I'm standing near Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, inhaling ocean air, detecting faint childlike screams as the boardwalk's roller coaster plummets. Forty miles in the distance is my destination, Monterey, which I'd normally be able to see from this spot, if not for the marine haze. In the C-shaped bay, Santa Cruz is one end of the C, Monterey, the other. According to the map, those 40 miles, without any detours, should take about … five days. That's because I left the keys to the Jeep at home. I'm doing this the old-fashioned way: with my two feet.
I booked Slow Adventure's "Walk the Bay" trip for me and my husband, romanced by the idea of spending time together and of immersing myself in the coastline that I'd sped by a thousand times before. We'd be crossing 15 state parks, the Pajaro and Salinas rivers, as well as many beaches, covering 7 to 12 miles per day. Come sunset, a room would be waiting at a local inn, along with pillowtop beds and coffee in the a.m. It made the car almost seem ridiculously stupid.
Day one, we leave the boardwalk and walk along the beaches. Civilization is still around. We're adjusting. The second day, we never encounter another person. Bluffs and dunes buffer our path from the highway - and other noises of modern life. It's silent except for occasional birdsong, crashing waves, hissing surf, and the crunch of our footsteps on the sand.
On day three, between the towns of Moss Landing and Marina, shorebirds are entertainment. Sanderlings with windup-toylike legs scoot away from the waves that lap the shore, then the birds run back to the receding tide line. Marbled godwits and long-billed curlews join in. Black surf scoters bob on rafts beyond the waves. I free my feet from tennis-shoe confinement and stop looking at my watch to see if we are on time. On day four, I take it off, realizing time doesn't matter.
On our last morning, we walk the shoreline, dodging waves as they run up the beach. Mountainous sand dunes are our barrier to civilization. Although I spot footprints in the sand, I never see the person who leaves them.
That afternoon, Monterey sharpens into focus: the waterfront, the piers, the hotels. The beach ahead looks like a pointillist painting - dotted. As we approach, I realize those dots are people. It makes me want to turn around and do it all again. I want to be alone with the bay.
Slow Adventure offers inn-to-inn walking trips along Monterey Bay and from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco. slowadventure.us
4 Half-Day Trails
Not enough time to commit to a multiday hike? Here are our absolute favorites that are less than three hours.
To See Great Scenery From 2,000 Feet
Take in the Santa Lucia Mountains from either East Ridge or Snively's Ridge trails in Garland Ranch Regional Park. Carmel Valley
To See Ruins
Limekiln State Park is located in the steepest coastal canyon in the continental United States and is home to four abandoned limekilns that date back to the 1880s. Big Sur
To See Alotta Birds
The Skyline Nature Trail in Jacks Peak County Park is a birders haven. The park is named after Scotsman David Jacks who made a creamy white cheese from his dairy that we now know as Monterey Jack. Monterey
To See Caves
Hiking isn't an above-ground-only activity at Pinnacles National Park. Take the Moses Spring to Rim Trail, a loop that offers views of the twists and turns inside a mountain. Namely, the Bear Gulch Cave, home to Townsend's bigeared bats. Thrill-seekers only. Paicines
Our Hike-O-Meter Points You To Your Best Trail
EASY - WHALE WATCHING
The 2-mile loop created by both the Beach and Creamery Meadow trails at Andrew Molera State Park allows lucky hikers to catch views of migrating gray whales, beginning in December. Big Sur
MEDIUM - GASPING AND GAWKING
The 1.4-mile North Shore Trail at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve may be short, but the staircase up a steep ascent from Whalers Cove will leave you gasping for air. Once there, though, gasp at the spectacular views of the Carmel coastline. Point Lobos
DIFFICULT - THE PINNACLE HIKE
The 5.3-mile Condor Gulch to High Peaks Trail at Pinnacles National Park is your way to see the park's most iconic rock formations. You'll have to tackle steep stairs cut into boulders, but remember the adage, "The greater the challenge, the greater the reward." Paicines
Most of these hikes can be found at parks.ca.gov.
Perfect For A Day
Osprey's newest daypack comes in a design for men and another for women, ensuring the best fit. Comfortable hip belts, hydration systems, built-in rain covers, and plenty of pockets make them perfect for a day hike. For guys, the Manta 20; for ladies, the Mira 18. $140, ospreypacks.com