More Free Fun Near Hearst Castle

Piedras Blancas Light Station at sunset.

There are more free and inexpensive adventures on the northern end of California’s Central Coast. I mean, if you get as far as San Simeon, you may as well power up your VW, Westie or Eurovan a few miles further north up Highway 1.

Arroyo Laguna State Beach, a part of Hearst San Simeon State Park, is mostly isolated except for:

  1. Northern elephant seals from mid-December to April’s end and closed off for viewing.  And heed that warning. Elephant seals are not friendly, especially during that time of year.  More on that later.
  2. An abundance of windsurfers and kite-boarders. And these athletes are fun to watch.
Blue Windsurfers
Kiteboarding at Arroyo Laguna Beach
Windsurfing at Arroyo Laguna Beach

Obviously, wind prevails at this beach, so be sure to have your windbreaker close by, and if you picnic on the beach, gather up some rocks to hold your beach blanket in place. And for your vehicle, there is decent parking off the highway.

Winter and Spring, are in my opinion, the best time to observe the northern elephant Seals at the Piedras Blancas rookery. However, the beach is most populated from late Spring and early Summer while the seals haul out to shed their fur.

I served as a docent for Friends of the Elephant Seal until issues with my knee and back put me on hiatus.  So, I could write an entire dissertation about the northern elephant seal, but instead, follow this link to the Friends of the Elephant Seal website for all the detailed information about these amazing mammals.

Male northern elephant seal. Photographed with a 300 mm lens.

Size is partly what makes them amazing. Consider this, a mature northern elephant seal male might be close to the size and weight of your VW van. When a two-ton male raises his head and neck, you’re looking at about 6-feet of a 12-14 foot beast. (One of the reasons I strongly suggest you leave them alone if you are on one of the beaches that is not manned by docents and/or state park volunteers or officials.) These critters have bitten humans so seriously that not only does the wound require stitches, but will likely put you into a hospital bed for observation, and might also bring you a big dollar fine for getting closer than allowed by law. Check out this link for how to best watch marine life:  Watchable Wildlife Incorporated.

The beauty of visiting the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal rookery is

  1. It’s free
  2. Trained docents in royal blue jackets are eager to answer your questions
  3. There are few other locales in the world where you can observe the northern elephant seal throughout the year. In winter, you might witness a birth or more on the beach.

    Isu rests
    Newborn northern elephant seal — thousands are born on the rookery from December through February.
  4. The region is thick with other wildlife viewing:  grey whales, humpback whales, dolphins, California sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, many, many seabirds, and sometimes Stellar sea lions
  5. Fantastic and easy walking trails
  6. Huge parking lot BUT no rest rooms or trash facility (yet).
  7. It hasn’t happened yet, as far as I know, but you might witness a California condor hovering over the rookery.   From my report in Journal Plus, “…seven condors have taken to the North Coast, and have even attracted other condors to come visit and nest. Five more birds are scheduled for release near San Simeon this June, and another five to seven condors set for 2017 release.”

The Piedras Blancas Light Station is a short hop from the elephant seal viewing site. The historic light station is not open for touring every day. Tours are offered every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning year-round, except for federal holidays (New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day).

Piedras Blancas Light Station

A walk on the grounds inspires me with rare vistas of a protected coastline. In the spring, the light station is headquarters for counting north bound grey whales. The mothers and calves come in quite close to the light station as they make their way back to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska.  Be sure to have your binoculars at the ready.

Be sure to check out A Year of Northern Elephant Seals in California.

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