The Golden State’s coastal towns offer big charm in small packages
By Joan DeAno Rykal
No matter which way you approach it – California holds appeal for most everyone. From the nature lover to the adventure seeker, from the historian to the film buff, the Golden State has something to everyone’s liking.
While the ideal way to explore this great state would be a driving trip that would take you from the northern border up near Oregon down south to the last stretch of highway before you enter Mexico, let’s say from Crescent City to Chula Vista, you would travel approximately 860 miles clocking in at just under 15 hours with little to no stops in between. Certainly not the way to see this state but those figures put in to perspective just how big California is. Now, add in all stops you’d like to take in between, including points of interest due east of your coastline drive, and before you know it you’re asking for a sabbatical from all responsibilities to see all you want to see.
Of course, there’s the big cities, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego, but there’s a different California to be seen bypassing these big cities and hitting the quaint towns along the way.
Starting in Northern California, the Shasta Cascade region in far northeastern California offers plenty to do. From the opportunities centering around Mt. Shasta that include skiing, hiking and other athletic challenges to the more tame traveler favorites, including dining, swimming and sightseeing the region remains a favorite travel destination.
Mt. Shasta is a single peak in the Cascade Mountain range, with a height of 14,162 feet. Located on a flank of Mt. Shasta, the Mt. Shasta Ski Park, offers 425 acres of skiable terrain and is open from mid-December through mid-April.
If you’re up to the challenge, consider climbing Mt. Shasta. The best time to do this is between May and September when the weather is more stable and the winds are less extreme. Most people plan a two-day climb and there are three camping facilities along the way. Day hikes are also available. For more information visit climbingmtshasta.org
If you’re more the “sit back and relax” type, take in some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll ever espy while enjoying a four-course gourmet meal aboard vintage rail cars on the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train, a three-hour experience that runs April through December. Check out shastasunset.com for prices and schedules.
Nearby Dunsmuir is a popular spot for trout fishing, in either the Sacramento or McCloud Rivers. Dunsmuir, originally a rail town established in the late 1880s, bills itself as “Home of the Best Water on Earth.” Stop in at the Dunsmuir Chamber of Commerce (5915 Dunsmuir Avenue) to get a list of the area swimming holes, which are considered to be some of the best in the area. Baseball fans will find it interesting to note that the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth himself, played a game in Dunsmuir in 1924 as part of a nation-wide barnstorming tour.
Head east a bit and hug the coastline traveling U.S. Route 101, also known as Highway 101 or simply “the 101” and you’ll soon find yourself in some of the most beautiful wine country you will ever see, the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County.
The area received its name from the Russian fur hunters who settled in the area in the 1800s. The very first grape plantation was founded 1836 by a Russian man named Yegor Chernykh and to date wineries in the area number over 100, including Rodney Strong, Kendall-Jackson and LaCrema, and the region is known for producing award-winning Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
There are many ways to explore the Russian River Valley – by bike, on foot or via car. Wine hikes are quite popular and California Wine Hikes offers a variety of hikes ranging from easy to moderate (www.californiawinehikes.com.)
Of course there’s more than just wineries to see in this beautiful country. Depending on the season, the Russian River is prime fishing for smallmouth bass, striped bass, blue gill, steelhead and catfish. There are some restrictions so before you cast your line check the California Department of Fish and Game regulations.
Plan your trip to coincide with the Crab & Fennel Fest, held in March or the Grapes to Glass Weekend held each August.
If you’re a film buff, when leaving the Russian River Valley you might want to take a quick trip southeast (about 55 miles) to Bodega Bay, the town made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror/thriller, “The Birds.” Stop in at the Sonoma Visitors Center for a guidebook with more information about the filming of the movie.
Bodega Bay’s Pacific coastline is a must see and there are plenty of public beach access ways and parking lots to allow you to walk the beaches and enjoy the sea air. Doran County Park provides a two-mile stretch of sandy beach and is an ideal spot for crabbing and fishing.
Leaving Bodega Bay and the birds behind, head south bypassing San Francisco and travel down to Santa Cruz County for some old-fashioned fun.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a bit of nostalgia and home to the Giant Dipper, a classic wooden roller coast that has been providing visitors a thrill since 1924. This admission-free boardwalk is one of the most popular settings on Monterey Bay and seems to have changed little since it opened in 1907. Old-fashioned carnival games and food vendors dot the boardwalk. The Dipper and the Louff Carousel, which contains its original 342-pipe organ built in 1894, are on the United States National Register of Historic Places and together both were named a National Historic Landmark.
If you think of California parades and pageantry, Pasadena’s Annual Tournament of Roses probably comes to mind. But have you heard about the California town that provides pomp and pageantry for the “stinking rose” otherwise known as garlic? The annual Gilroy Garlic Festival pays homage to this fragrant onion species, complete with a Miss Gilroy Garlic, a Great Garlic Cook-off and plenty of entertainment. For more information on this years’ event visit www.gilroygarlicfestival.com.
In addition to the annual Garlic Festival, Gilroy is also home to Gilroy Premium Outlet shops, plenty of restaurants and nearby Bonfante Gardens provides family fun with an environmental spin. This 75-acre theme park, in a garden setting lush with natural trees and groves, features over 40 rides, music, shows, and educational displays. And yes, there is a ride called the “Garlic Twirl.”
Not to be outdone by the “praising of the garlic,” Castroville (30 miles southeast of Gilroy) puts the artichoke on a platter each year during the annual Castroville Artichoke Festival where this perennial thistle is served up every way imaginable – from fresh to fried, sautéed to grilled, pickled, marinated and more. A highlight of this festival is the AGRO ART competition where creative entries of 3-D artworks made from fruits and vegetables are judged. Cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, arts and crafts, music and children’s entertainment round out this event that people have been eating up since 1959.
South of Castroville you’ll find Monterey County which is home to picturesque coastal towns including Pacific Grove and Carmel by the Sea and some of the most amazing scenery you’ll ever glimpse.
If you time your visit right, you will see one of the wonders of nature each October when thousands of Monarch butterflies migrate to Pacific Grove and take up residence in the pines and eucalyptus trees in the Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary.
Of course it doesn’t matter what time of year you visit Big Sur, as the landscape is always a sight to behold. A sparsely populated community inhabited by artists, authors, and naturalists who were naturally drawn to and inspired by the stunning terrain, Big Sur can be explored via hiking and walking trails where you just may stumble upon one of its many wild beaches.
Not to be missed in Big Sur is a stop at Nepenthe Restaurant/Café Kevah, situated some 800 fee above sea-level, to enjoy sunrise over the Santa Lucia Mountains or a spectacular Pacific sunset while you dine. You may have to wait a bit to be seated, but the view is well worth it!
Other Monterey attractions include the National Steinbeck Center, a museum and archive in historic Oldtown Salinas, birthplace of Nobel-prize winning author, John Steinbeck.
Speaking of Steinbeck, don’t miss Monterey’s Cannery Row. The fisheries of Steinbeck’s days are gone and in their place are shops, restaurants and the renowned Monteray Bay Aquarium, one of the world’s best.
Take the touted “17 Mile Drive” a stretch of toll road that runs between Pacific Grove and Carmel through exclusive neighborhoods on down to the famed Pebble Beach, providing scenic coastal views along the way.
The exclusive neighborhood of Carmel and its expansive homes has nothing on another oh-so-humble abode in San Simeon, a town located about a two-hour drive south of Carmel. Hearst Castle, a sprawling hilltop estate, designed by architect Julia Morgan for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, is a tourist favorite and offers several different tours of the estate and grounds. The Hearst Corporation donated the mansion and grounds to the state of California in 1957 and it is now part of the California State Parks system. Visit www.hearstcastle.org for tour schedules, pricing and more information.
If you’re not invited to spend the night at Hearst Castle, head down to San Luis Obispo and visit the Madonna Inn. Although the inn is a bit pricey by comparison to other local lodging, the experience may be worth it. The Madonna Inn, which began as a 12-room motel in 1958, features over 100 rooms, each distinct and uniquely designed, including the Caveman, the Jungle Rock, and the Love Nest, and has been called by some as a “monument to unremitting kitsch.” The draw is of course the rooms, but if time does not allow an overnight stay, definitely have dinner in the Gold Rush Steak House and revel in the scenery. Check out the inn at www.madonnainn.com.
San Luis Obispo, which means St. Luis the Bishop, is home to California Polytechnic State University, which perhaps accounts for the relaxing lifestyle experienced in this town, or perhaps it was the town’s origins. Founded by the Spaniards in 1772, the original mission, Mission San Luis Obispo de Telosa, still stands in the center of the town while the original source of water to the mission, San Luis Creek, winds through Mission Plaza, the town’s central meeting spot. SLO, as the locals call it, is a mecca for cultural events. The SLO Symphony, the state-of-the-art Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly and the SLO Little Theater, one of the nations oldest community theaters, offers plenty of musical and theatrical entertainment.
If you’re looking for another sort of history, visit nearby Pismo Beach, named for the clams that once covered the beach. Though the clams began to disappear in the early 1980s, Pismo Beach remained a popular tourist spot thanks to its mild climate and scenic landscape. Though the clams may be hard to find, people still flock to Pismo Beach each October for the annual Clam Festival. A parade, carnival, clam dig and the famous Clam Chowder Cook-off highlight this event.
A bit further south (about a 1 ½ hour drive) is beautiful Santa Barbara, nicknamed “The American Riviera” due to its Mediterranean climate and geography. Movie buffs will find it interesting to note that during the silent film period, Santa Barbara was home to the world’s largest movie studio, Flying A Studios, which was a division of the American Film Company. The luxurious Montecito Inn, was built in 1928, by silent-film legend Charlie Chaplin, to be used as a getaway from Hollywood.
Visit the Santa Barbara Mission, known as the Queen of the 21 original missions built along the California coastline. Established in 1786 on the Feast of St. Barbara, December 4, the mission was the 10th of 21 missions founded by the Spanish Franciscans. Both self-guided and special tours are available of this beautiful mission and grounds. For tour times, pricing and more information visit www.santabarbaramission.org.
Santa Barbara also has some of the most beautiful beaches around. The west-facing location of Butterfly Beach make it the ideal spot to catch a Santa Barbara sunset while Leadbetter Beach is best known for family fun and swimming and features barbeque pits and grassy picnic areas.
Of course, being the “American Riviera” Santa Barbara is also an excellent spot for shopping, fine dining, and a favorite pastime, good, old people-watching.
After this tour of the lesser known California if you find the big cities are calling you, keep heading south and you’ll find Los Angeles and San Diego are not too far away!