TL;DR: Some of the worlds most magnificent natural sites along the Central California coastline. Easy day trip from San Jose or San Francisco area. Skip tourist traps in Santa Cruz, natural wonders are just a close drive away. Take time to appreciate the views and also learn about the history of the area.
A nice day trip for a walk through history amongst majestic Redwoods and awesome ocean views. From the San Jose or San Francisco area, head south on highway 17 towards Santa Cruz. Start with a stop at the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
, which is right off of highway 17, about 20 miles south of the San Jose area. Its is a beautiful park with a very easily accessible trail that will give a wonderful overview of redwoods.
You can drive up to the park entrance, pay the required fees, which I think are $10. The parking lot leads to a short one miles trail, which you can finish leisurely in about an hour.
The trail has been laid out very nicely with number of stops along the way marked with number signs. A booklet you can pickup at the start of the trail provides insights into what you are looking at, like the local ecology, the growth of the redwoods themselves and history of the forest. One of my favorite things, walking on this trail is being able to hear the sounds of the train going by in the woods and the sounds of the people at the station. You're almost transported back in time to when this area was buzzing with train traffic coming from San Francisco.
Its a great area to see and understand the local ecology. I sometimes just love to look at the Clover leaves that grow all along the floor of the gigantic Redwoods. Its a nice reminder of the delicate balance of nature that has the mightiest living things peacefully co-exiust with the smallest of creations. Harmony in nature giveas us a lot to learn from.
After you finish the trail, you can stop at the ranger Station, look at the exhibits and talk to the staff who will be happy to give you more information about the region. In fact, here is where Teddy Rooselvelt saw the wonders of nature that led him to drive landmark legislation
which has protected these resources for generations to come
From here, you can continue further down towards the ocean on highway 17. Make a pit stop in Santa Cruz. If you are ready to grab a bite, that are many interesting options. Lots of local restaurants. My favorite one is a pizza place, Pizza My heart, one of the best pizzas you can eat on the West Coast. While in Santa Cruz, its also fun to stop by a popular surfing spot.
Get on Pacific Coast highway one traveling north. Just a few miles out of town you will see a left turn for the Wilder Ranch State Park
. The parking fees you paid at the Henry Cowell park still work for the day, so no need to pay again. From the parking lot, there is a beautiful walk with the best views of this remarkable coast line.
A short drive up from this park will take you to another awesome place, the Año Nuevo State Park
. This park also offers a great hike along the ocean. But the best sight is that of gigantic Elephan seals basking on the shore at the end of the hike.
Continue further up towards San Francisco and stop by the beautiful Pigeon point lighthouse
. Catch gorgeous views of the Pacific and if you're lucky, you might see whales and dolphins in the ocean.
From here you can continue the journey along highway one. Stop in half Moon Bay for some more seafood and then you can take highway 92 back up to interstate 280, which will take you to your destination back in the San Jose or San Francisco. This is a wonderful day trip to enjoy the majesty of the redwoods and the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific coastline