Hiking Hearst 2: South of Piedras Blancas

The TribuneFebruary 6, 2007 

Length: 4 miles of coastline in total. Trails lead 1 mile north of parking lot to Point Piedras Blancas. At Arroyo Laguna, a short walk leads to a three-quarter mile-long beach.

Access: Paved parking lot just north of the Piedras Blancas elephant seal viewing area. Visitors must climb over gates to get access. Park managers say turnstiles will be added.

Another popular access point is Arroyo Laguna, about two miles south of the main elephant seal beaches. Visitors park in a small dirt lot and climb over a metal gate. A well-worn trail leads to the ocean.

At a little-used paved parking lot just north of the Piedras Blancas elephant seal viewing area, a network of primitive trails meander across coastal bluffs with a historic lighthouse as a backdrop.

The trails take hikers past a dramatic surf-washed coastline interspersed with beaches that are often packed with elephant seals. This mile of coastline to Point Piedras Blancas is a spectacular new addition to San Simeon State Park.

It is also part of a four-mile stretch of coastline that is one of the state’s most popular spots to view wildlife. Here are haul-out sites for hundreds of northern elephant seals.

These wildlife viewing areas are part of 959 acres and 13 miles of coast that were added to the park in 2004 as part of the landmark $95 million Hearst Ranch conservation deal.

This part of the park is so new that visitors must climb over gates to get access. Park managers say turnstiles will be added soon. About a half a mile north of the paved lot’s gate, the park narrows where an elephant seal beach lies close to Highway 1. Avoid the temptation to wander among the seals. Park rangers have put all but one of the beaches along this four-mile stretch off-limits to hikers to protect the seals and people alike.

North of this beach, the park broadens as it approaches Point Piedras Blancas. Another enticing beach lies along the southern flank of the point, but rangers say this, too, is closed to humans.

Hikers soon reach the access road to Piedras Blancas. The light station at the tip of the point is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management and is not part of the state park. A cattle guard in the station’s access road marks the beginning of the BLM property.

Although the prospect of crossing onto the BLM property to take a closer look at the 131-year-old lighthouse is tempting, the facility is used primarily for scientific research, and park visitors should stay out. Monthly public tours of the light station are available by calling Hearst Castle at 805-927-6811.

An estimated 4 million motorists drive Highway 1 through San Simeon State Park each year, and most cannot resist the temptation to pull over and take a closer look at the sausage-like seals lolling on the beach.

There are other features that draw visitors as well. Another popular access point is a spot called Arroyo Laguna, about two miles south of the main elephant seal beaches. Arroyo Laguna is the one beach along this stretch of the park that remains open to people.

Strong onshore breezes and easy access have made Arroyo Laguna a magnet for wind surfers whose colorful, billowing sails are readily visible from the highway. The beach is also popular with fishermen, tide-pool enthusiasts and bird watchers.

Visitors park in a small dirt lot and climb over a metal gate. A well-worn trail leads to the ocean. The beautiful beach — perfect for strolling barefoot in the surf — stretches three-quarters of a mile south.

The beach forms a gentle arc to the south with a few rock outcroppings scattered along the way to diversify the beach-walking experience. It normally teems with shorebirds — willets, sanderlings, marbled godwits and long-billed curlews, to name a few. Inland of the beach are low, grassy bluffs intersected by several driftwood-clogged arroyos.

North of Arroyo Laguna, the next public access spot is a Caltrans vista point marked by a cluster of cypress trees. Bluff-top hiking north and south of the vista point is poor.

This part of the park consists mostly of a narrow strip of land between the ocean and the highway that has been degraded by road building and is overrun with quite a few non-native plants. Visitors should be prepared to scramble over drainage culverts and through eroded creek beds.

Another mile up the coast is the main elephant seal viewing area with its large dirt parking lot. Plans call for a boardwalk to connect this parking lot to the paved one, a short distance to the north. The main elephant seal viewing area is a hive of human and seal activity on most days.

Knowledgeable, blue-jacketed docents with the group Friends of the Elephant Seal answer tourists’ familiar questions. ‘Why are the seals here?’ ‘Why do they flip sand on themselves?’ ‘Why are some of them fighting?’

November through February is the best time to watch the seals because they are mating and giving birth to their pups. During July and August, the beaches are less populated with seals, but the viewing is still fun because this is the time of year the huge bull elephant seals — some weighing two tons — come to the beach for their annual molt.

On a recent day, docent Pat Johnson was talking with Warner and Pat Younic. The Santa Clarita couple was visiting Hearst Castle and decided to stop and see the seals.

‘It's great that they have this area where we can see the seals without disturbing them,’ Warner Younic said.

Even though the Younics are avid ocean scuba divers, they were still amazed at the spectacle of large seals lying and playing so close on the beach.

Last year, Johnson and the other docents talked to an estimated 100,000 people.

Originally published Aug. 6, 2006

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