Mastering a vacation in a remote coastal hostel
Anyone who plans a group trip, especially a multi-generational vacation, can never guarantee everyone will have a good time. But with an amazing location perfectly suited for a pandemic getaway, Pigeon Point was one of the best west coast lighthouses to book.
When my sweetheart, Dave, announced that he was going to book several rooms at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel I was surprised but got the message. He needed the time away and a chance to be with family. After considering other west coast lighthouses, this was the perfect place for a relaxed and remote group vacation.
We rented three rooms at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. It’s set up a bit differently than most hostels. The site’s three independent units are managed by Hostel International and each is rented separately as a whole for up to fifteen people.
This wouldn’t be a luxury trip but the rugged beauty of the coast and rare location were perfect for our socially distanced stay. The lighthouse, low hostel buildings, markers, lookouts, and a public toilet were the only signs of civilization on the point. Tempting tide pools, cliffs, and beaches scrolled away from us for miles to the north and south. Having fair WiFi and few other distractions almost guaranteed quality time together. My millennial nephew turned off his phone and left it in the car for the weekend!
Part of our family of seven drove down from the San Francisco bay area – a two-hour drive at best. We headed north from San Diego slowly, stopping for a night in Paso Robles and everyone rendezvoused by check-in time at 3 pm.
Basic but comfortable
Splitting up between three bedrooms in the private unit was easy. Two bedrooms had three sets of bunk beds. The third had a twin over a full-sized bed. With two bathrooms, we were able to juggle needs easily. I can’t imagine sharing with 15 people. With seven it was busy enough!
The kitchen was spacious and, while basic, had everything necessary for cooking our meals. A dining room table stretched to one side with room for all, including a high chair. I was impressed by the comfortable and relatively new living room furniture and happy to find black-out curtains in the bedrooms.
What makes Pigeon Point Lighthouse special
Of all the west coast lighthouses we’ve visited, Pigeon Point stunned us. We first encountered it on a road trip the previous winter. We were lured out of the car on a blustery and cold winter afternoon by the outline of the tallest lighthouse in America, a solitary sentinel against the bright sky. After rattling down the dirt drive into the parking lot, we joined a few other tourists wandering the trails and look-out points. The lighthouse was no longer open to the public but the keeper’s cottage at the base has been turned into a cozy gift shop packed with State Park souvenirs.
One of the reasons my travel buddy, Dave, a fishmonger and lifelong urchin diver, was excited about staying here was knowing that sea otters didn’t come this far north. He long wondered why. They flourish in Santa Cruz and Monterey. On our spring return, he planned to get into the water and see what other life was cruising the coastline, to even try spear fishing. I wasn’t thrilled about him snorkeling into a migration path for Great White Sharks or tussling with an elephant seal (they mate and birth at Ano Nuevo State Park a bit south.) Undeterred, Dave picked low-tide dates and packed for a cold swim.
“We can catch our dinner!” Dave exclaimed to his son as he enticed him to bring his own snorkel gear. However, once we arrived for the family vacation and unloaded the cars, he stood crestfallen on the cliff. It was spring but a harsh wind pierced his jacket and below, the ocean bucked beneath white-capped peaks. Waves broke, crashing tall above the tidepools. Not even sea otters would find those conditions comforting. The itinerary shifted to hiking, cooking together, playing Scrabble, and visiting the redwoods a few miles inland. None of us would be snorkeling and it still turned into one of the our sweetest family trips.
With careful planning, we packed in all the food and drink we could possibly need and rolled it from the car to our unit. Cars aren’t allowed to park close but it was only a 2 minute trudge from the parking lot. With a baby and a vegetarian among the guests, strategizing meals was important. We decided well ahead of time who was responsible for which meals and what special items we wanted. My nephew is a mixologist and fixed amazing cocktails. With two refrigerators in the kitchen, we had plenty of ice.
The nearest market was in Pescadero and, while stuffed with a deli and wonderful food, it’s small. The only other options for food, or any other supplies, are in Santa Cruz about a half hour to the south.
Why is it called Pigeon Point?
This rocky part of the coast is beautiful but historically treacherous. A clipper ship, the Carrier Pigeon, ran aground about 500 feet from the shore in 1853. After leaving Boston, the state-of-the-art vessel bested legendary storms off Cape Horn and continued up the California coast. Less than 60 miles from its San Francisco destination, the Carrier Pigeon was blinded by a thick fog. As darkness slowed its progress, Captain Doane thought he’d veered far enough from shore and turned east, in an effort to spot land. Within minutes the hull shattered on a reef. Less than 500 feet from shore, waves drove what was left of the ship onto rocks relentlessly. A Coast Survey steamer and sidewheel ship, The Sea Bird raced towards the wreck to salvage what they could. It wasn’t meant to be. The Sea Bird beached near point Ano Nuevo and little of either vessel was saved.
The coast remained unguarded for nearly twenty years before lamps at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse sent their beacon out to sea. The light shot out in 1867, amplified by a beveled Fresnel lens.Unlike many earlier lighthouses, which were fueled by sperm whale oil, it was cheaper to run the light with lard. I can attest that today west coast lighthouses do not smell like bacon!
However, the light still blinks. I woke on our first night to a gentle pulse that turned the dark curtains a muted red. Luckily clear weather kept the foghorn mute.
Visiting west coast lighthouses makes for great memories
The weather gods may have kept the ocean churning but we had two lovely days to rest and walk, visit and spend time in nature. There was even enough WiFi to keep us connected to the rest of the world. Dave found time to post a few rapturous pictures before we parted for the drive home.
If you love road trips and exploring overlooked parts of California, check out this post about a solo adventure in John Steinbeck country.
Takeaways about visiting Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel
- Pick dates well in advance of the most popular travel times: spring break, holidays and peak summer months. Mid-week dates are best for low outside crowds.
- Choose transportation routes carefully and allow plenty of time. Along the coast highway, there are a couple of traffic impacted areas near Pacifica when coming from the north. Coming from the south and through Santa Cruz means navigating crowded streets as well.
- Pack in your food and drink. Plan meals well ahead of time.
- Watch weather reports the week before visiting west coast lighthouses. The area is prone to fog and storms. Plan for rainy day activities.
- Check out the surrounding area. I’ll write about the Pescadero region in my next post but recommend saving a day to explore the region. We dedicated our Saturday to exploring and left after breakfast for a leisurely drive inland. There was plenty of time for lunch before returning to Pigeon Point before dinner.
- If you can’t stay at Pigeon Point Hostel, check out the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, a bit further north. It’s a more traditional hostel set-up but another stellar location.
- People walking by the windows! They couldn’t see in but it was a little disconcerting to be standing at the kitchen sink, enjoying the ocean view as someone strolled by less than two feet away.
- The set up is pretty basic. Linens and blankets are left for you to make your own beds and you’re responsible for leaving the beds stripped, garbage out and space tidy.
- The blinking lighthouse might bother someone who’s a light (pun intended) sleeper. My suggestion is to sleep in a bedroom facing the north strand, away from the light.
- Bring ear plugs if you’re bothered by ocean waves! They make a lovely backdrop noise for most.
- If you’ve forgotten something, make do or plan an hour drive.