Hiking Hearst 4: Northern Stretch

At the northern end of the newly opened Hearst Ranch coast, wisps of clouds tickle the Santa Lucia Range as it rises from the sea.
At the northern end of the newly opened Hearst Ranch coast, wisps of clouds tickle the Santa Lucia Range as it rises from the sea.

Length: 2 miles

Access: Getting into this part of the park can be difficult. There are no established access points. Park managers recommend that visitors find a place to park safely off the highway and walk along the barbed-wire fence to find a place to climb over or under.

The best bets are two places where Caltrans is rebuilding culverts at two creek crossings beneath Highway 1; you can spot them by large holes in the fence. During the summer and fall months when the creek does not flow into the ocean, another option is to walk north from Arroyo de la Cruz.

They call it the crown jewel. Park managers familiar with 13 miles of coastline recently added to San Simeon State Park consider the northernmost two miles to be the most pristine and ecologically rich.

Visitors will be rewarded with magnificent ocean vistas with the mountains of Big Sur as a backdrop, rolling native grasslands, tall coastal bluffs, acres of lush tide pools and the park"s northernmost sandy beach.

"This really feels like the gateway to Big Sur," said Brian Barandon, a park environmental scientist.

This part of the park stretches north from Arroyo de la Cruz for more than two miles. A small ranch house on the inland side of Highway 1 marks the northern park boundary.

It is such a new addition to the park and has had so little use by the public that many of its features are unnamed. It was added to the state park system in 2004 as part of the historic $95 million Hearst Ranch conservation deal.

Just north of Arroyo de la Cruz is Point Sierra Nevada, a rocky cape with a colorful bit of maritime history.

It is so named because a steamship, the Sierra Nevada, ran aground near there in heavy fog Oct. 17, 1869. All the passengers were saved, but the ship was a complete loss. For detailed period newspaper accounts of the shipwreck, go to www.pt5dome.com/snwreck.htm.

Scenic beach, inland dunes

Running along the upper flank of Point Sierra Nevada is the scenic sandy beach, the northernmost one in the park. With the exception of a driftwood shelter or crude bench here and there, the beach is so untouched by humans that hikers can easily fool themselves into thinking they are the first people to walk there.

Inland of the beach are undulating sand dunes. Unlike many dune areas along the Central Coast, these are remarkably free of ice plant and other invasive plants, Barandon said. He plans to use these dunes as a model for dune restoration projects in other parts of the park.

North of the beach, all but the most determined waders and rock hoppers will want to walk up onto the bluffs to continue the hike. This part of the park is so new and unvisited that there are no trails, only a few overgrown cow paths.

Park managers say that for safety reasons, the future coastal trail that will traverse this part of the park will be well back of the bluffs with a few spur trails to scenic overlooks. The bluffs here are the tallest and steepest in the park.

The landscape north of the beach is mostly grassland, and the walking is generally smooth going. The only obstacles are occasional clumps of coastal scrub and chest-high fields of wild mustard.

These grasslands are also home to some of the park"s rarest plants. The Hearst manzanita, an evergreen shrub, and Hearst ceanothus, a perennial herb in the lily family, are found in five locations on the Hearst Ranch and nowhere else.

An extremely lucky hiker might even catch a glimpse of an elk. Roosevelt elk are one of several exotic animals introduced to the ranch by William Randolph Hearst.

Elk footprints have been found in this part of the park, showing that the big beasts make occasional forays across Highway 1, Barandon said. About a mile north of Arroyo de la Cruz, hikers will encounter Arroyo de los Chinos creek. Park archaeologists have found geraniums blooming near the mouth of the creek, indicating that a homestead had been located there once, perhaps that of a Chinese kelp harvester or ranch hand.

Arroyo de los Chinos flows year round and is heavily vegetated with willows and other plants. Hikers should look for the remnants of an old roadbed that cuts into the creek banks and follow an old cow trail across the creek.

A large promontory is visible to the north of Arroyo de los Chinos. Looking north to Big Sur from the crest of this promontory offers some of the most spectacular scenic vistas anywhere in California.

In the foreground are gently sloping hills covered with maritime grasses and chaparral that lead to a wide bay studded with surf-battered rocks and sea stacks. In the background, the Santa Lucia Range rise abruptly from the ocean to meet the sky.

Studying tide pools

After pausing several minutes to soak in this majestic scene, hikers can continue north and find another obscure remnant of the ranch"s history. Perched on the edge of the bluffs are rusty bundles of heavy duty cables and cross plates. Park managers say they do not know why the cables are there or what they might have been used for.

At the foot of the bluffs beneath the cables, a broad rocky bench juts into the ocean. Observant hikers will notice that this bench is festooned with bright yellow squares bolted into the rock.

The squares are part of a research station established by university biologists to study tide pools. These research stations are scattered all along the West Coast and used by university biologists to study how tide pools change over time and how they are affected by human activity.

The researchers will be watching this tide pool station closely to see how it changes as a result of increased human visitation, said Pete Raimondi, a biology professor at UC Santa Cruz who heads the San Luis Obispo County and other Central Coast portions of the study.

"Those are some of the most pristine areas we have," he said. "We are concerned about increased usage now that the ranch has been opened to the public." Past the tide pool monitoring area, the park narrows to several hundred feet wide. This is also the site of one of the Caltrans work areas and makes a convenient spot close to the ocean to enter the park.

North of this bottleneck, the park broadens again. Hikers will encounter several obstacles in the form of small, seasonal creeks. These are best crossed close to the highway where they are shallowest.

This area offers more tall coastal bluffs and multiple offshore pinnacles. Soon hikers will reach a larger creek that marks the northern boundary of this part of the park. Park managers have recently installed a fence here that announces that the area to the north remains part of the Hearst Ranch.

A small sliver of land a mile and half to the north at the mouth of San Carpoforo Creek is also part of the park. However, there is little to distinguish this part of the park from adjacent Los Padres National Forest holdings.

Originally published Sept. 10, 2006

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