I’m obsessive about a handful of things in life: soccer shorts, blackout curtains, extreme weather, and Golden Girls reruns, to name a few. And of course, there’s my life goal of visiting every lighthouse in the country. I know this seems lofty, but I’ve already crossed off a few of them, and I imagine someday I’ll retire and can just drive around visiting a bunch in one long road trip. And as of this April, I have at last visited one of the most elusive California lighthouses of all: Piedras Blancas.
Visit Piedras Blancas has been on our Achievement list for ages. We’ve planned to go again and again, but it never worked out. We made a valiant attempt back in 2013, but it was closed on the day we were there. But this year, we checked schedules and maps and star guides and the Farmers’ Almanac and everything we could to make sure we would not miss the tour.
And then, on Tuesday morning of our 2015 West Coast Adventure, we arrived at the abandoned motel where the tour begins, and it was clear that all of the magic was about to happen!
(You really do meet at an abandoned motel. I think this endeared me to this light station even more, as ‘meet at the abandoned motel’ is exactly the kind of directions we Yinzers give. ‘Meet me where the old Pizza Hut used to be.’ ‘We’ll start the tour at the discarded husk of the Piedras Blancas Motel.’ So much love.)
If you see this sign, you’ve made it to the right abandoned motel. Here, you’ll wait for your tour guides, pay your admission for the tour (it’s $10 for grownups, $5 for big kids, free for tiny kids 5 & under), and get back into your car to caravan over. Access to the light station is only available through these tours, hence the ‘meet at the abandoned motel’ thing. You must be escorted to the light station grounds by the docents.
Before you know it, you are just steps away from this beauty. Okay. It’s a little rough around the edges (although better than it has been in years, I promise!), but if you’re a lighthouse fan like myself, it’s just gorgeous.
And if you don’t find the lighthouse itself beautiful, you’ll surely find the surrounding area to be such. This rock is Piedras Blancas itself: white rock. And as our tour guide so gently put it, ‘let’s face it, the reason that rock is white is because it’s covered in bird poop.’ Nature is funny like that.
There aren’t just birds on that rock, there are elephant seals and sea otters and sea lions.
In fact, one of my favorite parts of the tour was learning about the marine animals that live at Piedras Blancas. In addition to the animals that make a home here, there are mammals who pass by on a larger journey. Piedras Blancas is a major via point on the trip that whales take from Mexico to Alaska each year.
And who keeps tabs on all those whale mamas and their adorable little whale babies?
WHALE COUNTERS, THAT’S WHO! Seriously, where did my guidance counselor go wrong all those years ago, not telling me you could make a career out of being a whale counter? These fabulous folks stand out every day and count the whales who pass by. They use markers to see where the whales are, and they make notation of this to help keep track of the whale population and how it’s growing, as well as identify threats and problems the whales are facing.
BEST. JOB. EVER.
Ahem. Before I go off on my ‘really I should have been a marine biologist’ rant, let’s get back to the lighthouse.
Actually, if we’re being technical, Piedras Blancas is not *just* a lighthouse, it’s a light station. That means they have surrounding buildings in addition to the lighthouse, such as living quarters for the keeper, an oil storage facility, and the fog horn building. We got to hear examples of different foghorns on the tour. Each lighthouse has its own light – different speed and number of flashes, and its own unique foghorn sound. These are all documented in a registry book (kind of like a White Pages for lighthouses) so people on the sea can determine where they are by which lighthouse is in front of them.
Piedras Blancas is currently under the care of the Bureau of Land Management, and they’ve been working HARD at restoring this little guy to his original majesty. One of the biggest upcoming projects is reconstruction of the top 30 feet (3 floors) of the lighthouse that were removed years ago due to structural damage. (You can find information about how to help support this project here, as well as check out what the finished lighthouse will look like.)
In light of the renovations, you can’t presently go up to the top of the lighthouse. However, you can go inside and check out the history of the lights that have graced this fine building. That’s a replica of a classic Fresnel lens on the left (I really, really, REALLY love those, just in case you’ve come to this page looking for weird and unique things to buy me for my birthday), and you can view the original one (a first order, aka HUGE) in downtown Cambria (a side trip for next year’s Cali vacation). The lights got gradually smaller and smaller (although brighter and brighter) all the way to the current model, which is barely bigger than a standard AA battery.
At the end of the tour, you are welcome to walk around a bit to take photos, as well as check out the gift shop offering not just toys for the age of 10 but some really rare-to-find things. Here you can purchase a Lighthouse Passport, which will help you map out your dream of visiting all the lighthouses on the West Coast. (They also sell elephant seal puppets there! I mean. If you’re interested in that sort of thing.)
I thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Piedras Blancas. From start to finish, it was about three hours long, with just a bit of walking. But we learned so much about the history of the lighthouse, the climate at Piedras Blancas (if you love fog and wind, Piedras Blancas is the spot for you!), the animals and vegetation, and the current efforts to restore this building to its original majesty.
Also, depending on the season, be sure to stop by the Elephant Seal Rookery just down the PCH from Piedras Blancas. You can spend hours watching these adorable creatures playing and snoozing on the sand. There are also very often docents here who can answer your questions and give you more information, as well as point out other animals who may be floating by in the ocean.
If you find yourself anywhere near Cambria or San Simeon, put Piedras Blancas on your to-visit list. During the summer, they are open daily, but the rest of the year, tours are held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays (weather permitting). I know we are excited to check back in a few years to see how the renovation comes along, and maybe even to count a few whales while we’re there.