Año Nuevo State Park
West of Hwy-1, one of nature’s more bizarre spectacles takes place annually at Año Nuevo State Park (650/879-2025, daily 8am-dusk), where each winter hundreds of humongous northern elephant seals come ashore to give birth and mate. The males reach up to 13 feet head-to-tail, weigh as much as 4,500 pounds, and have dangling proboscises that inspired their name. These blubbery creatures were hunted almost to extinction for their oil-rich flesh. In 1910, fewer than 100 were left in the world; their resurgence to a current population of more than 100,000 has proved that protection does work.
Every December, after spending the summer at sea, hordes of male elephant seals arrive here at Año Nuevo, the seals’ primary onshore rookery, ready to do battle with each other for the right to procreate. It’s an incredible show, with the bulls bellowing, barking, and biting at each other to establish dominance; the alpha male mates with most of the females, and the rest must wait till next year. Pups conceived the previous year are born in January, and mating goes on through March. During the mating season (Dec. 15-Mar. 31), ranger-led tours (800/444-4445, $10) are the only way to see the seals; these tours are popular, so plan ahead and try to come midweek. Tours start at 8:45am, and end at 2pm. The three-mile walk from the parking area to the shore is worth doing at any time of year, since it’s a very pretty scene and some of the seals are residents year-round.
The only lodging option along this stretch of coast is three miles south of the lighthouse, or two miles north of the entrance to Año Nuevo, at Costanoa Lodge (650/879-1100, $80 and up). A stylish retro-modern eco-minded resort, open since 1999 on the inland side of Hwy-1, Costanoa has everything from a luxurious lodge to tent cabins (complete with saunas). There’s also a bar and grill and an adjacent KOA campground (650/879-7302).
South of Año Nuevo State Park, you’ll see signs tempting you to stop at Pie Ranch (650/879-0995), a rustic roadside attraction selling, you guessed it, fresh pies. They also serve as an ad-hoc education center: On the third Saturday of each month they host a farm education program that wraps up with a potluck dinner and barn dance to spread the word to Silicon Valley denizens about good food and old-fashioned ways of life. On most days, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the property. As their T-shirts say, “Pie Ranch. Eat Pie. Repeat.”
Midway between Año Nuevo State Reserve and Santa Cruz, the tiny roadside hamlet of Davenport was the birthplace of Odwalla, the fresh-fruit-juice company, beloved of Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs and now owned and run by beverage giant Coca-Cola. The town is a popular stop for cyclists, motorcyclists, and road-tripping Sunday drivers from all over the Bay Area. They come for the strong coffee, diner-style breakfasts, and excellent pastries at the friendly Whale City Bakery Bar & Grill (490 Hwy 1., 831/423-9009) and the more refined meals and rooms at the neighboring Davenport Roadhouse Restaurant & Inn (831/426-8801).
Two miles north of Davenport, Swanton Berry Farm (831/469-8804) is one of the last pick-your-own farms on the California coast. Swanton is also a world leader in truly sustainable agriculture, using biodynamic farming practices and paying the workers union wages while partnering with local markets (and the national chain Whole Foods) to provide the freshest, healthiest produce. And if you don’t have the time or inclination to get out in the fields, Swanton’s has a farm stand where they sell their delicious fresh berries (and kiwis and brussels sprouts, depending upon the season). The famous fruit pies are available year-round.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
The oldest of California’s state parks, Big Basin Redwoods State Park (831/338-8860) protects some 18,000 acres of giant coastal redwoods. Established in 1902, the park has many miles of hiking and cycling trails high up in the mountains. The heart of the park is most easily accessible from Santa Cruz via Hwy-236, but a popular trail winds up from the coast to the crest, starting from Hwy-1 at Waddell Beach, a popular haunt for kite-surfers and sailboarders, who sometimes do flips and loops in the wind-whipped waves.