As March approaches so does spring break, and it’s the time of year where many plan their getaways for a much needed boost of warm weather and sunshine. While people will hop on planes to beaches across the country and the world, it’s a good reminder that – in a state of permanent spring weather – there’s still much to do without even crossing state lines.
I grew up in Rhode Island, where driving to buy milk meant crossing over into Massachusetts. So when I moved to California, one of the biggest differences I noticed was the fact that, even after eight hours of driving, you’ll still be in California.
Whether it’s day trips a short drive away, overnight stays along the coast, or road trips into the mountains, an in-state spring break is a great way to get to know the sprawling new state you now call home.
Spring Break Ideas
Day Trip to Santa Cruz: Coastal Dairies, Sea Lions, and Moonlight Kayaking
Coastal city Santa Cruz is a relatively short drive away for Bay Area locals. It’s perhaps best known for the boardwalk amusement park, complete with roller coaster and carousel, that has been running for over one-hundred years.
My ideal itinerary for a day-trip to Santa Cruz starts just west of the city: the Coastal Dairies state park, a stretch of cliffs along the open ocean. Park near Fambrini’s Farm Fresh Produce, pick up a snack for the walk, and then continue skirting the coast along the cliffside for staggering views over the water. There are access points to the beaches below, and the highlight of the walk is Shark Fin Cove – an isolated crop of land that juts upwards reminiscent of a shark approaching.
Editors note: A reader tells us that Shark fin cove is a clothing optional spot, so keep that in mind!
Back in the city, grab lunch and an ice cream cone by the boardwalk, then head over to the wharf that extends into Monterey Bay. If you hear barking, look below – the rafting and piers under the wharf are home to hundreds of sea lions.
End your day trip out on the water – one of my favorite activities I’ve done in California is moonlight kayaking, and there are several options for this including Santa Cruz Harbor and Elkhorn Slough. Kayak as the sun sets, or under the moon- and starlight. I recommend the Elkhorn location just south of the city, where you’ll have run-ins with otters and where, even in the winter months, you might stir up some bioluminescent bloom with your paddle.
Overnight Trip to Big Sur and Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Pacific Coast Highway, all switchbacks and steep climbs along the ocean, is an iconic route to travel while in California. Big Sur, possibly the best stretch of this highway, is just far enough to merit an overnight stay to fully appreciate the drive.
My experience along Big Sur was in constant wind and rain, which complicated driving but gave an ominous beauty to the fog-capped ocean barely visible past the crashing surf.
In typical California sunshine, I imagine the drive is even more stunning, and worth the trip if you’re comfortable with the route. Take the drive slowly, and make frequent stops to take in the changing views along every turn. I recommend stopping by McWay Falls for an oceanside waterfall and Pfeiffer Beach to walk along garnet-rich purple sands.
Before or after your trip along the coast, make sure to stop by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Kids will love seeing the inspiration behind the Finding Dory aquarium, and everyone will enjoy watching the otters jump for their lunch at feeding time. My favorite exhibits are the jellyfish tanks, backlit and glowing like a maritime version of Monet’s lilies.
If you’re traveling with kids see our cautionary tale here.
Roadtrip Into the Mountains at Yosemite National Park
While the weather is still cool, it’s an excellent time to take advantage of the relatively slow spring tourist period over at Yosemite National Park. Summer books up months in advance, so it’s worth looking into spending some days in this magnificent wilderness while lodging there still has some short notice vacancies.
I booked my trip for this past month just a couple weeks in advance and spent President’s Day weekend hiking through Yosemite Valley. The intimidating sheer drops of El Capitan and Half Dome reigning over the valley make this one of the most stunning places I have ever visited.
This road trip is easy to plan: Driving into the valley takes about four hours, but in winter months requires snow chains. I found that driving to Merced and taking the Yosemite public bus YARTS into the park was a much better option – you can take in the view without distraction and the bus makes multiple stops throughout the valley, convenient for wherever you end up lodging.
The hikes are varied and accessible for all ages and skills. They range from leisurely loops along the valley floor to more intense hikes with overnight camping at the summits. Start your day early as the sun rises for a more solitary experience in nature – the crowds don’t start until mid-morning.
Highlights from our trip include Yosemite Falls, overlooking the entire valley; Nevada Falls under towering Half Dome; and sunrise at Mirror Lake, a short walk into the woods best done at dawn without any crowds.
Do you have plans this spring? Tell us about your favorite spring spots below.
How is your calendar filling up? Why not get out and enjoy the fantastic California outdoors? Here are some suggestions, one per month.