This under-the-radar refuge ranks as one of the best wildlife experiences in the state—and as a nice bonus, it’s free. Five miles up the coast from Hearst Castle, up to 17,000 walrus-like elephant seals—the West Coast’s largest pinnipeds—pile up like bloated bratwursts on the narrow strip of rocky beach known as Piedras Blancas (white rocks), literally steps from cars whizzing along the highway. In January 2017 President Barack Obama made this site part of the California Coastal National Monument.
If you’re an animal lover, get ready to spend hours in this land-based seal rookery, where the huge marine mammals breed, birth, molt, and rest. Giant bulls, some measuring 16 feet from nose to tail and tipping the scales at more than 4,000 pounds, inflate their trunk-like snouts to create a distinctive, roaring bellow that cuts through the sound of crashing surf. The smaller females soak up the sun or tend to their pups.
Peak season is December through May; smaller numbers of seals may be seen during other months. Helpful docents from Friends of the Elephant Seal are on site to answer questions.
Take in more views—and the rich history—of Piedras Blancas during a tour of the 70-foot-tall Piedras Blancas Light Station, which are offered year-round. Constructed in 1874 on a rugged spit, the lighthouse has in the past shared the site with other buildings, including a 1906 Victorian-style edifice that was eventually sold for $1 and moved to nearby Cambria, where it was converted into a private residence. William Randolph Hearst paid homage to the humble light station at his Hearst Castle: He had a likeness of it added to a crest found above the entrance to the living room inside Casa del Monte, one of his three guest cottages.