Coastal California

We just finished a short (2-week) trip exploring a small portion of the California coastline. If you’ve read our blog posts before, or taken a look at our About Us section, you know that it’s all about the critters for us, though of course we also delight in gorgeous scenery, visits with friends, and good food.

A selfie on the Big Sur coast

After spending a night in Paso Robles heading north, we spent four nights in Moss Landing on Monterey Bay (thank you to Judy and Allyn for the Moss Landing KOA recommendation—a great RV park). We were able to walk to Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery for excellent halibut and beach access where we watched sea lions in the surf.

Waiting in line to order at Phil's Fish Market
In the outdoor covered section at Phil's--with a ton of food!
Sea lions in the surf!

It was sunny in the bay, so next day we headed south down Highway 1 to explore Big Sur. This is probably not a drive to do in our motorhome, but in the car it’s absolutely do-able, though we wanted to stop every mile because the views are so gorgeous. Though we’ve driven Highway 1 many times before, this was our first time where we were just exploring a portion of the road (not driving straight through) and had the time to stop and hike.

The famous Bixby Bridge on Highway 1

At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, we enjoyed an easy hike to the McWay Falls overlook. It’s a cool waterfall that drops right onto the beach.

McWay Waterfall
Close-up of the falls

Heading back north we stopped in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Campground to see if we could ever bring our RV this far south on Highway 1 (maybe…).

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve—this has to be the best kept secret on the Central Coast. Just below Carmel, this peninsula has stunning coastal views and easy hikes along the water or through the cypress trees. 

Sea lions, harbor seals, oystercatchers, nesting gulls, and tons of other birds provided entertainment along our easy 3-mile hike. If Big Sur is crowded, just hike at Point Lobos. You’re not as high up on the cliffs, but that just means you can get to the beach much more easily.

Nesting gulls
Black oystercatcher

Wednesday saw us heading to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which we have enjoyed several times before. With fewer exhibits and shows than the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, the Monterey Bay Aquarium nevertheless does a great job with their kelp forest exhibit (giant sea bass, several sharks and rays), sea otter, penguin and puffin exhibits, some special exhibits (e.g., Tentacles) and opportunities to spot sea otters and whales out in the bay.

California sheephead
Leopard shark
Sea otter--too cute!

Lunch at The Fish Hopper on Cannery Row completed our day in Monterey—another great fish meal—macadamia nut-crusted halibut and fish and chips.

Great food at The Fish Hopper

Thursday brought us more highlights. We breakfasted at Moss Landing Café (excellent food!) with friends Seth and Cindy, and then spent the next few hours kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, where we were treated to the usual suspects of harbor seals, brown pelicans, cormorants, and terns, plus the special sightings of white pelicans and rafting California sea otter moms, pups, and assorted other relatives. 

Harbor seal pokes its head up
This California sea otter is curious.
Seal relaxes in the shallows.
California brown pelican on the hunt

We rented a double-kayak from Kayak Connection, which had a rudder for steering and quality gear. Seth and Cindy had their own inflatable kayak, and fortunately, it wasn’t too rough out there. It was a bit windy on the way back, so we did have to work a little harder, but it was so scenic that it mattered not at all. A gorgeous sunny day enjoying dozens of sea otters and loads of other critters along with good friends—that’s the definition of a perfect day.

Friends Seth and Cindy in their inflatable kayak
Hank working hard to keep us on course

That evening we drove up to Aptos to The Hideout Restaurant to have dinner with another good friend, my college roommate Alice. We spent hours catching up, enjoying a beautiful evening, and consuming another great meal of fish (this time King Salmon Risotto). We also celebrated Alice’s retirement. She has been the acclaimed choir director at a Santa Cruz middle/high school for many years.

Enjoying a meal with college roommate Alice
Alice conducting one of her choirs

Next day we drove the motorhome a short distance up Highway 1 and into the redwoods area above Santa Cruz. The little town of Felton offers several campgrounds and a very nice redwoods state park called Henry Cowell. Our campsite was nestled among redwood trees, which was quite a change from the Moss Landing beach scene. 

Happy Hour amongst the redwoods
At our redwood campground

We enjoyed a scenic drive through the woods and along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, stopping to appreciate the view at Natural Bridges State Beach (in winter, monarch butterflies enjoy the trees right above the beach), and the lighthouse that hosts the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Stopping by world-famous surf spot Steamer Lane, we saw dozens of surfers young and old practicing their skills out in the line up having the time of their life with the long rides on decent waves.

The remaining bridge at Natural Bridges State Beach
This lighthouse houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
World-famous Steamer Lane. Those dots are surfers...

We woke up to rainy fog or foggy rain, which is what keeps the redwoods growing in this area. We had another short drive in the RV, up the coast north of Santa Cruz to the Costanoa resort, our home base from which to visit elephant seals and explore Half Moon Bay.

First up was a 3-mile beach/bluff walk to Franklin Point and along the Atkinson Bluff Trail, which oriented us to the area around our campground. Though it was a bit foggy, this was still a fabulous stretch of coastline to explore and enjoy.

The view from the Atkinson Bluff Trail on a foggy afternoon

Next day we headed three miles south to Año Nuevo State Park, which is the Northern California hangout spot for northern elephant seals. In the San Simeon/Cambria area of Southern California, you can see these giants right off the side of Highway 1 at Piedras Blancas. However, in Northern California, you have to work a little harder to see these enormous pinnipeds. In the winter, you need to make reservations for a visit to Año Nuevo, but in the summer, you can just show up.

Hank walking on the mostly-level path to see the elephant seals

So, we showed up, received our permit, and walked about 2 miles along an easy, level path to North Point and Bight Beach. Current residents of these two locations were female (up to 2000 pounds) and juvenile male elephant seals, taking about a month each to rest on the beach while molting, fasting, and growing new whiskers. The adult males will start showing up later in June for the same routine (they can weigh up to 5,000 pounds!).

A juvenile male is growing his proboscis (trunk-like nose) which will signal his maturity.

We enjoyed watching some of the juvenile males sparring as they prepared for taking on the alpha males in a few years. From November to early spring it’s high season in the elephant seal world, when the adult males duke it out (sometimes with bloodshed) and the females give birth to pups. If you live or travel to anywhere near either of these two locations (Año Nuevo is between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, and Piedras Blancas is 35 miles from Paso Robles and 50 miles from Pismo Beach), you’ll definitely want to visit the elephant seals, especially in winter. But anytime of year is fun to watch these lumbering creatures.

This crow doesn't want to share its mousy lunch.
These young males are learning how to fight for the right to mate.

We capped off this day with dinner at the Cascade Restaurant located in the Costanoa resort complex of which our campground was a part.

Hank enjoys a local fish dish.
A very fancy chicken pot pie

For our last full day on the coast, we headed 60 miles north to the town of Pacifica, marveling that we were only a few miles from San Francisco, though it certainly didn’t feel that way because the coastline was still rugged and the towns fairly small. We turned around and headed south, stopping multiple times to check out RV campgrounds where we might want to stay in the future, and enjoying a huge and delicious lunch at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company.

Fish tacos in Half Moon Bay

We also checked out Mavericks, famous for world-class surfing, though not much was happening today, except for a few young herons learning to fly.

Mavericks is known for tow-in surfing, and this guy is practicing on a foil.
A great blue heron looking for lunch

We had planned for a coastal bike ride at Cowell Ranch, along the Cowell-Purisima Coastal Trail, but it was closed (just for that one day ☹), so we headed in the other direction and enjoyed a short ride along a portion of the San Mateo County coast. Honestly, there are so many beautiful views up and down Highway 1 that we could easily have put in five times as many pictures and never repeated a scene.

We finished our coastal visit at the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve and Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park, and we hoped this wouldn’t be our last visit to this stretch of the California coastline.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse
The view from Pigeon Point

An easy drive back to Paso Robles took us away from the coast (sad), but back into wine country (happy)…We could have done a day of wine tasting in 100-degree weather, but since we did that last summer, we decided to head over the hill to Morro Bay for a few hours to get one last treat along the coast. We were not disappointed. A sea otter pup was enjoying a nap in the seaweed near shore while its mother was off looking for food. The pup was completely oblivious to the dozens of people walking by and taking pictures. What a cutie!

We also had a view of sea lions fighting for space on a float while we enjoyed one last beachy lunch in cool weather before heading back over the hill to the 100-degree heat of Paso Robles.  Home the next day…

Sea lions fight for space.
The iconic landmark--Morro Rock

Here’s a link to a YouTube video about our kayaking in Elkhorn Slough. It’s less than 3 minutes. Enjoy!

For those who have come to expect it, here are some additions to Hank’s macro (close-up) collection of critters and flowers.

Who doesn't love California poppies?
Unknown insect

As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to add your own recommendations in the Comments section.

6 thoughts on “Coastal California”

  1. Hello Hank and Cindy,
    I love, love these beautiful areas of California. They seem so often overlooked – the drive by areas.
    It looks like you both got to really enjoy the wonder and beauty of that stretch of coastline and animals. And it appears to be stunning weather to boot! Of course, Cali does have great weather!

    • There were very few people out and about, especially north of Santa Cruz. Of course, we’re used to L.A. crowds so anywhere else has less people. Also, school was not out yet so that had an impact.

  2. As always, a great trip to read about. Sam and I visited many of these same camping areas through the years. It was fun revisiting them through you and Hank.

    • It’s hard to stop taking pictures along the coast. So many great scenic views. We’re filling up our hard drives fast!


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