The skies were dark gray, which allowed spring wildflowers to prolong their brilliant bloom well into summer. Northern elephant seals appeared sickly on the windswept beach of Piedras Blancas but it was only their annual molt, shedding old, tired skin and beginning anew. Their annual molt can always be counted on, but so can the beacon of light of the Piedras Blancas Light Station just 1.5 miles to the north, keeping watch on those perpetual white-capped, cobalt blue seas.
At least a couple of times a year, I find myself observing the northern elephant seal colony north and south of the historic light station, north of San Simeon and south of Big Sur on California’s breathtaking Central Coast. There’s always something new to see amongst a colony that now numbers 17,000 animals, and is the largest mainland colony along the California Coast.
Except this summer was a little different. At the car park for viewing elephant seals, my girlfriend Holly noticed a chalkboard sign: “Hike in to the Piedras Blancas Light Station.” We were both a little surprised and quickly shifted gears, bee-lining it for the light station where construction began in April, 1874 and completed on Feb. 15, 1875.
Apparently, for the last three summers on the last Wednesday of June, July and August, the public is allowed to hike in to the Piedras Blancas Light Station between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. No one is required to attend a guided tour, but docents are sprinkled about at various points of interest around the weather-beaten light station. Regular guided tours occur on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday throughout the year.
The scenic hike is on the relatively new Boucher Trail (completed during the summer of 2017) and begins at the main parking lot for northern elephant seal viewing, crosses over the road leading to the light station and continues one mile north.
To access the lighthouse on the three Wednesdays during the summer months, visitors can hike in from the north and south trailheads. The Boucher Trail is part of the California Coastal Trail, a work in progress. Currently, the 1,200-mile coastal trail is halfway complete. The Boucher Trail is an easy, flat hike on a slightly rolling marine terrace between the Pacific Coast Highway and the rugged, wave-battered coastline.
After hiking in, we were amazed by all the renovations to the light station and the native flora that surrounds it. Over the years, thousands of pounds of ice plant have been removed and a “return of the natives” has swept this ragged peninsula. Golden yarrow, Dudleya, seaside poppy, dune buckwheat, seaside daisy and hedge nettle have been returned to endure the perpetual northwest winds and paint a picture that would please any artist. The return of the California native flora has also infused an influx of native wildlife to return as well: Bobcats, coyotes, black-tailed deer, brush rabbits, long-tailed weasels, white-crowned sparrows, turkey vultures and western fence lizards all frequent the light station.
One of our favorite points of interest was an interpretive sign located on the south side of the light station. It gave instructions to the light keepers back in 1902 to protect the land animals that inhabit the region including birds of all kinds, and to encourage others to do the same.
Beyond the terrestrial, marine mammals abound around Piedras Blancas. Looking through my Canon 300mm lens, we could see California sea lions, harbor seals and northern elephant seals all in the same frame. Gray whales migrate through in the spring on their northbound journey home to the Chukchi Sea above the Bering Strait of Alaska. Humpback whales are frequently spotted just off the craggy shoreline, and southern sea otters are seen rafting up in the dense canopies of giant bladder kelp surrounding Piedras Blancas.
The Piedras Blancas rock outcropping that gives the light station its name is not far offshore, and the guano-covered pinnacle has a resident pair of Peregrine falcons. We could hear one of the raptors calling out over the howling northwest winds and all the roosting cormorants and preening California brown pelicans. The raptors have become a favorite of the docents and we were told that the Peregrines like to perch on top of the beaming lighthouse and the adjacent water tower.
To find out more of what’s going on at the Piedras Blancas Light Station, go to piedrasblancas.org.
Adventure and travel writer Chuck Graham lives in Carpinteria and contributes his writing and photography to publications far and wide. For more wildlife photos, visit chuckgrahamphoto.com or follow Graham on Instagram at @chuckgrahamphoto.