Montaña de Oro: 50 years of a coastal treasure

The view looking north from Montaña de Oro State Park.
The view looking north from Montaña de Oro State Park. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

As Montaña de Oro State Park celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the park is undergoing some significant upgrades with the restoration of the historic Spooner Ranch House honoring the legacy of a local ranching family.

The park also has built up a core group of donors, trail maintenance volunteers and nature walk interpreters who help make the park an attraction that draws about 700,000 people a year.

And Montaña de Oro continues to be one of the best bargains in the State Parks system with free admission and parking.

The wide range of activities at Montaña de Oro — which means “Mountain of Gold” in Spanish, referring to its golden wildflowers — include hiking, camping, biking, surfing, birdwatching, horseback riding, photography, picnicking and beach strolling.

The park has about 65 miles of trails and 473 species of plants, in addition to a variety of wild animals, from acorn woodpeckers and barn owls to black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, coyotes and bobcats.

The natural beauty and diverse landscape of the 8,000 acres of cliffs, sandy beaches, streams, canyons and hills was dedicated on April 24, 1965, after an eminent domain proceeding under a park acquisition program administered by then Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown.

“After 50 years, we often hear from people how beloved this park is,” said Mary Golden, executive director of the Central Coast State Parks Association. “They think of it as their park. They truly love it. It’s a part of who they are.”

Ranch house restoration

An important part of the park’s history is the Spooner Ranch House that has overlooked a scenic cove since the late 1800s.

The ranch was initially leased and built up by Alden B. Spooner — who raised sheep, cows, and hogs — in the 1890s. By the early 1900s, Spooner had purchased the property and ran a full-scale ranch with a dairy and creamery and exported goods along the coast by ship.

The ranch area is replete with history — including the lore of a smuggling operation that took place at “Smuggler’s Cove,” or Spooner’s Cove near the historic home, Golden said.

Spooner’s wife, Mary, died of the flu in 1898 and another member of the family, Quincy Spooner, spent two years in jail for tax evasion related to smuggling activities after his sentencing in 1936.

The ranch hands included those who came from Portugal in the early 1900s, specifically from the Azores. Later on, from the 1920s until the 1940s, the ranch hands were mostly Japanese and Filipino tenant farmers.

The Central Coast State Parks Association raised more than $230,000 to renovate the home — including stabilizing the dwelling that was in danger of collapse, and adding new lighting. They are now in the process of installing new exhibits that preserve the ranch history.

The historic home is open, free to visitors, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Coordinators hope to open on other days as well.

“There’s so much here to appreciate with the history of this place, and the natural world that surrounds it,” Golden said.

Park fees

Visitors often rave about Montaña de Oro’s free admission for day use.

No plans are in place to change the no-cost use, but the luxury may not remain forever.

Many state parks charge entrance and parking fees, often around $10, though prices fluctuate significantly depending on the type of park (Hearst Castle tours for adults range from $25 in the day to $36 at night, as one example).

Those fees elsewhere help pay for staffing and to administer and maintain the parks.

But Montaña de Oro has remained a free park, even with state budget cutbacks that threatened the closure of 70 state parks in 2012.

Still, the park has to make up for shortfalls through careful prioritization of funds, said Brooke Gutierrez, the local district superintendent who oversees the state park.

Gutierrez said budget gaps are filled by partnerships and volunteers — including docents, trail volunteers, equestrian volunteers and campground hosts.

“A day-use fee is something that could greatly benefit the park by increasing revenue to support park programs like resource management and facility improvements,” Gutierrez said. “A day-use fee is something that would require careful consideration and is not currently something that I’m working to facilitate.”

The park funding comes from a $3.8 million annual budget for staffing compensation that’s also shared with operations at San Simeon State Park, Morro Strand State Beach and Morro Bay State Park. The parks share $430,000 in operating expenses.

Gutierrez said that if a fee were ever introduced, she’d have to work closely with the State Parks headquarters to make the change.

In the meantime, the Central Coast State Parks Association, a nonprofit park partner, funds many activities.

And people find their way to Spooner’s Cove to observe the slanted rock formations and meditate by the crashing waves without worrying about carrying cash with them to enjoy the natural surroundings.

Others park their cars at the end of Pecho Valley Road for a trek up the 1,347-foot Valencia Peak.

“Yes, admission is free, but it would certainly be worth a fee,” commenter Ron B. wrote on the website Yelp. “Drove along the road with near constant views of the sea, and found a cyclist to provide a clue to a great place to see tide pools Spooner’s Cove. We were not disappointed, though the sea was quite rough.”

Park offerings

Every month, State Park interpreters lead monthly guided nature walks along the various trails and pathways that wind their way through the recreational area.

The park offers a wide range of hiking and horseback riding options.

“We have a variety of choices from hikes that are a bit more intense and strenuous to a bluff-top wheelchair path accessible stroll with scenic views,” said Rouvaishyana, a state park interpreter who leads nature walks and goes by one name. “There is an incredible number of plant species to observe. Birds fly along the coast in flocks. You can also see whales off the coast from here.”

Rouvaishyana and others have spent hours perched on the bluff top with binoculars in hand watching birds migrate down the coastline.

He also knows the hot spots for where rattlesnakes like to nestle and where poison oak flourishes, warning hikers along the way to keep an eye out for both.

Rouvaishyana also identifies native vegetation, including deer fern and coast live oak, along with non-native plants, such as cypress trees and a forest of eucalyptus, that have been introduced to the area.

Spooner’s neighbor to the north, Alexander S. Hazard, planted eucalyptus in the area in the early 1900s, hoping to serve California’s blossoming need for timber, but the eucalyptus weren’t suitable.

Volunteers help maintain trails and serve the public. One of those groups, an equestrian team called Coast Mounted Assistance, answers park visitor questions, patrols beaches, and maintains and builds trails.

The efforts have helped keep people in touch with nature, Golden said.

“We’ve had people come to visit this park who haven’t had much exposure to the natural world,” Golden said. “I think it’s so important to connect with nature. It’s good for the mind, body and spirit.”