As soon as we pulled in to the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA I knew we had struck gold, and not just because we were greeted with the iconic yellow flag. Tucked up among the trees, we could actually see the ocean from our deluxe cabin. And as a hot pink and purple sunset melted into the horizon, and a chorus of frogs began their symphony from the meadow at dusk, we could not wait to begin our adventure the next day.
Watsonville, where this KOA is technically located, could not be a better springboard into the many scenic wonders in the area. Santa Cruz is just several minutes up Highway 101, and within 40 minutes south, you are in Monterey. Whichever direction you head, you’ll pass a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetable stands boasting just-picked produce at prices that seem too low to be real. But they are. Such is the magic of California’s rugged central coast, where you’ll also find some of the most fertile land this nation has to offer. It is Steinbeck country come to life and it is an unforgettable escape.
Our first day, we headed south to Point Lobos State National Reserve. Long considered the crown jewel in the state park system, Point Lobos can be enjoyed over the course of several hours or an entire day if you have the time. A series of trails will take you through headlands and meadows, along with cliff-side trails that provide some of the most scenic and picturesque viewpoints in the world. The water in the many hidden coves will go from bright green to electric blue and seemingly everything else within the blue-green spectrum. Thousands of seabirds, seals, sea lions, sea otters and migrating gray wells provide spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities.
Point Lobos also includes a Whalers Museum, which provides an in-depth look at the whaling industry that once took place here at the turn-of-the-century. The hikes are easy and there are also drivable roads, which will take you to each of the jaw-dropping vista points. If you did nothing else in the area, this is the one place I would recommend. That said, you’ll certainly want to do more, and with Monterey and Big Sur located on either side of Point Lobos, plan accordingly.
After our long day at Point Lobos, we went back up to Santa Cruz to explore their historic 100-year-old pier. There is a seaside amusement park and the downtown atmosphere in Santa Cruz felt very nostalgic and throwback, a taste of what classic ocean playgrounds must have felt like decades ago in Atlantic City. Then we headed back up to our cabin at KOA where we barbecued some delicious steaks we bought locally along with a wonderful assortment of local vegetables. Under the stars, with the glorious sound of those frogs out in force once more, it was soon toasted marshmallow time.
Day two started out no less spectacular. Because of where this KOA is situated in relation to the Pacific Ocean, many mornings arrive with a sweet blanket of misty marine layer. As the fog burns off in the morning sun, everything comes alive and the nature becomes even more inviting. So what better way to spend a day than hiking at Henry Cowell Redwood State Park, only about 20 minutes from our campsite? The park includes more than 15 miles of hiking and riding trails through dense and gorgeous forest areas including not just redwoods, but ponderosa pine, mixed evergreens and ancient marine deposits called Santa Cruz sandhills. On a warm and cloudless day, the deep and mysterious shade of the redwoods provides a special sanctuary. The well-marked trails and soft paths wind throughout one of the more spectacular wooded areas in the state. There is also a nature center, bookstore and picnic area, and for those who like to fish, steelhead and salmon run during the winter. And remember to keep your eyes peeled for bright yellow banana slugs!
After a day in the forest, we headed back to downtown Santa Cruz to visit one of the more legendary ice cream parlors in the country, Marianne’s. This Santa Cruz institution has been around for more than 50 years and seems as if it is always packed, as it should be, when you taste some of the unique flavors they offer. Bittersweet chocolate, banana almond fudge, blueberry cheesecake, Northern Oregon blackberry and lavender are just a few of the wonderful tastes you’ll discover here,
For our last night in the area, it was back to our KOA for another barbecue and one last chance to sit by the fire and be serenaded by the frogs in the meadow, where a stream runs.
If you happen to be traveling up and down the California coast or headed up toward the Pacific Northwest, you may want to book a couple of days near Santa Cruz. You’re right near San Francisco, yet at times you’ll feel far from any major city whether you lose yourself in the rugged coastal terrain or up in the lush green forests. It is mythical. And it is unforgettable.
Chris Epting is an award-winning journalist, travel writer and author of 25 books including “Roadside Baseball” and “James Dean Died Here – the Locations of America’s Pop Culture Landmarks.” And he loves all of KOA.