Now that we’ve passed the unofficial start to summer, I harbor a near-constant desire to head to the beach or the woods. After what is normally a long winter and speedy spring, this New Yorker is ready to escape from this human-made metropolis.
For a dramatic kickoff to the season, I’ve developed a new early summer tradition: a California camping trip with equal parts uninhabited nature, local wine and cheese. This trip jump-starts my warm-weather energy and feels both rugged (camping!) and luxurious (wine and cheese!). It’s an early June must for me at this point, and I think it should be for you too.
This time of year taking a full week off of work isn’t ideal for me or my husband, so a five-day trip including a weekend strikes the perfect balance: it’s long enough to feel like a true vacation but not too disruptive to the normal routine. We pack all of our camping equipment into one large duffel, check the bag and hope that it arrives across the country when we do!
After a full work day, we flew out to San Jose in the evening. Thanks to time zone changes we arrived around 8pm local time. A push here is important to set the trip up for maximum relaxation and freedom. Land, grab the rental car and book it down to Paso Robles. If everything aligns you can make it to Paso Robles in time for a glass of local wine before bed.
Coffee is an integral piece of my everyday routine, no matter where I am on this earth. In Paso Robles I suggest starting your morning with a pour over at Spearhead Coffee. Chatting with the baristas can help you ease into the west coast pace and the beans are perfectly roasted. As I like preparing fresh coffee while camping too, this was a great spot to pick up some beans for the days ahead.
Once the caffeine kicked in we hit the road to gather more provisions for the next few days in the woods. On the shopping list: cheese and wine! Etto in Tin City––a self-described “evolving industrial makers market”––supplied four cheeses from local Stepladder and Central Coast Creameries, along with crackers and those lovably sweet Castlevetrano olives. A small serving of house-made garlic butter also made it in the bag somehow…next up, wine!
Field Recordings is a destination tasting room also located in Tin City. As they’re known for their eclectic canned wine collection, I thought that could be fun (and easy!) to drinkhave in the woods. Approachable, delicious and unique, the wines didn’t disappoint and we left with a couple cans. While we loved the approachable nature of the Tin City tasting rooms, we also wanted the grand vineyard estate tasting experience while we were in the neighborhood (and toit fit with our high brow/ low brow theme!). As big fans of Syrah, we set Google Maps to Epoch Estate Wines, ooh’d and ahh’d about the sweeping farmland scenery on the way, and twenty minutes later we felt at the height of luxury as we tasted through their five current pours. Pro Tip: you’ll need to make an appointment for your tasting, so be sure to call ahead or book online.
The Epoch Estate’s historic York Mountain Tasting Room is a perfect place to linger before hitting the road to Big Sur. Dating back to 1882, it was the first bonded winery in California’s Central Coast. For an East Coaster the sheer space is almost unsettling. My suggestion: settle in and shed your urban neuroses!
The scenery along Route 1 is just as sweeping and breathtaking as ever. The vast Pacific meets idyllic grazing pasture in the first stretch up toward Big Sur. Cows dot the shoreline on one side, and––if your timing is right––whales dot the other. To break up the drive there are two stops I suggest: Elephant Seal Vista Point and Salmon Creek Falls. Both offer the opportunity to take in your surroundings, stretch your legs, and get in a nature mindset as you head into the woods.
Our campground pick was Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Clean and basic amenities right in Big Sur, and they had availability when other options in the area were closed. Be sure to time your arrival before dark to set up camp and get your bearings.
SUNDAY & MONDAY
We set out on Buzzard’s Roost hike as our first foray into the woods. One of the longer hikes in Big Sur, Buzzard’s Roost does involve a significant elevation gain. The footing iswas mostly clear despite some steep switchbacks, and the change in microclimate from bottom to top is remarkable. Old growth abounds, and you ascend alongside commanding redwoods. Views at the peak are well worth the effort: forests and ocean converge, and on a clear day the concrete jungle back at home feels as far as the moon.
With cheese and wine waiting at the campsite, the descent from Buzzard’s Roost boasts its own prize as well. We opened up the softer, bloomy-rind Ragged Point cheese from Stepladder Creamery and paired it with cb one, a 2018 Chenin Blanc from Field Recordings. Triple-creme cheese can feel indulgent, but with a brightness to the flavor and balanced by the refreshing wine it left us feeling light and satisfied. (Pro tip: set any white wines in the river for a bit to chill. Nature’s refrigeration!) The mushroomy note in the rind also made for a perfect campsite-specific snack. Beyond pairing the wine and the cheese, it felt like a woods and cheese pairing as the sweet smell of Big Sur heightened its flavor.
Over our two full days in Big Sur, we also made a side trip to Pfeiffer Beach to catch the sunset. Instagram has no filter worthy of what we saw happen between the ocean and the sky on that beach. The sand, rich in manganese, is streaked with purple and the red rocks along the shore reflected a shade of orange I’d never seen before. Definitely worth the odd drive to get there!
We ventured onto the Valley View hike during our second day and found it a bit easier than Buzzards Roost. At a comfy bench overlooking one of the vistas we noshed on our piece of Ewenique (sheep milk gouda) made by Central Coast Creamery. A harder, longer-aged cheese traveled well in our day pack and the craggy rockier hike felt like it somehow highlighted the cheese’s inherent minerality. A can of Field Recordings’ 2017 Zinfandel Noir stood up to the cheese and made for a true what-more-could-we-want moment.
When we craved a bit of human interaction or a fresh, California-style meal, a quick drive to the nearby Big Sur Bakery more than satisfied that need. Delicious prepared foods and a groan-worthy chocolate banana strudel brought us back more than once during our short trip. Rose bushes fill the back patio and you’ll still feel immersed in nature even as you nibble on an avocado toast.
It was hard to say goodbye to our sweet little campsite, but by Tuesday morning we’d successfully lowered our blood pressure and paid homage to the redwoods. Goal achieved! We drove up to Monterey to check out the aquarium and planned to land in Salinas for the night.
If you’re an aquarium lover then Monterey Bay is a bucket list destination. Going on a weekday is recommended as it can get pretty crowded on the weekend, and be sure to save some time to walk through surrounding Cannery Row (I suggest walking off of the main drag to avoid tourist trap stores and to get a better sense of the architecture and original cannery layout). At the aquarium itself the jellyfish exhibit and the sea otters are not to be missed!
As you head toward Salinas, give in to the urge to stop at vista points all along Route 1. Each is as glorious as the next, and the simple act of standing on each precipice to look out at the vast Pacific is a uniting and moving experience.
In Salinas, plan to eat and drink at Monterey Coast Brewing, where the artichokes are a standout and the beers do not disappoint. Local Salinas pride is on display among the staff and patrons here––it was a refreshing small town vibe on the eve of our return to the big city.
The last day was mostly a travel day as we made our way back up to San Jose and flew back to New York. We saved our last cheese––Cabrillo, a cow and goat milk Spanish-style cheese––for the final journey. Named after Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a maritime navigator who explored North America’s west coast, it was a perfect car snack as we rounded out our brief but adventure-packed trip.
Elena is currently the producer and host of the venerable cheese industry podcast, Cutting the Curd, and the co-host of The State of Cheese educational video series. Elena is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional®, holds the WSET® Level 2 Wide Education Award, sits on the American Cheese Society Education Committee, and judges cheese and specialty food competitions around the country. Elena is based in Brooklyn, NY and regularly writes about, teaches about––and enjoys!––cheese.