Friday, August 24, 2012

The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

 "Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all the others were making ships"  ~Charles Simic
The Piedras Blancas (White Rocks)
       We generally don’t pass a lighthouse without stopping in to meet the keepers and learn a bit about the local history.  How is it then that despite years of numerous adventures along the California coast we had never stopped to explore the Piedras Blancas lighthouse?  Perhaps we had been in a delightful rut. After visits to our favorite beaches, quaint towns, wildlife sanctuaries and wineries the time move on invariably arrives. We tend to head north en route to Big Sur, Monterey and Carmel enjoying the spectacular views as we time after time pass the lighthouse. 

     While researching our Memorial Day road trip I happened upon the lighthouse website and discovered that docent led tours of the historic buildings and the nature preserve were being offered by the bureau of Land Management three day per week. I immediately decided to make time to explore this landmark. 

The fog signal house assists ships when the lighthouse is difficult to see

        We met our guide on a cool central coast Saturday morning at the old abandoned Piedras Blancas hotel about a mile and a half north of the lighthouse property. We checked in and formed a convoy of about ten cars that followed the ranger’s lead car through the gate. A faint foggy marine layer still clung to coast as we assembled but, the sun quickly burned it off and left us with a crisp clear morning for our tour. As we were led to the parking area it became clear that there was more to see here than just a lone building. This was a complete compound featuring several out buildings, a nature walk and wildlife preserve.

The Spiral Staircase leading up to the top of the lighthouse was off limits and therefore quite tempting  

     The lighthouse was built in the late 1800’s and sits on 19 acres along the pacific ocean about six miles north of Hearst Castle.  It has recently been painted and refurbished and is even more impressive up close than it was from a distance.  Our guide entertained us with tales of what life was like for longtime lighthouse keeper Captain Lorin Thorndike. We were encouraged  to examine the many displays of Thorndike's personal items which gave us a glimpse of lighthouse life. We went on to learn about how Fresnel lights work and discovered that the original light has been replaced but, can now be seen on the main street of the neighboring town of Cambria. The tour continued with a stop at the fog house and finally a short talk on efforts being made to replenish the local otter and seal population.

The Fresnel light is now located in nearby Cambria

       After the first portion of the tour ended we set off on our nature walk. Tremendous efforts have been made to remove invasive nonnative plants from the acreage. They were installed with good intentions but their proliferation had a ripple effect and soon native birds and animals left the area. They have been successful in reinstalling native plants and are now seeing a rebound in native fauna as well.

     The waters off the craggy coast are teeming with wildlife and we stopped often along the trail to enjoy their beauty. The abundance of kelp provides a haven for sea otters and we were able to see quite a few playing in the morning sun. It is impossible to miss the scores of elephant seals and harbor seals that have since the early nineties established their rookery along theses protected shores. They are massive sometimes weighing upwards of 5000 pounds.   

      I was impressed at just how informative this tour was. The volunteers really seek to give visitors a comprehensive overview and instill an understanding about the importance of preserving the history, wildlife and natural plants of the central coast.  If you ever find yourself exploring this part of California plan a morning to discover the Piedras Blancas lighthouse for yourself. Take the tour; watch the waves break against the rocks and marvel at the animals that call the coast home. It made me wonder just how many hidden treasures we overlook on familiar routes because we are focused on something else. It's exciting to imagine all that is yet to be discovered in even the most familiar places.