Last month, I got to demo the Santa Cruz Megatower at Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz. It was waaaaaaay more bike than I needed for those mostly mellow trails, but I had a blast!
Last month, Greyson and I took our new-ish gravel bikes down to Point Reyes and rode a ~20 mile loop. I had taken my Diamondback Haanjo Trail (full review coming soon) on a few road rides and on one trail ride, but they were all pretty short and I was excited to see how the bike did on a longer route with a mix of road, trail, and gravel riding. I can’t take credit for this route, Greyson did all of the research and put it together. It was challenging (especially the road climb!) but fun, and it had amazing views.
We started from the Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore, which is on Sir Frances Drake Blvd, near Chicken Ranch Beach. We turned left onto Sir Frances Drake and headed west, immediately uphill and climbed about 350 feet in about 0.75 miles before heading down again. I’m not a huge fan of riding with cars, and Sir Frances Drake is pretty narrow and highly trafficked on the weekends. That said, cars seemed to expect to see bikers and gave us plenty of space. After about 2.3 miles, we turned left onto Mount Vision Road for another section of climbing. I spent a lot of time on the trainer this winter, so I wasn’t entirely out of bike shape. That said, this climb was really hard, especially as my first long, outdoor ride of the season. The climb is more than 1,200 feet in about 4.5 miles. Part of the road is currently washed out, and passable by bikes but not cars. It was awesome to ride without worrying about vehicles, but we did have to hike a bike through the landslide section.
Mt. Vision Road dead ends at a trail at the top of Mt. Vision (after quite a few false summits!) and there’s an awesome view of the whole point. Greyson and I took a break here to have a snack and rest our legs. The road ends and turns into the Inverness Ridge Trail about 4.5 miles from the Sir Frances Drake turn off. It starts as a fairly wide double track, but quickly gets pretty narrow and on the steep side. While it’s definitely doable by a competent rider on a gravel bike, I think it would be pretty challenging for someone with beginner bike handling skills. However, that’s a pretty small percentage of the Inverness Ridge Trail section, and the rest of it is much more rideable. There’s a mix of single track, double track and fire road, which was really fun on our gravel bikes. This section is multi use, so watch out for hikers and equestrians! The Inverness Ridge Trail section is about 2.7 miles and drops 450 feet with a couple of short climbs sprinkled throughout.
The trail ends at Limantour Road, which we turned left on for a long, fun downhill road ride. This road had a nice wide shoulder for the most part and less traffic than other sections. Limantour Road actually parallels a couple of trails, but, unfortunately, they’re not open to bikes. Limantour Road dead ends at Bear Valley road after about 4.5 miles and ~770 feet of descent. We turned left on Bear Valley Road, which turns into Sir Frances Drake after less than 0.5 miles, to head back towards the Cottages. This section is almost entirely flat, and I was glad to get out of the drops on my bike and stretch out my back. It was a little unnerving to be so close to cars again after being on trails and empty, wide roads for so long, but again cars were great about giving us space.
We arrived back at the Cottages at almost exactly 19 miles, so I rode around the property until I hit 20! All in all, this was a fun, challenging ride, and I’m excited to try it again when I’m in better shape. Maybe mid-summer? If you’re in the Point Reyes area and looking for a ride with a nice mix of road, gravel, and single track, I highly recommend this loop. Click here to check out my Strava Route.
Location: Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Mileage: 19 miles
Elevation: ~2,300 feet
Coast Miwok & Graton Rancheria Land
While it’s not the most efficient way to travel between Santa Cruz and Point Reyes, California, driving the whole way on Highway 1 is the most beautiful. Driving this way will take you about 3 and a half hours to cover 124 miles, but it’s one of the best stretches of coastal California, and so worth taking your time. I’d recommend doing the drive all in one leisurely day, but tack on a couple of days at least in your starting point of Santa Cruz and your destination of Point Reyes.
Start: Santa Cruz
Check out my blog post here with suggestions for things to do, places to eat, and breweries to check out in Santa Cruz. When you’re ready to head out, start your morning off right with coffee at one of Verve Coffee Roasters four Santa Cruz locations.
Stop One: Davenport Roadhouse Restaurant & Inn (11 miles, 15 minutes)
Stop for breakfast just a few miles up the road at the Davenport Roadhouse Restaurant & Inn. Breakfast is served from 9:00 to 11:30 am. The menu is based around fresh, local ingredients, and the food is as good as the view. If the weather is good, you can sit outside, and the patio is dog friendly.
Stop Two: Pigeon Point Lighthouse (17 miles, 20 minutes)
The Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park is my next suggested destination. The Pigeon Point lighthouse is one of the tallest in the US, and was built in 1872. It’s a gorgeous setting, and there’s even a hostel you can stay at (with a cliffside hot tub!) if you want to really take your time on this route.
Stop Three: Pescadero (9 miles, 13 minutes)
The small town of Pescadero is a slight detour off of Highway 1, but it’s worth it. First, stop at Arcangeli Grocery Company/Norm’s Market and buy a loaf (or two) of the artichoke garlic herb bread. The historic market is on Sage St., the main drag of the small downtown and it’s hard to miss. Next, head west on North St. to Harley Farms Goat Dairy. This place has seriously the best goat cheese I’ve ever had in my life! The farm store has samples of a ton of their delicious flavors – I wish I could have bought them all. My favorites were the lavender honey and the chive. You can even do a tour, which is definitely on my list for the next time I go. Even if you aren’t able to do a tour, you can wander around the grounds and see the goats. Be sure that you have a cooler so you can keep all your purchases cold. I’m a big fan of Yeti Coolers, and the Roadie looks like the perfect size for short road trips.
Stop Four: Half Moon Bay (19 miles, 27 minutes)
The goat cheese and artichoke bread are just too good not to dig into, so head to Half Moon Bay State Beach for a perfect snack spot. Work up an appetite with a beach walk or a hike. There’s four miles of sandy beach in Half Moon Bay, and a 4 mile paved multi use trail as well.
Stop Five: Pacifica (11 miles, 15 minutes)
For one more stop at the beach before you head into the city, stop at Pacifica State Beach. It’s pretty small, but there is swimming and a beach area if the weather is good enough for it. If you want to stretch your legs, there are hiking trails in the Pedro Point Headlands, which leads to a coastal view.
Stop Six: Marin Headlands (17 miles, 40 minutes)
Get ready for some city driving, though this route will take you through Golden Gate Park and The Presidio, both of which are great stops if you need to take break. After the Presidio, you’ll drive over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Just after the bridge, there’s a pullout view to the right. It’s usually pretty busy, but that’s for a reason. I think it’s one of the best views of San Francisco. It’s one of the few places that you can get a view of the city’s skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. If you want to hike up to one of the viewpoints in the Marin Headlands, get off on the Alexander exit just past the scenic viewpoint turn off.
A post shared by Lynn (Tahoe Fabulous) (@tahoefabulous) on
Stop Seven: Stinson Beach (17 miles, 40 minutes)
Stinson Beach is an adorable beach town in Bolinas Bay with gorgeous views of Mount Tamalpais and the coast. My favorite thing to do in Stinson Beach is to eat at the Parkside Cafe. You can eat outside on their deck or stop at the snack bar to pick something up and take to the beach. Get the garlic-cheese bread, if you’re not too carb-ed out already! Parkside also has a bakery, where you can pick up delicious fresh pastries.
Stop Eight: Gospel Flat Farm Stand (5 miles, 10 minutes)
Before your final destination, make one more crucial stop – Gospel Flat Farm Stand. This incredible farm stand is a slight detour from Highway 1 on the other side of the narrow Bolinas Lagoon. Here you’ll find incredible, fresh produce. In addition to the usual, in season staples they often have unique and heirloom veggies like panisse lettuce and watermelon radishes. The stand is on the honor system and cash only, so come prepared with small bills and your own bags.
Destination: Point Reyes National Seashore (13 miles, 23 minutes)
One final stretch of driving, now through the scenic Point Reyes National Seashore, and you’ll arrive in Point Reyes Station, the main town in this area. Check out my blog post about Things to do in Point Reyes for detailed recommendations of sites to see, places to eat and drink, and outdoor activities.
A post shared by Lynn (Tahoe Fabulous) (@tahoefabulous) on
This drive from Santa Cruz to Point Reyes along Highway 1 is one of my favorites I’ve done, and I hope you like it as much as I do!
P.S. Check out my blog post on Road Trip Necessities here.
Point Reyes National Seashore is one of my favorite coastal California destinations. I mean, Greyson and I got married there, so of course I love it. Point Reyes is an easy trip from Tahoe, so when we’re feeling a need for saltwater, that’s usually where we’ll head. The fact that his parents live there and we have a free place to stay doesn’t hurt either!
The Point Reyes area has everything you could want in a coastal California oasis. There are breathtaking vistas, sandy beaches, breaking waves, wildflowers, wildlife, hikes for every ability level, a historic lighthouse, world famous cheese, farm fresh food, and much more. It’s only ninety minutes from San Francisco and even closer to wine country.
After dozens of trips to the area, I’ve amassed quite a list of recommendations, so here are just a few of my favorites.
Whales, Elephant Seals, and Other Wildlife
PRNS is famous for its varied and interesting wildlife. Depending on the time of year you visit, you might see whales, elephant seals, river otters, bobcats, weasels, harbor seals, tule elk, foxes, and dozens of species of birds. You will definitely see the happiest cows in California. If you want to learn more about wildlife viewing in PRNS, click here or visit the Bear Valley Visitors Center. Elephant seals are among the most charismatic of the megafauna at PRNS, and if you want to spot the huge nosed males that give them their name, your best bet is June & July or November through March. You’ll have a good chance of spotting some variety of elephant seal in Point Reyes every month except August, and even then you might get lucky.
If you are an avid birder, Abbot’s Lagoon is a popular location and nesting site for snowy plovers, and you can spot birds of prey like osprey, peregrine falcons, red tailed hawks, kestrels, and more throughout the seashore.
The ocean side of Point Reyes is a great place to spot the gray whale migration as they head back and forth between their northern feeding grounds of Alaskan waters to the warm shallow seas of Baja in the south. January is the best time to see them southbound, while March and April is when they head back north. I prefer the northern migration, because the mothers are traveling with calves, so their usually moving more slowly and closer in to shore. Since whale watching at the lighthouse is so popular, the park operates a required shuttle on weekends and holidays from Christmas to Easter.
Hiking, Biking, and the Great Outdoors
While Point Reyes is worth a visit year round, II love visiting in the spring. The hills are be green and the wildflowers are going off. While it’s usually impossible to completely avoid fog there, spring gives you a good chance for sunny days. Even days with some fog, it will often roll out for a few hours.
When it’s foggy, there are still great places to explore. My favorite hike for wildflowers is the Tomales Point Trail, a 9 mile out-and-back, fairly flat hike that also lends itself to whale watching and Tule elk spotting. Chimney Rock trail is another one known for wildflowers, and it’s only 1.75 miles round trip with barely any elevation change. If you’re looking for something with more of a climb, get to the highest spot on the point with the Mt. Wittenberg Loop. While the high point doesn’t have a view, there are spots along the way that will give you an incredible vantage on the seashore.
Despite being the birthplace of the sport, Marin County isn’t known for being friendly to mountain bikers. However, we often bring our bikes for a quick ride on the Estero Trail. It’s nothing gnarly, but you’ll get gorgeous views of the bay. Be sure to stop on the bridge and look for bat rays passing underneath! Watch out for cows. If you ride all the way out to Drake’s Head, you’ll get awesome views of the whole seashore.
In the summer, Tomales Bay is warm enough for swimming due to how shallow it is. Chicken Ranch Beach on the west side of the bay in Inverness is a good location, though it can get crowded on nice weekends. Parking is on the road only, so you might have to walk in for a bit to get to the beach. Tomales Bay is also a great place to kayak, since it’s usually so flat and calm. Blue Waters Kayaking rents kayaks and offer guided trips and lessons. You can kayak up to some secluded boat only beaches pretty easily.
During the fall, there’s bioluminescence in Tomales Bay and you can go on night kayaking trips to check it out. Several local outfitters offer guided tours and provide the boats. I still haven’t done this yet, but it’s on my to do list.
Eating and Drinking
Marin County has some of the best farm to table restaurants in California, and you’ll be able to find fresh, local produce, meat, and seafood wherever you go.
For quick sandwiches, burritos, and picnic supplies, I like Inverness Park Market. You can head right next door to the Tap Room for an excellent sit down meal as well. The Tap Room serves breakfast on the weekends – try the chilaquiles. For wood fired pizza, Cafe Reyes in Point Reyes Station is my favorite. If you’re looking for a meat-heavy option, there’s a tiny Marin Sun Farms butcher shop/restaurant just outside of downtown. Vegetarians be warned, there might be nothing on the menu that doesn’t have meat.
Point Reyes is famous for its cheese, and yes, the Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam Triple Cream lives up to the hype. You should also try local specialties Toma and Pt. Reyes Blue while you’re here. If you’re cheese obsessed, you can even follow the California Cheese Trail!
Finally, my favorite place in Point Reyes Station – Heidrun Meadery. Heidrun makes their mead champagne style, so it’s fresh, bubbly and not overly sweet. It’s definitely not your typical mead. Each varietal comes from honey made by bees exclusively collecting pollen from a specific flower. The varietals available vary season to season and year to year, but some favorites are almost always on the menu, like California Honey Blossom and Macadamia Nut. My current favorite is Arizona Desert Mesquite, which is a little weird but wonderful. Tours are by appointment only, but you can stop in to taste and buy during business hours.
I’m biased, but my favorite place to stay is the Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore in Inverness, which is owned and operated by Greyson’s parents. It’s within walking distance to the beach, has a pool, hot tub & tennis court, some of the rooms are dog friendly, the prices are affordable, and it’s the lodging that is closest to the National Seashore entrance.
Other places we’ve recommended are Tomales Bay Resort, Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast, Motel Inverness, and The Lodge at Point Reyes. If my budget was unlimited, I’d stay at the hipster’s dream the Inverness A-Frame:
“Blythe design co created this space as a personal sanctuary from our busy city lives and a place to recharge in a truly gorgeous cabin with the wilds of West Marin just outside our doorstep… This Bohemian Modern A- Frame is a two bed two bath spacious cabin located in Northern California in beautiful West Marin county. …Commune with nature, connect with loved ones or gift yourself a personal retreat with a view amongst a forested acre of bay trees, redwoods, and mature oaks….The A-Frame is a sanctuary for all to rest, recharge and create. Designed with a ‘slow’ pace in mind, our hope is that you enjoy every part of your stay; from making breakfast in our open kitchen, to choosing the perfect record to put on as the sun sets, or relaxing on the deck in the heated seats under a moonlit sky. When the weather turns enjoy watching the storm pass over black mountain cozy by the fire with a hot drink in hand.”
There are also lots of AirBnB and vacation rental options, as well as campgrounds in the area.
Back in February, I had some time off between jobs, and Greyson and I were able to go on an amazing road trip along the Big Sur Coast. We drove from Truckee to Big Sur, driving down Highway One as far as we could go. Until recently, the road ended near Gorda, due to the massive landslide, so that’s where we stopped. We stayed a few days in Big Sur, then drove up to Santa Cruz to visit friends and family before heading home.
This trip inspired me to plan a three-day Big Sur Coast Road Trip itinerary – from Monterey, California down to Gorda and back. This road trip would work great as a long weekend, but now that I’ve experienced Big Sur during the week, I have to recommend that if you’re able to swing it. I’ve always had a great experience in Big Sur in late winter, so I’d go then as well, but you’re more likely to get storms than a summer trip, but there will be fewer crowds. Quick note about Big Sur parks – some of the state parks are managed by outside vendors, so your State Parks Pass won’t work at all of them and you’ll have to pay an entrance fee. Bring your pass, but beware of that!
Day One: Monterey to Lucia
While you’re in Monterey, check out the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s a major tourist destination, but for good reason. Spend some time on their deck – I’ve seen everything from otters to humpback whales. Cannery Row is pretty touristy, but fun to check out at least once. There’s actually a lot to do in Monterey, and if you have extra time, it’s worth adding on a day to explore – especially if you’re into John Steinbeck.
Head south on Highway One towards the tiny town of Lucia. You’ll drive through the thick redwood forest of northern Big Sur (don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to explore this area) before popping out in the more open oak woodlands characteristic of the central coast. It’s about an hour and a half drive to Lucia from Monterey, but be sure to keep your eyes out for whale spouts in the Pacific – we saw dozens when we were driving down in February. Less than 20 miles from Monterey you’ll arrive at the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge. There’s a large pull out area on the north side of the bridge, so it’s easy to stop and take photos. Otter related fact: Bixby Creek is where the last remaining population of southern sea otters was found in the 70s, when they were thought to be extinct!
There are a few lodging options near Lucia. I’ve camped at Limekiln State Park and Kirk Creek campground. Both are great and fill up fast, so be sure to get reservations ahead of time. Limekiln has a slight advantage with beach access, though. There are also some non-camping lodging options including the Lucia Lodge, glamping at Treebones Resort, and the super fancy Esalen Hot Springs retreat center.
For meals, I’d suggest bringing a picnic dinner to eat on the beach or at a scenic cliff – charcuterie and sauvignon blanc on Limekiln Beach at sunset is one of my top ten meals of all time. If you’re looking for a restaurant, both the Lucia Lodge and Treebones have restaurants that are open to non-guests and Whale Watchers Cafe is a restaurant in Gorda.
Day Two: Explore Big Sur
If you’re up early, morning is the best time to take photos of the iconic McWay Falls. McWay Falls is one of only two California waterfalls to pour directly on the beach. It’s got to be one of the most photographed spots on the Big Sur Coast, but it’s worth the hike to the view point. While people occasionally do hike down to the falls and the beach, there is no developed trail and it’s an incredibly dangerous undertaking. Stick to the walk to the viewpoint, the view is still incredible and you won’t die. If you don’t make it in the morning, and you want to take good photos, come back in the evening.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is about 15 minutes north of McWay Falls and is quirky spot that’s worth a visit. It’s part bookstore/part performance venue/part museum.
“The Henry Miller Library is a public beneﬁt, non-proﬁt 501 (c) 3 organization championing the literary, artistic and cultural contributions of the late writer, artist, and Big Sur resident Henry Miller. The Library also serves as a cultural resource center, functioning as a public gallery/performance/workshop space for artists, writers, musicians and students. In addition, the Library supports education in the arts and the local environment. Finally, the Library serves as a social center for the community…The Library hosts events throughout the year, but particularly in the summer months (May-October), including music, lectures, book signings, and countless community events…”
Another worthy stop is Pfeiffer Beach – this is a big sandy beach with a very recognizable sea arch. The walk from the parking to the beach is kind of long, but this would be another great spot for a picnic. If you’re looking for a quick snack and amazing coffee, stop by Big Sur Bakery or at Big Sur Taphouse for a bigger meal. There are also a ton of unique shops filled with local items, perfect for gifts or souvenirs.
One of the best parts of the Big Sur Coast is that there are so many amazing view points. When you’re driving along, be sure to pull over and stop anywhere that looks appealing – you’ll be sure to see something spectacular. After your leisurely day exploring the coast, you’ll be ready to get a good night’s sleep, whether that’s on an inflatable mattress or in a super nice hotel bed. I’d recommend heading back towards where you stayed on night one since the drive is so short and scenic, but there are plenty of lodging options closer to the town of Big Sur.
Big Sur to Monterey
One of the best known restaurants in Big Sur is the ultra-fancy Nepenthe, but one of the best kept secrets in Big Sur is the fact that Nepenthe has a less ritzy breakfast and lunch restaurant called Cafe Kevah. Cafe Kevah’s menu is smaller (and less expensive), but you can eat out on their amazing deck – one of the best views on the Big Sur coast. I’d call it a good trade off and recommend waking up early enough on your last day to make it to breakfast here.
After a leisurely breakfast, head north to the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos is a spectacular part of the California State Parks system and a can’t miss stop on the drive between Big Sur and Monterey. Guided walks are available every day, or you can just wander around and see the sights. When we were there, the water was so clear in some coves that we could see the baby harbor seals swimming around. We also saw a bunch of sea otters – including a tiny baby tied up in the kelp! You can even SCUBA dive and snorkel in Point Lobos – more information here.
Extend your last day with a final stop in Carmel by the Sea. This tiny and ritzy town is always worth a visit. Wander around the cute downtown and pop into a restaurant for lunch – chances are wherever you stop will be delicious. Monterey is only about a ten minute drive from Carmel, so savor your last glimpses of the ocean. With that, your road trip is complete!
I hope you like this new blog feature, and check back next week for a more inland, but just as epic road trip.
Greyson and I spent Christmas down in Point Reyes with his family. We didn’t have perfect weather, but we were still able to get out and hit most of the highlights.
On Christmas Eve day, we headed to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, hoping to see whales and birds. Thanks to the 50 mile an hour winds, the ocean was too choppy to see any whales.
Apparently the high winds also affected the birds. We saw way more birds hanging out on fence posts and low rocks than we normally do. Greyson let me use his nice camera with the big lens to get these bird photos – definitely not with my iphone!
We also stopped by a completely deserted Drake’s Beach. Well, not completely deserted. There was a bachelor elephant seal.
We didn’t end up doing anything on Christmas, other than jokingly participating in the Christmas Bird Count. I counted six different birds from the comfort of the hot tub!
The day after Christmas was much calmer, so Greyson and I went to McClures Beach to look for whales. I hadn’t been to McClures Beach before, so we spent some time wandering around and looking for tide pools.
There wasn’t anything interesting in the tide pools, so we made our way onto the nearby Tomales Point trail. The trail follows along the top of the bluff and I was able to spot 5 or 6 whales way off in the distance through my binoculars.
We also stopped at the famous Point Reyes Tree Tunnel.
Greyson had heard about a biking museum that had opened up in nearby Fairfax, so we drove down there on Saturday. The Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame is awesome, and Greyson wrote more about it on his blog. You can read more about it here.
While we were in Fairfax, we hit up Iron Springs Pub & Brewery. I wasn’t super impressed by anything other than the JC Flyer IPA.
Finally, on our way out of town on Monday we stopped by my favorite place in Point Reyes – Heidrun Meadery! We bought a couple of bottles, Alfalfa & Clover Blossom and Macadamia Nut. I also bought some Humboldt Wildflower honey. I wonder what is the predominant “wildflower” in Humboldt County?
Heidrun Meadery had their second batch ever of mead made from honey from their own bees based in Point Reyes. It’s not available in the tasting, you have to buy a separate glass to taste it. We decided to do it, because if you can’t drink a glass of sparkling mead at ten am on a Monday, what fun is vacation? I’m so glad that we did, because it was amazing! I wasn’t a huge fan of their first batch of local honey mead, but this one blew me out of the water. Seriously, if you are in the Bay Area, it’s worth the trip up to Point Reyes just to taste it! Well, and to experience the million other amazing things in Point Reyes!
I told Greyson that all I wanted for my birthday was to see some otters. We ended up going to Santa Cruz, and the trip delivered!
The first sea otter we visited was the Sea Otter Classic.
The Sea Otter Classic is a massive bike festival and expo that takes place in Monterey Bay, California over a few days in mid-April. Greyson had great memories of attending the festival when he was younger, and we were excited to check it out. The only word I can use to describe Sea Otter is…overwhelming. Maybe people who are more experienced with massive expos would have gotten more out of it than I did, but there were so many booths and exhibits and things going on that it was hard to find anything I wanted to see. We also went on Saturday (the festival started on Thursday), so I don’t know if it was our random wandering or if the booths were already cleared out, but we didn’t score any swag. I did get a good deal on some new bike gloves and I ran into my friends from TAMBA. While I’m glad that I went at least one time in my life, I don’t feel the need to head back to Sea Otter next year.
We drank Sierra Nevada beer, ate some expensive teriyaki, watched some cyclocross, and then it was time for the main event of the day – Men’s Pro Dual Slalom.
The Men’s Pro Dual Slalom race kicked off with a race between two tandem teams!
Dual Slalom isn’t a super popular race anymore, but it’s a super fun one to watch. Two bikers race head to head on identical courses full of features like berms, drops and jumps. The riders then switch tracks, and their times are combined. The slower rider is eliminated and the other moves on to the next round, until a winner is declared.
As much as I love biking and all things related, I was even more excited for the next iteration of otters – actual live sea otters in the wild!
Greyson and I drove south from Santa Cruz to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve with one goal: to see some otters!
The Elkhorn Slough NERR is
“one of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves established nationwide as field laboratories for scientific research and estuarine education. The Reserve is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The 1700-acre Reserve is a hub of activity and hosts programs that promote education, research, and conservation in Elkhorn Slough. The Visitor Center has award-winning exhibits that invite everyone to explore the Unseen Slough. There are five miles of trails that meander through beautiful oak woodlands, calm tidal creeks, and freshwater marshes. We offer tours on the weekends and special events throughout the year.”
More importantly, Elkhorn Slough is home to the largest population of California’s sea otters, a fact I learned by watching Saving Otter 501 (a PBS Nature Documentary, available to watch online here and via Netflix!) over and over.
Picture from Saving Otter 501 found here.
California’s southern sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries, but a surviving population of around 50 was found off of Big Sur in 1938. The population has grown to nearly 2,000, many of which live in the protected Elkhorn Slough.
Greyson and I didn’t really have any concrete plans for finding the sea otters, other than going to Elkhorn Slough, and potentially renting kayaks. We ended up just pulling into a beach parking lot on vague instructions from Greyson’s sister, and we immediately spotted otters! We were on a little spit of sand with a manmade breakwater that made a perfect spot for otter spotting.
A highlight was definitely the two juvenile otters who wrestled near us for 15 or 20 minutes.
The shot I got with my phone.
The shot Greyson got with his camera. Ha!
I also loved this otter that floated contentedly while a fisherman and his dog worked on a boat nearby.
In addition to the dozens of otters frolicking about, the Elkhorn Slough was packed with other wildlife. We saw sea lions, harbor seals, cormorants, herons, and the ubiquitous Velella velella. If you’re in the Monterey or Santa Cruz area, I highly recommend a trip to the Elkhorn Slough. If you’re interested in the crucial conservation work they’re doing, you can learn more on their website, or become a member!
We did a few other fun things in the Santa Cruz area over the weekend. We hit up the Monterey Bay Aquarium just in time for the otter feeding and to visit the fluorescent-ly lit jellyfish:
And we hit up Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing for some birthday beers just before we left town on Sunday. These weren’t my favorite beers of all time, and I probably won’t write up a whole review of the brewery. I did enjoy their Peoples Organic Coffee Porter and Devout Stout, and I loved their location with an outdoor beer garden and tap room.
The whole weekend was a great way to celebrate my 31st birthday, and it will be hard to top next year!
I finally made it out to one of my Bay Area bucket list destinations – Alamere Falls. Alamere is a rare California tidefall, a waterfall that streams directly onto the beach. It’s one of only two in northern California!
We approached Alamere Falls from the south on the Coastal Trail outside of Bolinas, California. The trail is about 8 miles round trip, and fairly flat and easy, aside from the unmaintained trail to the top of the falls and the sketchy climb to the beach below the falls.
I had never been to Alamere, and Greyson hadn’t been in years, so we were surprised by the amount of people who were doing the fairly long hike on a Sunday. We had to park about a half mile away from the trailhead due to the amount of cars in the parking lot and along the road. We also were stopped several times before we made it onto the trail by people asking if “this is the trail to the waterfall?”
I’m not sure if it is always that busy on weekends or if it was exacerbated by some outside cause, like the gorgeous weather or being featured in a magazine or newspaper article. We saw several hundred people over the course of the ~3.5 hours we spent on the trail and on the beach. If you’re looking for a relaxing, people-free adventure, this may not be the hike for you, or be sure to time it on a week day during an off time.
Despite the many people (many who lacked basic hiking etiquette – we saw tons of dogs in the dog-free wilderness area, people hiking while blasting music, and other rude trail behavior), the Alamere Falls hike was totally worth it for us. The tide was way in, so there wasn’t much beach and we were dodging the waves, but the view of the waterfall falling into the waves was incredible!
Because there were so many people and loose dogs running around, the steep and loose climb down to the beach and back to the trail was extra sketchy. If you’re not sure-footed and used to scrambling, I’d recommend staying on the top of the cliff and enjoying the still amazing view of the falls from above.
Though fairly long, the trail is mostly flat and not technical, so it ends up being a fairly easy hike to the top of the falls and back. There are great ocean views on some sections of the trail, and once the haze cleared out, we could see back to the skyline of San Francisco. It should definitely be on your Bay Area Bucket List!
So I’ve mentioned a few times that Greyson and I went on an amazing road trip up the North Coast of California. We managed to hit a bunch of must-see spots, both well known and off the beaten path.
I’ve already written about one of the hidden gems we visited, Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, but I thought I’d share the other stops on our amazing road trip.
- Truckee, California to Inverness, California (200 miles, 3.5 hours):We stayed at the Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore in Inverness, California for Greyson’s sister’s wedding. I’ve written about what to do in Point Reyes in the past – it’s an amazing place full of tons of things to do.
- Inverness, California to Westport, California (163 miles, 4.5 hours via Hwy 1):We headed north on the legendary Highway One, on our way to Fort Bragg and Westport-Union Landing Beach. In the Fort Bragg area, I knew I wanted to return to Pacific Star Winery and eat fresh seafood. I got my wish, and we tasted wines and watched a new batch of grapes be unloaded at the winery while the staff gave us a tour and let us taste test the different grape varieties. We ate dinner at Sea Pal Cove restaurant, where I had local rockfish fish and chips. I had been to the area before, and I knew that I wanted to stay in a private that I had discovered allowed camping on the sand, north of Fort Bragg on Westport Beach – Westport Beach RV Park. Though it is also an RV park, the tent camping sites are secluded from the rest of the park, and all we heard all night were crashing waves.
- Westport, California to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, California (75 miles, 2.25 hours via Garberville, CA):I’ve already written about the amazing Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, but I just want to emphasize again how incredible it is! If you enjoy the outdoors, it should be on your California Bucket List. On our way to Sinkyone, we stopped for lunch in Garberville at the Eel River Cafe – a cute diner with good food in generous portions.
- Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, California to Redwoods State and National Parks, California (142 miles, 3.5 hours): On our way to the Redwoods, we drove through the Avenue of the Giants, a well known drive that’s definitely worth getting off the highway for.
One of the main things Greyson wanted to see on this trip was Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park(part of Redwoods National and State Parks). We found that Gold Bluffs Beach Campground was the closest access to Fern Canyon, and open on a first come-first serve basis in early October during our trip. We arrived fairly early on a Thursday, and by Thursday night the campground was pretty much full, despite it being a weeknight during the off season. If you plan on staying at Gold Bluff Beach, Fern Canyon is a pretty much year-round attraction, so plan on getting to the nearby campgrounds early in order to find a spot. Our campsite was tucked away behind some bushes for a wind break, and a quick walk to the ocean beach, surrounded by the gold cliffs that give the area its name. Fern Canyon can be accessed by a less than quarter mile hike from the parking area, but we chose a longer 7 mile loop through old growth redwoods to access the back side of the canyon. The longer hike was definitely worth it, full of wet forest plants and creatures that we don’t get to see in the Sierra, and not very strenuous at all.
Fern Canyon was like nothing else I’ve ever seen – sheer walls entirely covered with ferns – and worth a trip to the Redwood State and National Parks just on its own.
- Redwood State and National Parks, California to Nevada City, California (328 miles, 6.25 hours via Chico): The only problem we ran into on our whole road trip came on this leg. We had planned to stop in Chico, California for our last night and do a tour and tasting at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and just get a cheap motel room when we go into town. It turns out that we arrived on the Saturday of Parents Weekend at Chico State, and there wasn’t a room to rent within 50 miles. We ended up just having an early dinner/beer tasting at Sierra Nevada, and we pushed on to Nevada City. We grabbed a couple of beers at Matteo’s Public, and were asleep before ten in our room at the Emma Nevada House.
- Nevada City, California to Truckee, California (102 miles, 3 hours via Hwy 49 & 89): Since our inadvertent night in Nevada City meant that we were further along on our road trip, we decided to take the long way – Highway 49 to Highway 89 through Downieville. This route has beautiful views of the Sierra Buttes, and our quick stop in Downieville had us lamenting the fact that we didn’t have our bikes. This meandering, scenic route was the perfect end to a perfect Northern California road trip.
And finally, in true data-nerd form, here’s my spreadsheet of trip mileage, travel time and a few notes, for reference:
So, I don’t want to brag…but I found the best state park in California. I considered not sharing and keeping the pristine, remote wilderness to myself. But Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is so far off the beaten path that I don’t think I need to worry about it getting overrun. Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is one of the few ways to access the Lost Coast – California’s least developed stretch of shoreline.
We undertook quite a journey to arrive at Sinkyone (spoiler alert: worth it!). First we headed east and south from Graberville, California, taking twisty backroads through the trees, passing high fences, large fertilizer tanks, and the overwhelming smell of marijuana. We made a mental note not to wander off trail in this area of northern California. After 20 or so miles of this, we followed signs to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, Needle Rock Visitors Center, and camping and onto the steepest, windiest, narrowest dirt road I’ve ever been on.
It was pretty foggy, so we couldn’t really see where we were headed, and I’m pretty sure Greyson thought that I was taking him somewhere remote to abandon him. After three miles of dirt road (which seriously took like 40 minutes to descend), we got our first incredible glimpse of the Lost Coast.
Can you spot the Harbor Seals?
We checked in with the camp host, and set up our tent on a bluff overlooking the ocean. (You can also book a spot in an old barn if you want!) There are only a couple of spots available at Needle Rock Visitor Center, so you are guaranteed to not feel crowded! While we were car camping, there are hike in camp sites within a mile or so of the parking area.
We decided to head down the steep trail to the beach before dinner. The camp host had warned us about the steepness, and he was not kidding! There were several sections where a rope tied around and nearby bush were necessary to descend and later ascend.
Photo by Greyson Howard
Like the drive, the hike to the beach was worth it. It was sheer cliffs and black sand beaches as far as we could see, and our only company were the dozens of curious harbor seals basking on the rocks. Needle Rock beach has got to be one of the best beaches in all of California.
Over the few days we spent at Sinkyone, we spent quite a bit of time at the beach – examining tide pools, getting into staring competition with the seals, watching pelicans dive, and attempting to climb on the rocks. We even saw an otter, which are supposed to be extinct that far north on the California coast! We also hiked a section of the Lost Coast trail to look at some neat geologic features. We hiked up a steep hill, hoping for a great view.
While we didn’t exactly get a view of the ocean, hiking to above the fog was pretty awesome! We also saw the local elk herd.
If you plan on visiting Sinkyone, be sure to check the weather, as the road probably becomes impassable in the winter/rain. Bring everything you need with you, as there’s nothing in the way of supplies available. Pack out your garbage, as there is not garbage pick up in the park. Be sure to bring rain gear, hiking shoes, and binoculars!