California’s Highway 1 is one of the nation’s most celebrated scenic drives, especially along the Central Coast. Each section has its own personality, but the section from Morro Bay to the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse is particularly unique.
The topography has remained relatively unmolested by farming, ranching or urban sprawl and gives you a real sense of the romantic days of early California. It’s what tourists often picture in their mind’s eye.
As you drive along this winding highway, with only one lane in each direction, you will be impressed by how few cars are on the road — unlike most of California.
A high percentage of the cars are either Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro convertibles with their tops down. These cars must be rentals driven by tourists eager to experience the fantasy California lifestyle they dream about.
Start at Morro Bay, a sleepy little town only about 200 miles north of Long Beach. Its most distinguishing feature is Morro Rock. Stroll around the embarcadero, enjoy great seafood at local restaurants and view the wildlife both in and out of the water. I like to walk along the boardwalk to the other side of the rock and talk to the “birders” monitoring peregrine falcons nesting on the rock — you can no longer climb on the rock.
A little farther north is the village of Cambria. They emphasize their artsy culture and like many towns along the coast, they have a lot of art galleries, gift shops and antique stores.
North from Cambria you may spot wild zebras along the roadside and of course you will see those wild Mustang convertibles everywhere — Camaros too.
Continuing north past another small town, San Simeon, you get to the centerpiece of the Central Coast — Hearst Castle. I’ve been there several times over the years and, while the castle itself has not changed, visitor accommodations have changed radically.
Under its current ownership by California State Park System, it now follows a pattern of similar facilities, and charges separate fees for tours of different sections of the house. Midweek is the best time to go, only about 1,500 visitors on a Wednesday, but a holiday weekend may see 5,000 visitors a day.
Tour buses take you from the visitor center up to the mansion, which sits atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A friend of mine, who has been a tour guide/docent there for many years, told me of the extensive training that each guide undertakes prior to leading tours. The tours present excellent descriptions of the Hearst story and early California history.
Another 4.5 miles north of Hearst Castle, a new attraction was unwittingly added by Mother Nature herself. In the early 1990s, northern elephant seals began to establish colonies on beaches near Piedras Blancas. I first saw them in 1996 — only about 100 or so at that time – but today, they come in larger herds. They come for different purposes during different seasons — breeding, molting and birthing — so at times you will only see a few of the giant mammals and at other times you will see thousands. Yes, thousands.
In 1997, Friends of the Elephant Seal was organized to protect the animals and provide public education about them. A parking lot, a boardwalk and a well-marked viewing area are located just off the highway — although the animals have recently moved a little to the north. Learn more at www.elephantseal.org.
Just one last word. You don’t have to drive a Camaro or a Mustang convertible to enjoy California’s Central Coast.