Big Sur
Credit: David Webb

From my viewpoint atop a 30-metre sea-cliff on the northeast side of Santa Cruz Island, in California’s Channel Islands National Park, I find myself feeling a bit hoodwinked.

How is it that such a dazzling destination—remote volcanic islands rich with endemic flora and fauna—has stayed off-radar? How is it that, despite being within 100 km of 18 million people, this national park remains one of America’s least-visited?

California’s Central Coast has left this thought trailing in my mind over the past week. Between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the state’s Pacific Coast Highway connects a series of outdoor meccas previously known to me only in some ephemeral way. Few, if any, from my peer group has explored this region, despite it being so easily accessed via a short flight and a cheap one-way car rental. 

From where the twisty Hecker Pass Highway connects with Highway 1 at Watsonville, California—home to fields of fresh kale and 15-cents-apiece avocados that left this smoothie-loving Canuck drooling—the road south is speckled with woodsy destinations carved up by hiking routes. With both simple oceanside jaunts and multi-day treks, the Golden State beckons travelling hikers to explore its serpentine Pacific route. Stops along the way could easily keep you afield for a month. But a week will suffice, if you follow this itinerary from San Fran to L.A.

Point Lobos State Park

Point Lobos State ParkPhoto courtesy of CarmelCalifornia.com

Cutesy almost to a fault, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a popular stop along the northern PCH. A cottage town with no street numbers, traffic lights or parking meters, surfers and honeymooners have long sought out Carmel. But the burg that famously outlawed high heels hints at a penchant for athletic footwear. Enter Point Lobos State Park. 

Located about five kilometres south of Carmel, Point Lobos is a showpiece of Pacific coast ecosystems. Walk past a field of wild lilac and into a stand of Monterey pine and cypress trees; overlook a stony shoreline relentlessly pounded by the Pacific to view lagoons shrouded by rock formations. Keep a camera handy for birdlife such as cormorants and great blue herons; mammals like deer or bobcats; and marine life that includes otters, sea lions and, offshore, whales. 

Most of the hikes are easy—an hour here, a half-hour there—but the 15 marked routes will occupy most of your day. Granite Point Trail, which begins at a historic Whaler’s Cabin (now a museum), is a good start, or simply follow the sound of crashing waves and birdsong as you self-guide through this charming marine forest. Looking to spend a few hours? Trek along the Coastal Path. Easily done in a half-day, this series of connecting trails treats hikers to open vistas throughout its length. Pleasant as it is, Point Lobos is but a warm-up for the greenspaces to follow; the next about 45 minutes south.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park & Area

Big SurChris Leschinsky

Occupying a slice of the Santa Lucia Mountains as they rise suddenly from the coastline, Big Sur is as much an attitude as it is a physical location. It is a locale for Gore-Tex-cloaked REI original members and knot-haired surf bums living out of Westfalias. Though the park is only 400 hectares, it’s backed by massive Los Padres National Forest—about 20 times bigger—and flanked by Andrew Molera and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parks. So it feels much larger. But even within the redwoods and river valleys of Big Sur, travellers can uncover 300 km of hiking trails, complemented by accommodation at the 61-room Big Sur Lodge, at one of the 150-drive-to campsites along the Big Sur River or at hike- or bike-in tent sites further into the forest. 

Warm up your legs with twin trails Pfeiffer Falls (three kilometres) and Valley View (2.5 km). They’re both easy walks, starting near the lodge, but offer a highlight reel of the Big Sur coastal environment. A forest of redwoods, native oaks and sycamores—home to grey squirrels and black-tailed deer—leads to an open vista (Valley View) and a cascading torrent (Pfeiffer Falls). 

Buzzard’s Roost is a more strenuous eight-kilometre loop on the west side of the highway, culminating with a Pacific view from atop Pfeiffer Ridge. Camp out for the night before tackling the Mount Manuel Trail, which winds eastward into Los Padres National Forest. This tough, 14-km day-hike climbs more than 1,000 metres to the summit of its namesake massif. 

Time permitting, Panorama Trail in Andrew Molera State Park is another gem; as is drive-to Pfeiffer Beach. And McWay Falls, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, is the most-photographed feature of the entire area. Your trip could stay centred here, among Big Sur’s dense woods and shifting sands, but there’s much more to come.

Santa Barbara County

Dick Smithhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/zeroy/

“We’re more than just pea soup,” is a common refrain from residents of Buellton, a town made regionally famous by its classic roadhouse, Pea Soup Andersen’s, as well as its proximity to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and as the shooting location for the Oscar-winning film Sideways. But everyone mentions the pea soup first. The hiking comes much later, which is fitting with Central Cali’s incognito atmosphere. With the southern portion of massive Los Padres National Forest just to the east, however, backcountry opportunities abound. 

For a wild experience, enter the Dick Smith Wilderness, a 26,000-hectare property in the middle of Los Padres named for a local reporter who devoted decades to documenting this area. Expect lung-busting elevation gains; peaks top out at about 2,000 metres. Shrubby chaparral dominates the landscape, home to occasional rattlesnakes; mixed-wood forests and sandstone formations also decorate the sub-alpine. Start your exploration at the nine-kilometre Rancho Nuevo Trail, a sparsely maintained mountain path that winds past rose thickets into the dramatic peaks of the Transverse Ranges. California condors occasionally soar overhead, and nearby, the San Andreas Fault carves its famous scar across the California desert. None of this is for the weak-legged, but the rewards are as big as the land itself.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands 4Carol M. Highsmith

Those with a delicate stomach will want to pack ginger tablets for the ferry ride from Ventura Harbor to Channel Islands National Park. It’s open Pacific, with all the rollercoaster waves therein. Passing three offshore oil rigs—keep watch for sunfish, dolphins and blue whales—the five crumbling volcanic islands of this, one of America’s least-visited national parks, will appear from the mist about an hour after departure. The boat will be full. But the 1,000 sq-km of islands feel empty—pack in, pack out, with zero services.

From Scorpion Landing, follow Cavern Point Trail Loop, a simple three-kilometre path that meanders alongside 30-metre-tall sea cliffs to the namesake precipice. Watch for mischievous miniature foxes scampering in the scrub brush. These islands are like California’s Galapagos, with some 150 endemic or rare species, including the continent’s smallest wild canid. Cavern Point Trail Loop continues for another seven kilometres as it morphs into Potato Harbor Trail. Cliffside vistas with barking sea lions below will keep your eyes and ears entertained throughout. 

Requisite permits and supplies turn your day-trip into an overnight excursion. Head to Prisoner’s Harbor, near Santa Cruz Island’s east-side boundary where national parks oversight gives way to off-limits Nature Conservancy stewardship, to find Del Norte Backcountry Campsite. Access challenging trails from this area—such as 25-km Chinese Harbor, noted for its cobblestone beach, 29-km China Pines, which highlights an endemic conifer, or 35-km Montanon Ridge for a higher-altitude viewpoint. Or just search for native scrub jay (largest in the world) on the one-kilometre Prisoner’s Harbor Loop. Stargaze in the unpolluted sky and catch the ferry back to Ventura the following morning as it makes its rounds to this side of the island. 

Southward, the metropolis of L.A. awaits, as does the terminus of this Central Coast adventure. Maybe there’s time for one more sunset from the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains before the celebrity-owned beach houses of Malibu give way to vast urban sprawl. Flying home from LAX, Big Sur memories and Channel Island dreams will fuel enough stoke to spread the word of California’s stunning Central Coast upon your return—as I have now to you. (centralcoast-tourism.com)  

More Activities:

Surf CarmelDavid Webb

California Surf: Carmel Beach is noted for legendary surf-breaks, with lessons and rentals available locally and an overall chilled-out vibe (carmelcalifornia.com). Pismo Beach is like the living incarnation of a Beach Boys tune—rent a surfboard and a beach cruiser and soak up the sun (classiccalifornia.com).

Channel Islands Watersports: Kayaking and snorkelling are popular in the kelp-forested waters of Channel Islands National Park. Contact Channel Islands Outfitters (channelislandso.com) or load your own boat on the ferry at Ventura Harbor for self-guided paddle.

Wine On: California’s Central Coast is like Napa Valley without the pretense and prices. Look to the Santa Ynez Valley—wineries like Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery and Presqu’ile Winery highlight the region’s bold Pinot Noir and smooth Chardonnay. (visitsyv.com)

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.

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