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 theniceties of society. They loll on the beach like couch-size couchpotatoes, periodically letting fly from massive lungs so strongthat their staccato belching noises can be heard a mile away.

During the mating season, the bulls brawl and wench and hit oneach others' ladies, which invariably leads to yet more brawling,if not always more wenching. With combatants weighing in at up to5,000 pounds and stretching 16 feet from the tip of theirproboscises to the far reaches of their rear flippers, thesebattles are akin to a sumo wrestling match between a pair oflust-crazed Chevy Suburbans. It's not pretty.

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

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

It's a place worth protecting. Stretching roughly 30 miles fromCayucos north to the Monterey County line, the San Luis ObispoCounty coast has its own identity, gentler than Big Sur's. Baseyourself in Cayucos, Cambria, or San Simeon to explore the area'snatural side and experience its most famous landmark, HearstCastle, 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 theseparts.

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

Hearst, who certainly could have lived anywhere, wasnevertheless drawn back to this land, where his father hadpurchased 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 thehills and the shady places in the creeks and the fine old oaks," hewrote to his mother. "I would rather spend a month here than anyplace in the world."

The world that Hearst knew as a boy and ruled as a man is mostlyintact. You can still spot zebras, descended from his onetimemenagerie, grazing along State 1. At William Randolph HearstMemorial State Beach, you can see a descendant of the pier built byGeorge Hearst in 1878; it eventually became the point of entry forthe riches that his son amassed from around the world for hiscastle.

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

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