Part of the Travel Local, COVID getaway, series– this post is meant for locals in California, more specifically NorCal, that are becoming stir crazy and will travel regardless of guidance from our government. The suggestions below are to keep the spread of the virus in a place that has the resources necessary should an outbreak occur. The outdoor recommendation(s) is a place not far from the city stop. To contain the virus please fill up your gas tanks before leaving your town and bring snacks and other essentials. Outdoor recommendations are typically in areas with limited resources.
NorCal; San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose Region
California is so BIG and full of places worth exploring- I had to split the state into two posts. All of your National Parks are amazing and you need to see each and every one of them. However, for the sake of yourself, the crowds and COVID-19… as well as the locals in the nearby small, disadvantageous communities to these parks I am discouraging those trips for now.
I’ve picked only places within 60 miles of a major city that would have resources should an outbreak occur. Knowing how traffic is EVERY TIME I have been, I thought it would be easiest to measure distance by mileage as opposed to time- hopefully you won’t have those issues during lockdown.
City Stop #1: Healdsburg, California
(proximity to San Francisco and Sacramento)
Being a city in Sonoma County, this is mostly a wine haven but it also has great restaurant options for the foodies, too! The most famous vineyards in town are: Simi, Dry Creek, J Vineyards, Alexander Valley, and La Crema (LC is temporarily closed). Most of these wineries have re-opened to the public, but check their website for the latest details. There are many more wineries and vineyards here just waiting to be discovered… Be sure to stock up on any special edition or varietals not sold in stores at the lesser known NorCal family vineyards. (60 miles N of San Francisco/ 110 Sacramento)
Save some room for locally-sourced handmade small plates from Chalkboard. At the date of this post only patio dining is available otherwise you can opt for takeout! The menu changes daily- here is a link to their site. Currently limited due to COVID, another contender in the same price point worth trying once regulations change is Valette. As a local family owned restaurant they are currently cooking family meals for pickup- portioned for either 2 or 4 people. The previously mentioned restaurant recommendations come from the ratings, style, and vibes associated with visiting the town as well as my support of local businesses and sustainability.
New Orleans creole in Northern California?
If you don’t care about the vibes of the day coordinating to your ‘vacation NorCal theme’ then clear your schedule for lunch. This restaurant will bring the vacation to you… but only from 11-3PM on the patio or curbside. This is a New Orleans restaurant. The food in NOLA is the perfectly blended to represent it’s intense history. The food is influenced by the French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, and Vietnamese.. to name a few.
The history of New Orleans and the international port located here has created a food beyond the ‘cajun’ description most people refer to or conjure up in their minds- its more than jambalaya and Po’ Boys. Its melt in your mouth biscuits, perfect beignets… it’s fired alligator, okra, and pralines, and it’s all the traditional American food made even better.
New Orleans doesn’t have just one specialty dish, they perfect them ALL and then they perfect everyone else’s too. This city was built around food- it was the main attraction for economic stimulation. If I was in Healdsburg, I’d be eating on the patio at The Parish Café, which of course, has all the traditional staples mentioned above sans alligator. Click here for the Healdsburg menu. Stay tuned for details on my favorite local NOLA restaurants.
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park; Hike 1 of California’s 50 Bald Mountains, and camp under the stars. This hike is 30 miles from Healdsburg/60 miles from San Francisco.
Another option, on route to Healdsburg from San Francisco is Shiloh Ranch Regional Park. This is an obvious choice if you want a bit of both. The park is 9 miles from Healdsburg/63.5 miles from San Francisco.
Last one, Upper Bidwell Park- recent reviews make it seem like the park is over run with trash but this was gorgeous and still provides many trails and lake access on a hot day.
City stop #2: Monterey, California
(proximity to San Francisco and San Jose)
The route to Monterey in itself can be a major part of the adventure. Hop on US 1 to catch those NorCal coastal highway views- even just for a leg of the route. In total, Monterey is just under 120 miles south of San Francisco and 70 miles south of San Jose. This town is a great basecamp to lots of adventure.
A bay front city, Monterey is rich in history. It was once highly coveted by not only Mexico, but Spain as well. It also was once the capital of California… well the ‘Provinces of California’ in the 18th century. It bordered the line of NorCal and SoCal. A history buff might consider joining a history walking tour to learn more details recounts of early settler’s stories. Fast forward to the 20th century, and Monterey produced the most sardines in the World. In fact, that’s where I would recommend you start your day- on Cannery Row.
Cannery Row is a street once known for its sardine canning factories. If you are visiting sometime between Saturday and Monday, stop into the Thomas Kinkade museum- starting your day early? Swing by after you explore more of Monterey. Influenced by Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh, Kinkade’s paintings were inspired by this region. In fact, you might recognize some of the places in the painting from your walk or vice versa.
Currently closed due to COVID, it’d be amiss not to recommend coming back to eat at the Sardine Factory when it is safe to do so. This award winning restaurant is a favorite among locals, tourists and celebrities. In fact, Clint Eastwood shot his directorial debut here. Cannery Row is mostly just a tourist hot spot now- which can be a bit of a drawback. The silver-lining its it lends to easy access to adventure.
While you are here you can hop in a kayak or on a SUP and explore the day literally at sea level, or grab a bike- electric, hybrid or standard. Click here to join a tour or to just rent equipment. Otherwise, I hope you brought your walking shoes! Once you are ready to leave Cannery Row head to the bay- you can take the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail to reach the next stop.
Head south so the bay is to your left, for about 1 mile to Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The wharf is about a 15-20 minute walk from Cannery Row. Although, if you bring your camera it might be a bit longer- the previously mentioned places are beyond picturesque. To stay with the destination vibes- full of the rich history, grab a bite to eat at one of the many seafood restaurants at the wharf.
The Sand Bar and Grill at Wharf #2 has the highest ratings and is currently open- serving only takeout from 12-8, this include wine take out! If you’re not paddling in, this one can be tricky to find- it’s downstairs. Here is a link to their website for updates and menu options. I recommend fish and chips, fresh fish tacos, or calamari… or combination thereof, paired with a Sauvignon Blanc. YUM! If you checked out Healdsburg previously, you can BYOB.
Otherwise, if you’ve had enough of the sea but want to keep with the Mediterranean climate of this NorCal town head to Tyler Street for authentic Greek cuisine! Epsilon is less than a 10 minute walk from the wharf or about 25 minutes (mostly waterfront) from Cannery Row if you continue past the wharf. Click here to find their menu and hours. They have outdoor seating, but ‘dine-in’ is not currently an option. Take out is still available but call the day you plan to visit if you would like to sit outside to check current regulations.
Another pin already on my maps was Julia’s. I don’t recommend walking as it is a bit far (45 minute walk down Prescott) but it has something for everyone. The menu caters to strict dietary restrictions with clear indicators on the menu. Julia’s is in a shopping center with easy to find parking. Here is the menu.
Outdoors: On Route
There are opportunities to connect to nature in Monterey- with miles and miles of hiking, biking and walking trails as well opportunities to kayak and paddle board in the bay.
However, before you even arrive there are even more great trails. On route from San Francisco to Monterey, right before the half way point, is Portola Redwoods State Park and Sam McDonald County Park. To find trails reminiscent of the northern Redwood forests, I recommend stopping at one of these. They are roughly 50 miles south of San Francisco and 35 miles from San Jose. Portola has a $10 fee per vehicle and campsites are opening back up, other fees apply. Check out the Peter’s Creek Loop Trail or the Old Tree Trail. Click this link to see the most recent updates and plan your hikes. Sam McDonald charges $6 per vehicle to enter and has both redwood forests as well as vista trails with views of mountains and the Pacific. Click here for updates.
Another outdoor hidden gem in this area is Castle Rock State Park. This one is more of a mountain, boulder type park that also has Redwoods and vista trails. It more known for its sculpted rocks and the Santa Cruz mountains. Another state park means another $10 vehicle entrance fee. Click here to see the latest COVID updates. I personally am obsessed with the Redwoods and think all of these parks will give you that hint of crazy intuitive love, too. If I had to choose just one, I’d surprisingly skip this mountain one, for Portola.
These 3 parks are just north of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Big Basin is California’s oldest state park. This park is quite literally 65 miles from either Monterey or San Francisco, sitting between the two. It is only 35 miles southwest of San Jose. However, it is the most known and trafficked park- if you are short on time though, it would be worth stopping just to do a quick loop through the trees.
And of course if you continue past Monterey you’ll be met with the gorgeous Big Sur State Parks. These parks are notoriously beautiful and popular- please practice social distancing and respect all regulations. These parks round out the NorCal territory. They are 30 miles south of Monterey making it 145 miles from San Francisco and 100 miles from San Jose. You can also access the wild coast if you pass the Pfeiffer State Park- this beach is not part of the park and has its own entrance fees; Pfeiffer Beach. For more information about this area, closures, and prices-click here.
And if you’ve made it this far and need to stop for food, Nepenthe is right around the corner. I came here after a friend of mine (who previously lived in Big Sur) added it to my 2018 itinerary. The outside seating arrangement is huge and open to the public. Here is their site– you might try to call ahead to reserve a view of the sunset.
To read about the time I spent in NorCal circa 2018-click here. Unfortunately I got food poisoning in San Francisco so my review is tainted and limited from that experience.
Keep Nature Wild
Please leave the places you visit better than you found them. Pack out whatever you bring in- this includes compostable (and non- DUH!) dog waste bags. It also includes fruit/vegetable or other food scraps- if it’s not growing wildly there, it doesn’t belong; an INVASIVE SPECIES. Leaving seemingly harmless and compostable waste is SEVERELY HARMFUL TO THE ENVIRONMENT AND ECOSYSTEM. This includes bringing firewood from out of town to local campsites. Wood carries insects and disease- a rule of thumb is to buy firewood within 10 miles of where it’ll be burned. And of course- check the daily fire danger rating to prevent a wildfire.
For my Fresno Folks
I’d recommend trying to stay away from Yosemite and Sequoia since crowds are still pouring in. There are many hikes in the Sierra mountains- outside of those parks! To avoid the out of town tourists in National Parks, check out: Wellbarn Road Trail – stay left at the fork to summit Big Tabletop Mountain or right to stroll the river’s edge. (33 mi) Or continue chasing waterfalls at Rancheria Falls National Trail in the Sierra National Forest. (70 mi) For a weekend camping trip check out Mono Creek campground- the trailhead here leads to multiple routes including the Devil’s bathtub. (90 mi). Click here to reserve a site.
To read my travel journal entry regarding time spent in Yosemite, Sequoia, and Mammoth in 2018- click here. NorCal really is a dream location for locals to staycation.