Elephant seals, Big Sur and wild California coast

Old friend and wonderful photographer Chuck Higgs passed along a few photos, and reminds us all what a great time of the year this is to see Elephant Seals and the California coast, from Monterey south towards San Simeon.

A bull Elephant Seal lays claim to his stretch of Ano Nuevo beach (Chuck Higgs photo)

Chuck and a friend recently found Elephant Seals at Ana Nuevo State Beach, just south of Monterey. Chuck notes that you are best to sign up in advance for a weekend docent-led Elephant Seal tours at Nuevo. You’ll also see they spotted a young bobcat nearby (these marvelous photos are courtesy of Chuck Higgs).

Seal pup lies close to his mother (Chuck Higgs photo)

Further south down Highway 1, about 4 miles north of San Simeon, you can also see Elephant Seals on to beaches right off the highway – no appointment required. Along the way, you will pass some of the state’s finest campgrounds, restaurants and resorts.  Just 170 miles southwest of Stockton, it’s Big Sur, that relatively undiscovered paradise of rocky coast, bucolic coves, deep redwood forests and history that runs deep, spread along Highway One from Carmel south to San Simeon!

Bull Elephant Seal swimming just off-shore (C. Higgs photo)

The Spanish called it “El Sur Grande”, the Big South, for the huge swath of rugged, unexplored and treacherous California coastline. Though Mexico awarded several land grants in the Big Sur area in the early 1800s, none were settled and it would not be until 100 years ago that permanent settlers arrived in the area. Soon, a lively logging economy began to thrive, with timber shipped up the coast to San Francisco.

Here’s a bit more detail – find time to explore the California coast in the next month or so!

Our recent visit to Big Sur revealed an amazing experience for my wife and me. Just four miles north of San Simeon, we spotted a beach signed “Elephant Seals” and turned off Hwy. 1. The beach is part of the six-mile long Piedras Blancas rookery, and home to some of 23,000 resident elephant seals (depending upon time of year).

Large bull seal dozes on the beach (C. Higgs photo)

A 100 foot walk took us to a boardwalk – and about 250 elephant seals lounging in the sun, with the males occasionally jousting for supremacy.  Another mile north, another beach, and, 100 more of these fascinating creatures!

Elephant seals are much larger than harbor seals or sea lions.  Males can reach 5,000 pounds and 16 feet in length, females up to 1,800 pounds and 12 feet; pups are born at about 70 pounds and 3-4 feet. These huge creatures spend the majority of their lives at sea, diving as deep as 3,000 feet to forage for food, and spend several months on these beaches!

Some of the state’s finest parks and campgrounds are found in Big Sur. Andrew Molera State Park, just 20 miles south of Carmel offers 24 walk-in sites (first come, first-served), where you park and hike about 1/3 mile to camp sites that will hold up to four folks. With 4,800 acres, the park offers a huge variety of exploring options, from beaches to the Big Sur River to the rugged coastal mountains. This is relatively undeveloped acreage; if you are seeking a wilderness experience, this is pretty close!

At dusk, a young bobcat surveys the Ano Nuevo scene (C. Higgs photo).

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, 26 miles south of Carmel, offers 169 sites, picnic options and plenty of hiking and swimming opportunities. The park covers over 1000 acres of redwoods, oaks, cottonwoods and conifers and offers glimpses of wildlife including deer, skunks, raccoons and a variety of sea birds. The Big Sur Lodge also offers lodging, if you don’t desire to camp. Reservations: www.ReserveAmerica.com.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 37 miles south of Carmel, offers two hike-in campsites, which can be reserved through www.ReserveAmerica.com. Hiking options are abundant, with options from the Big Sur Coastline up into the rugged coastal peaks. The Overlook Trail takes one on a stunning hike along the coastline, leading to the McWay waterfall, which drops almost 100 feet into the McWay Bay.

Limekiln State Park, 56 miles south of Carmel, is one of our favorites. Carved into the Big Sur coast, if offers 716 acres and 33 developed camp sites, many with stunning Pacific views and mighty redwoods. Remains of historic limekilns, which produced copious amounts of lime for construction many years ago, are to be explored. Kirk Creek Campground is a bit further south, a gem perched on a bluff overlooking the coastline, but, it’s first-come, first-served, run by the US Forest Service. For more info, call (805) 434-1996.

Big Sur restaurants and dining range from the subtle to the sublime, from inexpensive to $$$$-rated! Featuring some of California’s top-rated restaurants and many other fine dining choices, our recent favorites are Big Sur Roadhouse opened two years ago, getting rave reviews and a bit less expensive than some competitors and Ragged Point Inn.  Located on Ragged Point, a bluff high above the ocean coast with spectacular views in three directions, the restaurant, motel and cabins are surrounded by gorgeous flowers when we were there in early April!  Try the Cinnamon French Toast!

Take your binoculars and enjoy Big Sur’s spectacular coastal views (with plenty of overlooks), soaring bridges (thanks to CalTrans) and endless beaches. Watch for wildflowers almost always in bloom, California Sea Otters cavorting in secluded coves and legions of sea birds – if you are lucky, you may see a California Condor soaring overhead on their seven foot wingspans.

How to get there: Take I-5 south, go southwest on Hwy. 152, to Hwy. 156, to Hwy. 1

What’s nearby: to the north are Carmel and Monterey; San Simeon, Hearst Castle and Morro Bay are south.  Mission San Antonio (one of California’s 21 Spanish missions) and Pinnacles National Park are just east (though, circuitous and wild, scenic drives are required to reach them)!

For info: For Ano Nuevo State Park Elephant Seal tours: http://anonuevo.reserveamerica.com/. For Elephant Seals sighting, further south, check with Friends of the Elephant Seals,  www.elephantseal.org, PO Box 490, Cambria, CA 93428; Big Sur restaurants and lodging, Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, www.bigsurcalifornia.org; (831) 667.2100.

Read more from my travel blog, follow me on Facebook or Twitter; or, email me at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!


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