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Drive to Hiker's Heaven in the Central Coast's Extraordinary Parklands

Drive to Hiker's Heaven in the Central Coast's Extraordinary Parklands
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Take a nature-lover’s tour along one of the world’s most spectacular stretches of coastline, with swings inland to find some of California’s most undiscovered adventures.

Length: 3-4 days


Oxnard. Explore the canyons and hidden valleys of Point Mugu State Park , including 5 miles of surprisingly wild coastline, and the surrounding 150,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area . Near Point Mugu, visit Circle X Ranch , where you can climb to the Santa Monicas’ highest point, 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak, or hike down into the giant boulders and fern gardens of The Grotto. INFO 805/988-0717;

Ventura (24mi/38km; 34mins). Discover the unspoiled world of Channel Islands National Park , nicknamed the “American Galapagos.” Take the hour-long ferry, departing daily from Ventura Harbor Village , to explore sea caves, hike miles of empty beaches, and see rare island wildlife and plants. Even if you don’t make the trip, the park visitor center connects mainland visitors to the islands’ natural splendor. Live webcams show glimpses of island life, including nesting bald eagles. INFO 800/483-6214


Gaviota (55mi/ 88km; 1hr 1 min). Stop of often-overlooked Gaviota State Park for coastal camping, an appealing beach for swimming and scuba diving, and backcountry hiking. Watch for trains crossing the historic trestle above Gaviota Creek and hike to the park’s natural hot springs. The climb to 2,458-foot Gaviota Peak will reward you with sweeping coastal panoramas. INFO 805/966-9222;

Guadalupe (61mi/99km; 1 hr 3 mins). Explore spectacular coastal “mountains” of sand in expansive Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Preserve , a designated National Natural Landmark. Get oriented at the excellent Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center , then join a guided hike to learn about the more than 1,400 animal species living here and at Oso Flaco Lake (a rare freshwater coastal lake. INFO 800/331-3779;

Los Osos (42mi/67km; 1 hr 7 mins). A hidden stretch of the California coast awaits at Montaña de Oro State Park . Enjoy spring wildflowers as you hike along the park’s bluffs and scan the scalloped coves for sea otters and other marine mammals. Or for impressive coastal views, hike to the top of 1,347-foot Valencia Peak. INFO 805/541-8000;

San Simeon (42mi/67km; 1 hr 8 mins). Join an assortment of tours at Hearst Castle , originally the private estate of legendary newspaper magnate and art collector William Randolph Hearst and now a state park. INFO 805/541-8000;


Big Sur (53mi/85km; 1 hr 6 mins). Follow Highway 1 as it twists along the cliffs of the incomparable Big Sur coast. Designated as California’s first scenic highway, this stretch of Highway 1 leads to hikes into redwood forests and to waterfalls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park . INFO 831/667-2100;

Carmel (34mi/55km; 46 mins). As spectacular as Big Sur is, there’s nothing quite like the meeting of land and sea at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve . Hike through its rocky forests and along the granite shore and keep your eyes open for wildlife—orcas and migrating gray whales (winter and spring), seals, otters, and monarch butterflies. Head to town for galleries and intimate restaurants. INFO 877/666-8373;


Paicines (63mi/102km; 1hr 23mins). Head inland to explore at 26,000-acre Pinnacles National Park , an incomparable landscape of eroded monoliths, spires, and crags formed by the collapse of an ancient volcano 23 million years go. Choose from 30 miles of hiking trails, try rock climbing, or pitch a tent. Keep your eyes out for extremely rare California condors. Spring wildflower blooms are outstanding. INFO 831/637-5315;

Morgan Hill (88mi/141km; 1hr 58mins). With more than 87,000 acres of open space, Henry W. Coe State Park is Northern California’s largest state park. Find incredible solitude in rugged canyons, grasslands, conifer forests, and, in spring, extraordinary wildflowers (especially Mariposa lilies and California poppies) via 250 miles of trails. INFO 408/779-9444;

Boulder Creek (61 mi/98km; 1 hr 43 mins). Santa Cruz County is home to 14 state parks, including California’s oldest: Big Basin Redwoods State . Park. Established in 1902, Big Basin preserves the largest unbroken stand of redwoods south of San Francisco and the park encompasses 18,000 acres of old-growth and recovering redwood forest. Eighty miles of trails take you into Big Basin’s world of creeks, waterfalls, and giant trees. INFO 800/833-3494;

Santa Cruz (23mi/38km; 46 mins). Head to Natural Bridges State Beach to see its wind- and water-carved sandstone arch. Take a spin on the coasters at still-wonderful Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, then walk the pier for fresh seafood with your sunset. INFO 800/833-3494;

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