Author Topic: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP  (Read 2104 times)

uniwelder

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San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« on: October 15, 2023, 03:10:14 PM »
My wife and I are planning a vacation and thought people here would have some good suggestions, especially since so many of you live out near the SF bay area.  We've done a campervan trip once before, from San Francisco to Yosemite, and really enjoyed the experience.  This time we'd like to do a southern loop along the coast and come back up through Pinnacles NP, or vice versa.  Please provide some suggestions to make the most of our time and see the most worthwhile sights along the way. 

Since we have the campervan, we'd like to find a campsite for each night, hopefully with a shower available.  Both of us are quite frugal, love unique sights, like hiking and nature, and tasty (but not expensive) food.  We'll be there for a week in November (not Thanksgiving) flying into SFO airport.  Total of 6 full vacation days.  Here's what we're thinking so far by each day, with expenses for fun---

0) Flight ($0, paid with credit card bonus miles) arrives at night.  We have a hotel ($125) booked with free shuttle from the airport.  We'll use the shuttle again in the morning to take the train into the city.

1) The following day, we'll have about 3-5 hours to explore the city before getting on the train to San Jose to pick up the campervan ($500 for 5 days) by 4:00.  We've done a few days of SF sightseeing on our previous trip, but I know there is lots that we've missed.  It might be best to get the van around 2:00 (earliest pickup time) to get on the road asap so we can pick up groceries, get out of the city, check in at campsite, etc.

2,3,4,5) Driving around and sightseeing.  We're not sure which direction to do the loop and are having trouble finding available camping spots in the California State Park website.  Days 2+3 in particular are over the weekend, so everything we see shows as reserved.  I thought November would be off-season, so I figured it shouldn't be difficult to book a month ahead.  Any advice?

Also, I feel overwhelmed by all the various state parks and beaches along route 1.  I see we're in the middle of sea lion mating season, but I'm not sure what the implication of that is for our trip.  We'd like to do some nice hikes, see big trees, explore the coast.  Please help.

6) Drop off van in San Jose by 10 AM.  Our flight from SFO is late at night, so we have a full day to explore the city.  We've been to the wharf area, walked on the golden gate bridge, botanical garden, zoo, palace of fine arts, a cool stone path labyrinth @Zikoris at the beach, and ate some awesome steamed buns.  Any other places we should go see while in San Francisco?

snic

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #1 on: October 15, 2023, 08:08:22 PM »
I haven't done much camping on the Big Sur Coast, but I know the area fairly well and can honestly say any of those parks down from Carmel to San Simeon will be beautiful. There is just one jaw-dropping view after another, and if one beach is closed due to mating sea lions, or one trail closed due to a washout or whatever, just a little farther on there will be another one just as amazing. I suggest you book whatever campgrounds are available in locations that make sense, and just go. Make lots of stops and take your time going down (or up) the coast.

Which side of the Pinnacles are you going to? Last time I was there (many years ago), there was a small campground on the western side, which is easier to get to from 101 than the eastern side. But the eastern side I think has more facilities. The hikes from either side are spectacular - it's a beautiful place, and in November it shouldn't be quite as murderously hot as in summer. The cave connecting the two sides might be closed, though, if it's been raining.

Re things to do in SF, you could stop by the Ferry Building for lunch and walk along the Embarcadero for great views across the bay. And/or make a trip out to Alcatraz. It's really spectacular for the views of the city, and the history is kind of interesting too. Or, for something more off-beat: since you mentioned hikes, there are some odd little hilltops you can hike up to within the city limits, with great views. Twin Peaks is the most obvious one, but check out neighboring Tank Hill and Mount Sutro Open Space. From the Inner Sunset or Haight-Ashbury, you can walk up through the Cole Valley and the Upper Haight neighborhoods, loop through the Mount Sutro trails, and end up on Tank Hill for the spectacular view. Gives you a perspective on a unique little area of SF. Or look up other SF neighborhoods, perhaps those with cafes and shops to enjoy, such as Clement St in the Inner Richmond (stop by Arsicault for French pastry if you're there at breakfast time, or any time you need a French pastry), or West Portal, and wander around.
« Last Edit: October 15, 2023, 08:23:27 PM by snic »

Monocle Money Mouth

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #2 on: October 16, 2023, 11:50:23 AM »
If you're heading south, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park should be a good place to see big redwoods. My wife visited that park and said it was pretty nice and they still have a 40 acre grove of old growth trees.

Big Basin used to be a good place to see big redwoods, but a lot of that park was destroyed by fire in 2020. I'm not sure how much of it has reopened and how much is worth seeing. A lot of the trees survived, but they look like green pipe cleaners now.
« Last Edit: October 16, 2023, 11:53:20 AM by Monocle Money Mouth »

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #3 on: October 16, 2023, 02:09:11 PM »
If you're heading south, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park should be a good place to see big redwoods. My wife visited that park and said it was pretty nice and they still have a 40 acre grove of old growth trees.

Big Basin used to be a good place to see big redwoods, but a lot of that park was destroyed by fire in 2020. I'm not sure how much of it has reopened and how much is worth seeing. A lot of the trees survived, but they look like green pipe cleaners now.

Thanks.  Its possible we'll travel through Henry Cowell State Park, but it seems the campsites are closed November - March.  I think this is the problem with most parks we've been looking at.  I was able to reserve a spot in Pescadero Creek County Park, west of San Jose, for our first night, however. 

All the campsites at Big Basin are closed.  I've checked out some pictures and they do look like pipe cleaners!

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #4 on: October 16, 2023, 02:16:54 PM »
I haven't done much camping on the Big Sur Coast, but I know the area fairly well and can honestly say any of those parks down from Carmel to San Simeon will be beautiful. There is just one jaw-dropping view after another, and if one beach is closed due to mating sea lions, or one trail closed due to a washout or whatever, just a little farther on there will be another one just as amazing. I suggest you book whatever campgrounds are available in locations that make sense, and just go. Make lots of stops and take your time going down (or up) the coast.

If there aren't campsites available, it is possible or advisable to just park at an overlook area for the night?  Do you think anyone would bother us?  Do you know if there are lights glaring down or is it dark?

Which side of the Pinnacles are you going to? Last time I was there (many years ago), there was a small campground on the western side, which is easier to get to from 101 than the eastern side. But the eastern side I think has more facilities. The hikes from either side are spectacular - it's a beautiful place, and in November it shouldn't be quite as murderously hot as in summer. The cave connecting the two sides might be closed, though, if it's been raining.

I have no idea.  I didn't know anything about Pinnacles until I saw it would be in our path.  Thanks for the tips as I now have something to investigate a little more.

Re things to do in SF, you could stop by the Ferry Building for lunch and walk along the Embarcadero for great views across the bay. And/or make a trip out to Alcatraz. It's really spectacular for the views of the city, and the history is kind of interesting too. Or, for something more off-beat: since you mentioned hikes, there are some odd little hilltops you can hike up to within the city limits, with great views. Twin Peaks is the most obvious one, but check out neighboring Tank Hill and Mount Sutro Open Space. From the Inner Sunset or Haight-Ashbury, you can walk up through the Cole Valley and the Upper Haight neighborhoods, loop through the Mount Sutro trails, and end up on Tank Hill for the spectacular view. Gives you a perspective on a unique little area of SF. Or look up other SF neighborhoods, perhaps those with cafes and shops to enjoy, such as Clement St in the Inner Richmond (stop by Arsicault for French pastry if you're there at breakfast time, or any time you need a French pastry), or West Portal, and wander around.

Thanks for the tips.  Last time we did see Alcatraz from the shore and thought about a tour, but didn't want to spare the time.  It would be nice to go.

FINate

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #5 on: October 16, 2023, 04:42:28 PM »
Highway 1 through Big Sur is closed near Lucia due to a large landslide. No estimates on when it may reopen. So of you explore this area plan on out-and-back trips.

Should be noted that Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (one of the few east-west roads to the coast) is also closed for the foreseeable future.

Big Sur is highly impacted year round. Busy all the time. People gotta get their #vanlife Instagram shots :) Camping along the road on this stretch of Highway 1 is prohibited and this is enforced. Would be a complete zoo otherwise. If you can't find a campsite in Big Sur, you may try campgrounds in nearby areas such as Carmel Valley or Marina.

Pinnacles is great.

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #6 on: October 16, 2023, 05:35:59 PM »
Highway 1 through Big Sur is closed near Lucia due to a large landslide. No estimates on when it may reopen. So of you explore this area plan on out-and-back trips.

Should be noted that Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (one of the few east-west roads to the coast) is also closed for the foreseeable future.

Big Sur is highly impacted year round. Busy all the time. People gotta get their #vanlife Instagram shots :) Camping along the road on this stretch of Highway 1 is prohibited and this is enforced. Would be a complete zoo otherwise. If you can't find a campsite in Big Sur, you may try campgrounds in nearby areas such as Carmel Valley or Marina.

Pinnacles is great.

Thank you!  Now it makes sense why google maps never wanted to route all the way through rte. 1.  Maybe we'll just take a day trip to the beach and then down to Pinnacles and figure out some other loop.  Do you have any suggestions?  How would you spend 4 days in a van leaving from San Jose, besides going to Yosemite?

FINate

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #7 on: October 16, 2023, 07:53:45 PM »
Highway 1 through Big Sur is closed near Lucia due to a large landslide. No estimates on when it may reopen. So of you explore this area plan on out-and-back trips.

Should be noted that Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (one of the few east-west roads to the coast) is also closed for the foreseeable future.

Big Sur is highly impacted year round. Busy all the time. People gotta get their #vanlife Instagram shots :) Camping along the road on this stretch of Highway 1 is prohibited and this is enforced. Would be a complete zoo otherwise. If you can't find a campsite in Big Sur, you may try campgrounds in nearby areas such as Carmel Valley or Marina.

Pinnacles is great.

Thank you!  Now it makes sense why google maps never wanted to route all the way through rte. 1.  Maybe we'll just take a day trip to the beach and then down to Pinnacles and figure out some other loop.  Do you have any suggestions?  How would you spend 4 days in a van leaving from San Jose, besides going to Yosemite?

What I would do may not be what you should do. I grew up in the area, have seen all these places many times.

That said, if I had a van for a few days AND didn't already have campground reservations, I would take the road less traveled. 

Yosemite can be great in November, but can also be very cold and/or snowy. And like Big Sur, finding a place to camp is an issue. While the valley is open year round, there's a good chance Tioga pass will close in November for the season along with most of the campgrounds throughout the Sierras. So my issue with Yosemite in November is that it's somewhat limited (though still a lot to see and do in the valley), without a lot to explore nearby.

So in this situation I would skip Yosemite and stick to the coastal areas. Something like:

1) Travel down to the Monterey/Carmel Valley area and spend a day or so exploring there.
2) Day trip down to Big Sur
3) Drive Carmel Valley Rd over to Highway 101 to head down to Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay. Explore the towns down there, do some wine tasting. If you want more of the coast, head north on Highway 1.

Or I would slow travel up the coast north from San Francisco through Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg, then head inland to Highway 101 and loop back south through Ukiah and Sonoma and the various towns along that route.


Dicey

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #8 on: October 16, 2023, 07:55:57 PM »
The City of Monterey has a great campground. No reservations needed. It's first come, first served. The bath house water is screaming hot!

https://monterey.org/city_hall/parks___recreation/beaches,_parks___playgrounds/camping_and_hiking/index.php#:~:text=The%20picnic%20areas%20are%20reservable,first%20come%2C%20first%20served%20basis.

A LOT of state parks show full when they really aren't, because CA does not offer refunds. There is legislation pending to change that, but it won't take effect until next year, if it passes. Some parks reserve a few spaces for walk-ins. If you can plan your day to get there early, snag a site and then get out and explore, you might do better.

Definitely check out Atlas Obscura's website for cool things to see/do along the way.

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #9 on: October 16, 2023, 08:01:39 PM »
As a fan of campervan life, I've found that campendium app (https://www.campendium.com/) and Ioverlander (https://www.ioverlander.com/) are both super helpful in finding places to sleep. Most national parks allow for free dispersed camping and also have campgrounds (check out recreation.gov for reservations). WalMart is usually friendly to RVers and vanlifers and many allow folks to park overnight. No showers of course. I've also heard folks use Dyrt (https://thedyrt.com/) though I haven't checked it out much.

We just finished up an 8-day campervan trip to the Grand Canyon/Bryce/Zion/Sedona and it was incredible!

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #10 on: October 16, 2023, 09:03:34 PM »
Iím sorry Iím not helpful with places to camp, but here are some of my favorite places in the area south of San Jose to visit.

Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz Ė in the morning, if you can. There should be monarch butterflies this time of year, hanging like bunches of grapes on the trees. When they get warm enough the clusters suddenly break apart and there are butterflies everywhere. Oh, and thereís a beach and rocks, including the arch rock that gives it its name.

Monterey State Historic Park Ė Adobe buildings, heritage gardens, along a 2-mile walk through that part of the city.

Montereyís Fishermanís Wharf Ė Mostly shopping, but also whale watching tours. Being out on the water is fun, and Iíve seen whales and dolphins on a cruise. The dolphins were swimming with the boat.

Point Lobos Natural State Reserve Ė south of Carmel. Wild and beautiful views of the ocean and bays. Lots of trails. I donít know how long your van is, but they donít allow vehicles over 21 feet in the park.

San Juan Bautista Ė 200+ year old mission thatís still used as a church, lots of old buildings, a Spanish plaza, and the San Andreas fault right next to the church.

Have a great trip!

snic

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #11 on: October 16, 2023, 09:18:10 PM »

1) Travel down to the Monterey/Carmel Valley area and spend a day or so exploring there.
2) Day trip down to Big Sur
3) Drive Carmel Valley Rd over to Highway 101 to head down to Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay. Explore the towns down there, do some wine tasting. If you want more of the coast, head north on Highway 1.

That's a great plan. Whatever you do, don't miss the Big Sur coast from Carmel down to wherever the road is closed. There aren't enough superlatives in the English language to describe it. If you stay in Monterey or Marina or Carmel Valley, the drive down to Lucia and back would make a really nice day trip, with maybe a short hike if you have time. Just leave early - days are short in November.

To cut over to 101, Carmel Valley Road is very pretty but windy and slow - either a positive or a negative depending on your schedule. The other option, if you're staying in/near the Monterey Peninsula, is to take 68 towards Salinas and meet 101 there. Or go part way into Carmel Valley and then take Laureles Grade Road to 68 (nice views from the top). Anyway, 101 from Salinas south is pretty long and boring, except for the Pinnacles, and doesn't start getting interesting again until the Paso Robles wine country.

If you're staying for a couple of days around Monterey, don't miss Point Lobos. It's a great place for a day hike of any length from half an hour to all day, and you won't be disappointed by any of the hikes. I think there's some sort of reservation system now to get in, so plan in advance. Of course there are lots of other things to see in the area, for example the Carmel Mission and Old Monterey if you're into history.

snic

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #12 on: October 16, 2023, 09:32:47 PM »
San Juan Bautista Ė 200+ year old mission thatís still used as a church, lots of old buildings, a Spanish plaza, and the San Andreas fault right next to the church.

That's also a good idea. Definitely worth a look. A couple of years ago we stopped by here and then had a fantastic lunch at Los Grullenses in Hollister a few miles down the road. It's a no-frills tacqueria with outstanding food, and low prices.

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #13 on: October 16, 2023, 09:52:13 PM »
I have yet to make it to the pinnacles caves, mainly because I love the high peaks trail and rain.  But I like Pinnacles a lot.

I canít help with the camper van (Iím a hotel person) but Hearst Castle is a fun spot to see how the other side lives.

PacificaFog

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #14 on: October 18, 2023, 05:28:58 PM »
Seconding Natural Bridges in November to see the butterfly migration!  Itís really cool.

If youíre into wine, an afternoon of wine tasting in the Paso Robles area would be fun.

wenchsenior

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #15 on: October 23, 2023, 10:47:48 AM »
Highly HIGHLY recommend Gold Bluff Beach/Fern Canyon/Prairie Creek State Park if you are in the area.

One note: You'll be missing peak rut for the Tule elk, but just in case, give wide berth to any bulls you see anyway. We've visited in Sep and had them throw down and spar right in front of us. And there are (or were, last time I was there) many elk in that area.

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #16 on: October 23, 2023, 11:40:03 AM »
Thank you everybody so far!  I've been reading through all the comments, but a bit overwhelmed with planning.  I'll come back with a proposed itinerary soon, so there's some room for tweaking before the trip.

Dicey

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #17 on: October 23, 2023, 12:15:48 PM »
Highly HIGHLY recommend Gold Bluff Beach/Fern Canyon/Prairie Creek State Park if you are in the area.

One note: You'll be missing peak rut for the Tule elk, but just in case, give wide berth to any bulls you see anyway. We've visited in Sep and had them throw down and spar right in front of us. And there are (or were, last time I was there) many elk in that area.
Am I missing something? Isn't that 5-6 hours north of the Bay Area? Isn't OP looking to head south? I'm asking because some folks have no idea how huge CA is.

wenchsenior

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #18 on: October 23, 2023, 12:45:22 PM »
Highly HIGHLY recommend Gold Bluff Beach/Fern Canyon/Prairie Creek State Park if you are in the area.

One note: You'll be missing peak rut for the Tule elk, but just in case, give wide berth to any bulls you see anyway. We've visited in Sep and had them throw down and spar right in front of us. And there are (or were, last time I was there) many elk in that area.
Am I missing something? Isn't that 5-6 hours north of the Bay Area? Isn't OP looking to head south? I'm asking because some folks have no idea how huge CA is.

No, that was my error. I thought they were doing a loop north from SF.

Dicey

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #19 on: October 23, 2023, 01:39:56 PM »
Highly HIGHLY recommend Gold Bluff Beach/Fern Canyon/Prairie Creek State Park if you are in the area.

One note: You'll be missing peak rut for the Tule elk, but just in case, give wide berth to any bulls you see anyway. We've visited in Sep and had them throw down and spar right in front of us. And there are (or were, last time I was there) many elk in that area.
Am I missing something? Isn't that 5-6 hours north of the Bay Area? Isn't OP looking to head south? I'm asking because some folks have no idea how huge CA is.

No, that was my error. I thought they were doing a loop north from SF.
Well, thanks for it anyway. Now it's on our radar. :-)

SpinWave0704

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #20 on: October 23, 2023, 09:56:17 PM »
Seconding some of the great recs listed above:
My southbound favorites are: (going south from SJ)
  • Visit Santa Cruz downtown and the Beach Boardwalk (rollercoaster rides).
  • seconding @PacificaFog on visiting Natural Bridges beach for the butterfly migration.
  • seconding @Monocle Money Mouth: Near SC, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is nice; check out the train.
  • Walk around Monterey Cannery Row. Monterey Aquarium is cool but takes a few hours.
  • Pacific Grove area: Visit Point Pinos Lighthouse (a small cool spot) and Asilomar State Beach (nice, quiet beach).
  • Keep driving on 17 Mile Drive until the you hit Pebble Beach Golf Course - members only, but it's a famous and nice place to stop by.
  • Check out Carmel downtown.
  • (It must be blasphemous to say, but... I'm not a big fan of Pinnacles. YMMV.)
  • Hike/Walk at Point Lobos.
  • Drive to Garrapata State Park, right off on Highway 1. Hiking trails on one side, beach on the other side.
  • Drive to Big Sur, to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Vista Point, the Lookout Trail Viewpoint, and the McWay Falls.
  • otoh, I thought the Hearst Castle was boring. YMMV.
  • Pfeiffer Beach (on land within Los Padres National Forest): It's off CA Highway 1 in Big Sur. It's VERY easy to miss the sharp turn for the beach, and the parking can tight. Note: The beach is often confused with nearby Pfeiffer State Park or Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park, so make sure you look for the signs for Sycamore Canyon Road. Personally, I think it's worth the effort.
My northbound favorites are: (going north from SF)
  • Sausalito and Tiburon are nice to walk around; lots of little art galleries and shops. It's fun to take the ferry from SF.
  • Marin Headland (lots of open land), with a few great vista points of Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Point Bonita Lighthouse: The lighthouse hours are weird, but it's a good hike.
  • Muir Woods is awesome. You need to reserve parking in advance!
  • From Muir Woods, you can hike to Stinson Beach OR go to Mt. Tam; you can't do both in the same day. I would vote for Stinson Beach, if the weather permits.
  • Mendocino, Ft. Bragg, and Glass Beach are nice, but are WAY far north - too far for a short visit from SJ, IMO. If you decide to go that far north, stop at Point Reyes and Bodega Bay.
My SF proper favorites are: there are too many! I'll list a few:
  • Cal Academy of Science: very cool, they have an indoor rainforest, planetarium shows, and a living roof. The De Young Art museum is across the street. Both are in Golden Gate Park. The small Strawberry Hill has good views from within the park.
  • The Asian Art museum is great and unique.
  • Lands End Trail is great. ETA: looks like you already did the trail and the Labyrinth.
  • I love the Ferry Building and the weekend Farmer's Market. Expect the sticker shock for some extremely pricey produce, cheese, chocolates, and coffee.
  • Mission Bay/China Basin neighborhood: Every neighborhood in SF is a little different, so you can explore what you like. Spark Social Food Park and Parklab is fun. If you're a sports fan, you can check out the Giants stadium and Warriors stadium.
  • A bunch of great restaurants in Hayes Valley neighborhood (Absinthe $$$, Christopher Elbow Chocolates $$$.)
  • A bunch of great restaurants in Inner Richmond neighborhood (Burma Superstar $$, Pasta Supply Co $$.)
  • Cable cars are for tourists. OTOH, you can book a self-driving car, if you're into that. YMMV, literally. ETA: Or maybe not, the DMV suspended Cruise's permit.
Others:
  • Are you into wineries? You could make a day trip to Napa/Sonoma. There are also smaller local wineries in the Bay Area, usually only open on weekends.
  • Half Moon Bay has terrific views.
  • If you don't want to spend much time in SF, then Mori Point in Pacifica is beautiful and convenient.
p.s. This list got long. I kept adding to it, and, well, there's a lot to see! Hopefully it will give you a good idea.
« Last Edit: October 24, 2023, 01:19:38 PM by SpinWave0704 »

FINate

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #21 on: October 24, 2023, 09:10:24 AM »
  • Visit Santa Cruz downtown and the Beach Boardwalk (rollercoaster rides).
  • seconding @PacificaFog on visiting Natural Bridges beach for the butterfly migration.
  • seconding @Monocle Money Mouth: Near SC, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is nice; check out the train.

Haven't heard much from Otter 841 in a while. DFG has been trying to capture her since it's dangerous for a wild animal to interact with humans in this way, yet they can't locate her. The odds of actually seeing a surfing otter are approximately nil, though you'll find plenty of kitschy merchandise featuring 841 :)

RE the Natural Bridges and the butterfly migration: The migration only happens at certain times of the year, and the numbers vary by year. Do some research to make sure it's happening before going, otherwise you'll be disappointed.

If you're into historic boardwalk amusement parks then the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a good recommendation. Get there early and pay for parking at one of the lots.*

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: The Redwood Grove Loop Trail is the main event here with very impressive old growth redwoods. The rest of the park is mostly second growth redwood forest. This is also adjacent to the Roaring Camp Railroad, which runs an old narrow gauge steam train which is interesting (though very touristy). Worth looking at/watching, but very expensive to ride. I would avoid the diesel train that runs to/from the Beach Boardwalk... also expensive, not that interesting (unless you're a kid/train fanatic), and time consuming.

Downtown Santa Cruz is fine, but I have a difficult time recommending above other places. In fact, I would say this my feeling about Santa Cruz in general. It's a nice place and lots to do, but not really that remarkable. With just a few days to explore, I would strongly recommend prioritizing Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur instead.

*Be mindful of parking a rental van with all your luggage around Santa Cruz. Smash-and-grab vehicle break-ins are a problem, even in broad daylight. The paid parking lots at the Boardwalk are probably okay because there's an element of security getting in/out of the lots, but trailheads and beaches are often hot spots for unsuspecting tourists.

SpinWave0704

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #22 on: October 24, 2023, 09:21:43 AM »
  • Visit Santa Cruz downtown and the Beach Boardwalk (rollercoaster rides).

Haven't heard much from Otter 841 in a while. DFG has been trying to capture her since it's dangerous for a wild animal to interact with humans in this way, yet they can't locate her. The odds of actually seeing a surfing otter are approximately nil, though you'll find plenty of kitschy merchandise featuring 841 :)

I know, I know :-) And yeah, they need to move her for her own safety but it's a very Santa Cruz thing for everyone to be rooting for her to evade capture. It's just hilarious. Otter 841 is still on the run (or swim). The rangers are trying to trick her into capture with decoy surfboards, but she's no fool.


*Be mindful of parking a rental van with all your luggage around Santa Cruz. Smash-and-grab vehicle break-ins are a problem, even in broad daylight. The paid parking lots at the Boardwalk are probably okay because there's an element of security getting in/out of the lots, but trailheads and beaches are often hot spots for unsuspecting tourists.

Seconded. Keep valuables away from the car/van. Not just Santa Cruz, but everywhere.
« Last Edit: October 24, 2023, 10:15:14 AM by SpinWave0704 »

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #23 on: November 04, 2023, 02:09:55 PM »
OP here.  Only a few more days before we depart and I don't feel like we have a very good plan.  I was hoping for a more efficient route, as we're driving a lot between stops, about 3 hours for 3 of the days. Most of the restrictions were due to very limited campground availability, and I didn't want to chance a walk in site, and the towns are so small that I'm not sure whether we'll be able to park overnight in a parking lot.  Here's what I've got so far.  Please give suggestions on how to improve. 

What do people do to store bags while sightseeing SF?  I've seen the Bounce app.  Or is it easy enough to find places across from a train station that advertise?

Wednesday night--- arrive in SF late, sleep

Thursday--- See SF sights until around 2:00, then pick up campervan in San Jose. 
                  Sleep overnight in campground at Pescadero County Memorial Park
                 

Friday--- Ano Nuevo State Park for elephant seals
             Natural Bridges State Beach for butterflies and tide pools, walk Monarch Grove Trail when its 60 degrees out
            Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park for redwood grove loop trail
            Philís Fish Market (?) in Castroville.  Any suggestions for no frills seafood restaurants?  Places we liked best were pay by the pound fresh market types, generally cheaper than what I'd pay at the supermarket for just the seafood alone, but those were in Europe.  Does this exist on the California coast or am I dreaming?
            San Juan Bautista, nearby taqueria Los Grullenses in Hollister
            sleep overnight at Coyote Lake campground

Saturday--- Point Lobos Reserve
                 Monterey Bay
                 drive down coast to Garrapata, McWay Falls loop
                 sleep overnight at Ventana Campground in Big Sur, somehow there was a no frills campsite open

Sunday---   drive back up coast, make more stops that we missed the previous day
                 explore western Pinnacles NP
                 drive around to other side and sleep at eastern Pinnacles campground

Monday--- explore eastern Pinnacles
                sleep at eastern Pinnacles campground

Tuesday--- drop campervan back at San Jose
                explore SF entire day/night until flight home

edited to add--- Sorry, I uploaded the map screenshots in reverse order

FINate

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #24 on: November 04, 2023, 03:38:19 PM »
Looks like a pretty decent itinerary. I don't think you're going to get the driving down much due to the  campground situation, not much you can do about this.

You have quite a lot of sights on Friday, and if at all possible you should avoid highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Watsonville from about 3pm-6pm as the commute can get really bad. Phil's Fish Market is okay, not great IMO. It was better a long time ago, but quality has declined while prices increased. Last time I was there (this was pre-pandemic, so take this with a big grain of salt) the fried calamari was obviously the pre-breaded frozen stuff, very disappointing. The Monterey Bay fishing industry has experienced a long decline so there's not that much locally sourced seafood these days - mostly flown/trucked in. Also be aware that most of the online photos of Phil's are from when they were located closer to the ocean in Moss Landing. Sorry, I don't have recommendations for good, cheap seafood in the area even though I lived there for 40+ years. A quick and cheaper alternative to consider is Phil's Snack Shack and Deli in Moss Landing. Limited menu, mostly sandwiches and burgers, but with decently priced fish sandwiches. Finally, San Juan Bautista doesn't have much going on after sunset (5pm), so you really need to arrive by mid-afteroon for this to be a worthwhile stop.

You really lucked out finding a campsite in Big Sur! It's a wonderful area. Either on your way down or back, I would spend a little time exploring Carmel-by-the-sea.

On Sunday, going from Big Sur to Pinnacles NP: I might consider skipping the west side of the park and head straight to the eastern side (which has your campground) via Hollister. Less driving, and you could explore San Juan Batista during daylight hours on the way (instead of late Friday). My only caveat with this is to get through 101 North from Salinas to the 156 exit before mid-afternoon when visitors from Silicon Valley are heading home en mass.

SpinWave0704

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #25 on: November 04, 2023, 06:45:31 PM »
Sounds like a wonderful plan! You can always tweak your plans as you go.

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #26 on: November 04, 2023, 08:18:33 PM »
Looks like a pretty decent itinerary. I don't think you're going to get the driving down much due to the  campground situation, not much you can do about this.

You have quite a lot of sights on Friday, and if at all possible you should avoid highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Watsonville from about 3pm-6pm as the commute can get really bad. Phil's Fish Market is okay, not great IMO. It was better a long time ago, but quality has declined while prices increased. Last time I was there (this was pre-pandemic, so take this with a big grain of salt) the fried calamari was obviously the pre-breaded frozen stuff, very disappointing. The Monterey Bay fishing industry has experienced a long decline so there's not that much locally sourced seafood these days - mostly flown/trucked in. Also be aware that most of the online photos of Phil's are from when they were located closer to the ocean in Moss Landing. Sorry, I don't have recommendations for good, cheap seafood in the area even though I lived there for 40+ years. A quick and cheaper alternative to consider is Phil's Snack Shack and Deli in Moss Landing. Limited menu, mostly sandwiches and burgers, but with decently priced fish sandwiches. Finally, San Juan Bautista doesn't have much going on after sunset (5pm), so you really need to arrive by mid-afteroon for this to be a worthwhile stop.

You really lucked out finding a campsite in Big Sur! It's a wonderful area. Either on your way down or back, I would spend a little time exploring Carmel-by-the-sea.

On Sunday, going from Big Sur to Pinnacles NP: I might consider skipping the west side of the park and head straight to the eastern side (which has your campground) via Hollister. Less driving, and you could explore San Juan Batista during daylight hours on the way (instead of late Friday). My only caveat with this is to get through 101 North from Salinas to the 156 exit before mid-afternoon when visitors from Silicon Valley are heading home en mass.

Thanks for the tips.  I will keep all that in mind. 

I know there have been a number of recommendations for Carmel-by-the-sea, but it doesn't sound that appealing.  I guess we'll see as the trip goes where we end up spending our time.

snic

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #27 on: November 07, 2023, 02:07:00 PM »
Sounds like a great plan! Friday does seem to be pretty packed, but you can decide to skip something.

I don't think you really need to drive to the Western Pinnacles - you could go straight to the eastern entrance, then hike to the western part and back. You get the best sense of the place from hiking anyway, not driving around.

If you skip the tidepools on Friday, you might be able to get your fill on the drive back up the coast on Sunday. Stop by Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove (as someone mentioned above). The beach is nice, but the tidepools on the long stretch of rocks north of the beach are really great at low tide. You could spend hours exploring them. (High tide would really limit this, though.) Point Lobos also has even more spectacular tidepools. You could easily spend an entire day at Point Lobos hiking and tidepooling, if you bring a picnic. (Asilomar is free; Point Lobos has an entry fee and you might need a reservation.)

The one time I ate at Phil's, I wasn't too impressed. They're famous for their cioppino but it was meh. It's expensive and not very filling. There used to be actual fish markets on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, where you could buy fish that had been caught that day or the day before, but I don't think they exist anymore. There's one (Monterey Fish Company) at the end of the Municipal Wharf that gets good reviews, but I haven't been in the area for a long time so I don't know how good they are. If you want a really local seafood, find a place that serves sand dabs. Or better yet, buy them fresh and fry them up yourself over your campfire.

Carmel is basically just a shi-shi expensive town. Avoid if you're not into overpriced boutiques and similar nonsense. The beach is wonderful, but parking is a bear and there are a lot of other beaches to choose from.

baconschteam

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #28 on: November 07, 2023, 04:46:18 PM »
Wife and I used https://freecampsites.net/#!(35.98489,+-121.48008) when we were van camping up and down the California coast. Lot's of hidden gems there. Check out Prewitt Ridge Campground in Big Sur. Says road is closed right now, but check it out anyway, that could easily be out of date, and just have a backup plan. That was our favorite camp, in Big Sur, which is our favorite place. We couldn't even make it all the way up the dirt road in our vehicle, but we still could see the ocean and clouds below us from the spot that we picked about halfway up the mountain. All spots are first-come first-serve.

baconschteam

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #29 on: November 07, 2023, 04:57:20 PM »
Also, be open to changing the plan. If you really like what you're doing, what you see, just do that. Follow a random path and see where it goes. Feel the vibe. That's California.

Also, there's a great tiki bar in Monterrey. If you're near Monterrey during mealtime, check out Hula Island Grill and get one of their great cocktails and delicious food. Tiki is a uniquely West Coast (and Hawaii of course) thing that we fell in love with living there. I know that it used to be more of a nationwide phenomenon.

FINate

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #30 on: November 07, 2023, 05:23:56 PM »
Wife and I used https://freecampsites.net/#!(35.98489,+-121.48008) when we were van camping up and down the California coast. Lot's of hidden gems there. Check out Prewitt Ridge Campground in Big Sur. Says road is closed right now, but check it out anyway, that could easily be out of date, and just have a backup plan. That was our favorite camp, in Big Sur, which is our favorite place. We couldn't even make it all the way up the dirt road in our vehicle, but we still could see the ocean and clouds below us from the spot that we picked about halfway up the mountain. All spots are first-come first-serve.

Prewitt Ridge Campground is for sure closed (note updated Nov 1, 2023). This campsite is accessed via Nacimiento-Fergusson Rd which is closed. In theory one could gain access via the military base, but that's not recommended and probably isn't possible anyway (the base tends to block access outside the main roads).

Dicey

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #31 on: November 07, 2023, 11:53:31 PM »
Wife and I used https://freecampsites.net/#!(35.98489,+-121.48008) when we were van camping up and down the California coast. Lot's of hidden gems there. Check out Prewitt Ridge Campground in Big Sur. Says road is closed right now, but check it out anyway, that could easily be out of date, and just have a backup plan. That was our favorite camp, in Big Sur, which is our favorite place. We couldn't even make it all the way up the dirt road in our vehicle, but we still could see the ocean and clouds below us from the spot that we picked about halfway up the mountain. All spots are first-come first-serve.
Some of the campgrounds can only be accessed from the south, due to road damage.

Vhttps://www.bigsurcalifornia.org/highway_conditions.html

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #32 on: November 15, 2023, 07:03:06 PM »
Wife and I used https://freecampsites.net/#!(35.98489,+-121.48008) when we were van camping up and down the California coast. Lot's of hidden gems there.

We're back from our trip, but thanks for the site.  I wish I had taken the time to look at it before we left.  I was working elections that day (5am-9pm) and then we flew out the following day and just went with the plan we had. 

After being there, driving around and talking to people, roadsides and parking lots are definitely can-do options for a van or small RV.  There were about 5-8 vehicles in the Safeway parking lot of Carmel at 7:00 am Sunday morning, one of which was a jeep with pop up camper fully set up and taking about 6 spots, along with other vans or RV's that were definitely parked overnight.  Even along route 1 in the Big Sur region, there were about a dozen vehicles that appeared to have been there overnight.  Some pull off areas have signs that say 'no parking 11pm-7am' but others are completely unhindered.  While hiking, we chatted with a woman that lives in Monterey, and she said there aren't any issues parking overnight in most places.  Lesson learned if we ever do a trip like this again, at least in the off season.

As for the vacation and sights, thank you all for the suggestions!  We ended up at---

Pescadero Beach-- our first view of the ocean when coming to the end of road intersecting with route 1

Ano Nuevo Beach-- wildlife preserve that has a significant elephant seal population

Natural Bridges-- Got to check out the rock formation, saw all the various Monarch butterfly clusters and hundreds of them fluttering about, stayed around for the tide pools in the afternoon

Henry Cowell Redwoods--- only had time for the main loop of redwoods before they closed for the day.  Really enjoyed being inside the massive cavity of one.

Point Lobos Preserve-- managed to arrive 20 minutes before opening and there was already a line forming.  One of the highlights of our trip!  We walked around for 6 hours, watching seals and sea lions and dolphins, crashing waves and dramatic rock formations, sandy secluded beach areas, probably 2 hours exploring tidepools, whaling museum.

Pfieffer beach-- more stunning rock formations and purple sand.  Exiting was a pain, since we left as the park closed, so the guards no longer restricted who was coming down the single lane road.  There was a line of cars trying to get to the beach as another line of cars were leaving.  Passing one car at a time is no big deal, but when there are 10+ cars all clumped together each way, it made for a very frustrating time.

Pinnacles national park--- So glad we spent 2 full days, one on each side of the park.  It certainly would have been doable from only the eastern side, but really enjoyed exploring everything we could that was made possible by doing shorter loop hikes.  This was one of our most memorable parks we've visited since the changes in landscape are so dramatic in such a condensed area-- the pinnacles, the caves, the reservoir/stream.  We did see at least one condor, with its unmistakable color pattern from underneath, but weren't fast enough for a picture.

As for food, we mostly had our own.  I did enjoy a large sampling of dumplings and buns from a SF chinatown place, some Lebanese for lunch, and surprising (to us at least) was the $9 lunch combo from Safeway.

Thanks again!  This was a great trip for us.

FINate

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #33 on: November 15, 2023, 08:06:31 PM »
Glad you had a great trip, sounds like fun!

RE camping... enforcement is uneven. There will be periods where it's lax, then there's a bunch of RVs and tents and people camping and general chaos along highway 1 (and parking lots), the locals (understandably) start complaining, then there's an enforcement push.

California clamped down on dispersed camping throughout the Big Sur area several years ago. It just got too crazy. The woman from Monterey either isn't aware of this (someone living that close may not be the best info one roadside camping), or maybe had other areas in mind.

The RVs you saw along highway one may have gotten there early for the day. Or they're just taking their chances.

As someone who's lived in an area highly impacted by tourism, let me just make the case for being a good guest when visiting. Which includes not breaking laws or the wishes of property owners, even not enforced at the moment.

ETA: Here's some local news coverage about the illegal camping problem along Route 1, and the increase of the fine to $1000 - https://www.ksbw.com/article/monterey-county-cracks-down-on-illegal-camping-along-big-sur/40724896
« Last Edit: November 15, 2023, 09:14:32 PM by FINate »

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #34 on: November 16, 2023, 05:03:34 PM »
@FINate Thanks for the link.  I think the "no overnight camping next 72 miles" featured on the story may be the only time I (my wife also says she hadn't seen it either) saw that particular sign.  Are there many around or just one in Monterey?  Certainly there were many along route 1 that said "no parking 11pm-7am" in roadside pulloff areas, but probably only in half of them, while the others were completely sign free.

From the story, I can understand the concern about overnight campers.  The officials give plenty of examples of irresponsible people--- trash, campfires, etc.  I'd like to think the vehicles I saw weren't part of that crowd, with the exception of the fully popped pop-up camper in the Safeway parking lot.  Considering we went in the off-season and had incredible difficulty reserving a campground spot (the nearest being 1.5 hours away on Friday night), maybe the localities need to reconsider their policies.  Heavy fines for trash and fires, but not necessarily overnight parking?

FINate

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #35 on: November 16, 2023, 05:32:21 PM »
@uniwelder They certainly need better signage other than one small white sign for 72 miles.

It's the trash, and dangerous fires, but also things like sanitation. Vans and tent campers often end up pooping/peeing wherever. A sizable percentage of the population just doesn't seem to have common sense or a concern for others.

I don't think dispersed camping is ever coming back to Big Sur. Due to its proximity to California's 40M residents, and its extreme popularity, Big Sur effectively has unlimited demand. If they opened up roadside camping the campgrounds would still be filled to capacity, then every turnout along highway 1 would be occupied by giant RVs that would stay for days. Then there would be traffic backups as RVs drove up and down the coast looking for vacant spots, waiting for people to leave, etc. It would be a complete zoo and ruin it for everyone. The limited number of campsites limits crowds in a rugged area with limited infrastructure.

snic

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #36 on: November 16, 2023, 06:33:15 PM »
Wife and I used https://freecampsites.net/#!(35.98489,+-121.48008) when we were van camping up and down the California coast. Lot's of hidden gems there.

We're back from our trip, but thanks for the site.  I wish I had taken the time to look at it before we left.  I was working elections that day (5am-9pm) and then we flew out the following day and just went with the plan we had. 

After being there, driving around and talking to people, roadsides and parking lots are definitely can-do options for a van or small RV.  There were about 5-8 vehicles in the Safeway parking lot of Carmel at 7:00 am Sunday morning, one of which was a jeep with pop up camper fully set up and taking about 6 spots, along with other vans or RV's that were definitely parked overnight.  Even along route 1 in the Big Sur region, there were about a dozen vehicles that appeared to have been there overnight.  Some pull off areas have signs that say 'no parking 11pm-7am' but others are completely unhindered.  While hiking, we chatted with a woman that lives in Monterey, and she said there aren't any issues parking overnight in most places.  Lesson learned if we ever do a trip like this again, at least in the off season.

As for the vacation and sights, thank you all for the suggestions!  We ended up at---

Pescadero Beach-- our first view of the ocean when coming to the end of road intersecting with route 1

Ano Nuevo Beach-- wildlife preserve that has a significant elephant seal population

Natural Bridges-- Got to check out the rock formation, saw all the various Monarch butterfly clusters and hundreds of them fluttering about, stayed around for the tide pools in the afternoon

Henry Cowell Redwoods--- only had time for the main loop of redwoods before they closed for the day.  Really enjoyed being inside the massive cavity of one.

Point Lobos Preserve-- managed to arrive 20 minutes before opening and there was already a line forming.  One of the highlights of our trip!  We walked around for 6 hours, watching seals and sea lions and dolphins, crashing waves and dramatic rock formations, sandy secluded beach areas, probably 2 hours exploring tidepools, whaling museum.

Pfieffer beach-- more stunning rock formations and purple sand.  Exiting was a pain, since we left as the park closed, so the guards no longer restricted who was coming down the single lane road.  There was a line of cars trying to get to the beach as another line of cars were leaving.  Passing one car at a time is no big deal, but when there are 10+ cars all clumped together each way, it made for a very frustrating time.

Pinnacles national park--- So glad we spent 2 full days, one on each side of the park.  It certainly would have been doable from only the eastern side, but really enjoyed exploring everything we could that was made possible by doing shorter loop hikes.  This was one of our most memorable parks we've visited since the changes in landscape are so dramatic in such a condensed area-- the pinnacles, the caves, the reservoir/stream.  We did see at least one condor, with its unmistakable color pattern from underneath, but weren't fast enough for a picture.

As for food, we mostly had our own.  I did enjoy a large sampling of dumplings and buns from a SF chinatown place, some Lebanese for lunch, and surprising (to us at least) was the $9 lunch combo from Safeway.

Thanks again!  This was a great trip for us.

So glad you enjoyed it! It's truly a special corner of the world. It's especially nice that you got to see the Pinnacles, something most visitors skip.

uniwelder

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #37 on: November 18, 2023, 02:59:57 PM »
Here's an add on bonus question from OP---- We saw (and took photos of) an ornamental tree planted along the walkways of San Francisco that we just now identified as a Strawberry Tree.  Supposedly the fruit is edible.  I tried eating one at the time, but it wasn't particularly tasty, so I spit it out, worried I might poison myself.  It sounds like you can make jam with it.  Anyone know anything about this?

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #38 on: November 20, 2023, 09:14:48 AM »
Yes, I have only ever eaten strawberry tree berry (aka arbutus berry) fresh off a San Francisco strawberry tree. The fruit is indeed edible, and delicious when ripe! But I don't know when it's in season; maybe it's not ripe right now and that's why it tasted bad.

It bruises extremely easily, so it can't be shipped, which is why it can't be sold in stores. But like you said, you can make jam with it, and that travels better. Yet I don't think I've ever seen any strawberry tree product in my life.

Dicey

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Re: San Francisco road trip-- Big Sur, redwoods, Pinnacles NP
« Reply #39 on: November 21, 2023, 09:15:47 AM »
Lol, there is an Arbutus Street in my corner of the East Bay. I wonder if there are any actual strawberry trees that grow there?