Sunday, September 18th: Los Padres N.F. to Pinnacles N.P.
Weather: cooling to mid-60s as we left the Santa Ynez Valley for the drive along the coast but heating up to over 100F when we climbed east into the San Juan Valley going to Pinnacles National Park.
Route: CA-154 --> US-101 --> CA-1 (Pacific Coast Highway) --> CA-156 --> CA-25 --> CA-146 --> Pinnacles N.P.
Last night from the tent we heard an owl in the distance. Before dawn we were startled awake by loud squabbling between coyotes and dogs in one of the campsites near us. We were awake when the alarm rang at 5:45. The early morning air was already warming the tent. In less than 2 hours we were heading west and north. Again California was contradicting another long-held rule-of-thumb: ie. air temperatures get colder when one goes up in elevation. As we drove down from the Santa Ynez Mountains the temperature dropped and stayed in the mid-60s until we gained elevation near Big Sur where it suddenly rose into the 80s.
Today's plan was to meander peacefully along CA-1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway, from San Luis Obispo to Monterey before turning inland towards Pinnacles N.P. Originally we wanted to camp in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park near the Big Sur River, but due to the dangerous Soberanes wildfire the campground was closed and all nearby campgrounds were completely booked. However, we were confident we could still reach Pinnacles N.P. without feeling stressed.
There were many fantastic views and stops along this route:
- Our first stop was at Morro Bay State Park (free admission). Our nephew recommended this stop as interesting based on his experiences living in San Luis Obispo. Just before the turn-off to Morro Bay SP we stumbled on a Ralph's Supermarket -- a wonderful find with good choices in fresh and organic produce and a great salad bar. Too bad this was the most northern location in its region. We bought today's lunch and fruit snacks there. In the park, we walked the short, shady, easy Marina Peninsula Loop Trail for a view of the Bay and Mud Flats. Near the museum, which we didn't enter, was a beautiful bronze statue titled "Seasons Come and Seasons Go" acknowledging the life of the Chumash people in the Morro Bay Estuary. The statue has a heron wrapped around the human's torso while the human releases a peregrine falcon. Sadly, the peregrine falcon was ripped from the statue 7 years after its donation to the park, but has since been replaced. The Chumash Indians were the original inhabitants of most of the region now claimed by San Luis Obispo. Beside the museum a small Chumash garden explains how they used the native plants growing there. The most famous invention of the Chumash was the plank canoe, called a tomol or cayuco, giving the nearby town its name. Cayucos were small fishing boats similar to those used by the Aleuts during sea otter hunts along the coastline.
What makes Morro Bay interesting? -- The Nine Sisters or the Morros are a chain of nine volcanic mountains and hills in western San Luis Obispo County, central California. They run from Morro Bay east through San Luis Obispo. The peaks were created over 20,000,000 years ago as volcanic plugs of magma welled up and solidified inside softer rock which has since eroded away. Two of the plugs are in Morro Bay State Park. The highest plug is Bishop Peak at 1,559 feet (475 m).
- along our drive we stopped at a few overlooks just to admire the view. We realized that the PCH may be more scenic when driving from north to south, rather than the way we did it. The scenic overlooks are easier to stop at since they are all right-hand pull-offs when going south.
- One popular spot near San Simeon and Hearst Castle was the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery Preserve -- a stretch of beach where elephant seals come each year to mate, give birth to pups and molt before returning to the ocean. We saw a few sea elephants, probably young males who usually arrive earlier than the breeding adults to practise their sparring techniques. A lonely curlew was probing the sand for food.
- Point Lobos Marine Preserve, about 35 minutes north of Big Sur, was a relaxing late lunch break. Although the S.P. parking areas were all full we were allowed to park along the highway and walk into the park for free and still enjoy the modern restroom facilities. The short Carmelo Meadow Trail we walked while eating our sandwiches was cool under the trees and gave us great views when we reached Whalers Cove. We loved this area -- the scenery, the cool ocean breezes and the easy trails were only three offerings here. There was also sea otter spotting, kayaking, SCUBA and snorkeling allowed for those with a few more hours. It was restorative to stretch our legs before continuing.
- Based on an AAA recommendation we thought Limekiln S.P. sounded like a good place to eat lunch, but we pulled into Limekiln Campground instead. Because of the heat and flies at the entrance kiosk ($10.00) we decided not to stay but missed finding Limekiln S.P. 2 hours further north.
- Again due to the Soberanes wildfire, we were not able to sightsee at Pfeiffer Beach or Julia Pfeiffer Burns S.P. (also AAA recommendations). The entire area was being used as a staging site for firefighters and there was firefighting activity in the area. Firefighters were making a heroic effort to keep the fire from reaching the small towns and parks along CA-1. We were lucky the road was open the day we drove through.
- We did not even come close to anticipating the amount of manic Sunday traffic on the PCH, especially in the Monterey County section around Big Sur. Parking in that area was so difficult that we didn't even stop in Big Sur to look around. We were impressed that motorhome drivers were (sort of) able to stay on their side of the road and not hit long-distance bicyclists or other wide vehicles in some sections.
- After a lovely cool day on the coast it was tough to take the 100F heat when we reached the Pinnacles N.P. campground in late afternoon.
What we learned today: Northern Elephant Seals spend 8-10 months per year in the ocean, diving as deep as 5800 ft and staying submerged for 15 minutes to 2 hours. After migrating for thousands of miles they return to these California beaches twice a year, first to mate in the winter and then to molt and grow new fur in the Spring.
- Prior to the opening of the historic Bixby Bridge over Bixby Creek Canyon in 1932, residents of the Big Sur area were virtually cut off during winter due to the often impassable Old Coast Road that led 11 miles inland. At its completion, the bridge was built under budget for $199,861 (equivalent to $3.5 million in 2016) and at 360 feet was the longest concrete arch span on the California State Highway System. It is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. You may have spotted it in many car commercials.
Once we turned inland we could appreciate how isolated the coastal towns could be. There are very few roads running east-west over the Coastal Ranges. Even within the National Park there is no road to get from the west entrance to the campground on the east side. It was a 2-hour drive from Monterey to the Pinnacles East Entrance. CA-146, the last leg of our drive to the Pinnacles East Entrance was very winding, slow and hot. For the first time today we were forced to use the air-conditioning.
A Cozy of Quails greeted us at Campsite #31 as did relentless flies. Because our site would be in full sun for part of the day Hubby suggested we try to shade the tent with the screen house. 2 hours later we thought we had both set up to achieve that goal...tomorrow will tell. I was just glad to have a screen house retreat where we could eat our yummy salad (from Ralph's) in peace. It was a shame that the picnic table was too big to put the screen house over. Using the last daylight to make sandwiches for tomorrow's early hike must have looked like some tormented dance as I twitched and waved at flies while spreading nut butter on bread. We left our showers until last, thinking the bathhouse would have lighting -- NOT. The good news is the two showers were not busy after dark. The bad news is that they were dark after dark. Hubby took his quarters ($.50/3 minutes) and our hanging light and went first. I watched bats and enjoyed the stars until it was my turn with the light. It was such a luxury to have modern bathrooms with showers! The cold shower felt great, even though the temperature was finally dropping into the 80s.
Late update on 15-Feb-2017: because of mudslides caused by heavy rain, CA-1/PCH/Cabrillo Hwy was closed indefinitely when the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge just south of Big Sur Station began collapsing. We empathize with the people who were not even yet recovered from the Soberanes fire and now have another major inconvenience to contend with.