Very few places in nature would you feel comfortable getting up close to 5,000-pound animals. Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is one of them. While visiting the seal colony, you can get up close to these impressive (and vocal) animals and observe them in their natural habitat. In addition to two quarter-mile long boardwalk trails, the rookery is also the starting point for a dirt trail up the coast to the Piedras Blancas Light Station, a lovely thimble-shaped lighthouse on Point Piedras Blancas just north of the rookery.
The hike to the boundary of the Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area (which is only open to the public by docent led tours) is 3.2 miles round trip. The level hiking trail crosses a coastal bluff with ocean views and the opportunity to check out elephant seals on the beach below, away from the crowds that gather at the main area of the rookery. The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is located on Highway One just north of San Simeon, south of the Big Sur Coast, at the north end of San Luis Obispo County. Less hike-minded visitors can enjoy one or both of the boardwalks bordering the rookery, or you can combine the boardwalks with the trail to the lighthouse and really stretch your legs for around four miles of hiking.
The elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery have an interesting history. Hunted nearly to extinction, the seals have made a remarkable comeback, as a sign at the rookery explains:
In the late 1800s, whalers discovered elephant seal blubber yielded extremely high quality oil. Hunted by the thousands for several decades, these animals were thought to be extinct until a small group was found on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California. All northern elephant seals today are descended from that remnant population.
Hunters no longer threaten the elephant seals thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The return of the elephant seals to Piedras Blancas is relatively recent:
In 1990, biologists spotted over a dozen animals for the first time. In 1992, the first pup was born, and by 1996 over 1,000 pups were born here at Pt. Piedras Blancas! Today that number has quadrupled. The total population is now more than 15,000.
There is a large gravel parking area just off Highway One at the Elephant Seal Rookery. On the left as you enter the parking area is one of the boardwalks for observing the elephant seals. Walk down this trail, which crosses a short bluff above a beach, and you’ll observe elephant seals lying in the sand below. After a short distance, the trail ends at an overlook where you’ll turn around and head back.
At the northwest end of the large parking area, there is another boardwalk along one of the rookery’s beaches. This trail is visited by fewer tourists and connects to a small parking area to the north where the coastal trail to the Piedras Blancas Light Station begins. You can easily add an extra half-mile (round trip) to your hike to the light station by starting from the main parking area and hiking north up the boardwalk to reach the trail.
Make sure to look at the railing at the start of the boardwalk, where you will see three wooden boards measuring the body lengths of adult male, adult female, and pup elephant seals. The male elephant seals grow to be significantly larger than their counterparts. While females can weigh a respectable 1,600 pounds, males can weigh up to 5,000 pounds!
Walk along the boardwalk and look down on the seals just below the short bluff. While many seals will just be lying there, the large males like to bark and fight with other males and pursue females. Linger a while and you will see more, like elephant seals swimming to shore.
Northern Elephant seals congregate at Piedras Blancas to breed, give birth, and molt, so you can witness different activities at different times of the year. Breeding starts at the beginning of December. From December to March, you can see male elephant seals fighting over females, and see mother seals nursing cute young pups. Pups stay on the beach for a month and quadruple their weight during that time from nursing. From April to August, you’ll spot two-tone elephant seals on the beach in the process of molting. The elephant seals go through a “catastrophic molt” and lose all of their fur during a period of several weeks.
Probably the most entertaining aspect of the elephant seals is the loud guttural barking that comes from males attempting to dominate the scene. Because words and photos fail to do these animals justice, here is a video of male elephant seals sounding off:
At the end of the boardwalk, you will reach a small parking area (drive in and park here to skip the boardwalks). Take the dirt trail departing from the northwest corner of the lot and begin hiking up the coast to the Piedras Blancas Light Station. You’ll probably notice two things immediately: you’ve left the crowds behind, and there are still a good number of seals to observe.
Come to a fork a few hundred feet up the trail. The path to the right takes a shorter and less scenic route up the coast. Stay to the left, following the edge of the bluff, which bulges out to provide nice views up and down the coast. Keep an eye toward the cobblestone beach below, where you can spot small groups of elephant seals.
In another 0.2 miles, the trails will come back together. Continue along the grassy bluff swept by ocean breezes and you will cross a short plank walkway leading to another split. Bear left again to follow the contour of the coast, or turn right for something a little shorter. The trails will quickly reunite.
As you hike, there will be views up the rocky wave-battered coast toward the white beacon on Point Piedras Blancas, drawing you ever closer. There is a white knuckle-shaped rock at the end of the point, just past the light station, which is how the area got its name. Piedras Blancas is Spanish for white rocks.
Along this trail there are places where sand has piled up on the edge of the bluff and elephant seals have taken up residency. This affords you an eye-level view of the elephant seals that is not possible in the main area of the rookery. Stay behind the barrier ropes and be cautious around these large and strong wild animals.
After 0.55 miles, you will cross a seasonal (dry stream) and then the trail will get close to Highway One for a stretch as the distance between the road and the ocean shrinks. At 0.8 miles from the small parking lot, you will reach a wet area along the trail where there is a thicket of brush. The narrow trail seems to split up here, but go straight through the thicket, hiking parallel to the coast, and the trail will become easy to identify again. From here it is another 0.6 miles up the coast to a dirt road leading out to Point Piedras Blancas.
Over the last leg of the trail, you will round a long sandy beach with a gathering of elephant seals that can rival the population on the beaches back at the main area of the rookery. The trail thins over this last stretch, and if you feel like turning around that’s okay. The hike will end anti-climatically at the gate at the edge of the Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area, a good distance from the lighthouse itself.
When you reach the dirt road (near a telephone pole with the number 3 on it), turn left to walk the final 0.2 miles to the edge of the Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area operated by the Bureau of Land Management. The striking 100-foot tall lighthouse began operating in 1875 and is being restored to its original appearance. Unfortunately, the gate is as close as you can get to the light station on this hike, so after venturing 1.6 miles from the trailhead (or 1.9 miles from the large parking area), it’s time to turn around and head back.
The Light Station is open to the public only through docent led tours. The tours are offered regularly throughout the year, starting from a different location than the hike described here. Tours are offered September 1 through June 14 on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10 a.m. The rest of the year, tours are offered Monday through Saturday at 10 am. There are no tours on federal holidays. Tours last two hours and allow guests to explore the historic lighthouse and the surrounding buildings. Visitors can also learn about plants and wildlife while enjoying coastal view on an easy half-mile long interpretive trail. The tour has a $10 fee for adults and a $5 fee for children 6 to 17 (younger children are free). Reservations are only required for large groups. Meet at the former Piedras Blancas Motel located 1.5 miles north of the light station prior to the start of the tour.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. Dogs are not allowed on the boardwalks and trails. There are avoidable patches of poison oak toward the end of the trail, so watch out for that. No fee or permit is required to visit the rookery or hike up the coast to the edge of Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From San Luis Obispo, drive 45.7 miles north up Highway One to the large parking area for the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, located on the left side of Highway One. To reach the parking area at the trailhead for the coastal trail to the light station, proceed another 0.3 miles up Highway One and turn into the smaller lot on the left. The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is 4.4 miles north of Hearst Castle and 10.4 miles south of Ragged Point at the south end of the Big Sur Coast.
Trailhead address: Cabrillo Highway (Highway One), San Simeon, CA 93452
Trailhead coordinates: 35.6644, -121.262713 (35° 39′ 51.84″N 121° 15′ 45.76″W)
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