Combing the Coast: 48 Hours at Pigeon Point

Driving south on Highway One, I can't help but scan the horizon every few minutes for signs of the lighthouse ahead. Yes, I'm excited to be spending the weekend at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, complete with its famous cliff-side hot tub and beach-house-like cottages.

But more so, I have a reputation for missing streets and signs and driving right on past wherever I'm going. Aiming for the 115-foot-tall lighthouse -- a beacon to road-weary, foggy-eyed travelers like me since 1872 -- is going to be a cinch.

About a mile out I finally see the light rotating slowly, flashing over the low fog that had developed over the road. After turning in toward the light to park, I gather my bags and take a deep breath of the damp, salty air. Ahhh: lighthouse adventure begun.


Wilbur's Watch
I managed to score a rare weekend private room for my first night (content with a dorm bed for the second), so I wake up with the sun streaming across the comfy queen-sized bed. The weather is clear and warm -- for the last week I've been shivering in 40-degree San Francisco, but today it's already 65 and sunny here on the coast!

Oatmeal: check. Hiking boots: check.

And I'm out the door, headed toward Wilbur's Watch, a one-mile hike up the hillside just south of the lighthouse. The trailhead is a 10-minute walk from the hostel along Pigeon Point Road after crossing Highway One, and the gently sloping hike is almost too easy for the views it affords! About halfway to the top of the hike, there's a wooden bench with views up and down the coast -- I should have brought my breakfast here!

Año Nuevo
After the short hike, I head back to the hostel to hit the road for Año Nuevo. When I first made my hostel reservation, I booked a spot on the 10:30 a.m. guided walk to see the elephant seals that spend December - March at this State Park, just 7 miles south of the hostel. It's $10 to park (cash only) plus $7 per person for the two-hour tour (cash or credit, paid at the visitor center). My tour group is mostly other hostel guests, since the hostel reserves up to 20 spots on this tour every weekend morning. The guide is a young volunteer eager to tell us about the park and the Native Americans that once called this area home. Meanwhile, she's also navigating us around a few 1,000-pound male elephant seals hauled out on the trail as we near the beach. And these are the small males!

Coming up over the dunes, there are "harems" of elephant seals literally covering the beach -- these are groups of females protected by the dominant male who wants to mate with them. The seals are sort of slug-like today: dirty brown masses sprawled out and hardly moving. Our guide says that in cooler weather, visitors are more likely to see some action as the males seek to mate with -- and fight over -- all those ladies.

U-Pick Kiwis
Just a couple hundred yards south of the Año Nuevo entrance on Highway One is the Coastways Ranch -- the only farm I've ever come across outside New Zealand that has u-pick kiwi fruit! (They also have the local favorite -- ollallieberries -- in the summer.) The pick-it-yourself instructions are simple:

1. Grab a bucket.
2. Pick to your heart's content (or to your wallet's limit -- it's cash only, at $1.50 per pound).
3. Weigh and pay.

I've never picked kiwis before, so I ask a 7-year-old boy with a full bucket for some advice. The kid is surprisingly knowledgeable (I think his mom talked to the girls at the weighing station up front), and suggests I choose only the biggest fruit -- and of those, just the ones that are starting to lose their fuzz. Kiwis apparently ripen after picking, so I fill my bucket with a few pounds of firm fruit, wishing I could sink my teeth into some sweet green flesh... Sorry folks, no lip-smacking happens here 'til the berries ripen! I spend the last cash in my wallet for the kiwis, sad that I don't have enough to also buy a jar of their strawberry jam -- the free tasting will have to be enough.

Lunch at Costanoa
About halfway between the farm and the hostel is Costanoa, a resort lodge and KOA campground that also features a basic general store and the Cascade Bar and Grille. The food is a little pricey for what you get, but it's locally sourced and it's the closest restaurant to the hostel. I opt for the grilled artichokes -- this part of the coast is covered in artichoke, broccoli, and Brussels sprout fields -- and a Santa Cruz Ale Works Hefeweizen, for $16 total. It's too nice outside to stay here long (though the guys watching the football game at the bar might disagree), so I head out as soon as I'm finished.

Candelabra Trail
Back at the hostel, I ask my friend and front desk employee, Sparrow, for her advice on hiking in nearby Butano State Park. Turns out, she's dying to get outside, so she asks to join me! While the hiking partner offer may not stand for guests who aren't also Hostelling International employees, Sparrow is extremely knowledgeable about the local trails, flora, and fauna -- in short, if you want to hike in the area, talk to her first. Sparrow takes me to a "secret" (but marked) hike on the edge of Butano -- just south of the hostel, turn left on Gazos Creek Road. About a quarter-mile after the intersection with Cloverdale Road (which takes you to the park entrance and north to Pescadero), park in the turnout and look for the sign on the left for the Candelabra Trail.

This is one of Sparrow's favorite hikes -- a mushroom forager, she knows the area around the trail is rife with candy caps and chanterelles (do some research before you start picking!). The trail, which isn't on the published park map, gets its name from a giant (and I mean GIANT) old growth redwood tree located a little ways off the trail. Sparrow considers this a sacred spot, and she's afraid that telling too many people exactly where it is will lead to vandalism. If you're lucky, you'll find it on one of the little side trails.

Along the way, we make friends with a salamander and spot mountain lion tracks, and gather half a dozen beautiful orange chanterelle mushrooms before heading back to the hostel.

Dinner at Duarte's
After meeting up with two other friends, the four of us head into Pescadero for a dinner at Duarte's -- we're really going for the post-dinner pie, but since it's one of Pescadero's only restaurants, we'll do dinner here too. Entrees run $15 - $20 each; if you're on a tighter budget, head to the taqueria across the street and then come back for pie! (Don't let the taqueria fool you -- it's in a gas station. It's also known to serve some of the best tacos this side of Tijuana.) Sparrow and I split an order of cioppino -- a tomato-based broth with stewed fish, shrimp, clams, and crab legs -- while our friends order artichoke soup and the crab melt sandwich.

The food is good -- but nothing can top the pie! The waitress says the two preferred by the locals are their famous ollallieberry pie and the strawberry rhubarb. I've had their ollallieberry pie before (and yes, its one of the best pies I've ever eaten), so I order the strawberry rhubarb instead. It's totally worth the $6 per slice -- with a group, order a whole pie (or take one to go) for $25.

Hot Tub
The real reason I invited friends to join me for dinner was not because I needed dining companions -- I needed fellow hot tubbers! For safety's sake, the somewhat secluded cliff-side hot tub, rented out for $7 per half hour, is only accessible to groups of two or more people. Solo travelers, you'll just have to make friends! I've reserved the last hot tub slot, which starts at 10 p.m., and we spend our 30 minutes basking in the tub, gazing at the sky, and listening to the waves crash on the rocks below. Amazing. Simply amazing.


Sunday morning, Sparrow and I hop in the car and head south on Highway One -- Santa Cruz is our final destination, but there's a lot to do between here and there! About 17 miles south of Pigeon Point, we make our first stop, the tiny town of Davenport. The cute little town is worth a quick drive through -- the houses are adorable, there's a little antique shop to stop at, and Sparrow highly recommends the Roadhouse restaurant located right on the highway.

Just after the "downtown" strip on Highway One, we pull into the first turnout (coming from the south, it's the first turnout after Bonny Doon Road) and park, then walk out to a pretty amazing view of the ocean and a little cove beach below. There's a trail down to the beach, but we're just there for a photo op. For bikers looking to avoid the highway, there's an access point here to a bike trail that runs alongside the railroad tracks all the way to Santa Cruz. Be sure to check out the fields on either side of the viewpoint -- they're covered in artichokes.

Beauregard Winery
Turning left onto Bonny Doon Road just south of the turnout, we head up into the Santa Cruz Mountains toward the Beauregard Vineyards tasting room (about 4 miles from Highway One). A flight of 6 tastes is $5, and though we don't spend much time here, the location is beautiful, surrounded by acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and other varietals. Locals still call this the Bonny Doon Vineyard (and visitors often show up looking for Bonny Doon wines), but Beauregard moved into this tasting room a couple years ago. (Bonny Doon's tasting room is now in Santa Cruz.)

Natural Bridges and Butterflies
Just before we reach Santa Cruz, Sparrow directs me to Natural Bridges State Park, known for natural arches that have been eroded by surf as well as for the monarch butterflies that stop here along their migratory route across North America. The butterflies are here by the thousands from mid-October through mid-February. On a chilly day, visitors can see huge clumps of them in the trees (they can't fly in the cold) -- Sparrow says it often looks like they're dripping from the trees in this eucalyptus grove. It's warm today, and toward the end of the season, so we're just happy to see them flitting around the tops of the trees. Back at the visitor center, we see a display case with several different stages of caterpillar-to-butterfly development, as well as signs for the February 12 Migration Festival celebrating the monarch's departure. (A celebration is held each October as well, to mark their arrival.)

Lunch at Cafe Brasil
Entering Santa Cruz proper, we stop at the very busy Cafe Brasil for lunch. There are flocks of UC Santa Cruz students waiting outside in the sun for tables and take-out from this popular and affordable Brazilian restaurant. We order to-go so we can drive out and picnic on West Cliff Drive overlooking the bay, the boardwalk, and the Municipal Wharf -- not to mention more than 150 surfers! Yes, we counted.

Municipal Wharf
It would be a nice walk down West Cliff Drive to the Municipal Wharf, but the afternoon is getting late so we drive down and park on the wharf ($1 for 4 hours). The Santa Cruz Boardwalk and its rollercoasters run along the beach; out here on the wharf it's like a less-busy version of San Francisco's Pier 39. There are even sea lions, to boot! We grab ice cream cones at Marini's and watch people fishing off the wharf -- you can rent poles at Andy's Bait and Tackle at the end of the wharf (don't be fooled, this spot is also a restaurant) for $5 per day ($35 cash deposit).

Swanton's Berry Farm and Stand
Heading back from Santa Cruz (if you're dying to stay a little longer, HI does operate a hostel here), we pull over at the Swanton farm stand -- it's run by the same people as the U-Pick Kiwi farm I went to yesterday, but here there's more to choose from. Outside, there are u-pick berries in the summer. Inside, there's an honor-system farm stand selling pies, jams, produce, and more. I fill a small carton with Brussels sprouts and get the same jam I'd been eyeing at the kiwi farm -- Swanton's strawberry rhubarb: like pie in a jar!

Waddell Beach
There are loads of beaches up and down Highway One -- some are surf beaches, some are frequented by wind surfers and kite surfers, and some are even nude beaches (including Bonny Doon Beach near Davenport). Waddell is usually popular with kite surfers, Sparrow says, but today the wind must not be right -- the only beach goers are walkers and combers. Sparrow joins them, hunting for agates and cool rocks to add to her collection. The tide isn't low right now, but the beaches around Pigeon Point are great for tide pooling -- the two beaches surrounding the hostel, at Whalers Cove and Pigeon Point Beach, are especially good to check out. Ask at the front desk for the most local tide chart, or check out the chart for nearby Año Nuevo Island here.

Pescadero and home again
After dropping Sparrow back off at her hostel home, I head north, back toward my own home in Oakland. I stop on the way in Pescadero for a quick dinner -- I order a surprisingly fantastic Basil Pesto pizza at the Pescadero Country Store (half of the store is a market, half is a restaurant), and wander through the town's cute antique and local artisan shops while I wait for it to come out of the oven. Farther north along Highway One, I make one last stop -- the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, about 20 miles north of Pescadero. The front desk here doubles as an espresso bar -- and I want a chai latte for the road!

Planning Your Trip

Reserve your stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel online or by calling (650) 879-0633. The hostel features shared dorm rooms, private rooms, private family rooms, and all shared bathrooms.

Other resources to help you plan:

Pescadero's Coastal Bounty - A story we wrote in 2009 that details local farm stands, u-picks, and farms you can visit -- there's a lot of yummy stuff down here!

Pescadero March Natural Preserve - A marsh located near Pescadero. Take one of their bi-monthly walking tours or explore it yourself.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse State Park - The hostel and lighthouse are in a State Park, where docents lead guided history walks Fridays - Mondays.

And of course we maintain a monthly calendar of events happening at or near the hostel. Be sure to follow our Facebook page for additional tips and upcoming events!

This story was written by Sarah Trent, the marketing and communications coordinator for HI's Northern California hostels. When she's not working, she likes reading about food politics and exploring East Bay hiking trails.

More Photos

For photos of Sarah's trip, check out our Flickr set.

If You Go

Stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, located about 50 miles south of San Francisco on scenic Highway One.

If You Go