Bay Area nature-hunters
September 2, 2019 7:40 AM   Subscribe

We (two 30-year-old humans) have two weeks in the general San Francisco area in November. How can we have an exciting, memorable time without destroying what's left of my bank account? Snowflakes inside.

We're planning on spending a few days in San Francisco itself at either end of the trip, and in the middle going somewhere ... else? Renting a car and driving several hours is absolutely on the table.

Previous trips have been quite city-based, but we're keen to see some large Californian nature while we're here this time. Is Yosemite likely to be crammed with tourists? Are there other, cooler, more indie [national] parks that would be more exciting in November? Should we consider going to the Napa Valley for a wine tour? Should we immediately drive straight to West Covina and stay there for two weeks? I don't know anything about California.

Basically, any outdoorsy suggestions in and around the Bay Area are up for grabs. The only stipulation is that it shouldn't cost the earth - we managed to get a reservation at the French Laundry for the beginning of the trip, and that's comfortably wiped out most of my "big experience" budget in one fell swoop. I feel more comfortable finding cool/weird things to do (art, street food, history, music, bars) in the city on my own, but if you've got any outstanding local secrets I'd love to hear those too.
posted by spielzebub to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: As a possible day trip from San Francisco, hiking to Alamare Falls, a waterfall on the beach near the town of Bolinas (and in Point Reyes, itself a beautiful natural area with a small town with good food), is fun. It may or may not be raining when you arrive, though (and the size of the waterfall will also depend on how much it has rained you may know, it doesn't rain in California in the summer, and the rainy season usually starts around November). On the way, you could stop off for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and drive down this road. For a longer trip, I *love* Big Sur. Spectacular views from Highway 1, which winds along next to cliffs over the ocean, a little like the South of France. Big Sur also happens to have a waterfall on the beach. If you go to Yosemite, I think it won't be as crowded as it is in the summer. I've been there around Thanksgiving and it was great.
posted by pinochiette at 8:10 AM on September 2, 2019

Yosemite is spectacular and there are always tourists, through November should be something of a lull outside of Thanksgiving and weekends. Still, it’s really not all that close.

My rec is for Big Sur, as well as Sonoma and Medocino Counties.
posted by vunder at 8:16 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Definitely go take a walk through Muir woods. If you've never walked in the redwoods then definitely definitely do it. It will change your life far more than a meal.

In the South Bay my absolute favorite stomping ground is Joseph D. Grant park. On the right side of the road are some long rolling walks (and even a fairly flat one) and on the left are some steep trails. There are usually wild turkeys about, but I've see boars and bobcats. It's a very typical California chaparral landscape. As a bonus, Lick Observatory is 15 minutes up the road and worth a half hour of your time for the tale of its construction if nothing else. (take Quimby road up, Mt. Hamilton is plagued by bicyclists)

You're a little early for the elephant seals at Año Neuvo State Park, but that means you'll be early for the tourists as well. There are usually a few seals around.

If you plan on going to Yosemite stay two nights (so you have a full day there) and plan on staying outside the park to save your budget. Make your reservations last April just in case.

Those are the big reasonable-distance-to-SF nature sites I would go to in the Bay Area. Have fun!

Also, redwoods.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:07 AM on September 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: About half an hour south of San Francisco is the city of Pacifica, and there are two day hikes there I highly recommend.

Devils Slide Trail -
This is a short, easy trail along what’s left of highway one before they moved it through some tunnels through the hillside since landslides kept taking out parts of the road. It’s a beautiful walk along the cliffs, after years of driving on windy cliff roads it’s a treat to get to walk and really appreciate the scenery.

Montara Mountain Trail -
A much longer trail, but oh the views are stunning. If you make it a round trip to the top of Montara Mountain it’s about 5 miles, but as far as walking up a mountain it’s pretty easy. On a clear day, and in November there’s going to be a lot of clear days, you’ll see the entire bay stretched out.

And if you want somewhere cheap to eat Pacifica also has the only Taco Bell on a beach. I can say it’s a very nice Taco Bell with excellent views.

Personally my favorite National Park in California is hours from San Francisco, Pinnacles National Park. It’s full of amazing rock formations and has some neat caves and the hiking is fun. If you visit Big Sur it’s not the far, could be a fun loop.
posted by lepus at 9:22 AM on September 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It depends on how much driving you want to do. Yosemite is a lifetime sight, and the 3+ hour drive maybe well be worth it. If you’re going around Thanksgiving (Nov. 28) be aware that from the 22nd through Dec 1st it may be somewhat crowded so get your reservations early. Likewise with Big Sur. One caveat about traveling Highway 1, especially south of Monterey, is that the road can be slow and/or closed at times depending on weather and traffic.

If you’re already going to Napa Valley for your dinner (lucky you!!) you could stay a few nights in the valley. Accommodations in the town of Napa might be less expensive than the more charming little towns like St. Helena or Yountville. I would skip any wine tours as you can just choose a few wineries and go on your own. When we have visitors, we often ask what their favorite varietals are and choose wineries based on that. Also, we prefer to visit smaller production wineries. They tend to be more interesting than the giants like Mondavi. Definitely do NOT bother with the wine train. It’s expensive and really not worth it. Another "secret" recommendation in Napa for lunch or dinner is Bistro Don Giovanni. Oh and for a really unusual experience, you could always try a mud bath in Calistoga!

For hiking and outdoor adventures, Sonoma and Marin to the north are amazing. Pinochiette’s recommendation for Point Reyes is spot on. If you haven’t seen the redwoods, I heartily second the recommendation for a day hike in Muir Woods (Marin county) or Armstrong Woods (Sonoma county). To the south, Santa Cruz and Monterey has all kinds of outdoor fun. If you like to get on the water, checkout kayak rentals in Monterey Bay, or even better, Point Lobos. Either choice will depend on weather and ocean conditions. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is incredible, but don’t go on the weekend when it can be very crowded.

A favorite drive of ours is to take Highway 280 south from San Francisco, then cut West on Hwy 92 towards Half Moon Bay. Stop in Half Moon Bay for picnic supplies, then head south on Hwy 1. There’s a secret beach just south of Coastways Ranch (about .3 km) that’s almost always deserted, but is really lovely. Look on the west side of the highway for a pullout and a small dirt road with a fence. It’s not marked at all but it’s an easy walk down to the beach which is south facing, sheltered and often warm and sunny. Another gem in that area for lodging is Costanoa Lodge. Canvas tent bungalows run about $100/night.

The weather in November can be quite mild. Our real rain doesn’t generally start until January, but you know, it’s the weather.

Feel free to memail me for any more information. You'll have a great trip!
posted by Gusaroo at 9:42 AM on September 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: For info: this will be around the first half of November, so before Thanksgiving, and I drive a lot for work, so 3+ hours is not a deterrent at all. Thanks all for the great suggestions so far!
posted by spielzebub at 9:54 AM on September 2, 2019

Best answer: I spent last fall working in Palo Alto and hiked every chance I got. My time was limited, but I did all the big parks plus a long trip up to Lassen (which I would tell you to absolutely make time for, but it's likely to be snowed in by November). I agree with the above and think you should see Big Sur and Point Lobos and Point Reyes. But if you want to tuck in a few smaller experiences, I treasured the places below as much if not more.

- Portola Redwoods State Park: I hiked the Peters Creek trail and saw exactly no one the entire time; I lingered in the old-growth redwood grove for what felt like days. Maybe I'm still there? Who knows. Anyway it was magical. After I ate like a queen at Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero.
- Wilder Ranch State Park let me geek out on a truly amazing settler story and a section of spectacular Santa Cruz coast. There's even a moss-bedecked hidden cave. After I had spectacular tacos at a stand in Santa Cruz.
- Take advantage of your jetlag and get up early to watch the sun rise. I saw dawn spread across the city from Twin Peaks in San Francisco, watched thousands of rare and amazing birds come awake with it at the Palo Alto Baylands, and sat in silence so profound I heard hummingbirds whirring in the distance at the decommissioned secret radar base atop Mount Umunhum.
posted by minervous at 9:59 AM on September 2, 2019

Best answer: Here are two free or nearly-free recommendations. For context, I'm a local and I enjoy hiking and car camping, but not "carry a tent on your back" camping. I don't own any equipment fancier than hiking boots and a couple walking sticks.

First, the Steep Ravine / Dipsea loop. That page actually describes it very well, but to summarize, it's an incredible blend of ocean views, mountain grassland, a river, and a substantial redwood grove - all in one hike. It's true what they say about parking near the ranger station, but I always start from Highway 1 near Stinson Beach and tack on the extra distance. In fact... I might even respectfully suggest this as an alternative to Muir Woods. The Muir trailhead / visitor center is always packed, it's basically impossible to park there now and you have to take an inconvenient shuttle ride to get there. Plus it's about as built up as you'd expect from that kind of popularity. Yes you can hike beyond the first little Muir Woods loop, but then... you're getting into territory quite like Mt. Tam and Steep Ravine anyway.

Second, just over the ridge from Oakland, and therefore very accessible, is Redwood Regional Park. This is a surprisingly nice and large park with a very extensive redwood grove to walk through. Apparently the original redwoods here were so tall they were a navigation point for ships sailing to Oakland in the late 19th century, though of course those were all cut down. The forest has rallied nicely, though. Of course this won't be your main nature event of the trip, but if you are already considering spending some time eating in Oakland or Berkeley, then this is a great nature-oriented way to spend half a day.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:01 AM on September 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yes yes to Point Reyes. If you like oysters you should check out Tomales Bay nearby there.

If you’re in the mood to drive south, Santa Cruz is a fun town to see. If you’re in the mood for a LONG drive south, I did a great two-day trip once driving along the PCH from Malibu to San Francisco and it was wonderful. Malibu was full of beautiful canyons and beaches, great seafood, and even some views of whales. (I believe parts of the PCH are still off-limits or being rebuilt, so maybe that wouldn’t work for you...)
posted by sallybrown at 11:15 AM on September 2, 2019

You can't go wrong with up & down the coast. Plenty of places to stop and hike, randomly or pre-selected, and you can turn around at any time and head back. A few folks have pointed out some points of interest - all very good. Just do lots of (free or park entrance) day trips and the two weeks will fly by. Muir Woods, which is definitely worth it and super close, is about the only place I know where you might need (parking) reservations.

Big Sur at 3 hours is a bit far for a day trip, especially if you stop along the way, but is one of the most stunning coastlines I've seen. Have a drink, go to the beach, and turn around -- - not a lot of hotels/infrastructure there.

Napa & Sonoma depends on how wine-y you are. I'm not a train/tour fan, but the train is good for doing lots of tastings; otherwise one of you has to be the designated driver. Napa Valley is fancier and spendier, while the Sonoma Valley is a little more down-to-earth and you still can find free wine tastings. You pay full retail at wineries, so don't expect to be saving money that way.

You might get lucky with November with a warm spell, but it's into our rainy season, so it might be drizzling. Bring a waterproof jacket. It'll be around 60 F.

The drive on Highway 1 down to southern California is stunning - save 2-3 days for that, stop in Monterey or Cambria or San Luis Obisbo/Pismo Beach, maybe go see the Hearst Castle. If you don't go down the coast, you'll go down Highway 5 and be in West Cambria in, like, 6 hours if you don't stop or hit traffic. It's not as scenic, but it is fast.
posted by troyer at 3:58 PM on September 2, 2019

(spielzebub, is it possible that no one else clocked your delightful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reference?)
posted by minervous at 4:07 PM on September 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

I knew that West Covina was a reference, but couldn't place it, despite being a certified member of the Rebecca Bloom fan club, I'm so embarassed. Okay, what a dream trip! With two weeks I would strongly consider taking some time to see the parts of California that are not within a weekend trip of the Bay Area. The eastern Sierras are super, super scenic, no crowds. Ghost towns like Bodie! Ditto Lake Tahoe, that is a slow season because there won't be snow for skiing but the summer crowds are long gone. Or "real" northern California, like Lassen National Forest, which is an extinct volcano. Or the "Lost Coast". up by Redwood National Park. These places are every bit as beautiful. Yosemite is really nice but crowded and I think you're too late to get a camping reservation inside the park. Be aware that there are a lot of campsites that are "Yosemite" sites but require a significant drive (45 minutes+) to get anywhere you might want to go in the park. Also, passes over the Sierra close, though typically not until after you'll be done. Just keep that in mind that you might have to drive up to Highway 50 or down around to the south if the snow is heavy early. There is rain at all seasons in certain regions of California, especially places with mountains to the east, but early November is not that rainy.

As far as food, I will say that TFL is a special place, and we went and will go back (they don't treat their stagiares well but most dining is pretty exploitative) but I'm not sure I would choose it as my only splurge. You're paying for the perfection, but there is so much incredible food in California that you could have three outstanding dinners for the same price. Napa is scenic but super expensive, even motels are like $100 a night minimum. Check reviews, there are wineries all over the state that are outstanding.
posted by wnissen at 12:46 PM on September 3, 2019

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