Story and photos by Marlene Greer
When my husband and I pulled our RV into San Simeon State Park in January, half the campground was closed and the portion that was open was half empty even on a holiday weekend. During the off-season (Oct. 1 to March 14), the state park is first-come, first-served, and we had no trouble getting a spot. There are no hookups, but each site has a table and fire ring.
It was dark when we pulled in, and the first thing we noticed was the incredible night sky. Coming from Southern California, where city lights dim the stars, here, we saw the universe on dazzling display. A night out by the campfire under the stars was the ideal beginning to a four-day weekend exploring the Central Coast.
According to park literature, the area was once a rancheria supporting the development of the California missions, serving as a coastal access point for goods shipped to and from Monterey’s Mission San Antonio. Today, the park encompasses two miles of rocky coastline, wetlands and one of only five remaining native Monterey pine groves left in the world. In winter, the Monterey pines are home to large numbers of monarch butterflies.
The park has two campgrounds – San Simeon Creek and the more primitive Washburn. San Simeon campground sits amid the trees at a lower elevation than the coastal bluffs so there are no views of the coast. Washburn sits on a hill one mile from the coast. Though the area is open with little privacy, campers have views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the ocean.
From either campground, visitors can take a trail to where the creek empties into the Pacific Ocean. You won’t be swimming here, but there’s plenty of driftwood, rocks and tidepools to explore.
There’s also an excellent trail the winds three miles through the park. Interpretive signs offer information on native wildlife and habitat and benches along the route offer a chance to rest or take in the view.
Though not among the more pristine of coastal parks and beaches, San Simeon State Park is situated conveniently to Hearst Castle and other points of interest along Highway 1 and in nearby towns. From a seal colony to an old lighthouse, there’s much to explore.
- Hearst Castle – The former home of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst is now a California state historic monument. Begun in 1919 and taking nearly 30 years to complete, the 115-room main house, guesthouses, pools and eight acres of cultivated gardens are a must see. Tours take about two hours and run throughout the day. Advance tickets recommended even during off-season. Information: (800) 444-4445, www.hearstcastle.com.
- Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery - Elephant seals spend 8 to 10 months at sea, migrating thousands of miles to return to this rookery to rest, mate, give birth and molt. When we visited in January, it was birthing season. New pups and their moms covered the beach as far as the eye could see. Now through July is male molting season (when the seals grow new skin and slough off the old). A viewing area off Highway 1 is located seven miles north of San Simeon.
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse- Completed in 1875, the lighthouse was among the chain of light stations used by mariners navigating the California Coast. Now under the Bureau of Land Management, the lighthouse is open for tours Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Meet at 9:45 a.m. at the old Piedras Blancas Motel 1 miles north of the light station (four miles north of San Simeon). Adults $10, children $5. (805) 927-7361.
- Cambria - Just two miles south of San Simeon State Park on Highway 1 is the small town of Cambria. Enjoy a stroll down Main Street, with its antique and boutique shops. Then head for the boardwalk at Moonstone Beach. The mile-long path extends from Moonstone Beach Drive to Santa Rosa Beach and protects the coastal bluffs from foot traffic. Benches along the route invite visitors to sit a spell and perhaps watch the sunset.
- Cayucos – This small beachside community about 15 miles south of Cambria has a nice beach, pier, shops and restaurants. A great place to spend the day at the beach. Kayaking is popular, and rentals are available. Free parking, bathrooms and showers.
- Wine tasting - If you are visiting Cambria or Cayucos, stop in at the Cambria Wine Shop, Moonstone Cellars or Cayucos Cellars for a sample of local wines. Or try Harmony Cellars, in the tiny hamlet of Harmony, population 18, on Highway 1 between Cambria and Cayucos. There are dozens more wineries and tasting rooms in nearby Paso Robles. Stop in at the San Simeon Tourist Office and pick up a wine tour brochure.
SAN SIMEON STATE PARK
Where: 35 miles north of San Luis Obispo on Highway 1.
Camping: San Simeon Creek – 134 sites for tent or RV, tables, fire rings, flush toilets, coin-operated hot showers, dump station, no hookups, maximum length 35 feet; $25 ($20 off-season). Washburn – 68 sites, tables, fire rings, chemical toilets, water spigots; $15 ($11 off-season).
Reservations: (800) 444-7275; www.parks.ca.gov. First-come, first-served Oct. 1 to March 14; reservations recommended March 15 to Sept. 30.