Elephant Seals, Artichoke Bread and a Lighthouse: Cheap Kicks on the California Coast

The wind had something to say. Howling, moaning, rattling through the fog-swelled rafters, it talked to us all night. The next morning, it fingered our hair, pinkened our noses, and carried the cries of birth and battles, sea gulls and elephant seals…

I think I’ll start the article something like that, depending on how highfalutin I wanna get. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds; the drama of the California coast during a winter storm evokes that kind of mulling, moody language. The main character, if you will, of my mini-trip down the San Francisco peninsula was the wind, urgent and unrelenting. But the supporting cast was pretty rad too.

I’m trying not to get too claustrophobic in my own life, and trying to keep the travel writing material a’coming. So despite a heavy-duty week-long storm, my friend Liz and I hopped into my beat-up little car and headed out for a little Northern California overnighting action in Pescadero.

Aside from being super accessible from the inner Bay Area, a trip down to Pescadero is also one of cheapest getaways around. We hiked around redwoods, espied an elephant seal colony, ate “world famous” artichoke bread and local goat milk cheese, and lazed in a cliffside hot tub—all for under $90 each.

Pescadero is an old-school fishing town down the peninsula between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Aside from some seriously killer breads from Arcangeli Grocery, its main claims to fame are its surroundings: the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, and Ano Nuevo State Park. Pigeon Point is a pretty basic hostel—except for its dramatic perch literally on the edge of the continent, its historic lighthouse, and its cliffside hot tub (yes, really). Ano Nuevo is a sandy stretch of shoreline best known as the winter home of migrating elephant seals, where they birth and wean and fuss and fight.

"Look, nature!"

The drive from Oakland was about an hour long, Highway 92 delving us down the spine of the peninsula into Half Moon Bay, a quintessentially quirky Northern California beach town. Then we headed down the 1, California’s most famously beautiful highway. It winds you past pastoral fields, green hills, a sprinkling of cove beaches and family farms, and a crashing, crumbling coastline. Everything was grey and heavy and wet. It was perfect Lucero-listening weather.

Huddled on a cliff next to an run-down, chained-off old lighthouse, Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel smells like salt, and the ocean winds rattle the humble buildings endlessly. The hostel is divided into three houses, each with its own kitchen and common room. There was only one other couple in the house, fellow overnighters from the East Bay. It was $25 for a dorm bunk; we had a whole room to ourselves.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

The main draw of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel isn’t the ocean views or its precipitous perch; it’s the hot tub. I don’t know how a youth hostel came to have a feature like a hot tub, but it’s about the raddest thing you can imagine. A trip to the hot tub cost $7 per person; you sign up for a half-hour slot when you check-in.

We stumbled in the dark to the hot tub, shuffling in our sneakers and shivering in our towels. We kicked it in the hot tub, listening to the sound of wind and waves. It was a dark, cloudy night; there were no stars, just the white froth of water on rocks, and the lonesome beam of the lighthouse.

The next morning, we drove 10 minutes down to Ano Nuevo. Celebrities may have Miami; elephant seals winter in Ano Nuevo. They arrive from Alaska in mid-December; moms birth pups, wean them, and they hang around confused and blubberous until about late March. Mid-January is the best time to check out the seals; on our tour, we saw a birth, a fight, plenty of sulking and lots of squealing.

Hella seals

The seal tour is pretty popular, especially as a field trip for Bay Area schools. You have to take a guided tour, and it’s best to book ahead, but here’s the good news: the tour is an hour and a half long, and only $7. (Parking in the lot, though, costs a $10; there’s not any other viable parking around.)

Our naturalist docent guide was a cool old dude that solidified my opinion that being a park volunteer after you retire is about the most bad-ass thing you can do with your time. Our group of 13 people, mostly all Californians on day trips, headed out into the sand dunes, a mile traipse from the parking lot.

First we passed “Losers’ Alley,” where male seals that have lost the fight for prestige pout and sulk in solitude for the remainder of the season. We got pretty close to one; he arched his back up, his nose/trunk hanging like an absurd, uncircumcised phallus. A guttural, grunting nose erupted, bursting out of his mouth in a gust of white breath; it sounded like a stopped-up toilet. It was his get-the-hell-back cry, and we obliged.

We climbed up a dune that overlooked the colony, and spent about an hour watching them flop around in the sand, squealing and moaning and rumbling their enormous selves around. The pups were adorable, too fat to do much of anything but wiggle their fins around and cry for milk. The moms flipped sand over their backs, rolled over to let pups nurse, and grumbled. The men did what men do: fight.

Bashing chests...

We caught a pretty good fight, full of plenty of screaming, biting and butting. It broke out amid the crowd, dominoed its way through the colony, pups wiggling to get out of the way; it rumbled all the way down to the shore, where the loser got 86ed. “It’s just like a bar fight,” Liz surmised.

Going mad for the placenta

We also got to see a birth. Well, not really. It was too far away to see, but we were alerted by the swooping, squawking riot of sea gulls. Sea gulls, apparently, love to eat placenta, so you can always tell when a birth is going down when the gulls start going crazy, a frenzy of white wings and diving beaks.

Muddy and wind-tossed, we tramped back to the car, cranked up the heat, and headed home. It was invigorating to get out of town, even if it was just for a night. Aside from gathering info for an article (not yet sold, if there’s any takers out there), I needed to clear my mind. It’s so easy to get tunnel-vision, to get caught up in the everydayness of my own life. It’s a good life, but there should be more to it than errands and work and my computer. I really am happiest when I’m traveling, and my mini-trip confirmed that. And reminded me how much killer stuff there is within an hour of where I live. And that it doesn’t need to cost any more than a new pair of pants.

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1 Response to “Elephant Seals, Artichoke Bread and a Lighthouse: Cheap Kicks on the California Coast”


  1. 1 Ekua January 27, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    A few days ago, I lectured a friend for going to see the elephant seals without me… don’t worry, I won’t do the same with you 😉 I’ve been trying to make it out to Ano Neuvo for two years now. Hopefully I can make it out there before the end of Feb! Also, I have a Hwy 1 entry coming up soon about a little drive I did in Nov. Just letting you know so you don’t think I’m yanking your ideas 😛 BTW, seagulls are gross. They make for awesome pictures, but thinking about them eating seal placenta and then potentially dropping the remnants of that on people, ew!


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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