by Lee Foster
This section continues my Day Trips feature from San Francisco. For those shorter trips, see my Five Good Day Trips from San Francisco. The trips discussed here can best be enjoyed on an overnight from San Francisco, although a hard-driving traveler can experience some of them in a very long day.
If you have ever wondered what the 1906 quake was like, the place to go is Point Reyes National Seashore. Behind the large barn that serves as Park Headquarters, you can take the Earthquake Walk. The dramatic display along that walk is a fence that split apart 16 feet as the earth’s tectonic plates lurched past each other in the Great Earthquake of 1906. The walk circles for a mile through meadows and bay laurel trees along the San Andreas Fault, with markers alerting you to the Pacific and American plates grinding past each other at roughly two inches per year. Along the Earthquake Walk, you begin to imagine that Point Reyes is truly an island in time, destined to join the Aleutian chain off Alaska.
The Earthquake Walk is only the first of many discoveries at Point Reyes. To get there, drive north along Highway 1, past Mt. Tamalpais, and follow the sign beyond Olema that directs you to the Point Reyes National Seashore park headquarters. Orient yourself at this large barn-like headquarters, built in 1984. Elaborate displays describe both natural history and the human story of Point Reyes, from the days of the Indians to the century of dairy ranching. The more than 2.5 million annual visitors rank Point Reyes as one of the most-used units in the National Parks system.
Walking and hiking are the major activities here. The Bear Valley Trail is a 4.4-mile walk from park headquarters to the sea. This is a pleasant half-day walk with time for a picnic at the coast side. The slope of the wide trail is gentle and the terrain varies from oak forest to stream bank.
Near park headquarters, the Kule Loklo Indian camp recreates what life was like for the Miwok Indians. Rangers give talks and demonstrations about the dugout dwellings, food-gathering techniques, and craft skills that allowed Indians to flourish here. A sweathouse has been constructed and a re-dedication occurred, officiated over by actual Native Americans.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a place to keep in mind for whale-watching in January, though the area can be rather congested on January weekends. You can look at the lighthouse and its lighting system at any time of the year.
Beaches, easily accessible by car, offer much variety to the Point Reyes visitor. Three options are Limantour Beach at the end of Limantour Road, Drakes Beach off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, and McClures Beach at the end of Pierce Point Road. Limantour is a favorite for bird watchers. Drakes Beach, of course, may be the site where Sir Francis Drake landed his ship, The Golden Hinde, for repairs in 1579. Drakes Beach is relatively sheltered and is safe for swimming. However, Tomales Bay State Park, adjacent to Point Reyes, with its Heart’s Desire Beach, offers the warmest-water ocean swimming north of San Francisco. McClures is noted for its tidepools and for its access to 12 miles of the “Great Beach,” a stretch unsurpassed for a walk along the beach to witness the crash of breaking waves.
Pierce Point Road out to McClures Beach offers two special attractions. A herd of tule elk has been established here and the historic Pierce Point Ranch has been restored to acknowledge the role of Point Reyes in dairying history.
Almost 150 miles of maintained trails crisscross the more than 65,000-acre triangle that forms the Point Reyes peninsula. Backpack camps can be reserved.
A lesser-known part of the park, approachable from Mesa Road in Bolinas, includes the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. Displays and a ranger or volunteers will explain the manner in which birds are counted and studied at Point Reyes. You may see bird banding in progress. A trail at the observatory leads you through prime bird habitat. Beyond the observatory, you can drive to the Palomarin Trailhead, one of the least used and most scenic parts of the park, especially if you walk into Bass, Pelican, and Crystal lakes to enjoy the views.
A bed and breakfast lodging and restaurant close to park headquarters is the Olema Inn. Pasta, local seafood, and fresh, organically-grown vegetables are the restaurant specialty. Another lodging option is The Blackthorne Inn. If you feel compelled to soak in a Marin county hot tub, this inn can satisfy your fantasy.
The rugged beauty of the Mendocino Coast and its relative seclusion create the faraway feel of this northern California destination. Mendocino is a better overnight or multi-day option than a strenuous single-day trip.
One driving strategy to consider would be a circular trip, driving up Highway 101 to Cloverdale and then west on Highway 128 to the coast, with the return to Highway 101 via Highway 20.
A fast route up would be the drive on Highway 101 to Willits, then west along Highway 20 to Fort Bragg. Highway 20 is a pleasing route through redwood and Douglas fir forests with extensive rhododendrons as you approach the coast.
Driving up Highway 1 all the way from San Francisco is an engaging route, but allow a full day for the drive alone.
The town of Mendocino is the focus of the region. Attractively sited on bluffs, this former logging town is now the quintessential tourist town, with art studios, boutiques, and a blossoming performing arts program. Focal point for art shows and instruction is the Mendocino Art Center. Preserved architecture adds much to Mendocino’s charm. The Mendocino Hotel, now an inviting “garden” bar and restaurant, typifies early structures converted to tourist use.
North from Mendocino is Fort Bragg, a working logging and fishing town, the other major urban destination. Fort Bragg, the blue collar balance to Mendocino’s artsy atmosphere, is known for its California Western Railroad (the “Skunk” Train, named for the former smell of its coal smoke, now a mere memory) and the museum adjacent to the train depot. The steam train makes a daily run inland along the Noyo River to Willits. The 40-mile round trip to Willits takes 7-1/2 hours and passes extensive redwood and Douglas fir forests, crisscrossing the Noyo River.
The entire Mendocino coast from Point Arena to Rockport is a joy to drive. Two special state parks, flanking the town of Mendocino, are Van Damme and Russian Gulch. Van Damme’s main features are its lush Fern Canyon, where an extraordinary variety of ferns grow, and its Pygmy Forest, where acidic and impervious soil bonsais the trees to a fraction of their normal height. The beach at Van Damme attracts divers looking for abalone and rockfish. Russian Gulch boasts a hospitable sunning and swimming beach, although the water is chilly. The promontory on the north side of the park provides one of the most pleasing coastal views, looking south toward the Mendocino headlands. Russian Gulch’s moist, elevated headlands support lavish spring displays of coastal wildflowers, including seaside daisy, Indian paintbrush, and pink mallow.
The Mendocino coast emphasizes quaint bed and breakfast lodging. One popular inn with a good restaurant is the MacCallum House. Try the poached king salmon at this Victorian mansion. Another good option is the Little River Inn, a home built by lumber baron Silas Coombs in 1853. Little River Inn specializes in seafood and steak at its restaurant. The inn is south of Van Damme Park. If looking for a place to dine at Fort Bragg, try seafood at the Cliff House, located on a bluff along the south side of the Noyo River.
Napa Wine Country
Much to the envy of other wine-producing areas in California, Napa retains its prime position in the imagination as The Wine Country. Napa acquired the reputation because it was so important in the era when Americans re-discovered wine, circa 1950-1970. The 30-mile stretch of vineyards also possesses extraordinary natural beauty as a well-proportioned valley between the Mayacamas and Howell mountains. Today the Napa wineries continue to produce some of California’s outstanding wine.
To enter the Napa Valley, drive north from San Francisco on Highway 101, then east on Highways 37, 121, and 12 to reach Highway 29, the main artery in the valley.
Your challenge in the Napa Wine Country is which of the valley’s many wineries to visit. For a good map, pick up the free Wine Country Review, available everywhere in the valley.
One approach is to consider visits to three or four well-known names that have strong tours, tastings, and attractive architecture: Domaine Chandon, Mondavi, Beringer, and Sterling in that order. Chandon, in Yountville, presents its sparkling wines in an outdoor cafe, with or without a tour. They also maintain an excellent restaurant with dishes such as salmon with champagne cream sauce and candied ginger. Mondavi, in Oakville, sprawls over a Cliff May-designed mission-style building. Mondavi offers instructive tours, plus entertainment on some Sunday afternoons with music concerts. The tour at Beringer, on the north edge of St. Helena, takes you through their palatial Rhine House, from 1876, and emphasizes the historical wine story as you visit elaborate caves cut in limestone hills and used to store and cool wine. At Sterling you ride up in a gondola to witness the modern high-tech operation on a self-guided tour. From Sterling you also enjoy sweeping views of the valley, looking south.
As an alternative strategy, consider a visit to three smaller producers. They provide a more intimate tasting experience and may appeal more to the experienced wine drinker. They sometimes offer a tour only if you call ahead to make arrangements. Some good choices would be Joe Heitz, Joseph Phelps, Grgich-Hills, and Stag’s Leap.
Be sure to drive the road along the east side of the valley, The Silverado Trail, at some point in your outing. This elevated road from Calistoga to Napa City shows the beauty of the area, minus the traffic of Highway 29. Consider driving up Highway 29 to Calistoga and then back along the Silverado Trail, which is especially lovely in the autumn as the vine leaves turn yellow and red.
In St. Helena stop in at the Silverado Museum to peruse the Robert Louis Stevenson memorabilia. For a charming look at Stevenson’s view of the Napa Valley, buy his little volume called The Silverado Squatters. If you want to follow Stevenson himself on a wine tasting, read his account of Schramsberg and then visit the winery.
For lodging, the Napa Valley has an ample number of full-service hotels and bed and breakfast inns. Typical of the quaint bed and breakfast inns is the four-room Ambrose Bierce House in St. Helena. The structure, formerly the home of the curmudgeonly philosopher and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, has been decorated to recall his work and friends, such as Lillie Coit.
Your lodging proprietor can alert you to the ever-changing restaurant scene in the valley (as well as to special wine tastings, ballooning, and mud baths). For a restaurant reflecting the exuberance of the valley, try Mustard’s Grill (north of Yountville on Highway 29), where the style is mesquite-grilled fish or ribs, plus house vegetable specialties.
The Napa Valley invites picnicking with wine and deli purchases. The Oakville Grocery, along Highway 29 in Oakville, stocks a complete assortment of picnic fare. Many wineries have picnic facilities. Joseph Phelps, Chateau Montelena, and Rutherford Hill are examples. The area parks are also favorite picnic destinations, including George Yount Park in Yountville, Crane Park in St. Helena, and Bothe Napa State Park north of St. Helena.
The city of Santa Cruz benefited by its backwater prosperity from the Depression to 1965. If civic boosters had sufficient funds, they would probably have “improved” out of existence such downtown landmarks as the brick Cooperhouse. In one of the cruel ironies of fate, the Quake of 1989 destroyed the Cooperhouse and gutted the picturesque brick downtown. Go to Santa Cruz today, however, and you will see a vibrant, recovered city.
Most of the wood Victorian houses of the city were spared in the Quake. You can make walking tours of Santa Cruz’s old Victorians, such as the cluster on Walnut Street, on your own with the aid of brochures from the Visitors Council.
A short walk away from the Pacific Garden Mall you can enter the block-square Art Center and examine the works of hundreds of local craftspeople.
Aside from downtown, be sure to see the Boardwalk, 400 Beach Street, which was built in 1904. This last of the California boardwalks is vintage Americana. The Giant Dipper rollercoaster, from 1924, has thrilled millions of riders. The merry-go-round horses of Charles Loof are monuments to the woodcarver’s art.
The Boardwalk’s Coconut Grove Ballroom, restored in 1981, recreates occasionally the flourishing big band culture of the 30s and 40s. From the Boardwalk, take a stroll out on the pier, where you can see the harvest of the seas displayed in fish markets and restaurants, such as Riva Fish House on the Wharf.
Much of the energy that thrust Santa Cruz forward came from the University of California at Santa Cruz, which can be toured. The clustered colleges, located on 2,000 acres of rolling grasslands, have distinctive architectural personalities.The campus starts at 1156 High Street, where you’ll find self-guide maps.
The early Mission of the Holy Cross, founded by Fermin Lasuen as the 12th in the 21-mission Franciscan chain, has perished with time, but a replica of reduced size has been constructed at 126 High.
Babbling Brook Inn is a pleasing lodging in the Santa Cruz area.
One of the great pleasures today of Monterey is that its Aquarium enhances so superbly its earlier legacy of nature-and-history attractions. The Aquarium presents the wonder of the sea, such as fish in a huge kelp forest, as a diver would experience it. This wonder, so thoroughly scientific and precise, does not need enhancement with amusement park attractions. San Diego’s SeaWorld, moving from emphasis on performing whales to its purely scientific penguin exhibit, suggests a detour that the Monterey Aquarium has happily bypassed. Monterey never went through an amusement-park phase. Monterey also had the genius to portray initially the local California coast. Other aquariums create a fish warehouse of unrelated exotic species from all over the world. The Monterey Aquarium, one of the world’s largest, is at the north end of Cannery Row, housed in the converted Hovden cannery building, the last cannery functioning here. New and interesting exhibits debut each year.
The Aquarium complements other natural phenomenon here, such as the gathering of millions of monarch butterflies on the eucalyptus trees in Pacific Grove’s Washington Park. The butterflies congregate from October-March, with the annual Butterfly Parade scheduled for October.
At any time of the year, include in your visit a ride along the 17-Mile Drive to see the Lone Cypress tree and other cypress groves in the ocean-edged Del Monte Forest. This is all private property, but public ownership is emphasized further south, at Point Lobos Reserve State Park, a few miles south from Monterey-Carmel along Highway 1. Point Lobos’ 1,225 acres are a superb place to watch for sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions or ponder the tidepools after you’ve been oriented to Monterey Bay life at the new Aquarium.
History in Monterey synopsizes the story of California and, like the attractions of nature here, this is true history rather than a Disneyland or Hollywood version. With a map from the local Visitor Bureau, you can stroll the three-mile Path of History Walk through the adobes and other structures of old Monterey, the original Spanish capital of California. The major structures start with the Customs House, oldest public building in California, now a museum of early trade goods. Pacific House, a two-story adobe, tells the story of the Spanish-Mexican periods. Colton Hall hosted the 1849 state constitutional convention. Stevenson House is where writer Robert Louis Stevenson recuperated. The explorer of history will also want to see Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, on Rio Road in adjacent Carmel. This church became mission-founder Junipero Serra’s headquarters and tomb. You can gaze at his spartan bedroom and peruse artifacts from the Indians he sought to convert.
Monterey’s Cannery Row, immortalized by John Steinbeck’s accounts of the brief sardine-packing heydays of the 1940s, now houses good seafood restaurants, plus numerous stores and antique shops. Twenty canneries flourished here at the peak year, 1945, which coincided with the publishing of Steinbeck’s novel, but the sardines soon disappeared, for reasons imperfectly understood, and most of the canneries were bankrupt within five years. Adjacent Fisherman’s Wharf is an emporium of stores for the traveler. Two blocks east, you can see today’s working fisherman’s wharf.
Drive to Monterey by proceeding south on Highway 101 and turning west on Highway 156 until you meet Highway 1. The drive down Highway 1 is more appealing if you have the time, but from San Francisco add another hour to the 2-1/2 hours via 101. The Monterey Jazz Festival each September is a favorite time for a visit here.
For an attractive lodging, try the Tickle Pink Inn, south of Point Lobos on Highlands Avenue. Among restaurants, consider seafood on the Wharf at Domenico’s.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal.
The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page