Several years ago I wrote a guidebook called Best Places to the Northern California Coast. I started at the Oregon Border and took every road—dirt or paved—that headed toward the sea, all the way to Big Sur. It took me months, but I discovered some amazing places on my journey, some of which I’d like to share with you. More importantly, each of these getaways is a great excuse to get outside and spend the weekend exploring the California coast.
BIG SUR’S SECRET COVE
If you only have the time or energy for one short hike while touring Big Sur, head for the secret cove at Partington Canyon. Don’t bother looking for it on the map; it’s not there. Instead, park at the 37.85 mile marker (2 miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park), walk down the canyon toward the ocean, turn right at the “Underwater Forest” display, then left across the footbridge, and suddenly it’s “Whoa! Where’d that come from?” A wild non sequitur in this remote valley, this 100-foot, hand-carved, timber-reinforced tunnel leads to a dazzling hidden cove. The story goes that John Partington built the tunnel for his tan-oak cutting and shipping operation, where sleds filled with tan-oak bark were pulled down the mountain and loaded onto ships anchored in the placid cove.
Little River Cemetery Sinkhole
Known by locals as the Little River Cemetery Sinkhole, this almost perfectly circular (and massive!) sinkhole is simply amazing. At low tide you can walk through the wave-cut tunnel to the tide pools at the bottom of the bluff; at high tide, you can sit on the tiny sandy beach and look at the tunnel as the waves blast through. Either way, the feeling of being within this natural phenomenon is almost eerie. To get here, park across from the Little River Cemetery on Highway 1, walk to the southwest corner of the cemetery, and look for a small opening in the chain-link fence. The sinkhole is only a few dozen yards down the trail, but be prepared to enter and exit the hole on all fours or you might end up buried alongside it.
SANTA CRUZ’S SECRET SWIMMING HOLE
The perfect antidote to an overdose of office work is a walk through the redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Only a few miles from downtown Santa Cruz on Highway 9, this 1,800-acre park has 15 miles of trails through thick, cool forests, and golden meadows. Top pick for a leisurely walk is the 3/4-mile Redwood Grove Trail, a wide and flat loop around an ancient stand of giant redwoods. On summer weekends docent-led tours of the Grove Trail start from the Nature Center, but call ahead first. (Secret Tip: About 1-1/2 miles south of the main entrance on Highway 9 is the Ox Road Parking Lot. Park here for free, then take the short trail down to the locals’ favorite swimming hole, the Garden of Eden.) Dogs are welcome in the park but must be on a leash at all times.
HALF MOON BAY’S HIDDEN TIDE POOL
Get back in touch with your inner child and spend the day plonking through one of the best tide pools in the Bay Area, looking and touching all those weird and slimy things living or growing on the rocks. Located about 7 miles north of Half Moon Bay on Highway 1, the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is one of the most diverse tidal basins on the West Coast, as well as one of the safest, thanks to a wave-buffering rock terrace 150 feet from the beach. Call before coming to find out when it’s low tide (all the sea creatures are hidden at high tide) and to get information on the docent-led tour schedules (usually offered on Saturday). It’s an entertaining—and highly educational—way to spend the day with the family.
THE BEAUTIFUL BEACHES OF BODEGA BAY
Surrounding Bodega Bay are some of the prettiest beaches along the coast, with numerous tide pools, rocky bluffs, hiking trails, and one heck of a gorgeous drive along Highway 1. While all the beaches are pretty much the same—divine—the safest for kids is Doran Park Beach, located just south of Bodega Bay. When the water’s rough everywhere else, Doran is still calm enough for swimming. An added bonus: The adjacent Doran mud flats is a favorite haunt of egrets, big-billed pelicans, and other seabirds. (Secret Tip: Be sure to drive to the end of Bodega Head to walk along the bluff and dine at the Spud Point Crab Company, a tiny take-out shop on the road to Bodega Head that serves fantastic clam chowder.)
MONTEREY BAY’S MARVELOUS BIKE TRAIL
If your kids are spending way too much time playing video games, drag theme kicking and screaming to Monterey to ride bikes along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. The paved waterfront trail, which was once the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad, stretches 18 miles from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south, then continues as a bike lane to the entrance of the fabled 17-Mile Drive, rated one of the top bicycle rides in the nation (and there’s no entrance fee for bicyclists).
The scenery all along the Coastal Trial is spectacular, and there’s a very good chance you’ll spot numerous sea lions and sea otters (blue whales even). There are several places to stop and get a bite to eat on the trail, or you can pack a picnic and spread a blanket out on one of the trail’s many grassy areas. Even dogs are allowed on a leash. If you can’t bring your own bikes, I recommend renting 24-speed hybrid bikes in Monterey at Adventures by the Sea for $25 per day, which includes a lock and helmet. Believe me folks—a day spent cruising along this wonderful trail will be one of the highlights of your summer.
And if you have your own tips and recommendations about special spots along the California coast that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our local travel blog below. We’d love to hear from you.
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