Dan and Hannah Hike at Point Reyes near San Francisco, California

The snow trench in front of our house in Maine

The snow trench in front of our house in Maine

As we awake in northern California, thirty inches of snow has fallen in Seacoast Maine this late January day. Though the snow has stopped, life in New England has come to a standstill. Crawling highway traffic; backroads under siege; driveways waiting, and waiting some more to be cleared. It turns out that this blockbuster of a storm was just the first of a string of snowstorms during the epic winter of 2015; there will be more snow than we have ever seen in 33 years living on Chases Pond Road.

Reyes map of coast

But that’s a challenge for tomorrow, for today we are more than 3000 miles away in California. Leaving Tree and Scott’s place after five days together, we drive south on the oceanside of the Pacific Coast Highway with its steep cliffs plunging hundreds of feet below us. Riding shotgun, I lean Hannah’s way as she drives the lofty serpentine roads; the white line is all there is to the shoulder on my side.

The interfaith chapel just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Sea Ranch, CA

The interfaith chapel just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Sea Ranch, CA

As we pass first through Sea Ranch and on to Jenner, Bodega Bay, and then Tomales on our last day in California, we are heading for Point Reyes National Seashore, some 45 miles north of San Francisco on the Pacific Ocean. Once down from where eagles fly, we mellow out as it takes us two hours to go 70 minutes on this section of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Reyes map of parkWith our red-eye flight at 11P from San Francisco to Boston still on schedule, we drive through the small town of Point Reyes Station in the late morning. Taking a sharp right at the Bear Valley Inn B&B at Bear Valley Road, we motor an easy half mile to the visitor center.

Reyes2 - Bear Valley Trail signThere the ranger asks what we are looking for; they have 150 miles of trails. The Dan and Hannah prescription: Sunshine and three hours of hiking! The most popular trail to the Pacific Ocean is the Bear Valley Trail. The ranger provides a fabulous trail map with distances to the tenth of a mile.  Being within an hour of San Francisco, Point Reyes gets two and a half million visitors each year.

The Bear Valley trail begins

The Bear Valley trail begins

The Bear Valley Trail begins as a gently rising fire road on this mid-week Wednesday in the sunny 60s. To our right, Morgan horses are sheltered and trained to patrol the park. Wide enough for four to walk abreast, the trail has couples with young children, women out for an afternoon walk, and retired couples.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake

1906 San Francisco Earthquake

We are crossing the San Andreas Fault where the earth’s crust is “floating on a sea of molten rock.”   In 1906 the underlying rock moved 20 feet in less than a minute which caused massive devastation in San Francisco. It could happen again in 30 minutes or 300 years. Fortunately, it did not happen today.

VCU Ram on his last day on the coast of California

VCU Ram on his last day on the coast of California

The warm sun is just the sendoff we savor before returning to the snowy East. Just two-tenths of a mile into the hike, the trail turns shady, forest covered. Putting on our sweatshirts, we climb some 400 feet of elevation gain through the coastal mountains; beside us is a west flowing trail stream bracketed by ferns.

Spotting a young couple seeming to be struggling with the backpack for their ten month old, we are impressed that they are out miles from the visitor center this afternoon with their child. We ask if they need any help, but they just smile and thank us.

Bike rack here half way to the Pacific?

Bike rack here half way to the Pacific?

Coming across this bicycle rack two miles into the trail, we wonder what gives.  What’s a bicycle rack out of New Jersey in the 1950s doing here?   It takes me a while to make sense of this anomaly.  Any idea why this bike rack is two miles into the wilderness?  See below.

The coastal trail within a half mile of the ocean

The coastal trail within a half mile of the ocean

The trail map shows we have two and a half miles to Arch Rock now that we summit at the Divide Meadows. One last walk along the beach sounds pretty sweet.   The gently rising trail means we can keep up a three mph pace heading to the ocean. Our hike only offers glimpses of sunshine through a Douglas fir forest, but it’s no sacrifice to be in shorts in dappled sun rather than be housebound due to the blizzard of 2015.

Northern coastline as we stand atop Arch Rock

Northern coastline as we stand atop Arch Rock

With Arch Rock on the Pacific in sight, we realize that the perch is 70 feet above the water, which makes the beach inaccessible from the trail. Checking out the coastline north and south from Arch Rock, we learn that the Arch itself is below us as we stand on the shoreline mesa.

To the south from Arch Rock

To the south from Arch Rock

There is a descending steep rocky trail to the river bed rocks and the arch. On the climb down, we grab the rocks to steady ourselves as we slip slide down to the creek. Through the arch we can see the ocean, but there is no way we can navigate these rocks through a very cold mountain stream. We lunch on our pb&js and dismiss the thought of any more rock scrambling.

As we climb out we see the couple with the bambino, not fifteen minutes behind us. We approach and say how impressed we are with their hiking with a baby. They smile. We ask where they are from.  It turns out it’s Switzerland.   This little hike is small potatoes compared to other alpine hikes that they have done before with their son.

As we head for the trailhead, we know that the snow is not going away and we are just going to have deal with it. Thanks to Nolan, we are able to drive into our driveway after the red-eye. Two days later, all is right in snowy New England world as we spend the morning with Owen and Max while Molly and Tip go out to breakfast.

The reason there is a bike rack in the wilderness

The reason there is a bike rack in the wilderness

And the bike rack?  Trail bike riding is only allowed to a certain point. After that, bikes are prohibited; hence the 1950s Radburn (NJ) School bike rack.

Fissure at Arch Rock six weeks after we hiked to this promontory point

Fissure at Arch Rock six weeks after we hiked to this promontory point

Since our visit in late January 2015, tragedy struck at the Arch Rock of Point Reyes.

This recent hoto provided by Point Reyes National Seashore shows a fissure that has opened up atop Arch Rock less than two months after our trek there. One person died and another needed to be treated for life-threatening injuries after the bluff at the end of a popular hiking trail collapsed on Saturday, March 21, 2015. Two visitors were standing on the Arch Rock lookout point just before 6 p.m. when the bluff gave way. The pair fell about 70 feet and were covered with rocks and debris. One of the hikers was pronounced dead at the scene. The other was airlifted to a hospital. (AP Photo/Point Reyes National Seashore)

We hiked this trail and stood atop Arch Rock on January 28, 2015.   The trail is no longer open to Arch Rock.

Click on this this link or copy and paste it to read more about the fatal rockslide.      http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/3703372-181/hiker-killed-in-point-reyes

 

Dan and Hannah Hike in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California

Early morning Hannah on the Pacific coast north of Cambria, CA

Early morning Hannah on the Pacific coast north of Cambria, CA

Leaving Cambria on the coast of California early to hike at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we have the highway to ourselves. With its hairpin turns and spectacular vistas to the west, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) provides us with an amusement park ride of hairpin turns and steep drop-off thrills.

BS1B - Gorda Springs gasThink about it. By heading north on the PCH, we are always nearest the mountainside of the highway and away from the plunging cliffs that the southbounders must deal with. That is a good thing for the slightly acrophobic in the front seat next to Hannah. After driving just 33 miles in the first hour, we take a quick break to change drivers at Gorda Springs.  There, we see, despite falling gas prices across the United States this winter of 2015, Gorda Springs has the same price that it had a year ago.

Along the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur

Along the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur

On our way to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we pass the entrance to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (JPB); Hannah reads aloud about this park and we learn that a fifty foot waterfall overlooking the ocean, a stunning redwood grove and a 200 foot tunnel leading to the beach through the cliffs are just a taste of what awaits you…

BS2 - D at Ewoldsen TrailMaking a u-eee (U-turn) immediately, we change plans on the spot and drive four to five miles back to the park entrance at JPB.  At 930A, the drop dead gorgeous ranger suggests the Ewoldsen Trail.  The juxtaposition of a natural beauty among such natural beauty makes this trail an obvious choice

Let the redwoods begin.  Hannah on the Ewoldsen Trail.

Let the redwoods begin. Hannah on the Ewoldsen Trail.

Hiking under the redwood forest canopy, we start off in sweatshirts. The Ewoldsen Trail is a 4.5 mile loop with an invigorating 1300’ gain in elevation. Today redwoods are like the Beatles – here, there, and everywhere. Redwoods are found in deep valleys and gullies where the coastal fog bathes the towering redwoods in moisture.

Redwood twins

Redwood twins

Rising above the river bed, the trail has us in redwood heaven. A cool, moist climate is needed for the redwoods to thrive in this, one of the southern-most groves of redwoods. We find redwoods along the stream bed or up the north facing mountain slopes.

Among the redwoods on the Ewoldsen Trail

Among the redwoods on the Ewoldsen Trail

I have to say that any day in the redwoods is a great day. Ken Burns of PBS fame calls our National Parks America’s Best Idea. Well, California has its own best idea, too, with its spectacular Big Sur State Parks here on the Pacific. As we hike, I hum Woody Guthrie’s classic This Land is Your LandThis land is your land, this land is my land.  From California to the New York Island, from the redwood forests…

A VCU Ram on the Waters Trail

A VCU Ram on the Waters Trail

After two miles of hiking beneath this redwood paradise, we take to the recently blazed Waters Trail under a full California sun. Here the chaparral vegetation dominates as we see sage, coyote brush, and gooseberry; there is now a high desert vibe to our hiking adventure today.

Overlooking the Pacific

Overlooking the Pacific

The trail is cliffside and gives us a view of Pacific Ocean miles away. Lunching on a park bench near the summit of the trail, we deboot and desock and revel in how damn fortunato we are to be here in January while Mainers are preparing for Snowmageddon.

A baby redwood next to Mama

A baby redwood next to Mama

Upon our descent, we return to the shaded redwood forest and spot a baby redwood. As the tallest trees, redwoods are found on a very narrow coastal band from here at JPB to the extreme southwestern corner of Oregon. The thick bark and the soaring foliage protects the redwoods from both fire and insect damage.

Heading back to the trailhead

Heading back to the trailhead

Descending, we pass many hikers on this holiday Monday in January wondering about the next turn and how long it would take to finish the loop trail. We love the trails with the buzz of hikers. One, we love the interaction, and two, it’s less likely we’ll get lost on popular trails.   Though the trail guide says the Ewoldsen Trail could take a full day for an average hiker, we found its 4.5 mile loop with the additional 2.4 miles going up and back on the Waters Trail has taken just over three hours.

At the tunnel of love to the Pacific

At the tunnel of love to the Pacific

Once back at our rented Toyota Corolla, we know that there is just a quarter mile walk to the Overlook Trail above the Pacific cliffs.  Through the 200 foot metal culvert under the Pacific Coast Highway, we see the aforementioned waterfall, which falls quietly to the beach at McWay Cove.

Due to the unstable cliffs, the beach is not open to the public; as such, the Observation Deck is overrun with touristos.   Spent from the three plus hours of hiking and knowing we have at least two hours of driving ahead to Santa Cruz for the night, we know it’s time to boogie.

The magnificence of the Big Sur coastline

The magnificence of the Big Sur coastline from the Observation Deck at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Nothing like the majesty of the redwoods!   The redwood forest trails not only puts the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park at the top of our list of hiking destinations on the coast of California, but anywhere from California to the New York island.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail in Gualala Point Park, California

In traffic on 19th Avenue in San Francisco

In traffic on 19th Avenue in San Francisco

We made a mistake; it was a rookie mistake.  We paid, we learned (we think).

Here’s the scenario.  Leaving our Quality Inn motel in Santa Cruz, CA some eighty miles south of San Francisco at 830A on a Monday morning in mid-January, we time our departure to minimize the traffic as we pass through the City by the Bay.  Being first timers on this section of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), we have no idea that the two-lane sightseeing coastal adventure of the past few days is now a thing of the past.  At this point the PCH has become a highway of commuters heading to San Fran.

 

Amazingly, as we approach the turn for the Golden Gate Bridge, the eight lane interstate (I-280) just dumps us onto a city street (19th Avenue); from there it’s twelve miles of go and stop and stop some more with at least 75 traffic lights.

G 2A map of Cali north coast

But that isn’t the big mistake, but it is part of it.  Once over the Golden Gate Bridge, we do choose wisely and zip along at 65 mph on the six-lane 101 north for 50 miles to Santa Rosa.  From there it’s 50 more twisty miles along the windy two lane routes 12 and 116 to Jenner, CA on the coast.  Once on the PCH our GPS says we have 71 miles to go that will take us two hours of driving to our destination north of Gualala, CA (pronounced Wah-LA-La).  Two hours for 71 miles!  Welcome to the Pacific Coast Highway ladies and gentlemen.

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

The mistake?  I think you can connect the dots from Santa Cruz to San Francisco to Santa Rosa to Jenner to ….   Too much driving.  The serpentine roads of rural California take hours to navigate.  Sadly it’s a vacation day without a hike.  That just should not happen.  That is a sin against all that is vacation holy.

The Corey House

The Corey House

Happily we arrive at the Corey House, the VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) of our friends Tree and Scott (neighbors of ours in York, Maine).  These two cross-continental travelers set this entire West Coast adventure of ours in motion.  Tree was the one who articulated how as outdoor people they didn’t want to spend the winter inside when temperate California waited with open arms.  After six nights in motels, Hannah and I are ready for the comfort of the sunset coast home of Scott and Tree.

Coastal town of Gualala

Coastal town of Gualala

The next morning after a homemade Tree breakfast, they chauffeur us to Gualala Point Regional State Park for the last of our five bluff hikes in California.  Scott and Tree are making this area a wonderful three month home away from home.  After we leave, they will go to town for a Saturday evening spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the Gualala Community Center.  They are on first name basis with Judith, the post mistress, and have a gym membership at Kenny’s in-town Physical Gym and Fitness Center.  They will run in the Whale Festival 5K in Mendocino, some thirty miles north up the coast.  In a vacation area, they are fast becoming locals.

Tree and Hannah

Tree and Hannah

Parking in an empty trailhead lot, we will skirt the Sea Ranch Community today as we hike along the Pacific Ocean.  Known for its distinctive, simple timber-frame construction, Sea Ranch is a  community of some 1800 luxurious vacation homes a few yards from the ocean itself.

Hannah and Dan above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean

Hannah and Dan above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean

On the bluff trail with Tree, Scott, and Bob, their Irish setter, we see more dry grassland as we have all up and down the California coast.  It’s relaxing with compadres like Scott and Tree who take care of us like family.  After our hike, Scott will stop at the Surf Market in Gualala and buy a bottle of Crane red wine for dinner.  Pretty routine stuff, right?  What you don’t know is Scott and Tree don’t drink.  They bought it just for us.

Rocking the California coast

Rocking the California coast

Above the basalt cliffs, we hike in pairs, Tree and Dan, Hannah and Scott, then we switch it up.  With an Irish setter, the pace is relaxed which fits the mellow California feel of the day.  As we hike, Scott gives us a lesson in whale-ology (i.e., to marine biologists it is cetology).  Soon I spot five whales while Scott’s eagle eyes finds 17.

Hannah and Scott

Hannah and Scott

You have no doubt heard the expression, Thar she blows.   Though we see no whales breaching, Scott has us looking for the warm water spray from their spout on the horizon as they exhale and inhale.  The visible spray (“blows”) is whatever seawater that has collected into their nostrils.   Whales usually remain beneath the surface for three to ten minutes, but they can stay under for 30 minutes or longer.

G 7 D on bluff trail

Scott and Tree have come west to count migrating gray whales that are swimming often some 500 yards off shore southbound to Baja  California ; whales have their calves in the warm Mexican waters.  He registers his daily count with the American Cetacean Society, which has a large census center in Los Angeles.

Have you ever wondered how can you make a whale float?  Root beer, ice cream, and a whale.

G 8 crashing waves of bluff trail

Overlooking the Pacific we lunch on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a day when we are glad to have sweatshirts.  Though just a touch chilly here 150 miles north of San Francisco in January, it’s sunny and upper 50s by the water.  Just last night the Weather Channel has informed us of another East Coast snowstorm and plunging subzero temps.

Hannah and Tree

Hannah and Tree

For the most part we have the bluff trail to ourselves.  Tree and Scott are in the midst of their first month of three away out west in California.  On this day, they will have no way of knowing that this will be the coldest, snowiest winter in memory in Maine and throughout much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States.

Along the Bluff Trail in Gualala State Park

Along the Bluff Trail in Gualala State Park

The California coast has its hooks in me.  For Hannah, I’d say it’s a small itch.  But I hope it is one that she will want to scratch next winter!

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur, California

AM map of big sur

Snaking north on the Pacific Coast Highway, Hannah and I do not pass a single burg, not a village, or even a hamlet.  A few cabins in Gorda with its $5.99 per gallon regular are the closest thing to a settlement that we see.  Today we have set our sights on a bluff hike in Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur.  FYI, Andrew Molera was a rancher in the 1930s, whose family donated the park land to the state of California.

While there is a “town” of Big Sur, the Big Sur region is considered to be the 90 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway from San Simeon (Hearst Castle) to Carmel.  Once a hippy heaven back in the day, its Big Sur Folk Festival in the late 60s had musical heavyweights like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Now along this stretch there are no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food restaurants.  The mountainous terrain and environmental restrictions have kept Big Sur relatively unspoiled.  As a result, homes can be north of $2 million.

AM trail map

After four hours of the PCH’s hairpins, we have just five minutes more through the heavily forested mountainside from the Big Sur gas station/convenience store to the entrance of the Andrew Molera State Park.  On this Saturday noon time, the parking lot is packed; and why wouldn’t it be on a day that is 75 degrees and a location just some 20 miles south of Carmel and Monterrey.  For $9 admission for seniors, we park and lunch out of our rental car’s trunk on oranges, apples, trail mix, and motel muffins.

AM 1 first sign

Informed that the seasonal bridge over the Big Sur River is out, we un-shod and de-sock and dip our feet into the 6 to 10 inches of 47F water.  With no choice, there is little complaining by the hikers and beachgoers that we see as they cross the 25’ of flowing stream.  (At the end of the blog is a short video on Hannah re-crossing this stream.)

Big Sur River

Big Sur River

Taking the Creamery Meadow Trail we hike for the fourth day in a row in California under cloudless skies in the mid-70s.  The trail to the beach is sandy dirt that is easy on the feet, level and winding through a savannah similar to what we have seen in the grasslands of the Everglades.

Heading to the Pacific

Heading to the Pacific

While the park pamphlet recommends hiking this loop trail by starting with the inland Ridge Trail first, we choose the direct route to the water with its crashing surf and with the ocean extending to the horizon.  In less than twenty minutes we are at the beach with families and surfers giving it their best ten seconds.  (Does that sound like a shot at surfing?)

AM 7 arrive at beach

The bluff trail is clearly marked and spreading before us to the south.  Passing ten to fifteen hikers over the nearly next two miles of the Bluff Trail, we have brief, smiling conversations and then move on.

AM 8 bluff trail sign

The trail is narrow and distinctive, winding its way through the very dry grasslands above the shoreline.  Below us at low tide beachcombers can walk for two miles along the sandy shore easily getting around the rocky outcroppings.  The park pamphlet warns with CAPITAL LETTERS of the danger of misjudging the tides.  The bluff walls are no easy climb and often inaccessible.  The number one rule of the coast is Never turn your back on the ocean! 

AM 9B shore line with D

Transported into another country and time here in California, we have no responsibilities, no deadlines, no “to-dos,” just hiking and hanging out together.  Hannah loves her sun and I am equally enamored today with the pristine coast with no houses on the cliffs or any cell services.  At no point on this hike do we feel we may get lost.  The trail is well-laid out, easy to follow, and popular.

AM 9C H on bluff trail

On the East Coast there would often be mansions (euphemistically called “cottages”) on the water’s edge.  In New England, there would be laws (decrees from the King of England) from the 1600s giving rights to the low tide line to land owners effectively keeping the public out; the modern day landed aristocracy would have the ocean views to themselves, as is now in danger of happening in York County, Maine.

AM 9D bluff trail with sea

After nearly three miles of hiking from the parking lot in a little over an hour, we descend the steep side Spring Trail to the ocean shore through coastal scrub and grasslands.

AM 9E trail into mountains

Meeting a couple from Australia with an extreme sports camera that records their every step as they run the trail, we linger by the water’s edge; we are torn between just catching some rays on the beach and the fact that we have 2+ hours of mountainous hiking still ahead before the late afternoon January sunset.   We turn for the hills.

AM 9F beach waves

We look ahead to the climb ahead of us with oaks and redwoods in the distance.  As my friend Mitch says, these are Adirondack switchbacks (i.e., straight up!).  Climbing from the shore we have a serious 1000 feet of elevation gain ahead of us.  There is no shade and no mercy, but also no driveway with snow.

The "switchbacks" of the Panorama Trail

The “switchbacks” of the Panorama Trail

It’s amazing how willing hikers coming down the mountain are to give you the information they think you want.  As an entre to conversation, I ask everyone, Which is the top most peak? (which they incidentally have just come from).  They see my sweat-stained face, big smile, and just give me what I obviously want!  With their best intentions, they say, It’s just over the hill there, or You’re close.  Brimming with hopefulness, I am to blame.  Fact is, we are not close and it takes an hour to climb a mile and a third.

On the Ridge Trail heading back to the trailhead

On the Ridge Trail heading back to the trailhead

Though slow going, we are under a full sun as we arrive at the end of the Panorama trail.  There a bench in the shade provides us with, you got it, a panorama of the ocean to our left and the mountainous terrain of the rest of the Andrew Molera State Park across the Pacific Coast Highway.

But it’s all downhill from here (in a good way!).

AM 9J H on trail back

The Ridge Trail is wide, shaded, and our energy level returns.  Within the canopy of the forest we rarely see the ocean.  Taking the side Hidden Trail down the mountain to the River Trail, we are nearly done with our three plus hours of hiking over these eight miles.

Just 100 yards from our rental car, we ford the Big Sur River one more time.  Again, Hannah impresses.

Dan and Hannah and the Elephant Seals on the Pacific Coast Highway

es coastal cali map 3

After finding a bluff hiking jewel at Montana De Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo (See over60hiker blog for March 15, 2014), we drive north on the four lane route 101 from Pismo Beach.  We are in search of one more coastal bluff trail somewhere near Big Sur.

pch map 1

There are three popular routes to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco.  I-5 lies in the center of the state and makes for an express ride north or south.  Between the coast and I-5 is the quite direct 101 highway with a little more curves and a little less traffic.  Today we leave Pismo Beach on the 101, but once we hit Morro Bay we will take the third option, Route One, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), north.

pch 6 farmland

It’s mid-January and the PCH passes through farmland on the way to Cambria.  Athletic couples bike the road which at this point has ample shoulder for comfortable riding.  Seems like a rite-of-passage kind of bike ride.  Something you always said you would do.  Some twenty miles later the PCH turns into a winding, harrowing, plunging and rising trek with shoulders a thing of the past.

Hannah on the Pacific coast

Hannah on the Pacific coast

Once at Cambria, some 250 miles south of San Francisco, the PCH becomes a two lane road, but we encounter little traffic on this Saturday morning.  We pass right by the entrance to the Hearst Castle since it is outdoor exercise in warm weather that is at the top of our agenda.  (We just don’t exercise outside in the winter in Maine because of our dis-affinity for the cold).  We see signs for the elephant seals rookery at Piedras Blancas, which is free to the public.

Elephant seals aplenty

Elephant seals aplenty

Rolling into a parking lot with forty cars and room for more at 10A, we discover the breeding grounds of up to 20,000 elephant seals.  Come late November adult male seals come to this part of the coast of California to establish who’s Da Man for the upcoming breeding season.  Eventually an Alpha male, often weighing 5000 pounds and up to 16’ long, emerges through battle and becomes Papa.  There is a subset of small “a” alphas that also play a role in the breeding season.

ES 5 seals and seashore vista

While most females are still out to sea after carrying their pregnant young for some ten months, they return in mid-December and form harems around the alphas.  Delivering their 70 pound pups, the moms nurse their young for four weeks.  During the fourth week, the females mate a few times, abruptly wean their pups who have quadrupled in size, and then it’s see you later alligator for the Mamas; they hit the road, or in this case the open sea, and family life is over.

(My cameraman is in fact an intern.  Hence the finger in the picture.)

ES 3 people watching seals

Fortuitously arriving during the mid-January breeding season, we take to the viewing platform some 300 yards long.  Basically the large seals lie around all day, flip sand on their backs, flop here and there, and get one helluva tan.  On this 75 degree day, the grunting noise from the competing seals punctuates the landscape.

es 7 lounging seals

Only since 1990 have seals been coming to Piedras Blancas.  One pup was born in 1992; twenty years later 5000 were born.  Heavily hunted in the 18th and 19th centuries for the oil in their blubber, the elephant seals saw their number drop to 50.  Today they number  approximately 175,000.

PCH 1A gorda sign

Thirty minutes of big, floppy seals is quite enough, for it is exercise that is at the core of our being.  So it’s north on the Pacific Coast Highway, a road that requires patience and a gentle California state of mind.  Fact is, it’s just slow going.  Climbing the serpentine roads of the coastal facing mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, we arrive at Gorda; fortunately we need no gas.

Look closely at the price per gallon of regular

Look closely at the price per gallon of regular

Earlier in the day gas at Pismo Beach was $3.79 per gallon.  Our WAZE GPS no longer works and, please, cell phones become useless electronic appendages.

California's Pacific Coast Highway

California’s Pacific Coast Highway

In many places the highway has such hairpins that we make turns at 20 mph or less.  The driver has little chance to enjoy the scenery while keeping in line on the narrow road.  But to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, the Pacific Coast Highway is real and it’s spectacular.  Crashing surf and shoreline vistas impress us to the west.  Being mid-January the traffic is light and we are usually the slowest one on the road anyway.  And then we are dead stopped for 25 minutes.

Waiting in line on the Pacific Coast Highway

Waiting in line on the Pacific Coast Highway

Once the Monterey County sheriff’s department sends us through on one lane, we see a jazzy sports car literally resting half over the cliff, 2oo feet above the rocky shore.  Fortunately, driving north we are always on the mountain side of the road and away from the sheer cliffs.

Later in our trip north of San Francisco. we will return to the PCH at Jenner, CA and our GPS will tell us that it’s 71 miles and it will take two hours.  In disbelief, we scoff.  Oh, but it does.  The twists and the turns make it turtle-like slow going.

PCH 5 ocean view

In the future we would only travel 100 miles per day on the PCH (and that’s still three to four plus hours of driving).  We’d take more time to hike its trails and explore its beaches so we are not car-bound for hours on end.

All the signs are pointing to a return to California.  And soon!

pch sign