Tour de Northern California
October 22, 2014 10:57 AM   Subscribe

We are (likely) headed to northern California for March 7-14. What should we do, and how should we divide our time?

We like hiking and outdoorsy stuff in addition to wandering-around-a-city stuff and are hoping that we can spend 2-3 days in San Francisco and then work our way down the coast as far as Big Sur (maybe). We are not sure how slow or fast we want to do this.

A potential itinerary has us in San Fran for 2 nights and a day, in Napa for a night (mandatory family), driving to Santa Cruz for a night, in Monterey or Big Sur for 2 nights and then back to San Fran. Along this route, what should we not miss in terms of activities and awesome food/drink? Is that, in fact, a reasonable itinerary?
posted by charmedimsure to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
That should be a pretty easy itinerary - none of those are very far apart. Any idea of what you want to do? The only thing I'd add is going through Big Basin state park on the way to Santa Cruz if you want to see some big redwoods.

In a similar recent question I recommended Passionfish for dinner in Pacific Grove, next to Monterey. It's amazing.

Asilomar is an interesting place to possibly stay near Monterey if you like something rustic.

Another activity in the area is 17-mile Drive which goes through a bunch of expensive golf courses along the coast between Monterey and Carmel. It's sort of meh mostly, but there's a great view of one specific very famous tree - the Lone Cypress. Carmel is sort of interesting if you want high-end shopping in a quaint seaside town. But the drive, the tree and Carmel are not earth-shattering, they're merely nearby and nice.
posted by GuyZero at 12:37 PM on October 22, 2014

Be aware that early March is often a time when Northern California experiences wet weather, our recent drought notwithstanding. And the areas with the most vineyards and redwood trees typically also receive the most rainfall, so hikes and such could be wet or at least muddy. Just something to be aware of.

Second, as you are also likely know, it's nominally a two hour drive from Napa to Santa Cruz by the less scenic interior route, and about three hours via the Hwy 1 coastal route, although both of those estimates will grow by an hour or more during commute times.

On the way to Big Sur you will also pass the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. I can't say enough good things about this as a place to explore and take in the wonder of California's coast. It has a few easy miles of hiking trails that take you through cypress trees and expose you to some very rugged and stunning coastal views, often with various marine mammals hanging out just off shore. Well worth packing a lunch and spending a few hours wandering around.

Lots and lots of other things to see, depending on what interests you, but if I were to recommend one place that sometimes gets missed, it would be Point Lobos.

posted by mosk at 12:44 PM on October 22, 2014

For this itinerary, I would start in Napa and work your way down, it's easily an hour or two drive up there and then back if you start in SF. However, you've got some overlap, and could spend more time in SF and wine countries. I've lived in SF for ten years and I'm still exploring the immediate area.

Half Moon Bay is a possibility to replace SC on the way to Monterey. They're all kind of the same to me, and while there's the aquarium and stuff, you're going to feel deja vu walking around the touristy urban areas during the days. I would either/both focus on hikes and outdoor spots around there, like Big Basin mentioned above, and Pinnacles/Arroyo Seco nearby, et al, or start way up in Mendocino and drive down from there for the first half, do Napa, then SF->Carmel et al. All the dining and nightlife you could want is in SF and Berkeley/Oakland (and Napa, dining-wise).

There's also not much in Big Sur proper apart from Nepenthe, which is phenomenal (before sunset). You'll probably be in a historic cabin-type of lodging unless you spring for one of the hippie spas like Ventana, Post Ranch (tree forts!), or Esalen (which is great). But it is breathtaking and spectacular and well worth a day's trip for hiking.

Another option is to arrive in Napa, spend the night, do 2-3 days in SF, drive to Big Sur spending 2 days to do it, and then another 2 days down to Santa Barbara or another southern destination. The coastal cities will vary more and it's a beautiful, winding drive that you can easily do in a day or enjoy in two, and then spend the last 2-3 days in Socal before flying out of LAX/SAN/BUR.

If you give some specific activities you do, such as climbing or cycling or Michelin star hunting, I'm sure you'll get more specific recommendations.
posted by kcm at 12:47 PM on October 22, 2014

Response by poster: We are mostly into reasonably serious hiking, kayaking and non-death-defying cycling (although we would have to rent bikes). Pretty places to indulge husband's semi-serious interest in photography at the same time would be great.

Citywise- 1/2 day museum tolerance if it is a good museum. We are fans of wandering and exploring and gaping at tall buildings/architecture we don't have in Alaska. Not so much into Michelin stars, although we always like at least one pretty nice dinner in each place (but generally nothing that would be much more more than $100/person).
posted by charmedimsure at 12:53 PM on October 22, 2014

Working south with your original itinerary:

Drink at Iron Horse in Napa
Eat dinner at Redd Wood in Yountville (across from The French Laundry; optionally Bouchon down the street)
Hike Muir Woods in the Marin Headlands
Eat at Taqueria San Francisco in SF, walk the Mission, drinks at Top of the Mark
Hike to Kite Hill, Tank Hill, and Grand View Park in SF
Eat at Old Mandarin Islamic in SF
Walk from the Ferry Building to the Presidio through Chinatown via Coit Tower in SF
Eat at Presidio Social Club for brunch
See the Haight and the Castro in SF
Optional SF: Alcatraz, cable cars, bus tour. Skip the Wharf.
Drive to Half Moon Bay
Kayak in HMB
Eat somewhere (not my scene!)
B&B in HMB
Up early for drive to Big Sur, lots of pictures on the way
Early drinks pre-sunset, then dinner at Nepenthe in Big Sur
Cabin sleeping in Big Sur, or Post Ranch Inn for their tree forts/yurts
Up for spa day at Ventana in Big Sur
Drive up to SF and have another burrito

Museums in SF I'd spend time at: Cal Academy of Sciences, de Young, Cable Car Museum, and if you have a special interest, the Jewseum or Asian Art Museum. The SFMOMA is closed currently. Check out the exhibitions before you come for which strikes you, and remember most of them have at least one 'nightlife' event each week for adults, and those are great. I actually prefer the small campuses of the Art Academy through Cow Hollow and the Marina like the Diego Rivera Gallery. The Presidio has a bunch of installations by Andy Goldsworthy, and Alcatraz might still have their Ai Weiwei installation when you visit.
posted by kcm at 1:09 PM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might be a bit early for it, but I would keep an eye on the whale watching from Moss Landing (right near Monterey), starting maybe a week before you leave. Apparently the humpback populations have been rebounding, and in addition to the migrating whales, there's a pod of humpbacks that hangs around Monterey Bay from March to November (ish). I went a couple weeks ago, and it was just breathtaking. Tons of whales, and they come pretty close to the boat. Close enough that our guide's photos were detailed enough to show the anchovies the whales were eating. I even took photos that are obviously very close whales, and I'm normally that friend trying to convince you that that little blob way in the distance really is a penguin. Or whatever :)
posted by ktkt at 1:12 PM on October 22, 2014

It's not quite a hike and it's not really a museum but Albany Bulb in the East Bay is amazing. (Maybe not if its raining, though.)
posted by Room 641-A at 2:08 PM on October 22, 2014

You might be a bit early for it, but I would keep an eye on the whale watching from Moss Landing

I came here to suggest that your kayak trip be in Moss Landing as well, up into Elkhorn Slough. You will see otters! Seals! Sea lions! Many birds! And, it's beautiful, and the water is calm.

Moss Landing is kind of halfway between Monterey and Santa Cruz. Though there's not much there, I really love it. Just walking along the breakwater or through the docks is good fun for me. Phil's Fish Market is supposed to be excellent if you like seafood (I don't).

Myself, I'm really partial to Monterey. There's a lot of history there that might satisfy your walking-around-a-city urge. The old adobes are old, and many of them have really beautiful gardens. There are a couple of different self-guided walking tours, and you could then trek down to the harbor and watch the otters and sea lions.

I second the above recommendation for Point Lobos. It's a short drive from Monterey, and there is excellent hiking there. And, of course, the aquarium is wonderful. Pepper's in Pacific Grove (right next to Monterey) is a great place for California Mexican food. Passionfish gets rave reviews, again mostly for seafood. The Great Tide Pool just south of Pacific Grove, across from the golf course, is awesome at low tide. (Well, at high tide too. Just no tide pools then.)

As for Half Moon Bay, it's cute, but really kind of sleepy. Beach access is fairly limited, except for via the state beaches. ($8 to park, last time I was there.) But, it's close to Pescadero, where you could eat at the fabulous Duarte's. Their artichoke soup alone is worth the trip to California, in my opinion.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:50 PM on October 22, 2014

Oh, just saw your update.

non-death-defying cycling (although we would have to rent bikes)

Another plug for Monterey: There's a bike trail that runs from Sand City (a suburban, strip mall-heavy town north of Monterey that has some big-ass sand dunes) all the way down to Pebble Beach (rocky, wave-battered northern California coastline), passing through Monterey and Pacific Grove. It's right along the water in many stretches. There are plenty of places to rent bikes.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:55 PM on October 22, 2014

You'll be driving right through Marin on your way to/from Napa. Food-wise, you should stop at Sol Food in San Rafael.
posted by goml at 3:51 PM on October 22, 2014

If you're heading south on 1 from SF, stop into the Año Nuevo Natural Preserve and take one of their docent-led tours to see the elephant seals. Breeding season is from Dec-March--you'll see lots of weaners learning how to seal and a few bulls hanging out just because. Advance reservations are advised if you are on a tight schedule but every time I've gone, I've been able to scoop up a walk-in slot even during high season.
posted by jamaro at 7:22 PM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Gaping at tall buildings/architecture, you say?

May I suggest the free walking tours by San Francisco City Guides?

On March 8, they're doing Gold Rush City and Nob Hill, along with a bunch of neighborhood walks - Mission Dolores, the Haight, the Castro, Billionaire's Row in Pacific Heights, and even the Golden Gate Bridge walk.

(I highlighted the Gold Rush City and Nob Hill walks because they're likely to have more tall buildings, but any of these walks will be great.)

I've done lots of the City Guides tours, and they were all terrific. Donations accepted but not required.

Also, seconding mosk that Point Lobos is wonderful.
posted by kristi at 9:59 AM on October 24, 2014

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