Berry Creek Falls – Big Basin

Yesterday I had a chance to revisit one of my all time favorite hikes, the Sunset/Skyline to Sea loop in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This scenic route through the redwoods features a series of waterfalls and is the perfect shaded hike for a hot summer day. This hike covers approximately 9.5 miles and traverses 2,874 feet in elevation gain and will probably take you between four and five hours to complete.

Berry Creek Falls Top

The top falls at Berry Creek. Photo credit: Lisette

When you enter the park, be sure to stop by the headquarters and buy your parking pass FIRST. If you arrive after 8:00 a.m. on a weekend you will likely have to park a notable distance from headquarters, by picking up your permit first you can start the hike closer to the trailhead without doubling back.

Most people start the hike clockwise, taking the Skyline to Sea trail and hiking up the falls, returning via the Sunset trail. I prefer to start with the Sunset trail and come down the falls, ending with the Skyline to Sea portion. This route allows you to get the hotter, more exposed portions of the trail out of the way early in the day and gives you a shorter hike back after you see the falls.

Berry Creek Falls Middle

The middle cascade at Berry Creek. Photo credit: Lisette

Whichever way you choose to navigate the hike, the Berry Creek series of falls is one of the best waterfall hikes in the Bay Area, with plenty of great viewing spots to relax and take a break for lunch. Unfortunately this hike is also exceptionally popular, so it can be tricky to snap pictures without capturing the crowds as well. You’ll notice as you move along the series of falls that the top cascades are wide and sloping, with gorgeous red rock underneath and pools you can dip your feet into. The lower falls are more dramatic, with higher drops and more conventional landscapes.

Recommended gear: good hiking shoes, plenty of water, snacks and sunscreen.

On your way home after this hike, you may want to reward yourself by dropping by some of the local wineries off Highway 9 like Mountain Winery, Savannah Chanelle or the Cinnabar tasting room in downtown Saratoga.

San Juan Bautista

This town is famous for two things: the mission, and the shops. Mission San Juan Bautista is a beautiful mission, unobstructed by urban development. Built in 1719, this mission was an integral part of the California Missions Trail, which leads from San Diego to Sonoma and is comprised of 21 missions. The mission is extremely well preserved despite damage from multiple earthquakes and offers scenic vistas looking out over agricultural fields.

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Chapel at Mission San Juan Bautista. Photo credit: Lisette

The mission was a filming location and feature in the Hitchcock film, Vertigo. Hitchcock created a fictional tower in the film were many key scenes take place. Named for the famous movie filmed in the town, you can get great coffee, food, beer and cider at Vertigo Coffee Roasters just off Fourth Street among several quaint shops.

These shops, mainly antiques, are run by a friendly crowd of locals. Many are retirees and will be happy to chat with you about the area. A man in a clock shop on Third Street will proudly show you all his musical clocks, setting them off one by one to create a cacophony of sounds in the narrow little shop he runs. This gentleman has been in the town for 11 years and has “loved every minute of it.”

This charming little town is well worth a short day trip, or even better, a stop along the way to Carmel or Big Sur.

Moaning Caverns

Out in the western Sierra Nevada foothills, there are a series of amazing adventures to be had, including several great spelunking excursions. Moaning Caverns allows you to rappel 165 feet into an amazing cavern for their adventure tour, and California Caverns offers a “Middle Earth” tour that cannot be beat. I highly recommend going to check out some of these great spots for a day or weekend sometime during the dry season.

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Climbing out of the “Womb Room.” Photo credit: Friendly tour guide

The Middle Earth tour takes you deep into the California Caverns system, for approximately a mile of trekking (walking, crawling and climbing) underground. Highlights of the tour including crowding into the tiny “Womb Room” with your tour group, taking a boat or swimming across an underground lake, spectacular rock formations and knee-deep mud. This tour can be quite time-consuming (about four hours) and a little pricey, but is well worth the investment.

While this little adventure can easily be a day trip from the Bay Area, I highly recommend staying over and combining with a visit to Columbia. This state park/historic down features actors in period dress along with fun activities like panning for gold, stage coach rides and candle-making.

Heavenly Swimming Holes

We have some lovely swimming holes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One of the best known, is the Garden of Eden swimming hole off Highway 9 in the Henry Cowell Redwoods. This little piece of heaven can be tough to find, but is well worth it. There are a few parking spots along the road, but you will need to hike down towards the creek and in some cases – along the railroad tracks (careful – these are used!) in order to get down to the swimming holes. If you get lost, just ask someone you see, it’s highly trafficked by friendly locals, so you should have no trouble getting pointed in the right direction. If you have time on your way to the creek (or back), enjoy a stop in the adorable town of Felton to pick up a picnic, grab a coffee at the White Raven, or do some wine tasting at Hallcrest Vineyards.

Once you find the creek, go ahead and explore. There are plenty of lesser known spots to be found both up and down the creek if you’re willing to trek around. I love to pair an afternoon at the creek with a morning hike, so that the cool water is even more appealing. This activity is best enjoyed on a warm fall day, with little to no fog and plenty of good friends.

Chevre Forevre

Fall is the perfect time in California for coastal day trips. One of my favorites is to drive out to Pescadero. I like to visit Harley Farms, and try out some of their wonderful chèvre cheese. If you get a chance to go in the spring, you may get to snuggle some kids (baby goats) during your tour, just know that these spring tours often book up months in advance.

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Chevre Forevre. Photo credit: Cheri Kramer

After tasting delicious cheese, I like to mosey over to Duarte’s Tavern (pronounced Doo-arts by the locals) on the main drag in Pescadero. The wait here is long, but the food is well worth it. Artichoke soup is my absolute favorite, and my friends always save room for their famous olallieberry pie. While you wait, a coffee shop and wine tasting room are both close by to keep you occupied, along with quaint shops to peruse.

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Drinks at the Ritz. Photo credit: Lisette

After you fill your belly with delights, you can visit a local beach, or head to the Half Moon Bay Ritz for some drinks. The Ritz offers drinks outside with a view, or inside by the fire (sometimes you can get both a fire and a window view). This is the perfect cozy spot to wrap up a lovely coastal afternoon before you head back home over the hill.

Monarch Madness

Every year, in November, the monarch butterflies return to Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. They gather in a eucalyptus grove lined with raised wooden boardwalks to keep visitors away from (and protect) the butterflies. Seeing the monarchs is one of my very favorite fall activities, because there’s nothing quite as magical as being surrounded thousands of stunning butterflies.

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Monarch butterflies cluster for warmth. Photo credit: Lisette

I highly recommend visiting the monarchs in late November or early December to see peak activity and have optimal weather. The butterflies will stay through most of winter, but will be less active in the colder months. I usually start my visit by dropping into Verve Coffee Roasters in downtown Santa Cruz, because there’s nothing quite like stopping into the local roastery to start off a crisp fall morning on the coast.

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Butterflies are best enjoyed with friends. Photo credit: Mike Bustos

When you arrive at the park, cash-on-hand is useful for the $10 entry fee, or, if you’re an avid park-goer, you should definitely by a yearly pack of state park passes – you’ll find they are well worth it. You’ll drive down and park near the stunning “Natural Bridge” stone foundation on the beach that the park is named for. The visitor center offers plenty of learning opportunities along with gifts, restrooms are on the far side of the parking lot near the beach. From the visitor center you enter the grove, descend into the eucalyptus trees and enjoy the beauty of the monarchs surrounding you.

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Can you see why the park is named “Natural Bridges”? Photo credit: Lisette

An Afternoon in Carmel

For the holiday weekend, I decided to take a day trip down to Point Lobos and Carmel. We started the trip in San Jose with our destination as Point Lobos. A short hike at Point Lobos offers phenomenal views of the Pacific and wildlife. Otters can be seen playing in coves, along with seals and a variety of native birds. Since the weather in Carmel can be quite a bit cooler than in San Jose, I recommend bringing plenty of layers for this type of trip. The reserve at Point Lobos can be a bit breezy, particularly in the summer months.

After our hike, we opted to get food and drinks at one of the many fantastic restaurants in downtown Carmel. Starlight 65 Rooftop Lounge, located on the top of the Vesuvio restaurant, is a wonderful place to continue your outdoor experience and take in a little refreshment. Their cocktails and salads are absolutely delicious, and the waitstaff deliver excellent service. Another stop I always recommend is the Cheese Shop in the Carmel Plaza at the corner of Ocean and Junipero Avenues. This stop is an absolute must for artisanal cheese lovers and connoisseurs of fine foods.

Should you ever be in Carmel in time for lunch, I highly recommend the Hog’s Breath Inn. This is practically an institution in Carmel. Formerly owned by Clint Eastwood, the inn is now under new ownership, allowing visitors to eat both inside and on terraced patios with outdoor fireplaces and beautiful tables that each resemble a slice of a fallen tree. Local delicacies like artichoke are on the menu year-round in addition to hearty main courses and a solid selection of wines.

As fall approaches and promises the idea California coastal weather, I can assure you I will be sharing many more of my favorite coastal adventures with you in the near future.