The Cambrian

Drone ban hits almost all of SLO’s coastal state parks — except a tiny area in Cambria

Hundreds of sea lions and a humpback whale feed on fish off the coast of Cayucos

Cambria resident Brian Caserio captured this unique footage of hundreds of sea lions and a humpback whale feeding on fish. Caserio shot the footage using his drone.
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Cambria resident Brian Caserio captured this unique footage of hundreds of sea lions and a humpback whale feeding on fish. Caserio shot the footage using his drone.

There’s a nearly total ban now on flying drones or other radio-controlled model aircraft within the boundaries of the San Luis Obispo Coast District of State Parks.

Among the affected State Park units are: Hearst San Simeon State Park, Hearst Castle, Montana de Oro State Park, Morro Bay State Park, W.R. Hearst Memorial State Beach, Estero Bluffs State Park, Harmony Headlands State Park and Los Osos Oaks State Reserve.

According to the order issued in late September by District Superintendent Dan Falat, the only place within district boundaries where powered unmanned aircraft or unmanned glider aircraft (UASs) will be allowed to launch, fly or land now is from a dirt turnout off Van Gordon Creek Road on the northern edge of Cambria. The drones must remain within operator eyesight (1,000 foot radius) of the turnout.

That distance, however, does not give the drone pilots aerial access to the shore or the ocean from district properties, Falat said.

Pilots can get to the turnout by turning inland from Highway 1 onto San Simeon Creek Road, then turning left on Van Gordon Creek Road.

People have been flying remote-controlled model craft for years from that property, formerly owned by the Molinari family, Falat said in an Oct. 15 phone interview.

“We want to provide the recreational activity for people who have the enthusiasm for this hobby,” he said, “but we have to make sure it’s utilized in a proper manner.”

Other restrictions

The state order joins a San Luis Obispo County ordinance that “prohibits use of any model airplane, rocket or similar device (i.e. drones)” in county parks, according to Nick Franco, director of the county Parks and Recreation Department. In the future, the agency may designate some sites as being appropriate for drone use, but no such sites have been designated yet, he said, “so drones are currently prohibited in county parks.”

There also are restrictions in other areas, such as over most of the waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (the southern boundary of which is in Cambria) and on state-funded college campuses (such as Cal Poly).

State Park order

“No person shall launch, land or operate a powered unmanned aircraft or an unmanned glider aircraft within any park unit of the San Luis Obispo Coast District, unless authorized in accordance with this order,” Falat’s order reads. “State Park regulations prohibit the use of motorized equipment (including UASs) within wilderness area, cultural preserves and natural preserves.”

Some exceptions will be allowed, but each requires direct written permission from Falat. Among those exceptions are properly permitted commercial filming, use by law enforcement or fire services under exigent circumstances, scientific research and other uses exempted by Falat by application.

Applicants must apply to San Luis Obispo Coast District, 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon CA 93452. Falat said all violations within a state park are potentially subject to eviction from the park unit, citation and/or arrest.


The order is designed to protect the public, wildlife, habitat and cultural resources, among other things.

The order cites “the dramatic growth and popularity of unmanned aerial systems” within the district, and the negative impacts such systems can have on threatened species, cultural and natural resources, public safety and visitor experiences. There can be recreational conflicts and the drones and related aircraft can increase fire danger.

Falat said there have been numerous incidents, especially lately, in which drones caused problems or were flown or landed in areas where they were not supposed to be. “In one weekend,” he said, “we had seven different drone-related incidents, both reported and identified.”

He said there had been “drones landing or crashing in the middle of the elephant seal rookeries, drones flown around Hearst Castle,” over the zebras in San Simeon, low across Highway 1, around the campgrounds where people congregate, and even “people pulling drones out on the (Castle) hilltop and trying to fly them there. There are significant collections on the Castle terraces,” artworks outdoors that could be seriously damaged or destroyed if a drone should fly into one of them.

Species such as the snowy plovers are especially sensitive to drones, Falat said, and “most of our beaches have plovers.”

For the tiny, puff-ball birds listed by the feds as a threatened species, “a drone may be seen as a predator, and that can force the birds to leave their nests.”

And flying a drone near an airstrip, such as the one on Hearst Ranch, is particularly dangerous, which is why there are federal restrictions about flying near an airport. Anywhere they’re allowed, drones should only be flown at 400 feet or lower.

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