California’s Road Less Travelled

By | Category: Travel destinations

Sea Otters

When I said I was going to San Francisco, many friends queued to tell me people it was their favourite city in the world. I too, am a big fan of San Fran’s laid back charms – but beyond the Golden Gate Bridge are less peopled parts of Southern California, with a bounty of natural treasure that many visitors miss completely.

Of course, nearby Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are California’s big three when it comes to national parks. Popular fly-drive break see a healthy flood of international tourists land at San Fran, stay for a few days to sample city life and then head out to one or more of these natural wonders. But I sought the road less travelled.

I am a big fan of San Francisco and love its laid back charms, but I decided to venture across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit charming Sausalito, traditional seaside Santa Cruz, awash with nostalgia, and some of southern California that many visitors miss. An unforgettable hike in the little known, but spectacular Pinnacles National Monument, ocean kayaking in sleepy Monterey Bay and a visit to the largest marine sanctuary in the US left me with some real gilt-edged memories of the Golden State of California.

I began my trip, and thoroughly recommend, staying at Cavallo Point, a luxury lodge with extraordinary bay views, and rooms that start at a good-value $280. It began life as Fort Baker in 1905, but has been lovingly converted into an eco resort over the last ten years. The Point is in the pretty waterfront community of Sausalito, within the Golden Gate National Park and standing practically at the foot of the famous bridge. It’s just a 30-minute taxi ride to the heart of San Francisco, but who needs a cab to some fancy downtown eatery when the Point has Murray Circle – its own Michelin-starred restaurant. You can reach the city by ferry too, but I chose a breathtaking 90-minute pedal-powered ride over the bridge, one of the highlights of my trip.

Cavallo Point

From Sausalito, I headed 75 miles south through the state. The thrills of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its classic Americana and obligatory Big Dipper passed me by. But for those who love all the fun of the fair, an all-day wristband is a steal at less than US$30.

My next stop was Monterey Bay, around 120 miles south of San Fran. The bay is just the beginning of a ruggedly scenic coastline that zigzags for 300 miles as far down as Ventura. You may not have heard of the laid back coastal town of Monterey Bay, but Steinbeck immortalised the area’s long-gone sardine fisheries in Cannery Row, and the town’s non profit aquarium is widely agreed to be one of the best in the world. The undeniably impressive Open Sea gallery – a million-gallon exhibit populated with sea turtles, sharks and puffins – opened in July 2011 to much acclaim.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary – the largest of it’s kind in the USA. I took up with Adventures by the Sea for a kayaking trip through part of the Sanctuary. We floated past the aquarium on clear turquoise waters that were thick not just with kelp forests but with Californian sea otters too. Everyone in my group had signed an agreement not to go within five metres of these inquisitive, endangered creatures, but found they often came closer than that to us. Other lucky paddlers have been known to spot frolicking dolphins and even catch sight of the majestic grey whale. Our guide appeared to have a botanist’s knowledge of the local sea life, and we returned to shore flushed with the thrill of having successfully navigated the open, albeit calm, seas and having learnt in fascinating detail about the local habitat, its plants and animals.

Much less known, even to locals, is the Pinnacles National Monument, 50 miles inland from the Pacific coast. This small but beautifully formed National Park is currently making headlines for the condors that have returned to join the already healthy population of bats, butterflies, bees, owls, wrens and woodpeckers. I wasn’t lucky enough to see one, but apparently their vast wingspan – which can reach 10 feet – means they are often mistaken for a small plane.

The remains of an ancient volcano, the Monument’s sheer jagged peaks invite intrepid rock climbers, but there are also over 30 miles of self-guided hiking trails for those of us who like to take it easy. I set off on a straightforward half-day hike that formed a pleasing loop, clambering over giant boulders that have settled over narrow canyons forming what, I’m told, are Talus Caves. Walking through swathes of wild flowers of vivid lilac Larkspur and sunshine yellow Bush Poppy, I discovered that more than 100 species bloom in the essentially Mediterranean climate. When I visited in May, I passed only two other groups of walkers on a several-hour hike. This is one of the best months for hiking although any time between February and the beginning of June is recommended because of the good weather and wealth of wildflowers.

Bush Poppy

Don’t miss San Francisco, but don’t miss the chance to explore the rich hidden treasures of the Golden State of California.

Bush Poppy image courtesy of US National Park Service
Otter image courtesy of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

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