In early December, we returned to do several things that had been on our list for a while: Kayaking Elkhorn Slough near Monterey (with the hope of seeing sea otters), visiting Hearst Castle in San Simeon, and biking the trail between the idyllic hamlet of Ojai to the beach town of Ventura.
Adventures Near Monterey: Carmel, Point Lobos, & Cannery Row
Famed Cannery Row, the setting of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, was once home to a booming sardine canning industry. It’s now paved with a plethora of t-shirt shops and other touristy things, most not of interest to us (with the exception of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is outstanding. But we’ve been before, and the lines during the holiday season were ridiculous, so we passed this time around).
A beautiful multi-use recreational trail follows the waterfront and we walked a couple miles of it, from Fisherman’s Wharf to Pacific Grove. Next time, we’ll bring our bikes and bike the entire 18-mile trail.
Kayaking With Sea Otters
Paddling nearby Elkhorn Slough is one of the most fun kayak trips we’ve ever done. (If you don’t have a kayak, you can rent one at the Moss Landing Harbor.) The slough is home to an array of birds, seals, and best of all, a flotilla of sea otters. Swimming, playing, and diving for food, they surprised us and themselves each time they surfaced next to our kayak.
These guys could not possibly be cuter. They fish for scallops, crabs, sea urchins and other shellfish, then flip onto their backs to enjoy the feast. To break open a clam or scallop, they pound the crustacean on a favorite rock they carry tucked into an armpit pocket. As we paddled along the slough, the “chink-chink-chink” of rock on shell ricocheted across the water.
The experience was fantastic, but our photos of the otters were kind of pitiful. It’s really difficult to get good photos of fast-moving critters from a bobbing kayak. But just a few days later, from dry land, we had the opportunity for more otter photography when we moved on to Morro Bay.
A Kind Of Weird, But Good Campground
For our explorations in and around Carmel, Monterey, and Elkhorn Slough, we stayed at Laguna Seca Recreation Area County Park. It’s an unusual campground, in that a raceway is a large part of the park. We’ve stayed there twice, and appreciated the proximity to the things we want to do and the reasonable cost for the area. Electric and water hook-ups, dark night skies, and if you ask for a site in the Chaparral Campground overlooking the valley (away from the racetrack), the views are wonderful.
Reservations are taken by phone at least one week in advance, and we make sure there are no races scheduled while we’re there (they know the schedule far ahead). Oh, and bring your own drinking/cooking water because the water has a high level of arsenic (don’t worry, just don’t drink it). There’s also a nearby shooting range. This campground just gets better and better, doesn’t it?? Seriously, it’s a good one.
Adventures Near Morro Bay
Morro Bay is one of our favorite areas on the Central Coast. The wetlands are excellent birding habitat, and even more enticing, the bay is home to a year-round population of sea otters. This is a good place for seeing the otters from land—but you’ll still need binoculars or a zoom lens for up-close views.
More Sea Otter Cuteness
A sea otter’s coat is the thickest and most luxuriant of any animal on earth, which doomed them to being hunted almost to the brink of extinction. They’re still endangered, and it’s always a thrill to see them.
Sea otters aren’t only cute, their behavior is engaging. They wrap themselves in kelp to keep from drifting out to sea while napping or hold paws with each other while floating on their backs. Their near-constant grooming rituals keep their fur fluffed and their bodies buoyant. Most endearing of all is watching otter moms with their babies—they cuddle and groom them, blowing air into their fur to keep the babies afloat.
Montana De Oro State Park
Just a few miles from Morro Bay is beautiful Montana de Oro State Park, with lovely trails that hug the shoreline and hidden beaches with rocky tide pools to explore.
Visiting A Coastal Castle
About a 30-minute drive from Morro Bay is a legendary California castle perched high on a hill overlooking the Pacific. The childhood dream of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (inspired by a European trip with his mother), the castle was built by Julia Morgan, California’s first female architect.
Twenty-eight years of collaboration resulted in a 165-room mansion and 127 acres of terraced gardens and pools. Hearst referred to it as his “ranch home.” It’s opulent, excessive, and at the same time, tasteful. Maybe not my taste (too many heavy tapestries and dark, brooding furniture) but still, beautiful.
Hearst Castle is a California State Historic Park, and the tours are excellent. The backstory is fascinating (interesting history of a colorful and controversial man, stories of the rich and famous, scandalous relationships, and a peek into life in the castle). I’d love to return for a tour of the upstairs and the guest cottages.
Visiting A Colony Of Elephant Seals
Just a few miles from the castle is a large, noisy colony of elephant seals. We’ve been here in the spring when the seals are giving birth and the enormous males are dominating the beach. This time, the bull elephants were just beginning to return to the colony. As they mature, their noses grow, ending up as pendulous appendages that look like an elephant’s trunk.
The young males were practicing their drum-like vocalizations (produced by inflating their noses and trumpeting) and the chest-bumping battles that establish who will be king of the beach harem. When the older, bigger, and stronger males arrive, the younger ones won’t stand a chance.
Our Favorite Campground On The Central Coast
We stayed, as we always do since we discovered this little gem a few years ago, at El Chorro Regional Campground. It’s conveniently located between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay, in the beautiful rolling hills of the Central Coast. Full hookups, dirt sites but plenty of greenery, excellent Verizon. There are hiking trails from the campground and the lovely San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is part of the park. The sites tend toward the smaller side (we were fine with our 27-foot trailer), but if you have a big rig, you might want to consider a pull-through site.
Adventures Near Ojai
Ojai is a lovely, peaceful little town on the Central Coast. Our main reason for returning was to bike the Ojai-Ventura bike path. It’s a wonderfully maintained trail and a great 15-mile ride. After a couple of hours at the beach, we were happy to catch the bus back to Ojai instead of having to ride 15 miles back to town (the bus is conveniently equipped with bike racks).
Peaceful Camp Comfort
Camp Comfort (don’t you love the name?) is a tiny county campground just two miles from Ojai. Full hookups, concrete pads, nice little laundry, and excellent free internet. We had a site backing up to the seasonal creek and enjoyed our peaceful stay.
More great photos of you two but I think you were upstaged by the sea otters. Just too cute!
Brenda, we were definitely upstaged by the sea otters! Seeing them in the wild is always a thrill, and kayaking with them was a blast. :-)
Thanks for sharing all your wonderful photos showcasing the beautiful country and cute wildlife. My favorite photo is of the mama and baby harbor seal – precious.
Ingrid, I loved the expressions on the mama and baby harbor seals! You would have a great time photographing the Central Coast landscapes and wildlife.
Nothing cuter than my totem animal…otters! That or prairie dogs….or blue heron which you also captured in windblown elegance! Castle not my taste but then I was disgusted by Versailles…Good to connect and let’s keep options on midwest road rendezvous or August Lopez. I could pack art supplies and we could play! Miss you!
Otters are the cutest!! Or little goats. :-)) We’re hoping to meet up with you two on the road or on Lopez. Yes, pack those art supplies — I’m ready for more creative adventures with you, my dear friend!
Wonderful post and pictures of course! Thanks for the campground information… we are hoping to visit that area this fall.
It has been 20+ years since we lived in the LA area and that part of the coastline was our favorite. It will be fun to revisit some favorites and have more time to explore.
Were you there before, during or after the devastating fires that were nearby?
Thanks, Brenda. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, and hope the info will be helpful for you. The Central Coast is our favorite part of California, too. We were there just before those terrible fires in Ventura.
We can’t resist the otters. That is a great area. Thanks for the tips on campgrounds.
You’re welcome! Otters in the wild are irresistible. :-)
We really loved that stretch of the coast too. And somewhere along there was a Brown Butter Cookie place that was just amazing… I always remember the food!
Kim, I always remember good food, too. We’ll be going back to the Central Coast and I’ll be looking for those cookies. I love shortbread cookies!
I lived in a former life time in Encino and went as often as I possibly could up the coast from Ventura to Ojai and a special natural hot springs not far away. Happy to hear they have a bike trail now. Wish it had been there then. Love the Carmel cottage. Who can afford to live in Carmel? The mural is perfect. Kudos to the artist. We are so absolutely envious of your kayak with the sea otters. Otters are my total favorites. That one pictures is worth a hundred. I can’t believe you saw that in person. LOL about your “campground gets better and better” comment. I’d stay anywhere to see those otters. And then the ones at Morro. Icing on the cake. You lucky thing you!! Elephant Seals make me laugh. Wonderful revisiting Hearst Castle with you. Thanks for this post!
Sherry, you and David would love kayaking with the sea otters! I wanted to go back the very next day to kayak with them again. :-) I’ll have to find out about the hot spring you went to. There’s always more to explore…
The otters are just adorable! We have a favorite sea food restaurant by Moss Landing with views of the adorable otters. I love it when you drive along California Coast, for you bring us lots of memories and new sceneries we have not been.
I can hear the noises emanating from that elephant seal meeting or where they mating?
MonaLiza, I know the seafood restaurant you’re talking about—we kayaked right past it to go up Elkhorn Slough. Kayaking with the otters is SO much fun! The young bull elephant seals were just returning to the rookery and fighting for dominance. We were there a couple of years ago and saw babies being born on the beach and the enormous bulls and their harems.
We are in Florida this winter but already planning next winter’s adventure out west with some stops in the spring on the California coast so this post was not only interesting but very helpful in planning our next western adventure. As always- thank you!
I’m happy this post might be helpful for you, Pat. There’s so much to do on the California coast—I have several posts on other adventures there if you would like more info. (Just search under California, or email me and I’ll send you links.) Where are you in Florida? Perhaps we could meet up.
We loved Monterey and stayed there a few years. We had a wonderful time biking along the water and watching the harbor seals. No sea otters:( They didn’t have them at the aquarium because they were working on the display. I just couldn’t win. What a fun trip! Love, love all the otter photos. Otter Whisperers! I have tried to get John to go back to this area so I can see the elephant seals. So far it hasn’t worked. We saw them years ago on a motorcycle trip. Maybe we can return when get another motorcycle!!
Oh no!! You got skunked on seeing the otters all the way around! We have to go kayaking together at Elkhorn Slough, Pam. We’ll see lots of sea otters. :-)) The elephant seals are well worth a visit, too. It’s actually an easy trip in any size RV, as long as you don’t try driving some of those crazy parts of Highway 1 with your rig. You know, the ones where you could go off the side of a cliff.
Outstanding photos, Laurel. Love them all, but my favorite is ones taken at Montana de Oro State Park.
We were in that area in 2011 but missed so much. We entirely missed Carmel-by-the-Sea. We could just smack ourselves up side the head for missing that area. It looks so beautiful.
The photo of you at Point Lobos is gorgeous. I think you should frame that one! Thanks for the very informative post. We hope to get back to that area one day.
You’re so kind, Marsha. :-) I’m glad you liked the photos. It’s really hard to discover and do everything in an area in just a few days. That’s why we end up returning several times to places we really like! The Central Coast of California is definitely one of our favorites. We’re not done with it yet.
Arsenic and gunfire… “no, really, it’s actually nice!!” Aaah the life of an RVer… it is a weird little world we live in, huh? Haha. I realize we are a bit, um, “emotionally compromised,” at the moment, but I basically want to hug the crap out of all those sea otters and seals. They are so freaken cute. Thanks for the therapeutic blog post. It was perfectly timed.
Haha, yeah, this IS kind of a crazy life, isn’t it? The things we’re willing to accept…and it’s so darned wonderful! We’ve been thinking so much of you two since you lost your sweet Dixie girl. I’m glad the otters and seals brought you a bit of joy in this sad time.
Looks like you made the most of your stay along the central coast. The sea otters are adorable, you got some fabulous shots! I’d love to see them fairly close up some time like that.
Hearst Castle is an amazing place to visit…expensive though! How cool that the elephant seals are so accessible.
Lisa, we LOVE the central coast. It’s a place I could easily live. I’m so glad you enjoyed the otter photos. Next time you and Hans are in the area, be sure to go to Morro Bay, and/or kayak at Elkhorn Slough. You’ll have wonderful encounters with the otters!
Thanks for taking us back to the wonderful central coast. We explored it many years ago and your pictures brought back long lost memories. I’d love to go back in Beluga so we could stay longer and really get to know it.
I love seeing the otters, they are just too adorable and oh so watchable. I have so very many favorite rocks, maybe I’ve got to see about getting one of those handy armpit pockets!
The angle of your picture of the Curlew showed such an interesting feather pattern.
Love the outdoor bookstore, did they serve coffee or tea too?
Sue, I think you would love taking Beluga to the Central Coast. We’ve been several times and there’s still more we want to see. I could have spent all day watching the otters! I can just see you carrying around your favorite rock in an armpit pocket. :-) Bart’s outdoor bookstore doesn’t serve tea or coffee—but they should! And treats.
I cannot believe we have had this winter base for the past three years and have yet to explore the Central Coast. You have given us lots of tips for where to stay and what to see and do. Now just to get another travel rig. :) Love your photos of the sea otters and the harbor seals, two of my favorites. Kayaking Elkhorn Slough is high up on my list. Hope you two are enjoying your time in FL.
Lu, when you get another rig you and Terry will love exploring the Central Coast. So much magic to be found there. We want to return to kayak Elkhorn Slough—once was not enough!
It appears you enjoyed perfect weather during your stay, it looks so sunny and inviting! We loved that area, too, and look forward to returning some day.
Linda, when I look at our photos, I realize that we did have near perfect weather in December. We’ve visited the Central Coast several times in spring, fall, and winter, and have always had good weather—but I know it’s not always that way. I guess we’ve lucked out!
Oh, you find the neatest places, we traveled the same route last fall but missed so much. AMEN to how you enjoy the journey. Thanks for sharing your day yesterday. Sweetwater was so much more because you two were there. We are still in awe of all we saw. Drunk on happy would pretty well sum it up….
Julie, we are so happy that you and Martin went out of your way to meet up with us here in Florida (fast forward to the present!). :-) Our birding extravaganza yesterday was one of the best EVER, definitely made more special by sharing the day with you two!
I add my appreciation for the cute otter photos. Who would have thought to use kelp for a blanket. I also enjoyed the singing elephant seals. Made me think of our summer sing alongs, although hopefully we sound better.
It seems an enchanting place, and even though very unaffordable, a desirable place to live.
Sheila, I thought you would like the otters! The elephant seals are wonderful to see. We definitely sound MUCH better than they do in our summer jam sessions. (Thank goodness!) The Central Coast truly is enchanting.