The gentler coast

Explore San Luis Obispo County's natural side
Matthew Jaffe

The elephant seals at Point Piedras Blancas aren't couth. They snort, bellow, and scratch, with little concern for the niceties of society. They loll on the beach like couch-size couch potatoes, periodically letting fly from massive lungs so strong that their staccato belching noises can be heard a mile away.

During the mating season, the bulls brawl and wench and hit on each others' ladies, which invariably leads to yet more brawling, if not always more wenching. With combatants weighing in at up to 5,000 pounds and stretching 16 feet from the tip of their proboscises to the far reaches of their rear flippers, these battles are akin to a sumo wrestling match between a pair of lust-crazed Chevy Suburbans. It's not pretty.

But for all their indelicate ways, elephant seals have a highly developed sense of real estate. In the early 1990s, they began to settle in the unspoiled coves of northern San Luis Obispo County, one of California's most gorgeous stretches of coastline. At first there were only a dozen or so animals. Now there are 8,500.

Their return is a testament to the unspoiled nature of this section of the state. And the elephant seals are not alone in their appreciation: over the past few years, citizen efforts have helped to preserve more than 1,500 acres of coastal land, including 10 1/2 miles for hiking, wildlife viewing, and habitat protection.

It's a place worth protecting. Stretching roughly 30 miles from Cayucos north to the Monterey County line, the San Luis Obispo County coast has its own identity, gentler than Big Sur's. Base yourself in Cayucos, Cambria, or San Simeon to explore the area's natural side and experience its most famous landmark, Hearst Castle, without the crowds of summer.

Larger than life, then and now

The elephant seals are not the only outsize presence here: William Randolph Hearst was the original alpha male in these parts.

Just inland from Point Piedras Blancas, the hills where Hearst built his dream estate―La Cuesta Encantada, commonly known as Hearst Castle―fall away and roll westward to a broad marine terrace carved into coves along the shoreline.

Hearst, who certainly could have lived anywhere, was nevertheless drawn back to this land, where his father had purchased 30,000 acres in 1865 and where Hearst had camped, hunted, and fished as a youth.

"I love the sea and I love the mountains and the hollows in the hills and the shady places in the creeks and the fine old oaks," he wrote to his mother. "I would rather spend a month here than any place in the world."

The world that Hearst knew as a boy and ruled as a man is mostly intact. You can still spot zebras, descended from his onetime menagerie, grazing along State 1. At William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach, you can see a descendant of the pier built by George Hearst in 1878; it eventually became the point of entry for the riches that his son amassed from around the world for his castle.

And you can still walk along the beach toward San Simeon Point, a bluff forested by eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and Monterey cypress. When the Hearst Corporation proposed building luxury hotels and a golf course here in 1998, this point became one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate on the California coast.