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Ready to Hostel-Hop the Coast?

Hostel Territory Part 2: Upscale Scenery on a Backpacker Budget

Said it before and will surely say it again: Hostels are among the best travel bargains around, for travelers of all ages. And hostelling now, during the off-season, is ideal for Californians. You won’t meet as many international travelers, always an appeal of hostel stays. But you’ll have an easier time getting reservations where and when you want them—with the possible exception of special events such as whale-watching and the annual return of the elephant seals.

Keep in mind, you don’t have to be destitute to be a happy hosteller. Many of the people you meet won’t be. They’re solidly middle class, simply adventurous enough to avoid cookie-cutter accommodations, seeking instead good company in a homey, safe, and welcoming community. Communal kitchens to prepare meals, on-site laundry facilities, and extras such as hot tubs and free bikes all add up to a fine, friendly, frugal getaway.

California's hostels sit astride some of the state's most astounding scenery. (photo of Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel by by Josiah Mackenzie)

California’s hostels look out on some of the state’s most astounding scenery. (photo of Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel by by Josiah Mackenzie)

Seeking salt air and some outstanding scenery? California’s coastal hostels serve up both in abundance. Starting either north or south of San Francisco, you can even hostel-hop up and down the coast—visiting all of them during one extended trip or enjoying them in separate adventures.

North of San Francisco

If you love the idea of San Francisco but find the actual experience overwhelming, then stop just short of the city, in Marin County, and gaze out at it from the other side of the Golden Gate. You’ll never regret staying a while to bird-watch, beach-comb, and hike the vast expanses of Golden Gate National Recreational Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. One of the Bay Area’s outposts of affluence, Marin offers a surprising wealth of low-rent choices—two fine hostels and two historic rustic stays.

Marin Hostels

Hostelling International’s historic HI Marin Headlands Hostel at 1907-vintage Fort Barry, 415-331-2777, offers 103 beds and early-20th-century hospital buildings in a park-like setting. Basic dorm-style accommodations predominate here but private rooms and family rooms in the annex are available by advance reservation. (No private bathrooms; shared hallway baths.) Facilities also include a great kitchen (bring your groceries), dining room, a welcoming common room with fireplace, even laundry facilities, game room, tennis court, and bike storage. Quite popular in summer and on good-weather weekends, so reservations are advised. Rates in early 2015: $28-35 for dorm rooms, $82-132 for a private room sleeping up to three. Towels and linens are provided. Call for information and reservations or reserve online. Ask about group rates.

The Marin Headlands Hostel, a military hospital during World War I (photo by Elliott)

The Marin Headlands Hostel, a military hospital during World War I (photo by Elliott)

Ideal for a seashore stay is HI’s Point Reyes Hostel on Limantour Road in Point Reyes Station, 415-663-8811. Pluses here include location, location, location, and all that beach, just a couple miles away. Advance reservations advisable. Rates for dorm beds are $26-29 per night for adults, $13-14 for children, and private rooms (sleep up to five) are $87 to $134 (two-night minimum on weekends). Reserve online or by phone; call to reserve group rooms.

Hosteling in Marin gets you up close and personal with sunset scenery like this, near Point Reyes' Chimney Trail. (photo by W. Tipton)

Hosteling in Marin gets you up close and personal with sunset scenery like this, near Point Reyes’ Chimney Trail. (photo by W. Tipton)

Rustic in Marin

The very reasonable price of two rustic stays put them within reach of hostelling groups or families. The state’s Steep Ravine Environmental Cabins on Rocky Point in Mount Tamalpais State Park look out to sea from near Stinson Beach. Before the state wrested custody of these marvelous cabins from the powerful Bay Area politicians and other clout-encumbered citizens who had up until then held long-term leases, photographer Dorothea Lange wrote about staying here in To a Cabin, co-authored by Margaretta K. Mitchell. Even the walk down to the bottom of Steep Ravine Canyon is inspiring, Lange noted, with “room for only those in need of sea and sky and infinity.”

Cabin 10 at Steep Ravine in Mount Tamalpais State Park (photo by Emily Hoyer)

Cabin 10 at Steep Ravine in Mount Tamalpais State Park (photo by Emily Hoyer)

These 10 small, rustic redwood cabins offer just the basics: platform beds (bring your own sleeping bag and pad), woodstoves, separate restrooms with pit toilets, and an almost-private beach below in a spectacularly romantic setting. Rates are $100 per night (each sleeps five). One cabin is wheelchair accessible; none have electricity, but they do have outside running water. Bring your own provisions.

To reserve a cabin—plan well in advance—try ReserveAmerica (cabin link above) online or call 800-444-7275. Cabins and environmental sites at Mt. Tamalpais may be booked from 10 days to seven months prior to the arrival date. Be determined!

The view from Cabin 2: pretty amazing (photo by Patti Roll)

The view from Cabin 2: pretty amazing (photo by Patti Roll)

Inside Cabin 2 at the West Point Inn: pretty basic (photo by Patti Roll)

Inside Cabin 2 at the West Point Inn: pretty basic (photo by Patti Roll)

Also notable and inexpensive in the area is the historic, rustic West Point Inn, built in 1904 as a traveler’s stop for the Mill Valley/Mt. Tamalpais Railway and now operated by a nonprofit association dedicated to its preservation. One of the five rustic cabins is wheelchair accessible, and there is a single-use restroom in the main lodge featuring a roll-in shower. Lodge rooms are coziest in winter months. Travelers with disabilities can drive in on an access road, but otherwise this is strictly a hike-in or bike-in experience. (Bring your own food. Lodge cooking facilities available.) Rates are $25 to $50 per person per night, with a two-night minimum for cabins. For more information and reservations, try the website or call 415-388-9955.

South of San Francisco

Affordable and dramatically different even by California hostel standards are the two appealing lighthouse hostels offered by Hostelling International (HI) just south of San Francisco, on the coast north of Santa Cruz.

Point Montara Hostel

North of Half Moon Bay between Montara and Moss Beach is HI’s picturesque Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, quite popular with bicyclists and also accessible via bus from the Bay Area. People also come to kayak (rentals just a few miles away), surf, and otherwise enjoy nature. Half Moon Bay is another draw.

Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel near Half Moon Bay (photo by Corey Seeman)

Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel near Half Moon Bay (photo by Corey Seeman)

The 1875 lighthouse itself, originally a fog signal station, is still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Hostel facilities include two kitchens with stainless steel countertops, “view” dining rooms, laundry, bunkrooms, and couples’ and family quarters. Other amenities include DSL Internet and free WiFi, free parking, and an espresso bar. Popular, so reserve in advance.

Rates for HI members are $27 for bunk beds (both shared co-ed and one-gender dorms are available) and $78 to $101 for private rooms. Group reservations are also available. HI membership ($28 per year or $3 per day) is required. Call 650-728-7177 from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. or reserve online.

Pigeon Point Hostel

Closest to Santa Cruz is HI’s Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, the inexpensive place to stay while visiting the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo. Named  after the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon, one of many notorious shipwrecks off the coastal shoals here, the 115-foot 1872 lighthouse is now automated but still impressive with its Fresnel lens and distinctive 10-second flash pattern. The lighthouse has been closed to public tours since 2001, when exterior brick and other trim started raining down. But you can wander around on the outside, visit the docent-staffed gift shop, and take docent-guided history walks on weekends.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel (photo by Corey Seeman)

Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel (photo by Corey Seeman)

The hostel itself is made up of four former family residences for the U.S. Coast Guard—basic male or female bunkrooms, plus some simple couples’ and family rooms. The old Fog Signal Building is now a rec room; there’s also a hot tub perched on rocky cliffs above surging surf. In addition, come for the fabulous sunset views, wonderful tidepools, great whale-watching. Get groceries in Pescadero and prepare meals in the well-equipped communal kitchens, or ask for local restaurant suggestions. Satellite Internet, free WiFi, and free parking.

Rates are $25.50 to $28 per dorm bed for HI members, offered in both co-ed and one-gender shared rooms. Private rooms with double bed (for one or two people) are $76; double bed with single bunk for three people, $104; family room with six bunks, $168. Membership in HI is $28 per year, or $3 a day if you’re just passing through. Time in the cliff-top, ocean-view hot tub, open 4 to 10:30 p.m. only for hostel guests, is no longer free, alas. It’s $8 per half-hour session, with a minimum of two people and a maximum of four. Make hot tub reservations when you check in. Call 650-879-0633 between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. daily or reserve online.

Santa Cruz, Monterey & SLO Hostels

Next south in Santa Cruz is HI Santa Cruz @ The Carmelita Cottages, a collection of charming Victorian cottages in a park setting on Main Street just a couple blocks from the beach and Boardwalk, and also an easy stroll downtown.

For HI members high-season rates (June through September) are $26 for adults or $15 youths for bunk beds, offered in four- or six-bed dorms. Private rooms with shared baths start at $60 for one or two people Private rooms with private bathrooms are $90 for one to three people, $10 for each additional person. Prices are slightly lower at other times. Call to make reservations 831-423-8304 between 8 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. or 6 and 10 p.m., or book online through HI’s main website.

The Monterey Hostel will help you locate yourself, globally. (photo by Robbin Gheesling)

The Monterey Hostel will help you locate yourself, both locally and globally. (photo by Robbin Gheesling)

Another great choice is in Monterey, at the other end of crescent-shaped Monterey Bay. Not on the coast but pretty darn close—just four blocks from Cannery Row, the coastal trail, and the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium—the HI Monterey Hostel offers 45 beds, men’s and women’s dorms, and private rooms too, with shared bathrooms all around. The onetime Carpenter’s Union Hall also offers the latest in water conservation technology—from token-operated showers, metered faucets, and ultra-low-flow, half-gallon Microphor toilets to water-saving appliances.

Monterey dorm rates for HI members are $27 to $37 per night for adults (highest rates in summer), $18 for children or youths. Private rooms are $79 to $99. Non-members, add $3 per person per night. For groups, discounts on overnight fees are available for youths and children. There’s free on-site parking, but to avoid adding to local traffic woes leave your vehicle here and take public transportation. Given the area’s popularity, advance reservations are usually essential. Call 831-649-0375 to make reservations directly or book online through HI’s main website. For information, email the hostel: info@montereyhostel.org. The office is open daily 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Sourdough pancakes for breakfast, anyone? If you’re heading farther south still, consider the college town of San Luis Obispo and HI’s homey Hostel Obispo for your next stop, just one block from Amtrak. This friendly hostel offers 28 beds in a converted Victorian, with dorm beds $27 to $31, private rooms (very popular) $60 and up. Fully equipped kitchen, laundry, free parking, plus free WiFi and public computer. For reservations call 805-544-4678 from 8 to 11 a.m. or 4:30 to 10 p.m., or email reservations@hostelobispo.com.

Next time: hostels elsewhere in Northern and Central California.

Up the Road’s Editor Kim Weir has been scribbling away at one thing or another for a shocking number of years. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) since 1991, as a nonfiction writers she specializes in California and the West. Weir wrote most of Moon Publications’ original California travel guides, including the ever popular Northern California Handbook.


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