Idoubt there’s anyplace more alluring than the Central Coast of California. We’ve traveled sections of the coast many times, but there’s always something more to discover in this enchanting stretch of ruggedly beautiful landscapes and charming towns. There’s even a castle, which I thought might be weird, but turned out to be fascinating.
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
A storybook cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea (the locals just call it “Carmel”)
The charming La Bicyclette restaurant in downtown Carmel
A good way to start the day: Smoked salmon and vegetable crepe at La Bicyclette
Interesting rock formations at Point Lobos State Reserve
A windy day at Point Lobos; the color of the water here is always astonishing!
Brown Pelicans in their fancy breeding plumage
An American Crow dressed in basic black
Great Blue Heron doing yoga on the rocks
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.
Cannery Row transitioned from sardines to tourists when the sardines went away
A fisherman’s mural overlooking Monterey Bay
A lovely little beach lined with seals near Pacific Grove
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.
Paddling Elkhorn Slough
The picturesque wetlands at Elkhorn Slough
A mama and baby harbor seal watch us paddle by
An adorable sea otter pops up next to our kayak in Elkhorn Slough
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.
Campsite on the hillside at Laguna Seca County Park
The view from our campsite overlooking the Salinas Valley
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.
Morro Bay State Park Marina on a perfect day
Walking the boardwalk through the estuary at Morro Bay
A Long-billed Curlew wades in the shallows of Morro Bay
A sculpture dedicated to the families of fishermen overlooks Morro Bay
A colony of sea otters floating in the bay
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.
How could anyone want to make this adorable creature into a fur coat?
Wrapped in kelp to keep from floating out to sea while napping
A sea otter mom grooming her baby
Babies stay with their moms for up to eight months
Beautiful Montana de Oro State Park, just a few miles from Morro Bay
Hidden beaches at Montana de Oro
A Snowy Egret searches for a meal
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.
Hearst Castle in San Simeon, the main house is modeled after a Spanish cathedral
The lovely courtyard
One of the castle towers
The dining room resembles a medieval dining hall. Guests had to dress for dinner, despite the fact that ketchup and mustard were served in bottles on the table. Hearst liked to keep things rustic at what he called his “ranch residence” (AKA the Castle).
Casa del Mar (House of the Sea), one of the guest cottages on the Hearst estate
The fabulous indoor swimming pool, reminiscent of an ornate ancient Roman bath
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.
Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery
Two young male elephant seals squaring off
A raucous meeting of elephant seals
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.
El Chorro Campground
Adventures Near Ojai
The Ojai Valley Art and History Museum
Bart’s outdoor bookstore has an excellent collection of books and great atmosphere
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).
On the bike trail from Ojai to Ventura
Biking along the Ventura beachfront
Wonderful pelican sculpture on the beach
An impromptu rock sculpture on the beach
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.
Camp Comfort in Ojai California
Next Up: Fun With Family And Friends: San Diego To Tucson