California Coast- Morro Bay to Big Sur

The bright orange poppies I saw decorating the hills around Merced River near Yosemite brought back such vivid memories of my college years that I couldn’t resist the urge to revisit the California Coast before continuing my trek north. It meant backtracking a bit, something I rarely do for the sake of gas, but I was inspired to return. Inspiration fuels me. It has fueled this entire journey actually. If only it could fuel my gas tank! 🙂

It would have been nice to make it all the way south to Santa Barbara, where I studied photography, but I visited the area just before my journey began, so I headed for Morro Bay instead. The coastline between there and Big Sur is incredibly beautiful, and it was there that I would get my ocean fix before heading back inland to travel north.

California Coast

Morro Rock

California Coast

Surfers heading for the waves at Morro Bay

While camped in Morro Bay I drove north to Cambria and took the girls hiking at West Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. There I found a scenic trail on a ridge above the rocky shoreline and enjoyed the breaking waves, flowering ice plant and watching Elephant Seals with their newborn calves on the rocks below.

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Shoreline at West Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria

Cambria Ca

Elephant Seals with babies West Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

From there we traveled on to San Simeon so I could check out the state park where I hoped to relocate in a few days. The open sites were first come-first serve, and I wanted to  get a feel for my options before dragging The Beast that far north. The friendly staff gave me high hopes and suggested the best time to arrive to snag a campsite. While there I visited some familiar sites, like this little schoolhouse which sits down by the coast below Hearst Castle.

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Old schoolhouse at San Simeon with Hearst Castle in the background

On the way back down Highway-1 I spotted several kite-boarders zipping around in the surf and pulled over to watch them for a bit. This looks like a sport I’d enjoy! I have to say though… my first attempt would not be along a rocky shoreline with breaking waves. A nice big, smooth lake sounds like a much safer place to learn.

California

Kite Boarder near Cambria

Kite Boarder, California Kite Boarders near Cambria California

The following day I couldn’t resist getting my kayak wet in Morro Bay to paddle amongst the playful Sea Otter. This guy was so busy eating he didn’t notice my slow approach and seemed a bit startled when he saw me. Before leaving the bay I borrowed a paddle board from someone I met there, just for a quick fun fix. Gotta get one of these!

California

Curious otter in Morro Bay

Morro Bay California

Coast Guard heading out to sea

Morro Bay, California

Out for a quick fix on a borrowed board

In reward for their patience while I was out playing on the water, I took the girls for a good long walk on the beach that evening. It’s no surprise they love getting their toes in the sand as much as I do.

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Sunset at Morro Bay

Fog over the hills at dusk

Fog over the hills at dusk

The following morning I zipped back up the highway in my car to secure a campsite before relocating The Beast. As it turned out there were several sites available when I arrived, but better safe than sorry. One of the disadvantages of a large motorhome is that it limits my options to some extent, making it riskier to arrive at a campground without reservations… especially on a weekend in California.

After settling in to my site I loaded gear and the girls into the car and headed north along the coast… with no plans but to see what I might see. The first thing that caught my eye was a sign to the Elephant Seal Rookery. I didn’t recall this sanctuary, but it’s clearly a popular resting place for the seals this time of year. If not for a bit of movement and a few grunting squabbles now and then, a quick glance might lead you to think the beach was littered with driftwood! This… late April… was molting season.

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Elephant Seal Rookery near San Simeon

Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon California

Elephant Seal

Elephant Seal resting at Elephant Seal Rookery, California Next up was a hike to Salmon Creek Waterfall. I was glad I left the girls waiting in the car for this jaunt because the trail was completely overgrown with poison ivy and getting to a good overlook for the falls meant scrambling over lots of boulders and downed trees. Although pretty, I would not suggest making this short hike a priority while visiting the area.

Salmon Creek Waterfall

Salmon Creek Waterfall

Coast Range Fence Lizard

Coast Range Fence Lizard

Thankfully there are numerous turn-outs along this scenic and very curvy stretch of highway. I had high hopes the weather would clear, but even on a gray and gloomy day this coastline is captivating.

California Coast near Gorda

California Coast near Gorda

Poppies and Ice Plant along the coast

Poppies and Ice Plant along the coast

California coast

Coast, Hwy 1 and bridge near Big Creek Reserve

Without doubt one of my favorite spots on the entire California coast is this cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

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McWay Falls dropping into the ocean at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

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Bixby Bridge near Big Sur

California coast

Coast by Rocky Point Restaurant

Pride of Madeira

Pride of Madeira

After several hours of driving, short hikes and lots of shooting I stopped at the Carmel Mission, and was disappointed to find it closed. With evening setting in and ninety miles of windy cliffside driving ahead of me I decided to head back down the highway from there. In the fog the scenery would not change… meaning fewer stops and a quicker drive south than north… but I still had hopes that the sun might make an appearance before it set.

Carmel California

Carmel Mission

Although I never actually saw the sun that day, the fog did lift enough to let some of its rays dance briefly on the hillsides and water.

California Hwy 1 near sunset

California Hwy 1 near sunset

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Foggy sunset near Big Sur

California

Days end near Big Sur

At the suggestion of one of the park rangers I decided to take a scenic drive through the hills on Santa Rosa Creek Road to Paso Robles the following day. This is a lovely bit of roadway, especially while the hills are vibrant with spring color, but it is extremely windy and often too narrow for two cars to pass one another without extreme caution. Thankfully it was lightly traveled that day.

Cambria, California

Hillside and oak trees along Santa Rosa Creek Rd

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Dellaganna Ranch near Paso Robles

I was quite taken with how much Paso Robles has changed over the years. The community is clearly thriving, no doubt in part to the influx of wineries and vineyards that covered the hillsides along Highway-46. I resisted the urge to stop and taste a few of their wines knowing I had lots more windy roadway ahead of me.

My return route to the coast would take me out the equally windy, but better known Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. I used to escape work and school from time to time to ski with friends on Lake Nacimiento, and couldn’t resist the urge to return for old time sake. The drought conditions in California were obvious be the appearance of the lake. Never had a seen so much shoreline, and many of the docks and marinas were high and dry.

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Lake Nacimiento

Nacimiento-Ferguson Road winds its way through Los Padres National Forest, through a few deep-woods campgrounds along Kirk Creek, and ultimately out to the open hillside high above the Pacific Ocean. As I made my way down through the hills I stopped at one pull-out for pictures and spotted a tent perched on a ridge a short distance below me. You can’t see them in the image below, but the entire west facing hillside is covered in bright orange poppies. While visiting with the guy who was camped there he told me he had to keep driving when he was unable to find a campsite along the coast. Personally I don’t think he could have been skunked into a better spot to camp. In addition to the killer view, it was free! (National Forest Camping)

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Killer campsite high on a hilltop overlooking the coast

When I reached the coast I headed south once again on Highway-1… sans the fog. Amazing the difference a little sunshine can bring. 🙂

California coast

Cabrillo Highway (Hwy 1)

California coast near Gorda

California coast near Gorda

California

Coastline near San Simeon and Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

San Simeon, California

Sunset and the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse beacon

The following day a photographer friend of mine, Mehosh Dziadzio, drove north from Santa Barbara to join me for a little down time with our cameras. Mehosh is one of a few photographers I know who has gotten into flying drone helicopters with a camera attached. He took advantage of a couple great days along the coast to play/practice with it. I told him about the poppy covered hillside, which seemed like a great place to get some amazing footage from the air, and a short while later we were there!

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Beach at San Simeon

California coast

Poppy covered hill above the coast… where I’d seen the tent the day before

California Poppy

California Poppy

California Poppy

Mehosh's drone in flight above the Poppies

Mehosh’s drone in flight above the Poppies

The following morning we were back out for a little early morning shooting before I had to break camp and hit the road.  Whether old friends or new, it is always a treat for me to spend time with others during my travels… hiking, kayaking or just sharing a campfire. It’s rare that I get to spend time with other photographers who are willing and able to get out and shoot just for fun, so our brief time sharing two common passions… nature and photography… will remain particularly memorable to me. Thank you Mehosh, for taking the time to join me!

California coastal hills near sunrise

California coastal hills near sunrise

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Waves breaking near San Simeon

Hwy 1, California

Cabrillo Hwy

Hurst Castle, California

Zebra grazing at San Simeon

Mehosh getting a higher vantage point

Mehosh getting a higher vantage point

After Mehosh departed for Santa Barbara I “folded up”, hooked up my tow car and headed south to Highway-46 where I turned inland. As I neared the top of these gorgeous hills I was hoping to find a safe place to pull over, and just as I spotted a large pull-out I also spotted Mehosh with camera in hand. “Great minds…” I thought with a smile.

California Hills from Hwy 46

California Hills from Hwy 46

California Hills from Hwy 46

From there I was headed to the Bay Area and then Sacramento to visit some friends before continuing north through California. Lassen National Park, Burney Falls, Lake Shasta and Castle Crags are up next!!

[My visit to the coast took place April 11th-21st, 2014]

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2 thoughts on “California Coast- Morro Bay to Big Sur

  1. Fran, The pictures of the coast are amazing… Makes me want to speed up our “future discussed” Harley trip to that area. 🙂

    • You absolutely MUST get there Susan. Do as much of the coastline as you have time for. It’s all marvelous. More rugged and picturesque from that point north. Go all the way to Oregon if you can. For that matter… to the Oregon Coastline as well!

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