Hiking Hearst 3: North of Piedras Blancas

The TribuneFebruary 6, 2007 

Length: 3 miles

Access: There are two main public access points to the park between Point Piedras Blancas and Arroyo de la Cruz, one of the Hearst Ranch’s largest creeks. The first is the defunct Piedras Blancas Motel.

The second is where the highway approaches Arroyo de la Cruz. Look for the remnants of a driveway and a metal gate before the highway slopes down to the bridge. A hole in the fence next to the gate provides easy access. A turnstile will soon replace the gate. A visit to a three-mile stretch of San Simeon State Park north of Point Piedras Blancas yields several unusual experiences.

Parts of the hike traverse a solid blanket of ice plant, a creeping invasive species that forms a squishy mat of emerald green.

Other segments go past a funky motel and a section of Highway 1 that are in danger of falling into the ocean, as well as a scenic stretch that has been used for decades as a homeless camp.

When the state parks department acquired 959 acres and 13 miles of coastline as part of the historic $95 million Hearst Ranch conservation deal in 2004, it was a rare opportunity to open a spectacular part of California’s coastline to the public.

But the park managers also inherited a host of problems that had plagued previous owners and other public agencies, including invasive plants, rapid coastal erosion and unauthorized camping.

There are two main public access points to the park between Point Piedras Blancas and Arroyo de la Cruz, one of the Hearst Ranch’s largest creeks. The first is the defunct Piedras Blancas Motel.

The motel is being bought by the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group that is still trying to raise the last $300,000 of the $4.5 million purchase price. Trust officials expect to complete the deal early next year and transfer the 20-acre parcel to the state.

Although the motel is not yet part of the park, its owners are doing everything they can to encourage the public to use it as a coastal access point, said Supervising Ranger Leander Tamoria. They have installed several portable restrooms next to the motel parking lot and established a hiking trail to a nearby beach.

After a short walk on the beach, hikers can climb up to the bluffs and head south to Point Piedras Blancas about a mile away. There is no trail, however. Hikers must step over several fences and walk over an almost unbroken blanket of ice plant. Ice plant was introduced during a less environmentally enlightened time to stabilize eroding coastal bluffs and has taken over an estimated 80 acres of the 959-acre acquisition.

"Its the most widespread plant out here," said park ecologist Brian Barandon.

Park managers are planning a campaign to eradicate the ice plant and allow native plants to re-sprout.

Eroding three feet a year

Access to the many pocket beaches below the bluffs is spotty along this stretch of coastline. The bluffs, made steep by rapid coastal erosion, are generally too high to safely climb down.

"That stretch between the lighthouse and Arroyo de la Cruz is the fastest eroding area — a little over three feet a year based on photos over the past 30 years," said Paul Martinez, Caltrans project manager for the area.

Erosion is causing several problems for both Caltrans and the state parks department. One of the Piedras Blancas Motel's cabins is in danger of falling into the ocean and must be demolished before it can be transferred to the park, said Karen Frankel, project manager with the Trust for Public Land. As a result, park managers are uncertain what they will do with the motel when they assume ownership. Frankel estimates that $500,000 would have to be spent refurbishing the motel before it could be used again.

The parks department is considering several uses for the motel, including reopening the cafe, installing an interpretive center and creating low-cost lodgings for travelers, Tamoria said.

"It's just talk now," he said. "We'll work out the details when it closes escrow."

Just north of the motel is another problem area. The coast here has eroded so fast that a section of Highway 1 is threatened.

The problem is so severe that a crucial part of the Hearst Ranch conservation deal called for the state to get additional highway right-of-way land from Hearst Corp. Caltrans will re-route the highway about 350 feet farther inland, Martinez said.

The agency has begun the extensive environmental analysis that such projects require. That should be complete by 2010.

"We wouldn't get to construction until 2015 or so," Martinez said. "It's a long-term project just because of the sensitivity of the area, which includes wetlands, cultural areas and endangered species. That area is really rich in everything."

When the realignment is complete, all the land west of the highway will become part of the park, causing it to grow by an estimated 100 acres.

In the meantime, park visitors must contend with a dangerous stretch of road. Caltrans has fortified the coast with rock riprap and has installed concrete barriers along the highway, but that is not enough to keep waves from slopping onto the road during heavy surf.

"Where else can you go surfing in your car?" Barandon quipped.

On to Arroyo de la Cruz

Farther north of the motel, the park consists of a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the highway and the ocean. This strip is about a mile long and can be accessed at several pullouts along the highway. But hiking with cars whizzing by several feet away is not that enjoyable.

The park widens as the highway approaches Arroyo de la Cruz, the location of the second main access point. Look for the remnants of a driveway and a metal gate before the highway slopes down to the bridge over Arroyo de la Cruz.

A hole in the fence next to the gate provides easy access. A turnstile will soon replace the gate.

Here the park opens up into a highly scenic triangle bordered by the Arroyo de la Cruz creek to the north. An old dirt road leads hikers north across the bluffs. Overgrown trails meander along the edge of the bluffs, which mostly drop directly into the ocean.

After about a quarter of a mile, the old road leads hikers to a small sand spit between the ocean and the Arroyo de la Cruz lagoon. In the winter, this beach is popular with catch-and-release anglers pursuing steelhead trout.

"On a calm, sunny day, this is a particularly idyllic spot," Barandon said.

The area's easy access and scenic nature made Arroyo de la Cruz an attractive spot for vagrants and the homeless who set up makeshift camps there. Rangers have been busy evicting the campers since the property became part of the state park system.

Several of the campers, indignant at being kicked out, told rangers they had been camping there for 30 years. They often left behind old tents and other equipment. Parks employees have hauled out two truckloads of this trash.

"Our main concern is safety," Tamoria said. "We want this to be a nice area for families."

Originally published Aug. 27, 2006

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