Category Archives: California Coast

XplorMor explores California Coast

Big Sur: California’s Meeting of Land & Sea

This may be where the phrase  “California Beautiful” was coined, or at least it should be…

Drive along California’s Highway 1 for any distance past the sleepy beach town of Moro Rock and you quickly realize why the California Central Coast pulls thousands of visitors from around the world. On one side, the road winds along rugged coast with gorgeous expansive scenic views, and on the other, it bends past rolling fields and jagged mountains. Every car turnout has a worthwhile vista; there’s high cliffs covered with colorful ice-plant, whales, seals, dolphins and otters in the ocean waters, and birds gliding in cool breezes of fresh salty air. The climate is mild, excellent for trails to be accessed year round.  And, there are many hiking trails up into the hills and down to the sea coves and beaches.

Big Sur: California's Meeting of Land & Sea, Big Sur, Big Sur Expedition - Jan 2014 XplorMor Inc

XplorMor Big Sur Expedition by Julia at XplorMor

Places of interest along the coast are numerous, and may be accessed from easy walks to lengthy climbing trails. In fact visitors spend anywhere from four days to two weeks, and still find they haven’t had enough time to see it all. There is Lover’s Point, a large rock formation protruding into Monterey Bay, only a short distance from parking. Or for the more adventurous, the Pine Ridge Trail in Los Padres National Forest leads into the Ventana Wilderness and Santa Lucia Mountains with access to rivers, waterfalls and thermal springs. There are stands of rare, endemic Santa Lucia Firs visible at higher elevations.

Point Lobos is also a popular destination offering hiking trails along its shoreline that lead to hidden coves. (Note: Get there early as parking is limited and this California State Natural Reserve is well-known.  Also, make sure to adhere to parking signs as I watched a ranger leave tickets on unsuspecting windshields.  Really this applies to the entire coast.) There is also Andrew Molera State Park with hikes winding along the Big Sur River, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with groves of Colonial Redwood Trees. Nearby is Pfeiffer Beach with a wonderful stone arch in the sea, excellent for photographs, especially at sunset.

Big Sur: California's Meeting of Land & Sea, Big Sur, Big Sur Expedition - Jan 2014 XplorMor Inc

XplorMor Big Sur Expedition by Julia at XplorMor

There are many waterfalls along the California Central Coast.  One not to be missed is McWay Falls. The falls are nestled in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. There is a short trail past the falls and into a pristine beach cove. Experiencing this beautiful trail, the hiker understands why Big Sur is often called “the greatest meeting of land and sea.” South of this state park, are Big Creek Park, Limekiln State Park, Mill Creek, Prewitt Creek, Sand Dollar Beach and Jade Cove. All worth a stop if you enjoy varying hikes and coastal scenery. Towards the southern end of Big Sur, near San Simeon, lies Piedras Blancas Rookery, an Elephant Seal sanctuary with excellent wildlife viewing and coastal hikes. Read more about this preserve in last week’s journal, Elephants of the Sea, and watch the XplorMor Big Sur Expedition Slide show.

Big Sur: California's Meeting of Land & Sea, Big Sur Expedition - Jan 2014 XplorMor Inc

XplorMor Big Sur Expedition by Julia at XplorMor

Elephants of the Sea: Exploring Piedras Blancas Rookery

From last week’s find of petroglyphs near the Piedra Blanca rock formations in Los Padres National Forest (See Pictographs Found), we head to the rocky Pacific Ocean shore of Piedras Blancas Rookery.  

Friends of the Elephant Seal explains the area best: the “Northern Elephant Seal, Mirounga angustirostris, is an extraordinary marine mammal. It spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1000 to 5000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest. The Piedras Blancas rookery, on Highway 1 seven miles north of San Simeon on the California Central Coast, is home to about 17,000 animals.” This number is difficult to fathom.  Yet in visiting the breeding ground, we were able to take in the sea of seals, masses of birds, and even an otter!

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

Unfortunately due to the crowd of onlookers pushing to get a shot with their cameras, smartphones, camcorders, it was difficult not only to glimpse the main Elephant Seal beach but to even get into the main parking lot! Fortunately, a few hundred feet up the road there is another smaller parking area. We easily found a space here, but don’t count on it as this lot filled up quickly too. Get to the Rookery early to beat the crowds. It is definitely worth a stop as you may even witness a pup being born (peak time: mid to late January).

From this parking area, the XplorMor Team explored the dirt coastal trail heading north. As you wind around the headland, the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse comes into distant view from a point directly North. Along the trail, keep looking at the small inlets below as Elephant Seals will be wading, sunbathing, sleeping, molting, birthing or breeding depending on the time of year. A short distance from the parking area there is another large cove with enough sandy shore to host dozens of Elephant Seals. It’s not as large as the main viewing area, but if you wish to avoid crowds, this is the spot. Team XplorMor stood alone watching the seals interact and call out with their amazing sounds.

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

In late November and early December the adult male seals arrive along the six-mile Rookery. Pregnant females join the scene around mid-December. Their influx climaxes between mid-January and early February. Birthing typically begins within a week after their arrival. Once a pup is born, its mother begins calls to impart her sounds in the pups memory, creating a bond so they may track each other easily on the beach. After four weeks of nursing and care, mothers wean their pups and head to sea in search of food to refuel their bodies as all Elephant Seals, except nursing pups, fast while in the Rookery. By March birthing has ceased along with breeding, and adult seals disperse back into the ocean to begin the cycle again. Pups stay in the area another eight to ten weeks before making their way into the vast sea to join the cycle.

It’s amazing to witness this natural wonder. I’m thankful public access remains. Read signage and be RESPECTFUL of the barriers as these are for your protection more than for the seals. Elephant Seals along the shore are there to birth and mate, and are not happy to be interrupted by unwanted visitors. I watched one man laugh as he jumped the border rope to walk amidst the seals, and take “better” photos. He nearly slipped and fell to his demise, and clambered back up embarrassed. I hope that one person does not destroy this gift for all.

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

Friends of the Elephant Seal is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about elephant seals and other marine life and to teaching stewardship for the ocean off the central coast of California. If there is something you would like to know about elephant seals, or about other marine mammals that inhabit this area, these are the people to contact! Membership is also offered to help support this wonderful cause: JOIN.