A vacation and travel tip when driving along the Central California coast, just above San Simeon and the Hearst Castle, includes stopping to see the elephant seals resting on the beach.
There’s no cost to observe these amazing marine mammals and ponder at the way they swim off into the Pacific Ocean for 8 to 10 months at a time and then return to the Piedras Blancas rookery to rest and regain their strength.
The rookery is 7 miles north of San Simeon and is open for viewing every day of the year. There is no admission fee and no reservations are required.
My wife and I came across the rookery while spending a few days in March at Avila Beach, just south of San Luis Obispo. We heard about them and decided to take the nearly one-hour drive along Highway 1, winding past San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay and through the small towns leading to San Simeon.
The air along the central coast is light and cool. Moisture trickles along the breezy currents and tickles your skin. It’s easy to gaze out to sea and imagine the Clipper ships sailing up the coast in the 1800s or Russian sailors exploring the coastline.
There weren’t many road signs marking the rookery so I kept eyeing the odometer and then suddenly there was a parking lot filled with cars and travelers gazing over a bluff and onto the beach.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of the seals lay in the sand during our mid-March trip oblivious to the human eyes excitedly watching them. I couldn’t believe how many lay quietly and then the size of the full-grown ones struck me. Females grow to 9-12 feet and weigh between 900-1800 pounds. Males grow to 14-16 feet long and weigh in at 3000-5000 pounds
In the 1880s, the elephant seals were thought to be extinct after having been hunted for their valuable oil. The web site, elephantseal.org, describes the oil as being second in quality to sperm whales. A small group of up to 100 seals survived and today the number of northern seals is estimated at 170,000.
While in the water, the seals are moving 24 hours a day in patterns of diving and resurfacing. Females will rest on the beach for several weeks while males may sleep there for up to 100 days before heading back into the water, traveling through the rich kelp beds and foraging for food north toward Alaska.
The elephant seal rookery is about 49 miles north of San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay on Highway 1. The drive north to Carmel is about 80 miles.
Motel rooms in San Simeon begin at slightly more than $ 55 per night depending on the time of year and day of the week.
Observing the seals and walking along the bluff may only take slightly more than an hour, but the trip is memorable and the mammals are truly amazing. I recommend it.