Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Park offers 35 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails and some restored buildings from the original Wilder Ranch. There is no camping, nor are dogs allowed.

Just south of Capitola there are two interesting camping opportunities at the north end of Monterey Bay. New Brighton and Seacliff State Beaches both offer camping, albeit with a very different ambience. New Brighton is a typical campground with a nice mixture of shady and sunny sites. There are some very nice "premium" sites perched on a bluff above the beach that are outstanding, with large sites, privacy and unobstructed views below. The other sites are fine, but lack the exclusivity. The beach itself is fine, but not as nice as the adjacent Seacliff beach. Both abut each other.

Seacliff State BeachCamping at Seacliff is a very different animal. The campsites are on a concrete pad right on the beach. They are not right for everyone, but are probably the best around of that type. There is something to be said for being right on the beach. Seacliff also has a pier for walking and fishing, a boardwalk and a nice Visitor's Center with helpful volunteers. A nice compromise involves camping at New Brighton, and hanging around Seacliff.

Further south, between Capitola and Monterey, Sunset Beach also offers camping. The sites are not right on the beach but are a short walk away and are quite nice. The beach is secluded behind some large farms where workers toil during harvest season. Manresa State Beach is adjacent.

Between there and Monterey numerous state beaches beckon, but they do not offer camping facilities.

Monterey and Carmel are undeniably destinations, but probably not for the camper. But a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must. So is a walk along the coast in Pacific Grove. To get back to the wilderness, but be within reach of those two fine cities, one needs to venture into Big Sur country. But before that you must visit Pt. Lobos State Reserve just south of Carmel. Few places in the world pack so much beauty into such a small package. With luck you'll see otters frolicking in the kelp beds giving you a crash course in how to shuck an oyster (or clam). Moving on, the place to camp is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It is a large park but in a very attractive area so don't take getting a campsite for granted; reserve ahead unless you are traveling off-season. The sites are well laid out with adequate privacy but if you need a level site you need to be careful. Some are not close to level.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkDon't confuse Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 12 miles to the south. That park offers some nice hiking (one to a pretty waterfall) but no camping. The waterfall is shown at left.

Another nearby choice for those willing to walk-in, Andrew Molera State Park  offers 24 sites in a nice secluded area with access to some nice hiking. And tiny (10 sites) Limekiln State Park is another option in the area.

Whether staying in Big Sur of just passing through, a meal at Nepenthe is a must. On a nice day there are few places anywhere with a better ambience. Its the perfect spot to relax in a very beautiful area and have a true Big Sur experience. If camping at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, give the camp stove a rest for at least one night and splurge on a restaurant meal within a few miles of camp. To fail in that mission would be a mistake.

South of Big Sur one must come to grips with Hearst Castle. While undeniably a "tourist" destination, it is truly a unique American experience, kind of like Las Vegas in its uniqueness. There is nothing quite like it. So stop, take the tour, and camp at the nearby San Simeon State Park. Five miles from the castle, it is situated across Highway 1 from the coast but within an easy walk of same. But much of the land between the park and the ocean is privately owned and fenced, so one needs to take the hike from Leffingwell Landing to Moonstone Beach and avoid trespassing.

Hearst CastleFor the uninitiated, there are four different castle tours, all requiring reservations. In the off-season you can often just walk in and get a tour. But in summer you need to plan ahead and reserve a tour in advance. Tour 1 is the best choice if only one tour is in the cards, but you make a day of it and take all 4 tours if you are so inclined. Each tour takes in different parts on the estate. A movie, the cost of which is included in a tour ticket, is a must-see. It is beautifully photographed and highly informative.

The Hearst Corporation still owns much of the adjacent land, including a beef farm, and they sell beef in the Visitor's Center. But the kitchen where they prepare and sell lunch offers a truly lifeless and tasteless burger. Go with something else. Go figure.

South of Hearst Castle comes the last leg of the trip, to Morro Bay, and if desired, San Luis Obispo. At Morro Bay there are two camping choices, Morro Bay State Park and Montana de Oro State Park. They are nearby. The former offers the more "refined" park experience, with lots of sites, showers and all of the better state park amenities. The downside is that the park feels very urban. Nearby is Morro Rock, within a stones throw of the Morro Bay nuclear power plant. This is not a wilderness experience. Its great if your primary goal is to explore the city of Morro Bay or nearby San Luis Obispo. Both have become quite developed, but the areas along the waterfront still retain some charm, but with an obvious tourist bent.

The latter is quite different; it has the look and feel of its more remote location. The sites are quite nice but you won't be walking into town for lunch.

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