Aug 1, 2013

Traveling California's Central Coast

I'm a born and raised California Girl.  I am enthusiastic about California history and am fascinated by the early settlers (the Spanish, Native Americans and the brave 49ers who traveled by land and sea to come to this wild, beautiful place in search of Gold).

Little known fact about California: Did you know that most of the state is no where near Southern California??  I say that in jest, but on my journeys to other places in the United States, I often was asked if I lived near Hollywood or Disneyland.   I live in Central California within 2 hours of San Francisco, Sacramento and Yosemite.  In 2.5 hours I can be standing with my toes in the Pacific Ocean. 

75% of my vacations for the last 10 years have been on the Central Coast of California, a magical place that includes destinations such as Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Morro Bay, and Pismo Beach.  If you have never visited the 200 mile stretch along scenic Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Pismo Beach, it is a trip worth taking!

If you are in a hurry and are traveling from Santa Cruz to somewhere south (like Disneyland), highway 1 is not a great choice.  It may be just a little over 200 miles, but it can take nearly 6 hours if you stop often and really enjoy the journey.  The same trip, from Santa Cruz to Pismo Beach will take you just 2.5 hours if you take the inland route over 101, which is a nice drive, but not worth writing a blog post about.

Starting in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you will find yourself in a Redwood Forest, full of giant California Redwood Trees.  So many places to visit, so little time.  We go to camp at Redwood Christian Park every year which is north of Santa Cruz near Boulder Creek, CA on Highway 9.

From there we traveled down to Santa Cruz, where you can visit the iconic Beach Boardwalk or any one of the numerous state beaches along the coastline.  We decided to stop just outside of the Santa Cruz area at a vista for a quick look at the bay.  It was a misty morning.

Continuing south, we waved at Monterey as we drove past (a great place to visit, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-see for any visitor) but we didn't have the time (or the money) to visit Monterey, instead we stopped briefly in one of my favorite little sea-side towns, Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Fortunately I opted to fill my car up with fuel at this point in the journey... it was a long time until I saw another gas station.  While driving through town we drove by the Carmel Mission (the second California Mission built), so my son could take a look.  I didn't take any pictures because we were on our way!

Shortly after we started down Highway 1, I discovered one of my first views.  The amazing part is that there are turn-outs so often, if you think you've missed a picture, just drive a few feet down the road and you will find another place to stop.

 The road gets closer to the cliffs and the view becomes more wild and ragged.
The wild beauty of this place filled my heart.  It is truly a place unspoiled by humans.

 The road is just a two lane road, narrow in places.  Surrounded on all sides by verdant views of mountains and cliffs.  While waiting in a construction zone (it is always being fixed or worked on) on a 100 year old bridge I took the above shot.  You can make yourself dizzy swinging your head back and forth to take in all the sights.

 One spot surprised me by it's beauty, Big Sur.  It is a place I could stay for 4 days to hike it's river trails and explore it's hidden wonders (I hear there is a waterfall that falls directly into the ocean in that area).   As I drove a little south of the "river part" of Big Sur, I found Bixby Bridge, a historic and iconic bridge.

 At every turn I would look ahead and my breath would catch in my throat.  I felt as though I was driving off the edge of California... and I loved every minute of it.

For nearly 100 miles, the view looked like this... sheer cliffs, blue ocean.
It made me smile in wonder.
I exclaimed more than once that it was as beautiful as driving into Yosemite.

I loved how you could see the road far ahead as you drove along, weaving and winding down the edge of the United States.
The only bit of advice I would offer is to bring food and drinks along with you.  There are no fast food restaurants, and unless you want to spend $10-$12 a person to eat in a road-side grill, there are limited options.  The above picture was taken just south of Ragged Point (where I had to stop and pay through the nose for my lack of knowledge).

As our journey came to a close, we found a spot to stop and watch the elephant seals sun themselves on the beach near San Simeon. 

Not far from where this picture was taken near San Simeon, you can visit Hearst Castle, which is a fantastic mansion built by the newspaper Tycoon William Randolph Hearst.  We haven't visited yet, but hope to in the next couple of years.

Morro Bay is one of the first small beach towns you will come to as you exit the scenic route.  It is best recognized by Morro Rock (above).  If you want to wander off the "beaten" path, leave highway 1 and travel along the coast line just south of Morro Bay, straight west of San Luis Obispo, through the small town of Los Osos and to Montano de Oro State Park.  Camping, hiking and ocean views.  What could be better?

The above picture is a view of the Tide Pools in Montano de Oro. Beautiful.

As you travel south through San Luis Obsipo (visit their amazing Farmer's Market on Thursday nights), and head south towards Pismo, you will pass by Avila Beach, which is a fun and family friendly beach town.  Nearby there is also Edna Valley, home to a number of wineries that are fun to visit for the wine enthusiast.  From there, you will come around the mountain to a stunning view of the Pacific.

Find the hidden beach in Shell beach for a peaceful little hide-away. (Make sure you check when low-tide is, it disappears during high-tide.)

Stop by the Pismo Pier and eat some clam chowder at the Splash Cafe', or keep on highway 1 to find a Butterfly grove (which is home to thousands of monarchs from November to February) and Grover Beach.

You can walk the mile jaunt from Pismo Beach to Grover Beach along the beach with your toes in the water the whole way (if you take this walk during low-tide you will collect dozens of perfect, white sand dollars). Adjacent to Grover Beach is an area called the Oceano Dunes, where you can drive your car out onto the beach for a couple of miles to really feel the California wind in your hair.

If you look at the map at the beginning of this long photo-journey of the Central Coast of California, you might notice a little star at the very bottom called "Oso Flaco".  It is a California State Park located at the point where the coast turns sharply east.  It is a beautiful place with a trail that takes you across a bridge over a pond (pictured above) down through dunes and native plants to a beautiful view of the wild ocean.  It's worth the drive and short hike. 

So that's the journey.  I hope you enjoyed it a little bit. :) Have you ever visited California? Do you have a favorite place to visit? 

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