Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Elephant Seals and A Colorful Coastal Prairie Hike at Piedras Blancas

Date: April 8, 2016
Place: Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon, California
Coordinates: 35.662751, -121.257678
Length: 4 miles in and out
Level: easy
Facilities at trailhead: none.

One of the famous stops along Hwy 1 is the Elephant Seals rookery at Piedras Blancas, near the town of San Simeon. We too have stopped there many times to observe these magnificent seals. There, beginning at the north end of the seals observation area, there is a 2 miles trail stretching to the north along the coastal cliffs all the way to the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse access road and a bit beyond. Last Friday I hiked that trail for the first time, and I could kick myself for not having done so before. It's that pretty.
Nearly all the photos in this post are from my hike last Friday, but I also included a few photos that we took at the observation area on previous visits.
My hike, as captured by my GPS
The elephant seals, of course, are the primary reason for stopping at Piedras Blancas. This place is probably the most accessible place where they can be observed from a close yet safe distance. The elephant seals can be seen lying on the sand in large aggregates or solitary, swimming between the rocks or simply bobbing in the waves. 
Elephant Seals
The elephant seals can be seen there pretty much year round. The most action, however, happens during the fall and winter months when pupping and mating take place. During that time of year the large bulls are present, making their genetic mark on the future seal population. The bulls have a large appendage on their nose, which is what awarded them the name 'elephant seals'. The females and the younger males don't have that appendage. Having done their job for seal society for the year, they go back to sea to feed. April is normally too late to see the large bulls, so I included the photos below from previous visits to the rookery.
Elephant Seal Bull (October 24, 2011)
The seals communicate with grunts and snorts. The bigger the animal and its appendage, the deeper the sound. The grunts of the large bulls feels through the guts.
Elephant Seal Bull (March 14, 2013)
Wildlife other than elephant seals is abundant there as well. The most obvious are the ocean birds. All the usuals were present: gulls, pelicans and cormorants. A typical sight is a cormorant with its wings spread out to dry.
Surfin': Double-crested Cormorant
Dryness was out of the question. A constant drizzle was coming down throughout my time there, and everything was soaked. The rain didn't stop the birds from singing. Spring rituals must go on.
Song Sparrow
Every time before we had stopped at Piedras Blancas on our way to or from another destination and although I knew about the hiking trail for a while, we had never worked the time to hike it into our schedule. This time I was by myself, I had the time, and I had no excuses. Not even the rain. I had no rain gear with me so I took a bandana to cover the camera and I headed north through the trailhead gate.
A lush coastal prairie greeted me as I made my way on the narrow trail through the vegetation. The prominent vegetation that meets the eye is made of non-native weeds, such as mustard, cabbage and sheep's sorrel.
Weeds' Invasion
Non-native - because they are exotic species, most had arrived at California with the European settlers. Invasive - because they quickly took over the areas they set roots in, outcompeting native plant species original to the place.
Weeds - because they are not wanted there. As pretty as they may be.
Sheep's Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), non-native, invasive weed.

I was happy to find that there are still many native plant species there, and most of them were putting on their best spring show.
Sun Cup (Taraxia ovata)
Open flowers, like little saucers, were gathering the drizzle droplets, and the droplets were gliding on the petals, slipping in the cracks town to the ground.
Western Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)
Droplets were gathering on my camera lens as well. When not aiming, I covered it with the bandana I had. It wasn't much, but it helped.
The California poppies remained indoors, keeping their precious pollen inside closed petals. Only a few poppy flowers were open, and one of them was close enough to the trail.
California Poppy (Eschscholozia californica) and Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus)
I walked slowly, enjoying the spring bloom. The drizzle came down lightly on everything, soaking the earth with well-needed moisture. There were many people at the observation area, but I was the only one hiking the trail. Everything was very calm and quiet, the only sound came from elephant seal grunts and from the cars on Hwy 1.
California Buttercup (Ranunculus californicus)
There are a number of places where the trail approaches the cliffs with view points on the elephant seals. For the first time I understood how spread this rookery really is. That's a pretty good show for a species that not long ago was hunted to near-extinction.
Elephant Seals
And along the cliffs some more coastal bloom:
Seaside Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum staechadifolium)
Between the view points the trail moves away from the cliff's edge and plows through the vegetation. In some segments it goes right through the field of mustard: a plant that was introduced to California by the Spanish missionaries and took hold here from then on.
Black Mustard (Brassica nigra), non-native, invasive.
A shallow creek meanders through the prairie on its way to the cliff's edge. Along the creek are large, rusty clumps of rush.
A small wood bridge transverses the creek and I cross and continued on northward.
A Field of Rush
AsI progressed north the bloom intensified, as if luring me to go on. Hedge nettle blossoms popped through the high grass like clusters of pink candles. I didn't see any bees hovering near the flowers. In fact, I didn't see any insect except for occasional ladybugs. One time I saw a lizard, but it run away before I could photograph it. Its speed surprised me, considering that it wasn't exactly a warm, sunny day.
Bugle Hedgenettle (Stachys ajugoides)
The trail pulled even further from the cliffs, getting close to the road. There it delved into a thicket of human-height plants, many of them thistle and all of them wet. The weeds seemed to have taken over the trail altogether, leaving but a narrow strip of bare soil to walk on. As I pushed my way through the weeds they doused me with freshly collected water. I managed to protect my camera, but got soaking wet everywhere else. It was there that I found out that my shoes weren't really waterproof as promised by the manufacturer.
After about 50 yards I was out in the open once again, wet, scratched, and covered all over with yellow mustard petals.
Behind the mustard/thistle thicket lay a field of short grasses and lots of morning glory. There were other wildflowers, sure, but the large, white flowers of the morning glory do stand out nicely on the darker background.
Island Morning Glory (Calystegia macrostegia)
The morning glory, or bindweed, as it's also called, was stretched on the ground and I bent over to look closely at its flowers.
When looking closely, one can find all kinds of treasures :-) I was fortunate to see his little beauty, which is also an endangered species (although I didn't know that at the time): the delicate Hickman's Onion.
Hickman's Onion (Allium hickmanii)
Naturally, with all these flowers about, I was walking pretty slowly. Then I noticed that the time was passing too quick for me so I picked up my pace. As soon as I did that, of course, I nearly stepped on something round and grayish: a puffball mushroom! A light tap on this released a cloud of spores into the wet air. Each tap - a new cloud. Rain drops tap well.
Puffball Fungus
Further into the trail there appeared larger carpets of wildflowers. A common color there was the white-tipped blue colors of the appropriately named sky lupine - an annual lupine that pops up in large numbers every spring.
Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus)
Here's a close-up of one of these beauties:
Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus)
Throughout my hike I could hear the fog horn in the background. The sound came from the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. As I approached the access road I could finally sea the lighthouse through the mist.
And it's a good thing they had the horn on, because the light itself was barely visible, even from a close distance.
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
And then I nearly stepped on a thistle.
Having wearing tough hiking boots I wouldn't have been hurt by the thistle, but this one I was careful not to hurt either: it is an endangered California native plant, and a very beautiful one, too: the compact cobwebby thistle. 
Compact Cobwebby Thistle (Cirsium occidentale var. compactum)
Patches of the very common Common Phacelia were added to the list of patch-forming wildflowers. Like the hedgenettle, they were mostly in patches of just that species.
Common Phacelia (Phacelia distans)
I reached the lighthouse access road. Access to the lighthouse itself is only by scheduled tours. The trail continues beyond that road so I crossed and moved on. By then I had realized that my shoes were in fact waterproof - but only in one direction. Water trapped inside stayed inside. I was walking with a constant swoosh.
The bloom was even more spectacular north of the lighthouse. Large carpets of mixed colors stretched before me and once again I slowed down to appreciate their beauty.
Mostly Sky Lupine and Thrift Seapink
The sky lupine was prominent still, and to its blue were added the pink blossoms of the seapink plant.
Thrift Seapink (Armeria maritima)
In other areas there were with the lupine the large white bells of the morning glory and the yellow-white bloom of the coastal tidytips.

Here is a close up of this pretty white-rimmed daisy:
Coastal Tidytips (Layia platyglossa)
Eventually I made it to the end of the trail, where a little loop led me to the final view point at the edge of the cliff.
Seaside daisies, or fleabane, as they are also called, decorated the cliff's rim.
Fleabane (Erigeron glaucus)
I gazed below. Only a handful of elephant seals were there, and all by themselves, not huddled together. I wonder if they are the 'outcasts' of the colony.
Elephant Seal
This season only the females and young males are seen on the shore. The females also go through the process of molting (changing their fur). (The photo below was taken at the main area of the rookery, near the trailhead).
My way back was faster, as I didn't stop as often to take photos. Besides, I was already feeling vwry uncomfortable swishing in my shoes.

But some sights are hard to resist.
Cream Cups (Platystemon californicus)
It was a bit more than a drizzle now, and the rain drops became bigger and heavier. They slud off the smoother plants. Hairy plants hanged on to the droplets, which gave them a silvery sheen. The prettiest one was this little lotus that actually looked iced. 
Heermann's Lotus (Acmispon heermannii)
And another hairy member of the fabulous Fabaceae family: a milkvetch shrub. There are many milkvetch species in that area and I was not able to determine which one this is.
Milkvetch (Astragalus sp.)
I regretted that the trail didn't take me up the coastal hill that was west of the trail, but I wasn't about to go off trail to explore it. Below the hill were cushions of silver bush lupine with bright blossoms like candles on a cake.
Coastal Chaparral
The silver bush lupine I saw at Piedras Blancas has blossoms that are considerably lighter in color than those I see in the Bay Area. They ranged from light pink to off-white. 
Silver Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)
And east of the trail: more patches. California Goldfields dotted with morning glory, like a fancy quilt sewn by a tipsy seamstress.

I crossed the lighthouse road again on my way back, then had to go once more through the thistle and mustard gauntlet. I didn't think it was  at all possible but my shoes got filled even more after that.
I continued sloshing to the cliff edge. The seals were where I'd left them an hour before. The coastline, however, got significantly darker.

Rock islands, left behind by the eroding coastline, provide shelter to seals and sea lions, and to the many birds of sea that roost there, safe from land predators. Shrouded by the mist they look like pictures from a far off fairyland.

As the marine mammals were taking their beauty sleep in the sand, land mammals were busy getting their lunch. At least the vegetarians did. There are plenty of rabbits in the area, and they are far less skittish than those I see in other places. Or maybe they had recognized me as a sister herbivore.
Cottontail Rabbit
Ground squirrels are also plentiful at Piedras Blancas, and at the observation area they are also very bold, approaching visitors and begging to be fed. Sadly, they often do get fed by humans, which is a bad deal for both squirrels and humans.
The squirrels I saw on my hike weren't used to humans and sought to distance themselves from me as much as they could without getting too far from their territory. Or perhaps they recognized me as an aware naturalist who doesn't feed wildlife :-)
Ground Squirrel
By the time I made it back to the observation area the rain was coming down in earnest.
I took a few quick shots of some more flowers and some more birds I saw, and then walked to my car.
Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus). I did see an insect after all.
It was well after lunch time. I changed my soaked boots to sandals, converted my hiking pants to shorts and placed a towel on my seat. I then sat there in my car, eating cold lunch and watching all the people who stopped on their journey to watch the elephant seals.
The Pacific Coast is often foggy and overcast, even without any rain. Gray is the usual weather when we stop there. On a few special times, however, it was sunny when we visited Piedras Blancas. I added here a couple of photos from those sunny visits. There certainly were more bush birds about when the sun was out.
Yellow-rumped Warbler (October 24, 2011)
On sunny days the butterflies (and other insects) are out as well.
Common Buckeye (September 2, 2013)
I finished my lunch, bade farewell to Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals, and drove away. The seagulls were leaving too.
My car GPS suggested that the quicker route to the Bay Area would be on Hwy1. Being too tired to consult my brain and too lured by the promise of the beautiful coastline, I followed the suggestion and headed immediately north. That proved to be (as I should have known) a mistake, as I found myself trapped behind slow moving cars for the entire 80 Big Sur miles with no way to pass. The beautiful coastline could not ease my mind either: the road was so foggy I could barely see the car ahead of me, let alone the ocean.
Reciting Poetry
I'll be back at Piedras Blancas again next week, this time with other people. We will look at the Elephant Seals, appreciate the coastal beauty, and if anyone would be interested, perhaps walk a bit of this beautiful trail. They would sure want to if they'd know how beautiful it is.

More information about the Piers Blancas Elephant Seals is at the website of the Friends of the Elephant Seal volunteer organization, whose members are often present at the observation area, ready to share their knowledge and love of the seals with any interested visitors.


  1. This is (yet another) beautiful trail, but I hate walkingvwith rain in my shoes... I would ptobably chicken out on such weather :-)

    1. I understand that well. Wet shoes aren't my cup of tea either. But I my shoes were supposed to be waterproof! I found out they weren't too far into the hike to turn back. Besides, the beautiful bloom and scenery were more than enough compensation for the discomfort.

  2. I remember the rumex fields near the lighthouse - you stopped there for me, because I wanted to see what were the red plants in the fields. I remember I was quite disappointed to find that they were common mediterrenean Rumex...
    and the Elephant Seals are amazing, and this hike looks lovely!

    1. Why didn't we go on that hike? I think we might have been in a hurry to get home, right? Next time we'll make to time to hike this trail. It's so beautiful.