California 2022: Part 1!

Smithwoods RV Park & Felton, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz, Highway 1

For the first 4 months of 2022, we stayed at a cozy little family-owned campsite in Felton, CA called Smithwoods. It was a sweet gig in the off-season; Because Gabrielle is considered an essential worker with PG&E, we got approved to stay there at a monthly, discounted rate – there were some traveling nurses in a trailer just down from us doing the same thing. 

Felton is a small, mountain town in the Santa Cruz mountains, about 10 minutes north of Santa Cruz proper. Together with Scotts Valley, Boulder Creek, and a few other towns along this area, they make up the San Lorenzo Valley. This valley a beautiful forested area with enormous redwood trees all over the place, and a chill, peaceful vibe palpable in most all the people you meet. One of the world’s last patches of old growth redwood trees (older than 200 years) is just outside of Felton: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. They have a grove there of incredibly old giants, some nearing 1,800 years and still going strong! During those 4 months, we spent a LOT of time in Henry Cowell – just hopped over the train trestle to get to the hiking trails! It was high privilege to have that kind of ancient wilderness in our own backyard. 

Below are a collection of pictures from many different hikes throughout Henry Cowell, which we will always think of with a tender spot in our hearts. ***BONUS TREE FACT: Henry Cowell has another really cool thing going for it – albino redwoods!! They are very rare and are a scientific marvel. There are estimated to be around only 400 naturally occurring in the whole world. By all logic of plant biology, they shouldn’t be able to exist and are a total enigma, which just makes them even cooler. Scientists think the albinos may store toxic metals for a nearby mother tree/clone in a kind of sequestration process. The albino redwoods essentially sacrifice themselves for the good of the trees around them, and act as a natural “waste dump.” We found 4 of them! Each such an intriguing and surprising little ghost of the forest. See some pictures below. 

Staying in Felton for 4 months gave us plenty of weekends to explore the iconic coastal city of Santa Cruz, California. Oh, man…how do I even intro Santa Cruz? It is a surfer’s paradise, a haven for the nature lover, a destination at the end of the road for the weary traveller, a thriving melting pot of ages and demographics….there is just so much to love about Santa Cruz. It sits at the north end of the Monterey Bay, facing south, with lovely sandy beaches scattered throughout. On summer days when it’s roasting hot throughout inland California, this coastal town stays perfectly temperate with the natural ocean breeze. Because it sits right where the mountains meet the water, it is a gateway for recreation both on land and sea. Ten minutes up the coast towards San Francisco you’ll find spectacular cliffside spots to watch waves crash on huge rock formations. I should also mention the whole dang Monterey Bay area is known for being a Marine Sanctuary! The biodiversity of these waters is immense. 

A few notable areas we’ve checked out around Santa Cruz:

The Boardwalk! Amusement park, sprawling swimming beach, restaurants, arcades, mini golf…the Santa Cruz Boardwalk has it all. A really interesting and deep history, too, with it being the oldest amusement park in the entire state. Family-owned and operated since 1907, the boardwalk has housed so many different things over the years, including huge diving shows called “Salt Water Plunge Water Carnivals” from the twenties through the forties. It has our new favorite wooden roller coaster (5th oldest operating roller coaster in the country) – the Giant Dipper! A “blast from the past” in both ways, and a super smooth ride for what it is. It’ll catch you by surprise!

The Wharf – sprawling out just down the beach from the Boardwalk, it’s the west coast’s longest wooden pier! There are restaurants, gift shops, ice cream and lots of sea lions to keep you entertained. Bonus is you can pay to drive your car out on it and park. At the end of the wharf you have great views of the area and the Boardwalk as well as watching the sea lions underneath and seals in the harbor.

Downtown/Pacific Ave: Historic downtown with, again, everything you could want in a beachy downtown area. There are almost always street musicians so music floats down the blocks. Local vendors often out selling their craft on the weekend, tons of little town kiosks with creative snack food (my favorite is the Indian food right outside the bookstore), and dreamy, Cali-vibe shops full of treasures that are unique and not usually found in a run-of-the-mill tourist shop. They can be hard to pass up, but RV living requires less accumulation of things due to the lack of storage space – it is without a doubt a blessing in disguise, haha. Also: Can’t forget to mention Gabrielle’s new favorite book store, Bookshop Santa Cruz. A huge earthquake in 1989 was almost the end for this bookstore, but the community came together and brought their own books to restock the bookstore’s lost inventory. It’s an inspiring success story, and I almost always stop in for some browsing when we’re in the area. 

We took a whale watching tour from the Santa Cruz harbor in January so we could see the grey whales migrating! These bottom feeders trek from the Baja all the way up to Alaska. There were several pairs of them that we followed for a while. The grey whales dive down for 5 minutes at a time sometimes to scrape the bottom of the ocean floor to suck up all the nutrients down in the mud. We saw several flukes where the full tail is exposed out of the water as they dive. It was a beautiful calm day and we had a very energetic tour guide named Sidney. She was the resident marine biologist, we liked her a lot! She gave us too much information to remember. Whale watching can be hit or miss with sightings, but it is so worth it when you do experience those moments with these amazing and elusive sea creatures. 

A common drive we enjoy cruising the sights on and stopping along is the Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Cruz and Pacifica. It’s 60 miles of ocean driving with plenty of hidden gems in the form of sleepy beach towns, roadside produce stands often with produce picked that very morning, lighthouses, hidden beaches and trails, and delightful local cuisine. Also, a few good breweries here and there like Hop Dogma in Half Moon Bay. We also loved Pescadero with its tiny but mighty old school Italian deli. They bake fresh hot artichoke bread every day filled with artichoke hearts! We have had many great days parking the RV on the side of the highway and lounging on the beach. 

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