California Coast, Part 1

I think we’ve been conned…. from what I can recall it never p*ssed down on Baywatch or any of the other US TV offerings of my youth that were set in California…..

New Year was spent at Carpintería, a small town on the coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara (so named because the local indigenous tribe were busy with carpentry when it was first discovered). We managed to get onto the State Beach campground for two nights. There are a few of these up the coast; they initially seemed expensive at $35 a night (no electricity; some have dump stations where you can empty waste and fill up with fresh water, some have no facilities at all). Then we saw the kind of prices the commercial campsites charge…. Ouch! $70-$80 a night seems quite common….. Needless to say we’ve avoided staying on any of those….



Carpintería was quite a nice little town, with plenty of upmarket eateries and gift/clothing shops clearly aimed at well-heeled visitors. Being church mice, our only expenditure was in the supermarket…..  We had our first torrential rain here when we arrived on 30 December; luckily the rain did clear up on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve so we managed to have a waterproof-free walk round.

We didn’t manage to work out the “Tsunami escape route” and “Tsunami Hazard” signs on the roads leading away from the beach. It wasn’t clear what you were supposed to do when you got to the end of the road and the choice became left or right along the coastline…. (there are no roads running directly inland for quite a distance up or down the coast).


Our next stop was Pismo Beach, further up the coast North of Santa Barbara. This wasn’t quite as upmarket as Carpintería, with the centre of town full of t-shirt and general tat shops and fish & chip / other fast food places. At least here we could have a wander round some of the shops without any fear of being politely escorted off the premises!



The State Beach campground at Pismo Beach was to the South of the town centre (though within easy walking distance), right next to the Butterfly Grove. It wasn’t clear at first exactly what this was, but I’d seen quite a few people there when we’d initially arrived, so we walked round to take a look. It turns out that it’s an overwintering spot for monarch butterflies, who travel up to 1500 miles to get there each winter. These are 4-5 generations behind the ones who migrated last winter, so it’s not exactly clear whether information is somehow passed down from their GGG grandparents as to where they need to go or whether it’s just chance that the same groves get butterflies each year…. As we walked in, a sole butterfly flapped past. At this point I did wonder how good it was going to be. Then I saw a sign: “can’t see any butterflies? Look up at what looks like clumps of brown leaves hanging from the trees”. Holy heck – there were gazillions of them…..


Continuing North, we stopped at Morro Bay, so named because early European settlers thought that the big rock just offshore looked like a moor’s turban…..


It was here that we saw our first sea otters….. and some other bits and bobs of wildlife.




From Morro Bay we drove further North and had a night at San Simeon State Park campground. South of Morro Bay, the original road along the coast has been pretty much built over by freeway, with just short sections remaining through the various towns. North of Morro Bay we were now on “proper” road for the rest of our trip up the coast.

We visited a big elephant seal rookery at nearby Piedras Blancas. These are Northern elephant seals, which we were told are slightly smaller that the Southern elephant seals that Mark is so familiar with, but grow bigger noses. I figured that smaller size but bigger nose was a good trade-off……






At San Simeon, we were very close to one of the West Coast’s major tourist attractions, Hearst Castle. It got good coverage in our guide book, so I’d put it on our initial list, but having done some further research we decided to give it a miss. Basically it’s a mega-mansion together with some guest houses (that are mansions in their own right), built for William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and lived in by him until the 1940s. I’d known that visits were by guided tour only and had seen a figure of $25 online, which had struck me as being more expensive than Windsor Castle hence it’d better be good. That wasn’t the whole story, it transpired. For $25 you can get a 45 minute tour of the grand rooms on the ground floor. Hearst actually lived in a suite of rooms on the second (American 3rd) floor. That’ll be a separate 45 minute tour and another $25 each… The guest houses and kitchens are another tour…. and so it goes on. We filed Hearst Castle under “fools and their money” and moved on…..

One of the rangers at the elephant seal rookery had recommended a coastal reserve at nearby Cambria as a good place to visit for otters, so off we went. We didn’t see any otters but had a nice walk nevertheless…



We’d had rain on and off all the way up the coast from Carpintería, but it had been what I would term “normal rain”. Now the weather got really grim, just in time for our trip up the “World Famous” section of Highway 1. Rain aside, it was an eventful day.

I was driving along merrily up a winding Highway 1 when there was a sudden nasty scraping noise from under K.A.C.  I stopped as soon as I could, pulling into a small stopping area on the opposite (seaward) side of the road. Mark was already up and pulling on his waterproofs. He soon returned with the bad news; the poo pipe housing had fallen off the bottom of K.A.C….. and the poo pipe it held had gone missing! DISASTER!

Note: the poo pipe is like a long length of extractor fan hose with a twist-on attachment at one end to connect it to the van. When one of the lugs snapped off this a few weeks ago we did try to buy a replacement, only to find that the ones they sell as standard in Walmart etc are a different diameter. We have soldiered on by Mark holding the pipe firmly in place whilst we perform the emptying manoevres. If we’d completely lost our pipe, where on Earth would we manage to get a correct-sized replacement? And how would we manage in the meantime?

Mark quickly got out the remaining bit of blue string and tied the housing back into place (he assures me that the original bit of blue string he used to hold a different part of the poo pipe assembly in place at Capitol Reef all those weeks ago is still in place; it was a different bit of botched-together plastic pipe that had fallen apart this time). Given the weather conditions, all I could manage was a very murky photo of his feet….


So we then had to scoot back down the road as fast as our wheels could take us. Mercifully, round the next bend, there was our poo pipe sprawled out across the road and by some miracle, no-one had yet run over it. We screeched to a halt blocking the road in both directions for good measure whilst Mark jumped out to retrieve our prized possession. It seems to be unscathed apart from having sprung a small leak where it hit the road. Luckily this is at the van-attachment end, so Mark now has to hold the top couple of inches tightly concertina’d together as well as holding the attachment part firmly in place. He’s now run out of fingers, so if there are any more mishaps, toes may need to be pressed into service…..

Anyway, the next time you see the glorious Highway One on TV or in print, you will know that it’s all lies. Think monsoon-like rain, sea mist, and a precious poo pipe in the middle of the road……

After that excitement, we then had to turn back on ourselves later in the day when we got to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to find it closed…. Big Sur is a Big Tourist Trap, so we investigated a couple of nearby private campgrounds, each of which looked very grim. One quoted $68, the other one didn’t even have any staff on duty; it was self-register and post the money at a wooden shed by the entrance. I can’t remember the exact price quoted on said shed. Somewhere in the region of $100 – serious spluttering territory. So we had to backtrack 20-odd miles back down the coast to Limekiln, another $35 state beach. At least we could live in hope that the next day might dawn sunny and we might actually see something on our third journey along that particular stretch of Highway 1.

Limekiln was a small camping area under a high road bridge. I didn’t actually realise how close the sea was until the next morning when the mist lifted a bit….


I bet it’s lovely when the sun’s shining…..