Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Breakout: Piedras Blancas Trip Report

Everyone needs a road trip once in awhile even if it is a short one. I made the long trek down to Piedras Blancas in Central California over the past few days. Piedras Blancas is about six miles north of San Simeon and the Hearst Castle on California Highway 1. The trip south from the Monterrey Carmel area takes about two and a half hours of windy driving on a narrow highway with steep drop offs and cliffs to the ocean below. Not for passengers or drivers that get car sick or are afraid of heights.The road hugs the cliffs in a number of spots and has a few one way spots where you sit and wait while the car coming from the other way goes through and then it's your turn to go.

So if you want to do some landscape photography on the Big Sur Coast this would be the area to do it. On the way down I stopped off at one of the overlooks in Big Sur and saw no less than twenty Gray whales all less than a mile off of shore. With a few right below the cliff. There was a gentleman there photographing them from a photo club in Monterrey and he said it had been that way all morning long! But Gray Whales weren't the purpose of my trip. I was coming all this way to photograph Northern Elephant seals and I wasn't disappointed.

When I arrived at the beach area there was plenty of parking in a gravel lot. There were informative signs and walkways to view the seals from. There were seals lying all over the beach with the bulls scattered among them. The walkways made it difficult to photograph from as they were at an elevation roughly fifteen feet up on the bluff. I would say that due to the bluffs that this is best for a mid morning shoot or a late afternoon shoot like I ended up doing. A 100-400 zoom was useful for most situations as was fill flash. Also look out for opportunities to photograph Cottontail Rabbits and California Ground Squirrels as they too are in abundance.

Late in the evening I discovered a beach further up the road where there were few seals but the access was better as you could shoot almost at ground level.You couldn't get too close as they are a protected species and you could be fined for harassment under federal law.

If you want to photograph the elephant seals be sure to check out the website for the Friends of the Elephant Seal at


I had a great trip down and on the way home the following day I stopped off at the Moss Landing harbor to photograph Sea Otters and the Sea Lions both of which are fairly easy to photograph off of Jetty Road which goes around the harbor right off of Highway 1. The turn off for the road is about 1/4 mile north of the harbor. Oh and the pier next to the restaurant is often covered with Sea Lions.

After leaving Moss Landing I headed north to Santa Cruz to Natural Bridges State Beach. I was hoping to catch some over wintering monarch butterflies that spend the winter in the eucalyptus trees there. I stated that I was hoping as most of the butterflies start leaving the park starting in December but usually there are some holdovers. The ranger at the gate stated that there were very few left but I might try down at Lighthouse Field. He said there were a few hundred left in the Grove across from the surfers.

Well I never did find the butterflies. As it turns out Lighthouse Field is also known as Steamer's Lane is one of the top surfing spots on the west coast of the US for surfers learning to surf big waves. What would you do? Butetrflies or shoot images of surfers on waves that were almost the size small houses.

I got a few decent images of Daryl "The Flea" Virostko of Mavericks big wave surfing fame. Then around 10:30 it started raining cats and dogs. So I pulled up the tripod and made the long trek homeward.

God's light and love to all,


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