After the strenuous miles of mountainous Big Sur, we were happy when the San Luis Obispo coastline flattened out into a broad, open marine terrace. We eagerly got off the highway and hiked along the bluffs, where we encountered spectacular blooms of wildflowers and succulents.
We tried to navigate the rough cowpaths meandering across the bluffs, but they took circuitous routes and dead-ended in unpredictable places. Unfortunately, trails to connect the CCT aren’t developed here, but we hope that recent land acquisitions by California State Parks will result in new trails throughout San Luis Obispo County.
The paths traversed dry, cracked earth, and we fully felt that we were in the heart of this record-breaking drought. Dry grasses and chaparral brush survive here, along with hearty succulents that can withstand the severe water deprivation. We didn’t see many creatures, except two rattlesnakes coiled up together, which heightened our senses into alert mode. Just in time, too, because we quickly recognized that the low grassy clearing we approached next was actually a maze-like network of flattened, narrow paths through the grass—snake superhighway! We decided not to push our luck, and reluctantly headed back out to the human highway, hiking onward to the next CCT highlight: the Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas!
When we reached Piedras Blancas, we knew we were in for a show, based on the gathered crowd gawking at the hauled out Elephant Seals. The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is a 6 mile stretch of central coast beaches where Northern Elephant Seals, Mirounga angustirostris, come on land to birth, breed, molt, and rest. Twice a year, in spring and fall, the seals migrate thousands of miles to Piedras Blancas to meet in vast numbers, where they haul out in the sand with their brethren. Elephant seals spend the other 8-10 months of the year feeding in the open ocean, where they can dive up to 5,800 feet and remain under the sea for as long as 2 hours!
These are some seriously charismatic creatures! They were lounging SO hard, lying in a line just out of reach of the surf. Mostly they slept, relaxing from the rest of the year spent at sea, but at any given time a few would have the energy to reach their fins up, stretch and curl their little webbed fingers, itch and scratch their molting skin, and flip sand onto their backs or into their neighbors faces.
Even more rarely, a seal would work up the gumption to move across the sand in an awkward blend of clumsiness and grace, fat ripples undulating as they did the worm, charging forward in short bursts then flopping down, often times on a neighbor, who would let out an exasperated bellow before passing out again. They are very expressive animals, vocalizing with huge blubbering sighs, deep throaty roars, grunting, gurgling, and blowing farty raspberries to the delight of all onlookers.
We made a short film about these entertaining creatures, so you can experience their hilarious movements and sounds for yourself!
We were totally charmed by SLO County’s quaint, small town vibes as we cruised through San Simeon, Cambria, and the tiniest town of all, Harmony, population: 18! We passed inns, cottages, art galleries, and wonderful walking paths along boardwalks and bluffs.
We enjoyed meandering through Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, and learning about its inspiring story of preservation. This coastal land was slated for a housing development until a grassroots group worked with the American Land Conservancy to buy the land for public use. Many organizations, including the California State Coastal Conservancy, pledged funds for the project, but these funds needed to be matched by local efforts. Cambria residents, through countless fundraisers, donations, and an eleventh hour donation of a creekside property, accomplished the impossible! The land was purchased in 2001—the Ranch would belong to all of us forever as permanent open space! This is just one example of a community making a big difference in coastal access, conservation, and stewardship. We can do it together! Big thanks to Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve for serving as the present day stewards of this land.
South of Fiscalini, San Luis Obispo County has several very exciting opportunities on the horizon for new CCT development. In addition to Hearst Ranch, two other coastal properties were recently acquired by California State Parks, Harmony Headlands and Estero Bluffs State Parks, both of which will hopefully provide much needed trails along the coast to connect the CCT.
We explored Estero Bluffs along tranquil trails winding past several empty pocket beaches with lovely tide pools and kelp forests just offshore. The clear, cold, and nutrient rich coastal waters here make the Central Coast super productive feeding habitat for resident and migrating marine mammals.
As we approached the Cayucos Pier, we could see Morro Rock in the distance and the entirety of Morro Bay before us. A man waved excitedly for us to join him at a nearby viewpoint and was giddy with delight to point out the most wonderful welcome scene to us— whales breaching in the Bay! Humpback Whales were leaping out of the water and jettisoning their massive bodies into the sky before splashing down with giant splashing fanfare!
With that welcome, we floated into town with high spirits, and practically inhaled two giant bread bowls of clam chowder from Dukies, a classic coastal mainstay for grubbing down. We watched the sun set over Cayucos Pier and Morro Bay, looking forward to our time exploring this lovely part of the coast.
The next morning we began our walk at Cayucos Pier, where we met the Executive Director of the Condor Trail Association, Chris Danch, and his wonderful wife Angie. The Condor Trail is a sister trail to the CCT, sharing the same route for 40 miles in San Luis Obispo County. When the trails split, the Condor Trail heads into the coastal mountains of Central California, traversing gorgeous Los Padres National Forest. As a trail-in-progress, the Condor Trail faces similar challenges to the CCT, requiring funding and resources to be completed and maintained. Eventually, the dream is to have the Condor Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail connect with the CCT in multiple places, so that California thru-hikers can choose their own adventure and bounce between the beach, coastal mountains, and Sierra Nevadas. How cool would that be!?
Chris Danch is an amazing trail advocate with an obvious and infectious love for the outdoors and wilderness. We thoroughly enjoyed walking with Chris and Angie for 7 miles of beach trail that is shared by the Condor Trail and the CCT between Cayuos and Morro Bay. We discussed the arduous process of making trail dreams a reality and learned from Chris about his efforts to designate the Condor Trail as a National Recreation Trail.
We walked and talked, stopping often to examine the hundreds of sand dollars that were sprinkled all over the beach. Tons of the circular, white skeletons of these little echinoderms (latin: spiny skin, a relative of sea urchins) were washed ashore and we loved checking out the flower shapes—nature is the most wonderful architect. Many of the sand dollars hosted pink barnacles.
As we approached the impressively tall, 581 foot high Morro Rock, Chris told us that the rock face, now flat, was not always like that. Unfortunately, Morro Rock was quarried extensively to provide material for the breakwater of Morro Bay and Port San Luis Harbor. Morro Rock is now connected to the mainland by a causeway from this quarried material, though it used to be an island surrounded by water.
Morro Rock was formed by volcanic activity and is referred to as a “volcanic plug.” Volcanic plugs are also called “volcanic necks” or “lava necks” because they are created when magma hardens in the vent of an active volcano. Morro Rock is one of thirteen volcanic plugs in the Nine Sisters volcanic arc, which is a series of ancient mountainous formations that extends east from Morro Rock to San Luis Obispo, lining the Los Osos Valley. These volcanic plugs were formed approximately 23 million years ago.
The Salinan and Chumash tribes considered Morro Rock to be a sacred site. The Chumash people still climb Morro Rock for their annual solstice ceremony, and the Salinan people climb it to celebrate the legend of the hawk and raven destroying a two headed serpent monster who wrapped his body around the base of Morro Rock. The general public is not allowed to climb on the rock, since it is protected as a reserve for Peregrin falcons, which are locally endangered. Two species of gulls and three species of cormorants also nest on Morro Rock.
We loved circumnavigating Morro Bay, enjoying stalwart Morro Rock from all angles as we passed by. Morro Bay is truly a place to be treasured! Thank goodness for the hard work of some very dedicated stewards of this special place, like the Morro Bay National Estuary Program.
To give back to this wonderful bay, we met up with folks from the Morro Bay NEP, for a coastal cleanup! Together with seventeen volunteers, we picked up 40 pounds of trash and recycling from the State Park Marina and Windy Cove. The most abundant items were cigarette filters (266 of them!), and plastic bags. We’re so glad to keep these items out of the bay!
We wanted to keep exploring the restored eelgrass beds and gorgeous egrets and herons that call Morro Bay home, but we had to keep moving south to make it past the first of three huge barriers to coastal access on the central coast: Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
Since the 1960s, the coastline in front of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant has been largely closed to the public. Two out-and-back hiking trails exist on the property, but there is no route available for CCT thru-hikers. However, just one week before we made it into the area, we heard some excellent news: Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is going to be decommissioned! The plant won’t close until 2025, but we are excited and hopeful that soon the public will be able to access this section of coastline for the first time in over 60 years!
For now, we hopped on our bikes and headed inland on Highway 1 to skirt around this coastal barrier. We popped back out at the ocean at lovely Avila Beach and Pismo Beach, which were in full swing for the summer tourist season. We soaked up the summery vibes and tried not to get too jealous of everyone lounging on the beach as we biked our booties onwards to Mexico!