California Coast

Trip Start Apr 06, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Oceano County Campground

Flag of United States  , California
Sunday, June 6, 2010

The closer we got to the coast the mountains became hills, the dust and rocks turned to trees and rivers, and it became bearable to breathe again. We made the most of it and stopped to camp for the night in Los Padres National Forest in a primitive campground right in the middle of the forest, about 3 miles off road down a dirt track. This is a really beautiful part of California and everywhere we looked there were waterfalls, rivers, and wild flowers, particularly around the Ojai Valley on the drive down to the coast which is a big fruit growing region.

We knew we'd be spending some time is Los Angeles at the end of our trip as we're flying from here to Guatemala on 30th June, so we arrived on the coast at Santa Barbara just north of LA and spent the next 4 - 5 days making our way up Highway 1 to San Francisco. This road is one of the top scenic drives in America, hugging the cliffs and over looking the beaches the entire way, and we saw some great things along the way. Santa Barbara is a pretty town with a great beach. In the town is an old colonial style courthouse that was built in 1926. From the top of the clock tower you get 360 degree views of the town. Further up the coast from here at Piedras Blancas is a massive elephant seal colony. The beach was covered in adolescent male seals in molting season, losing their winter coats, lazing around, fighting and making loads of noise - you could smell them before you could see them.

Pismo Beach seemed like an area popular with locals and tourists and had a summer holiday feel with ice cream shops and cafes selling clam chowder. The beach was packed and it was good to laze in the sun without a walking trail up or down the side of a canyon or mountain in sight. It's really windy around here and there are huge sand dunes everywhere that people come down to the beach to drive on on their quad bikes. Another side effect of the wind is that a massive blanket of fog and mist gets pushed up onto the shore and backs up against the mountains, especially in the mornings, and it's like driving through patches of thick cloud. As soon as you come out of the mist it is bright blue sky again, then 10 minutes up the road, the mist is back. By the afternoons it is usually quite clear and burned off by the sun, and you can see it beginning to build up again out at sea.

The 90 mile stretch referred to as Big Sur was probably the most scenic part of the drive, with pristine rocky beaches and huge waves crashing up against the cliffs just below the road. With more twists and turns, bridges and vista points than you can shake a stick at, this was a fun route. Toward the northern part of the drive near the town called Big Sur itself, the forest reaches the ocean and we found a national forest campsite at half the price of the private ones down the road. The catch was we had to park the car and carry all our camping gear 1/2 a mile through the forest to the campground. The whole place was over-run by squirrels and the forest service had installed big steel lockers to keep your food safe from them. We didn't actually have any food worth stealing, but we had a great night of campfires, soup, marshmallows and red wine. The next morning we took the 1/2 mile walk in the other direction down to the sea through the woods and came out at a beautiful beach where a river meets the ocean and we sat to have breakfast (nothing too extravagant though - cereal bar and an apple!) on the sand. So nice in fact, we almost forgot that when we got back we had to carry a tent, 2 sleeping bags, a blow up mattress, 2 pillows, a camping stove, bowls, wine glasses, cutlery and a gas cylinder back to the car!

We stopped one afternoon in a fairly big town called Monterey and went out on a boat for the afternoon whale watching. It all started off to plan, and the trip out to sea was great with loads of seals, sea otters, pelicans etc to distract away from the fact that the sea was actually really rough. As we went out further, the skipper spotted a couple of humpback whales. Seeing these amazing mammals so close up, diving down and spraying water into the air, was enough to actually make the size of the waves seem quite amusing for a while. However, nearly an hour and a half later we were still being thrown around in the back of the boat 'admiring' the whales and combined with trying to balance to take photos was enough to make more than a handful of people on the boat turn green and disappear into the toilets. Not as bad as some, but pretty close to feeding the fish herself, Lou spent the remainder of the trip chewing gum and staring desperately at the horizon.
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