In case it's not clear, I love getting out of town and traveling. It's hard though, since I have a full-time corporate job and limited amount of vacation days, which is why I tend to travel on holiday weekends to maximize my time. I knew I didn't want to stick around NYC for the last week of December so I started planning my get away back in Sept. I was in California the year before and LOVED it so wanted to go back and explore more parts. Left on a Wednesday and came back on a Monday, New Years Day. We also traveled with a dog, and note NO dogs are allowed at Point Lobos, Ano Nuevo, or Muir Woods. This time around I went to:
- Day 1 (Thursday): Carmel by the Sea/Monterey: Coastal towns only 15-20 minutes apart by driving. Visited Point Lobos State Park.
- Day 2 (Friday): Stopped over in Santa Cruz and went to Ano Nuevo Park to check out the elephant seal breeding.
- Day 3 (Saturday): Drove into San Francisco, met up with friends and went to Land's End.
- Day 4: (Sunday) Visited Muir Woods, the redwood forest about 30 minutes north of the city
Getting to San Francisco
I love my Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Most of my trips are paid with reward points I've accumulated on this card and this trip was the same. AND it was 'cheaper' (less points) to buy two one-way tickets from NYC to SFO than it was to get a roundtrip ticket. I think I only used about 40,000 points to fly from JFK to SFO, and then from SFO to EWR (Newark) whereas a roundtrip would have taken about 55,000 points.
Anyway, I left early on a clear morning in NYC but right before we were about to take off, the pilot announced we had to return to the gate to fix a maintenance issue! Argh. They never told us what the issue was, but my 7:30 am flight became a 10 am flight out (Virgin America). In addition, once we got closer to SFO, there was too much fog circling the airport and too much traffic and our plane was running out of fuel so we were forced to land at Oakland Airport (across the bay) instead! So frustrating. But, I'm glad we arrived safely. However, this is an example of why I hate connecting flights. Though I didn't have one, I felt so bad for all the people on my flight who were late to their connecting flights, nor were they even at the right airport!
My friend was waiting for me at SFO, arriving from a different city, so I rented a car from the Oakland airport and after about 40 minutes of driving (over San Mateo Bridge, which is a gorgeous bridge over water), we met up and then drove 2.5 hours down to our Air BnB in Monterey. By the time we arrived, it was 6 pm PST (and 9 pm EST--I was up since 4 am!). There was generally no traffic down the southern drive and it was an easy trip. However, it also meant that our 1st day was shot, so Day 1 of our trip didn't really start until Thursday.
We were up bright and early and headed over to Point Lobos State Natural Park. This place is gorgeous and great for easy walks/hikes along the shore. Download and print the map before you go, as they charge for it otherwise. Also, be sure to get there early (like between 8 am and 10 am)--there is limited parking ($10) and if it gets full, you'll have to park outside on the main road and walk in (which would a lot more walking). I think we arrived here around 9 am and had no issues with parking. We parked near the Sea Lion trail (bathrooms are clean but bring hand sanitizer and maybe your own paper!) and walked all the way down from there to China Cove. I think that was about a 2 mile walk one way. Then when we returned, we walked up Allan Memorial Grove and from there, you can hear seals out in the ocean and if you're lucky, blowholes from whales! Very scenic and pretty. None of the paths were strenuous though there as some areas with stairs. Great for any age/fitness level.
After hitting up Point Lobos, you can continue driving south to the Bixby Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the U.S. It's about 15-20 minutes away and just pay attention to pull out to a small parking area right before the bridge. The roads are only two lanes (coming and going) but it's not a scary drive in my opinion. The picture above is right from the parking lot. If you're a fan of the HBO show Big Little Lies, this is featured on the show and I'm pretty sure both Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman filmed driving around here!
Afterwards, we headed over to Pebble Beach and the 17-Mile Drive. This is basically a gated community but they allow the public to come through and wander around the beach areas. It costs $10.25 to drive through and the directions are marked on the road where to turn, etc. They give you a map with points of interests to go to, so it's easy to follow along. It was very pretty but I think if you've already done Point Lobos, you don't really need to do Pebble Beach. It's nice, but not as rugged and you have to drive from spot to spot. You can get out and walk around anywhere, but because of the traffic and crowds, I'd recommend going here earlier in the day or not at all because the scenery is pretty much the same. There are golf resorts in the community and a cute shopping area but not 'must-sees' unless you're just looking to kill some time.
Then we drove over to nearby Asilomar Beach, which is 15 minutes north of Pebble Beach, and watched the sunset. There is no formal parking, just come right before sunset and find off the highway parking if you can!
To eat around Monterey, both Schooners and Hula Island Grill were great. In particular, the clam chowder at Schooners was amazing and probably one of the best chowders I've ever had. Something about the creamy broth is different than the standard chowders I've had. Hula Island is more casual and doesn't take rsvps but they have a ton of seafood variety and non-seafood items to choose from. There's another location in Santa Cruz (though we did not go again).
In the morning we checked out Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey. It's similar to a lot of other California wharfs, catered to tourists and where you can take whale sight seeing tours. However, we really came by to see the coffee shop featured in Big Little Lies (yes, that show inspired this trip with its amazing Pacific Coast views!) and we were SHOCKED to find out the coffee shop is actually an Italian restaurant called Paluca Trattoria. I'm sure Hollywood has pulled this scheme many times but I really expected to find a real coffee shop here. It wasn't open when we came in the morning (opens at noon) but I totally would've gotten a coffee here just because!
Around 9:30 am we left Monterey and headed over to Santa Cruz, which is about 40 minutes north. We checked into our Air BnB, grabbed a salad to go from a local place called the Picnic Basket (wow it was so good and fresh) and then headed straight to Ano Nuevo Park, as we had 1 pm tickets to the Elephant Seal Breeding tour. I had heard about the tour while researching for this trip and so glad I came across it. Apparently thousands of elephant seals, which are only found on the Pacific Coast, come up to Ano Nuevo Park for breeding every Dec-March. The park does guided walks that you need to book in advance (I think the rsvp system opens up more than 30 days in advance) and for less than $15, you get to be amongst these amazing mammals (parking is another $10 though).
After arriving at the park, you check into the Marina Education Center, which is where the barn is. Everyone gets a wristband, and then is told to walk one mile out to the meeting point at the shed above. There, you're greeted by a park volunteer who takes you down to the beach to see these massive beasts. End of December was still early for breeding season, there were only 20 newborn pups so far and maybe less than a 100 seals. The ranger said in a few more weeks the beach will be stacked with seals. The tour lasts about 2-2.5 hours, they take you to 3 points to see the seals and most of the time you're behind some sand dune/cliff/ridge and you are advised to keep at least 25 feet away. It was really interesting to hear the history and life cycle of the seals, great activity for anyone except anyone who has mobility issues. Hiking through the sand was a bit tough (also, wear hiking shoes to keep your feet sand free!) as there were a few slopes up and down and the ranger doesn't really wait that long for everyone so if you're really slow and have mobility issues, this may not be for you. Also, poisonous oak is everywhere (there are signs though) but as long as you stick to the marked paths you're fine.
On Saturday we drove into San Francisco and went up to Land's End, which is right at the northern end of the city. Parking lot was full when we arrived at 11 am, but we were able to find free street parking in the residential areas nearby. It's a great place to go for a few hours to walk off a meal and get some good nature viewing in! There are multiple paths to take and we just went for a stroll to see the bridge but we didn't go to the end (Eagle's Point). In any case, this place is free and full of locals and tourists and awesome views of the Golden Gate Bridge (first pic of this post!)
By Sunday we were exhausted with all the hiking, driving, and running around for the past few days but we managed to get up and get to Muir Woods pretty early. Starting on Jan. 16, 2018, you can no longer just show up though. Reservations are needed due to limited parking. We got there before 9 am and was able to get parking.
Anyway we were tired so we only did a 2 mile loop round but the forest was nice and has a lot of trails. Definitely print out a map and get ready to be inspired! The first United Nations peace conference took place here in 1945 to honor Franklin Roosevelt, who made it a point to create national parks during his tenure. There's a plaque marking the spot of the assembly and the redwood trees were cool to see. Wish I had more energy to enjoy it but overall this trip was a great getaway from city life and highly recommend it for anyone who wants some nature in their life!