Friends of the Elephant Seal has pledged financial support to extend the California Coastal Trail from a parking area at the north end of the north walkway (Vista Point 4) to the northwest boundary of the Piedras Blancas Outstanding Natural Area about a half-mile northeast of the Piedras Blancas Light Station.
Estimated to cost $185,000, the two-mile trail extension will include four new viewpoints from which visitors may observe seals, sea lions, otters, dolphins and whales on the beach and/or in the ocean. Three of the new viewpoints will be connected by a trail that meets the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The trail will be built in phases as funds are secured.
Phase 1 will extend the trail one-third of a mile and include the three wheelchair-accessible viewpoints. The estimated $37,500 required for this phase has already been pledged. Friends of the Elephant Seals $5,000 pledge includes a generous gift from the Peter and Mary Russo Family Foundation. Other partners include the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association and the San Simeon Tourist Alliance. Construction will begin as soon as applicable permits are received.
Funding the entire two-mile extension will require a coalition of federal, state, corporate and individual donors. The Friends of the Elephant Seal board of directors has authorized $12,500 to be used as matching funds to encourage donations for Phase 2 construction.
A crucial part of Friends mission is conservation and education; the rookery trail system is designed to keep elephant seals and humans safely apart while providing additional viewing areas.
The need for a trail system with coastal viewing access has evolved since November 1990, when elephant seals began hauling out in a small cove in the lee of the Piedras Blancas Light Station. In early 1992, the birth of the first pup initiated one of the fastest growing elephant seal rookeries ever recorded.
As the seal population grew, so did problems of seal-human interactions. The seals became a major fascination for those traveling Highway 1. Thousands stopped, parked illegally and precariously, then breached perimeter fencing and made their way over private property to view the seals. From 1994 to 1997, there was a steady increase in reports of seal harassment and dangerous behavior by people who were curious but unaware of hazards and regulations.
A 1997 trade of property between the state and Hearst Corp. enabled construction of a parking lot with safe public viewing areas. At the same time, Friends of the Elephant Seal was created as a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 corporation to protect the seals from harassment and to teach rookery visitors about the seals and marine environments vital for their survival. Friends of the Elephant Seal guides in the rookery steadily reduced seal harassment.
Since then, Friends of the Elephant Seal has worked with various agencies to build trails and boardwalks to provide public viewing areas.
The Piedras Blancas Northern Elephant Seal Rookery is the only elephant seal rookery in the world easily accessible to the public 365 days a year without charge. Donations to the construction of the trail extension can be mailed to Friends of the Elephant Seal, P.O. Box 490, Cambria, CA 93428. Donations are tax-deductible.
For more information, call (805) 924-1628.
Donovan Marley is a member of Friends of the Elephant Seal board of directors and a volunteer guide.