The Portolá expedition initially found the wrong bay — San Francisco, not Monterey — 250 years ago, but it discovered the Valley of the Bears along the way. That encounter led to the founding of Mission San Luis Obispo three years later.
Father Juan Crespí, the diarist for the expedition, gives us a view of points along the way that are still recognizable.
The expedition turned inland onto the bluffs above what is now Grover Beach and Pismo Beach, crossing the Ontario Grade into the Irish Hills above Los Osos Valley on Sept. 5-7, 1769. The southern mouth of the valley was filled with a series of marshy lakes (lagunas). This is the present Laguna Lake area.
Heading northwest along the low-lying hills, they camped near where Los Osos Valley and Turri roads intersect.
It had been five days since they had eaten fresh meat.
Crespí notes: “We saw troops of bears which kept the ground plowed up and full of holes which they made searching for roots which constitute their food, and on which the (Native Americans) also live... The soldiers went out to hunt and succeeded in killing one with bullets, in doing which they learned the ferocity of these animals. When they feel themselves wounded, they attack the hunter at full speed, and he can escape only by the dexterity of his horse. They do not yield until they (the soldiers) get a shot at the head or the heart. This one... received nine balls before he fell, which did not happen until one struck him in the head.
“Some of the soldiers were fearless enough to chase one of these animals mounted on mules. They fired seven or eight shots, and I have no doubt he would die from the balls; but the bear upset two of the mules, and it was only by good fortune that the two mounted on them escaped with their lives. This valley they named Los Osos (the bears).”
The explorers would remember La Canada de Los Osos as an abundant source of meat when the settlements at San Antonio and Monterey were threatened with starvation.
They left the next day, heading north along the current South Bay Boulevard, camping near Los Osos Middle School. Miguel Costanso, the expedition’s engineer, observed a “small-sized... village... amounting to sixty souls... They (the natives) offered us a sort of gruel made from parched seeds which we all thought tasted well, with a flavor of almonds.”
The explorers saw Morro Bay for the first time: “Upon the south side, there reaches up into this hollow an inlet of enormous size, which we thought must be a harbor; however its mouth, which opens up southwestward, is covered by reefs that give rise to a raging surf. A short distance northward of the mouth... was seen an extremely large rock shaped like a round head (‘que forma a modo de morro’), which at a high tide becomes an island separated from the shore.”
Portolá’s men traced the eventual route of Highway 1 past Point Estero, camping near the old Coast Union High School in Cambria, along the bank of Santa Rosa Creek. On the 11th, they camped at the mouth of Pico Creek. The next day, the march became more rugged, over thickly grown knolls. On the 13th, they realized they must be at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, which they had first seen from the dunes above Oso Flaco Lake.
On the 14th, Portolá’s scouts confirmed that mountains blocked their further passage north. They worked with pry bars, pickaxes and machetes to prepare a path up Carpoforo Creek (San Carpojo). Making the steep ascent, they crossed the crest of the Santa Lucia Range into what is now Monterey County.
On the 23rd, they spotted the Salinas River, which they took to be the Carmelo River. According to Sebastian Vizcaíno’s 1603 deceptive map, this river would lead them just to the south of Monterey Bay.
They proceeded north, even though their calculations showed they’d passed the 37th parallel. On Nov. 2, Sgt. Jose Francisco Ortega, hunting for meat above the present town of Millbrae, climbed up over Sweeney Ridge and “discovered” San Francisco Bay.
The Portolá expedition was obliged to retrace its steps to find the much smaller bay that Visitador-generál José de Galvez had ordered them to locate.