Friday, July 20, 2012

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

Over the mountains and to the coast we go! Nothing says coast like a lighthouse. Lighthouses aren't my number one interest, but being from the US Midwest, they are an extremely important aspect of history that isn't explored excessively. Light stations were used to help navigate ships and help prevent ship wrecks along dangerous coastlines.

View from Highway 1

As soon as you get over the mountains retaining the very unpleasant smog, it's a breath of fresh air. It's not quite salty air yet, but its fresh. You'll find hills, trees, orchards, and farms between the mountains and the Pacific and very curvaceous roads. To me, its mesmerizing going from the searing valley desert to freezing Pacific water in just 2-3 hours.

Driving on Highway 1, north of Cambria and Hearst Castle, is a lighthouse. Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, meaning "White Rocks", is owned/managed by the BLM. Its a great place to take the family for a day trip or a weekend. You can't sleep in the lighthouse, but not too far is San Simeon State Park if you're into camping.

Two and a half hours from Bako, the drive is long, but well worth it. As soon as you step out of the car, you'll more than likely need to put your sweatshirt or long sleeve shirt on if you're like me- use to the warm weather (Hubby is well insulated, so he can get away with just a t-shirt). The fresh salty breeze and barking elephant seals is not something you get to see everyday when you live in the valley.

Walking up to the tower you'll notice several buildings surrounding the lighthouse. Some of those buildings are original and some were added in the 1940s by the Coast Guard (who use to operate the lighthouse). 

Inside Stairway Looking Up
There are a few missing buildings such as the carriage house, water tower, the main lightkeeper's house, and a few others, but those will eventually be rebuilt through volunteer hours and donations. A few original buildings do still exist on the property and when taking the guided tour, the staff will explain and show you not only about the light station, but also the elephant seals. You'll be able to hear different light stations' signals, touch four different animal skins, and use binoculars to see elephant seals on the famous "Painted Rock".

The lighthouse isn't the quite the same as when it was first built. A nearby earthquake in 1948 damaged the lighthouse, leaving it un-structurally sound. The actual Piedras Blancas Fresnel Lens is still intact -just not at the actual lighthouse. Cambria, south of the lighthouse on Highway 1, has the Fresnel lens on display on Main St.

It wasn't easy being a light station manager, according to our tour guide. To me, it sounded like taking care of a big baby-waking up all hours of the day and night to maintain it. What a job! However, whenever a new station manager moved in, the government provided everything-furniture, dishes, all the way down to a dustpan. Not many provisions remain at the Light Station since the house was taken down decades ago. A few items are on display in the lighthouse itself, including the dustpan, photographs of the original light station property, the half spiral stairs, a replica of the Fresnel lens, and other lighthouse memorabilia. If they needed food, they had to wait under a government tender brought supplies- three or four times per year. Plus another ship would dock there, but not regularly. Didn't they hear of homesteading? I would have at least raised a cow or chickens!

It might sound like a wonderful job, but it was definitely hard work! Unlike a few of the other light stations, Piedras Blancas had two-story triplex house for three families. At least they had company!

Piedras Blancas Fresnel Lens in Cambria, CA
Don't forget to walk the trail around the lighthouse as well. When the native plants are not in bloom, they convey their coastal exuberance year round. Volunteers put in hundreds of hours replacing invasive coastal plants (ice plant) to the native species (seaside poppies, tree lupine, etc.).

If your lucky and the kids stay quiet, you'll find a variety of insects and animals other than the elephant seal. Every time I go to the light station with the family I see tons of yellow-faced bumble bees. It's usually too windy for the white crowned sparrow to fly in the high winds, so they stay around the trees mostly. You'll also find ground squirrels and western fence lizards if you're lucky. We usually are too busy identifying the flowers to keep quiet with a 2 and 4 year old.

Lighthouse from Side
If you take your kids, the gift shop has a little booklet that contains information and puzzles and identifies the plants and animals. If you have any questions, the tour guides can answer any question you have. I've never gotten a better tour anywhere else. Plus, you're out of the smog!

Make sure you make an appointment, because the property is in a locked and gated area (mostly to protect the native flora and fauna). It's quite easy to miss so set your GPS accordingly.

Here is the contact information: Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Information