Where are we going man?
I don’t know but we gotta go.
~ On the Road, Jack Kerouac
The city of San Francisco is packed with natural and man-made beauty and like Sinatra’s old song, I left my heart there. During my college years, getting out of town for short trips was a treat, if only to renew the city’s attraction. Turns out that those early trips were part of a long San Franciscan legacy of city folk seeking inexpensive and close getaways. Northern California road trips to the peninsula coastal mountains (by car and buggy) have been going on since the 1800’s! Before the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were built, San Franciscans would ride south to camp along rivers, escape summer heat in the highlands, or avoid the damp fog along the coast. Today there’s no need to rough it. Perhaps it’s time to pack the car or tag a ride, and take off on a northern California road trip!
Pescadero Loop – Northern California Road Trip
Now that we can finally travel again and road trips are the easy, it’s more important than ever to consider timing. No one wants to spend hours sitting in traffic just to just get there!
- Plot your city escape well before leaving.
- Note seasonal road conditions.
- Bring comfortable shoes for hiking, beach-combing, and muddy conditions.
- Leave early on weekends or travel on weekdays in between rush hours.
The coast can be much foggier and cooler than even five miles inland. While staying at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, (read about that adventure in this earlier post) we spent a full day doing what I call, the Pescadero Loop. I’ve added the highlights below with a bonus – Ano Nuevo State Park with its Elephant Seal viewing. As always in these post-pandemic times, check websites before going or call to avoid disappointment. As of this writing, several parks remain partially closed.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that once you pass the busy roads around Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, the coastal route opens up to rolling fields of green, parks, and inland, redwood groves. What makes it doubly delightful are the communities, farms, and cafes off the main Highway 1.
History From The Ground Up
There are a few centers of commerce to consider visiting. I can’t really call them villages but pockets of services, amenities, and lodging. A drive nine miles east on Highway 84 from coastal route, Highway 1, (or inland from the San Jose area,) takes you into redwood country and the hamlet of La Honda (population 600.)
In the 1800’s, the original La Honda General Store earned it’s nickname, “Bandit Built,” honestly. The Younger Brothers, Jim and Bob, were notorious bandits who hid out in the area while being sought for bank robberies and train hold-ups in the Mid-West. They helped construct the Cavalli General Store before heading east again to their nefarious ways, and were eventually incarcerated. The store serviced the local families, loggers, and ranchers who visited town once or twice a month to load up on supplies, stay for barn dances, or meet the stage coach. Sadly, most of the original buildings have burned or fallen down.
Later families from the city would venture south to spend weeks camping along the rivers in the area. It was a close and an inexpensive northern California road trip but:
“Halcyon days of San Mateo County as a vacation spot ended with tremendous abruptness, in May 1937, when the Golden Gate Bridge opened to traffic, liberating landlocked San Franciscans. Now there were more exotic places to wander. Soon there were weekend traffic jams heading toward Russian River and the Redwood Empire.” ~ La Honda Historical Society Archives.
Today, there’s little tying La Honda to it’s antique past but if honkey tonk, dive bars are your thing, slink into Apple Jacks – a favorite of the biker crowd. About a mile down the road, look for a small bridge with a house on the other side.
Original Home of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters
The creek below the bridge forms the eastern boundary of the La Honda Creek Open Reserve, and runs through the area’s most famous property—the house of legendary author and LSD pioneer Ken Kesey. After writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey bought the three-acre property in 1963, collected his first Merry Pranksters, and together dove into self-proclaimed ‘acid tests.’ As the hippie hero and the Pied Piper of his generation, he vowed to drop out and tune in with the help of LSD – building a movement along the way. Determined to criss-cross the country, the Pranksters renovated an old school bus with a sound system, and fixed a generator to the back. Once splashed with wild paint, the Magic Bus was born and took to the road. The picture above is of a replica in the Woodstock Museum in upstate New York.
Butano State Park
After fires and the pandemic we found this Park partially open but check the website for current status. There’s a Conservation Corps. center with a pull-out for visitors in the area. Just tromping along the road into the forest of big trees was a treat. If you want a more immersive experience check the other parks in the area.
Sam McDonald Park
Look for the Park Sign when driving along the Pescadero Creek Road near La Honda. Sam McDonald created a sanctuary out of 430 acres of pristine redwood forest that he purchased in 1911. For decades, it was a retreat center for his friends from Stanford, where he worked. Luckily, his largess continues in the trails and the mighty redwoods that he revered. The Park is managed by San Mateo County. Read more about Sam.
Now back in 1919 I had acquired . . . a plot amids the redwoods on the Alpine Creek at La Honda. There through the years I have built a humble retreat, my lodge, Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa, ‘neath the lords of the Chicsaw forest, and this nature’s sanctuary brings me to peace and rest and reflection.
This area of Sam MacDonald Park sees few visitors, so its a great spot for some quiet meditation in the midst of giant trees. Also, the turnout has free parking, unlike the main parking lot. If you’re in shape, plan to take the four + mile loop trail. It’s about 1.6 miles to the Heritage Grove area with spectacular old growth redwoods. A steep grade continues on to Towne Ridge just below the Sierra Club hikers Hut. Camping isn’t permitted. Parts of Heritage Grove are closed and being renovated. Check the Park website when planning to visit.
Ano Nuevo State Park
The park is south of Pigeon Point but well worth the drive. It’s home to a huge colony of elephant seals and lovely trails through fields to the beach. Check the park site for updates on what is open. We were disappointed that the Elephant Seal Viewing Area was off limits and couldn’t even get a glimpse, but really enjoyed the trails and interpretive signs.
After visiting Butano Park we drove to the village of Pescadero. There’s a quiet artsy energy along the main road. Take time to stroll. There’s a great deli, several cafes, bars and off the main street. Check out the latest stores and best bites on the Made in Pescadero website.
Pescadero And Area Highlights
Harley Farms Goat Dairy
Love baby goats? Harley’s got them and you can get close. Harley’s also carries on the region’s historical ranching roots. After clearing much of the old growth to build and then, after the San Francisco fire of 1906, ranchers worked the many open areas between the Skyline and the coast, raising cattle and sheep, growing hay, grain and supplying dairy products such as cheese and cream, which was shipped to creameries for butter production.
Harley Farms continues the traditions adding farm tours and events. It’s a luscious treat to sample their award-winning goat cheese where it was cultured.
We stocked up on breakfast and dessert goodies as well as a few local cocktail ingredients at PIE Ranch near the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. So much more than a bakery, PIE Ranch is on a mission is to “cultivate a healthy and just food system from seed to table through food education, farmer training, and regional partnerships.” Hopefully their farm tours will be open soon.
San Gregorio General Store
Don’t miss this spot, especially on a weekend evening or Sunday afternoon when bands set up on the outdoor patio playing “live music (Irish R&B, bluegrass, original everything else).” The store was born of necessity and carries on with passion. The bar is stunning and the shopping, including a great book selection, is stellar. I still regret not buying a cowboy shirt that fit me perfectly or a bowler hat for my nephew.
Where To Stay
Costanoa Lodge and Camp
An eco-resort bent towards adventure, spa experiences, and curated California coastal cuisine. Of course, there are tent bungalow, cabins and a KOA campground on site. I’ll return if only to experience their Comfort Stations! They include:
- Central courtyard with fireplace
- Adirondack seating
- 24-hour dry sauna
- Heated concrete floors
- Private indoor and outdoor showers
- Sinks &Flush toilets
- Complimentary wifi
- Laundry room (Eucalyptus Comfort Station Only)
HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel
The hostel location is unique along the west coast. Divided into separate ‘houses’ each sleeps up to 15 people. Reservations are a must. Check the website for availability and reserve as far in advance as is comfortable.
HI Half Moon Bay Hostel
This hostel is also set on the cliffs near Montara Lighthouse. It’s a popular stop with more room variety than at Pigeon Point. At this time only private reservations are being made.
Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay
Do yourself a favor and spend the better part of an hour walking around this glorious hotel. Better yet splurge and stay a night or two. The afternoon we visited several weddings were set up around the elegant property. Indoors are sleek bars and dining options. The cliff side location is star of the show and indeed you may recognize the facade and beach from movies.
The Half Moon Bay Lodge
Here’s a more affordable option than the Ritz but a comfortable spot to recharge on your Northern California road trip. The Half Moon Bay Lodge is on the east side of the coastal highway but less than a half mile from the ocean. Golfing is close as well.
Are we there yet? We spent a long day winding along the area roads and stopping on a whim. I can’t wait to return and not just to escape city life. Give me a northern California road trip any day!