Central coast California road trip help! Nature and hot tub edition
April 2, 2018 12:46 PM   Subscribe

We're looking to take a 4 day road trip up the central coast of California but we can't seem to agree on an itinerary. My partner wants to stay in Monterey, venturing from there. I'm not as excited about the town of Monterey and I also can't seem to fit in everything I want to do!

Here is the wishlist: a place with a hot tub, hikes, sea life spotting, tide pools and good food. My partner thinks that Monterey is good enough and that we should stay there as a "home base." From there we can shoot up to see Santa Cruz or drive down to Big Sur just for the day. I'm thinking that we should meander the coast and stay in different towns along the way. We're coming from LA--should we also stop in Morro Bay? Here are some of the ideas that seem worthwhile:
--Northern Elephant Seal Rookery at Piedras Blancas
--Stay in Big Sur, hikes, Julia Pfieiffer State Park
--Monterey Aquarium
--Henry Cowell Redwoods
--Santa Cruz
--Tidepools (Santa Cruz?)
Is this too much? Do you have a favorite place to stay along the way? Favorite wildlife destinations? Favorite hikes, cafes or restaurants? Any other ideas of things to see or do much appreciated!
posted by biscuits to Travel & Transportation around California (12 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The best tide pools, in my opinion, are the ones just south of Monterey, in Pacific Grove. It's called the Great Tide Pool for a reason.

I *love* Monterey/Pacific Grove and I would side with your partner in regards to staying there, so I can't really recommend an alternative.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:34 PM on April 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Calling your attention to this closure of Highway 1 1 mud slide

The little lodges along Highway 1 are often desperate for lodgers when PCH is having accessibility issues. Drive carefully and don't let others pressure you into driving faster than you are comfortable with, and drive in good visibility. A lot of the Monterey Bay will be socked in fog; Santa Cruz can be much more sunny side, so follow the weather forecast to see where you should stay.

Santa Cruz will have a lot of different hot tub venues to choose from. Esalen has a lovely hot tub set up overlooking the Big Sur cliffs that are spectacular.

Pffiefer Big Sur waterfall is spectacular but beach is not accessible, still worth the view.

Also Ano Nuevo just north of Santa Cruz has an elephant seal reserve; most of the males are there fighting in January. Uncollected beach is gorgeous to behold.
posted by effluvia at 1:38 PM on April 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

I can personally recommend the public hot springs bathing hours at Esalen. Unforgettable, for many reasons. Paired with a stay at Deetjen's, it is a classic Big Sur experience.
posted by minervous at 2:07 PM on April 2, 2018

While I'm a huge fan of Great Tide Pool, you can also have fun in the five cities (cute interactive map, looking at the Central Coast from Avila Beach to the Oceano Dunes [Google maps for more context] ). Morro Bay has some good tidepools, and the coves in Montaña de Oro State Park (another Google Maps link) are pretty nice.

If you do choose to stay in the southern end of Highway 1, there are the Avila Hot Springs and Sycamore Mineral Springs. Otherwise, here is a list of public (free) and private (for pay) hot springs in the Central Coast.

There's a ton of good hiking around the southern end of Highway 1, including up to Valencia Peak in Montaña de Oro (seen in the above-linked Google maps), the semi-urban treks around San Luis Obispo, so much hiking all along Big Sur, though I think most of it is north of the Mud Creek mudslide that has the entire road closed at that point. Here are hikes around Cambria, which is a charming little town in the Cambria pine forest. They're no redwoods, but then you won't have the same crowds, either. That link is to a charmingly dated (design-wise) website has information about the little towns all along the Central Coast, if you want to wander those places, or see what's there before venturing forth.

As to the question of what's too much, it looks like you'd drive about 5.5 to 6 hours to get from the greater L.A. area to Monterrey, but if you don't go so far north, you can shave off a few hours from setting up a "home base" in Morro Bay or Los Osos, or maybe down to 3.5 hours if you stay in the 5 cities. From there, you can get to the Piedras Blancas elephant seals, where there either pups romping about, or mothers and juveniles molting (I can't get the live cam to work from here, to see what's happening now).

Here's my suggested south coast itinerary:
Day 1 - drive up to somewhere in the 5 cities, bop around the town(s), rent a kayak for an hour or two, then realize you're starving then enjoy clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at Splash Cafe.
Day 2 - drive up to Hearst Castle and then see elephant seals for half of the day, then hiking around either that area and visit Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria, have dinner at Robin's Restaurant in Cambria, too.
Day 3 - Bop around Morro Bay, enjoy breakfast at Frankie and Lola's, then hike around Montaña de Oro. You could even walk the Morro Bay sand spit, but that's a long walk (and I say this as someone who went on some serious hikes in and around the central coast and Big Sur). Head to Taco Temple for lunch or dinner. If you go there for lunch, head to San Luis Obispo for dinner at Novo, and stop by to see Bubblegum Alley (or don't - it's a weird local attraction), and the Madonna Inn (marvel at the water fall in the men's bathroom! Ooh! Aah! Look, there are creepy animatronic... cherubs?)
Day 4 - head back, stopping in a hot spring or two, and maybe stop by the Santa Barbara Sea Center if you want even more of the ocean.

(Note: my restaurant references are dated, so there's probably better and/or more notable fare now)
posted by filthy light thief at 3:09 PM on April 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think flt has some good options. What is your start point? How about Hwy 1 from Malibu to Point Magu then back to Hwy 101? How rustic vs refined do you like your hot tub experience? Gaviota Hot Springs is indeed rustic. Get back onto Hwy 1 via Hwy 126 at Buelton. Slow down and see the strawberry fields as you approach Guadalupe, and then on to the Five Cities area. Sycamore Hot Springs is a very refined hot springs experience. If you hope to explore tide pools be sure to have a tide chart - which you can pick up at many of the businesses in the area. Plan your tide pooling to follow a lowering tide out. Shell Beach has some good tide pools as does Montana de Oro Park.

In planning your trip consider that the Amgen Tour of California cycle race will take place in May and lodging may not be available in cities of start of finish location.

Avila has several good restaurants. There's a new place for food on the old pier that serves a great crab melt sandwich.

Cambria has B&B and other lodging with hot tubs you can sit in while the sun sets. Lynn's cafe in Cambria is great.

How adventurous do you want to be? The Massey Ferguson road is a spectacular way to get back to 101 from PCH. Hwy 46 or Hwy 41 are options for less adventurous routes back to Hwy 101 from Hwy 1.

Big Basin Redwoods park is a marvelous place to see the redwoods.

As a 5 Cities resident I'd say take a pass on Bubble Gum Alley & The Madonna Inn unless you're staying there.

You're welcome to email if you'd like other or more specific info.
posted by X4ster at 7:09 PM on April 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

A lot of the Big Sur hiking trails are closed. It's beautiful but a lot of it is inaccessible right now.

Monterey really is a pretty great home base. We do the Central Coast at least once a year and I never get tired of Monterey. It's quite a bit nicer than Morro Bay (which I also like a lot, but there is more to do in Monterey, and Monterey is a lot prettier).

I'd add Cambria and San Simeon to your list if you are traveling.

Point Lobos is one of the most beautiful spots on the coast so I'd be sure to stop there.
posted by xeney at 8:45 PM on April 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a nearby resident, I vote Henry Cowell over Big Basin for redwoods - it’s much less crowded. Do the little interpretive trail and then wander down Pipeline Road near the stream and diverge off onto a smaller trail wherever you’d like. The Cremer House in Felton is perfect for a craft beer and lunch (the portions are huge!) after a hike there.

In/near Santa Cruz I’d recommend strolling along West Cliff Drive and looking at the super expensive houses/watching the surfers, and also going for a walk at Wilder Ranch.

In Monterey, don’t skip the Aquarium! The otters are the cutest!
posted by bananacabana at 9:58 PM on April 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one mentioned the 17 mile Drive, it's great! I drove my parents around about 14 miles of it ending at Pebble Beach golf resort. The scenic stops are spectacular. It was also lovely to walk around Carmel and gawk at the beautiful houses if that's your kind of thing. And then we saw the most beautiful sunset at the beach surrounded by about 300 other people, it was lovely.

I also found Hearst Castle surprisingly fun so that is worth considering as a stopover on the way up.

Morro Bay was a nice pit stop for dinner.
posted by like_neon at 2:22 AM on April 3, 2018

Morro Bay is lovely and charming and fun to walk around, but we felt like we saw way more wild life when we went to Monterey. Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough was a really nice experience, we had lots of otters pop up out of the water right next to us.

The elephant seals at Ano Nuevo are an unbelieveable sight to see. Be prepared for a good hike though.

Hearst castle was worth it, the Madonna Inn not so much for me.

If you're willing to go just a bit farther north than Santa Cruz, you can get up to the Purisima Creek Redwoods. The trails are easy to access within a few hundred feet from the parking area and then you find can find yourself (on a less busy day, I suggest a weekday) in total silence. It's amazing. Others here might have better suggestions for Redwoods a little more south (our home base for exploring that part of the state is usually Half Moon Bay).
posted by vignettist at 1:46 PM on April 3, 2018

Thanks everyone! I'm saving all of everyone's suggestions for food and hikes--very helpful! You talked me into it...we're staying in Monterey/Pacific Grove as our home base and we'll venture out from there. Then we're stopping in Cambria for a night on our way home. I wish I had planned ahead to stay in Big Sur but we'll have to save that one for next time!
posted by biscuits at 8:58 PM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

You know that the 1 is blocked south of big sur on the quickest route to cambria, yes?
posted by lalochezia at 9:13 PM on April 3, 2018

Yes, to reiterate lalochezia and effluvia, Highway 1 along Big Sur IS CLOSED - your route back to Cambria from Monterey will take 2.5 hours, through inland California, which is not the scenic ocean trip you were imagining.

BUT! If you do choose to go all the way up to Moterey, you're already going by Soledad, so you might as well take a detour and go to Pinnacles National Park, which is a stunning geologic feature and a good bit of hiking/ rock scrambling, and you can see the Pinnacles condors! Two notes: first, it's busy on the weekends, so go early if you want to park there, and second, bring a flashlight (yeah, your phones could work, but a proper flashlight might be better) because one trail goes through a rocky "tunnel" (it's more of a dark passage between really big rocks, as I recall it, but it's pretty hard to get through without a flashlight).

It's not a full day stop, but it'll add a few hours onto your day, and if you want to do it on either end of the trip, that could round out your day there or back.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:54 AM on April 4, 2018

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