Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Pacific Coast Highway and San Francisco

Ever since we knew we were moving to southern California, I knew I wanted to drive the coast up to San Francisco and see a few sites up there.  I wasn't really interested in spending a lot of time up there, which meant we were able to turn this in to a 3 day weekend trip.  On Friday we woke up and got on the road relatively early as it takes 3 hours just to get to San Luis Obispo, the almost half way point to San Fran for us, the start of the PCH drive for us, and a town we have wanted to see for a few months.  Luckily, this drive would take us near Solvang, a town we visited last year.  So of course we drove just a little out of our way for Danish Waffles!

We got to SLO (the commonly used abbreviation for San Luis Obispo) and headed straight to the Mission.  This looked very similar to the Mission in Solvang, which makes sense as they were built around the same time by the same people.  We then walked around the downtown area for a few minutes, looking for a place to grab a little food.  After checking online and looking at some menus, Kacey chose Sal's.  The food was decent, but as they were brand new, they had no fryer, so the fries and onion rings were not edible (they did give a refund, though).

We got on the road for the short trip to Morro Bay, home of the iconic Morro Rock.  I really didn't know what to expect here.  There is a few restaurants on the water, but not a super beautiful view.  You can drive out to the rock and park there, which we did.  We got some views of the Sea Otters playing, and we watched the surfers freeze in the ocean.  After finishing our lunches here, we got on the road.

The next thing along the PCH was Hearst Castle.  According to their website, you need reservations weeks in advance, and the costs can get astronomical.  So our idea was to stop in, see what we could see for free (or quickly), and move on.  I guess people plan pretty elaborate trips just to see the castle and spend lots of money for a big romantic dinner up on the mountain.  Anyway, there is nothing to see at the visitor's center as the castle is up on a mountain.  So we used the restrooms and got information about another site close by, the elephant seals.

I wasn't expecting much at the elephant seals (approximately 4 miles north of Hearst Castle), which made the shock of what we saw awesome.  I will let the picture explain this unexpected scene...
Elephant Seals as far as the eye can see!
So next up was the Big Sur area.  This is miles of winding cliff roads with vista views.  Now it was a little overcast for us, but occasionally it would open up for a view.  We stopped at overlooks and enjoyed (mostly) just making the drive.  This reminded me some of The Great Ocean Road, with less things to see.  Even though it was cold and overcast, the surfers were still out.  I did a quick hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park out to the ocean to see a big waterfall and bright blue water.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

After Big Sur we were looking for a Sea Otter Refuge, but never saw it.  So we entered the Carmel/Monterey area and stopped at the Carmel State Beach.  Kacey took some time to walk around on the beach and stretch her legs while I looked for a place to eat dinner in Monterey.  Kacey then found a place called Il Vecchio (the old).  What a great restaurant!  The owner spoke fluent Italian and visits frequently to revise the menu.  The staff was nice and the pricing was reasonable (considering where we were).  We enjoyed a delicious dinner and still had time to check out the view from the coastline there.

The next morning we got up early (after a free hotel night near the airport) and got to Muir Woods National Monument.  This is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time, and I read that the crowds on a Saturday and Sunday get quite bad, so we got to the park by 10 or so.  Unfortunately as I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, the entire bay area was covered in a thick marine layer, so we couldn't see anything.  But, we made it to the park with basically no traffic.  We stuck mostly to the paved trails and Nolan and I enjoyed seeing the Redwood Trees.  I was quite frustrated by the inconsideration of the other guests, though.  This was treated mostly like a city park where there are no noise and other rules.  Even areas marked with several signs to be quiet, people were yelling and using their cell phones in excess.  This, combined with the commercialized junk store, made me realize that John Muir would either be happy that many people had easy access to a park or would be spinning in his grave at what the park had become.  A park ranger I spoke with for a while agreed and had similar thoughts, and informed me that the lease for the junk store was almost up and it was getting kicked out.  They are also considering limiting the number of people in to the park by maybe using a reservation system.  I informed him, though, that a system like this would have prevented me, a non-native, huge fan of the national park system, from being able to see the park (we only knew a few days in advance we would be in the area).  He said they had considered situations like this, but it is a tough problem to solve.  I think denying buses, tour groups, cell phones, and requiring ranger hikes on the paved trails, could go a long way.

Anyway, on our way back to San Francisco, I see what the park web site meant by "busy".  Traffic was backed up all the way on the 101.  I made this to attempt to show how ridiculous this was.  (traffic link)  So as we made our way across the Golden Gate, the fog had lifted and I could see San Francisco, the bridge, and Alcatraz, all for the first time.  Pretty cool!

We decided we would stop at the Golden Gate Park, relax, and take in the sites a little.  Well, the exit we needed didn't look like an exit, but it was.  So we drove for an extra 10 minutes or so to get back to the park.  But once there, we took turns viewing the bridge as 1) parking was crazy and 2) Nolan was asleep.  The bridge top was still covered in fog, so no amazing pictures, but I got the idea.

Next we were going to head toward our hotel in Union Square, making a couple detours along the way.  The first detour was driving down infamous Lombard Street.  This was crazy, as was the view from the top!  Additionally, the view made us realize there is something else to go see, something we weren't even sure what it was; Coit Tower.

So, we added a Waypoint to the GPS and headed up to Coit Tower.  And since we had driven up there and found a spot so fast, we decided to go up.  We also got lucky that the line was relatively short for us (but was longer coming back down).  The views were nice and unobstructed, even the marine layer was finally burning off.  Due to the window configuration and age, it was impossible to get really nice pictures, but I still enjoyed seeing San Francisco from this vantage point.

As it was starting to get late, we headed for our hotel.  There was a public parking garage next to the Hotel Mark Twain that was a little cheaper than valet, and meant I could get back in to my car if we forgot something (which we did).  After sitting for a few minutes, we started looking for food options.  We were both craving some good pizza and found Tony's Pizza Napoletana.  The menu is huge and reminded us of a few things we saw in Naples.  While contemplating delivery, we decided to walk through Union Square, and then take a bus through China town to the restaurant.

The Taiwanese American Cultural Festival was taking place and Nolan took in a puppet show for a few minutes.  Once the activities started shutting down, we headed to our bus for dinner.  Dinner was good and we were lucky in that there was one more table outside, instead of waiting an hour for an inside table.  On our way home, we decided to walk so Kacey could find some pastries from the numerous Chinese bakeries.  Even though most of the markets had closed, a few bakeries were still open, so we got some tasty treats!

The next day, we were only planning to visit Pier 39 and then get on the road.  Kacey had been here as well, and I wasn't too sure what to expect.  The cruise traffic was insane, but we finally made it to our parking garage.  We got some more nice views of Alcatraz, walked through lots of food options, and saw the Pier 39 Sea Lions.  Right before leaving, we bought some Sourdough bread from Boudins.  Then started our 6ish hour drive south on the 101, back home.

Here is a link to our pictures!