Where Moonstones, kayak paddles, otters and elephant seals compete with Hearst Castle for attention.
The time was when families traveled to the San Simeon area solely to tour Hearst Castle and take in views of the dramatic Central Coast shoreline. Don’t get me wrong, those are still around and as eye-popping as ever — and the prices at the castle have been kept at a surprisingly reasonable $25 for adults and $12 for children.
These days, though, there’s so much more to do and see in the area. Elephant seals, sea otters, whales, monarch butterflies, hikes in the woods, waterfalls and a sort of anti-castle — a fascinating house built of found and recycled objects. Hunt for moonstones, jadeite and agate on the beaches, collect a few pieces of beautiful driftwood. And most of these activities are absolutely free.
It starts with renting a room a few miles south of San Simeon, in the far more charming and happening town of Cambria. There are many hotel options as well as Airbnb listings, but most visitors choose hotels along Moonstone Beach Drive, right across the street from the beach and the boardwalk on the bluffs above the waves. Several hotels, including Cambria Shores Inn and Castle Inn, are dog-friendly, as well as many of the private rentals.
But we prefer to leave our Irish setter with a sitter and take a room with a fireplace at the newly refurbished Oceanpoint Ranch at the north end of Moonstone Drive. It’s an especially fun place for families, with large grassy areas for children to play, leading down to an entry point under the road to a beach cove; croquet and other games on the front lawn; fire pits that start up at the touch of a button. You can buy s’mores packets at the front desk, or to save money, bring your own along with long sticks. Right across the street is a picnic spot with tables, perfect for whale-watching or just looking south at waves crashing into the rocks.
Here are our favorite activities in and around Cambria; they vary a little depending on the time of year:
Elephant seals: The rookery where these animals molt, breed and raise their young can fascinate viewers for hours. The 5,000-pound males have long, swinging snouts that have given the species its unique look and name. Each male has a harem on the beach—one that is continually challenged by other males, so there are frequent confrontations that include puttering roars, chasing, and sometimes brief physical battles.
Seals are there year-round, but not always the full family groups. Females and their pups will hang around through April; in the fall, the males will haul out. Check the Friends of the Elephant Seal website at www.elephantseal.org for details.
The only way people used to be able to view the seals was on docent-led trips north of Santa Cruz. Over the past couple of decades, though, the seals appeared on a stretch of beach about four miles north of Hearst Castle, conveniently right near a pre-existing parking area. In recent years, the seals have continued to expand their territory north up to the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse and beyond. A new two-mile dirt trail has been installed north of the main viewing area northward, where you continue to see the seals; offshore, otter spottings are common and in spring, gray whale mothers and calves head north close to shore here. You can spot them between the bluffs and the white rocks that give the area its name.
Piedras Blancas Light Station: If you can time your trip to the elephant seals for a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, you also can go on a lighthouse tour, which begins at 10 a.m. on those days. The tour costs $10 for adults, $5/children. Get the details at www.piedrasblancas.org/tours.html.
Hiking: The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is a stunning piece of land in the heart of Cambria that encompasses pine forest, gorgeous coastal views, open expanses and a stream. Entry is free, leashed dogs are allowed and the trails are easy. You can enter at various points, where you’ll usually find a brochure with a map, though to be on the safe side, you should print one out beforehand at www.ffrpcambria.org/visitors.html. The Ridge Trail, which skirts the edge of the forest, includes a marked area where monarch butterflies overwinter, with dozens of them fluttering amid the pines.
Waterfall: It’s a beautiful 26-mile drive along the coast highway from Cambria north to Salmon Creek Trail, about three miles past Ragged Point. The main trail is a challenging, wildflower-strewn climb, but you can opt instead for the easy, quarter-mile walk to an otherworldly waterfall. Just follow the signs—and the sound of rushing water—descending amid some boulders to the water below the 120-foot falls. There’s a parking area along the highway, leashed dogs are allowed and entry is free in this southernmost section of Big Sur.
Beachcombing: Beautiful tumbled rocks cover much of Moonstone Beach, including small moonstones and pieces of jadeite and agate. Hunt for them and artistically twisted pieces of driftwood.
Nitt Witt Ridge. A garbage collector for the town of Cambria spent 50 years building this mind-boggling house out of the trash of others, as well as shells, driftwood and other natural materials in the area. It’s a sight and a half; tours ask a donation of $10. Find details at visitcambriaca.com/itinerary-element/nitt-witt-ridge/
Shop and eat: The town of Cambria is full of unusual gift and craft shops. I particularly like Muse, an eclectic little store of affordable items at the west end of Main Street, and the rambling antique shops at the east end. Here’s a much fuller list: www.cambriachamber.org/gifts.php Restaurants range from pricey places featuring local ingredients to the affordable and fun Main Street Grill. Tourists aren’t supposed to know this, but Café—yes, just Café—on Bridge Street serves unbelievable sandwiches. Try the pastrami.
Kayak: You can rent them, or go for outstanding guided tours that explore sea caves and other wonders, at Sea for Yourself. Check for details at kayakcambria.com. They also rent wetsuits for your outings; these aren’t Orange County’s warm waters!
Karin Klein is a 35-year resident of Orange County who raised three children here, and the author of the interpretive hiking book “50 Hikes in Orange County.” She is a longtime journalist who specializes in covering health, education, environment, outdoors and food science