The smell came first: wind-borne wafts of rotting fish rising up from the ocean.
Then, the sound: barks ricocheting off the salty bluffs.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- NEW BIRTHPLACE In the last three years, the beach at Arroyo del Corral Creek has morphed into a birthing spot for elephant seals. State Parks is proposing a campground less than 100 yards from the sand.
Finally, they're within sight: a handful of heads poking out of Arroyo del Corral Creek. Overstuffed marine mammals lining the beach, silvery-bronze skin shining in the noonday sun.
All that separates the odd wandering elephant seal from the stupidity of a selfie-taking human are two thin lines of metal above 4-foot tall hog wire.
"That's one of the biggest challenges," said Dan Falat, San Luis Obispo Coast District superintendent for the California Department of Parks and Recreation. "How do we protect the people from the park and the park from the people."
Facing the coast with his hands in his pocket, he turned to look at what could someday be a campground. A few hundred meters south of what was once the Piedras Blancas Motel, envisions bathrooms, tents, RVs, and cabins surrounded by coyote brush, coffee berries, and oak and cypress trees. Its proximity to the elephant seals on the beach is surprising.
"To be able to have your coffee and walk out here," Falat said. "It's very unusual to be able to have this proximity and be able to watch them for hours."
It would be one of the first new campgrounds developed on the North SLO County coast in decades. The Hearst San Simeon State Park proposal also includes a new café, refurbished motel rooms, much-needed restrooms at the elephant seal overlook at Piedras Blancas Point, and an approximately 4-mile section of the California Coastal Trail. It would run from north of the motel to the elephant seal overlook. The campground and trail need to jump through all the same SLO County and California Coastal Commission planning hoops that a private home would, taking into consideration viewshed impacts to Highway 1 drivers, setbacks for bluff erosion (estimated at 1 foot per year), and mitigation for habitat disturbance. The application is slated to go before the SLO County Planning Commission later this year.
Even with planning hiccups, the Coastal Commission has an incentive to see the development through to completion. This campground could help fulfill a mandate laid out in the Coastal Act, which created and guides the governing body. It would provide lower-cost overnight accommodations on a coastline, which more and more luxury hotels seem to dominate.
"It's an opportunity for folks to visit a stretch of California that a family of four may not be able to do otherwise," Falat said. "It is a low-cost option for folks to get out and camp."
According to a June 2017 California Coastal Conservancy presentation to the commission, 26 percent of the hotels/motels and RV/campsites within 1 mile of the ocean cost less than $112 a night. A 2017 bill by state Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) directs the Coastal Commission to work with the California Coastal Conservancy and State Parks to develop more lower-cost lodging on the coast. And a 2017 bill by state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) could help pay for some of that. His bill put a $4 billon parks and water bond measure on the June ballot. If Proposition 68 passes, it would—among other things—allocate $30 million to State Parks and $30 million to the Coastal Conservancy to help fund lower-cost visitor-serving projects.
That money could help develop projects such as the campground and cabins proposed near Piedras Blancas, which Falat said can be cost prohibitive due to cost of land and availability, especially on the coast.
"On the California Coast, there's not a whole lot of properties left or available," Falat said. "It's very impacted."
At the head of what will someday be the coastline's newest ADA accessible trail complete with boardwalks and bridges, a white egret floats above the cliffs. Lupine brushes purple on the green expanse between pavement and ocean, between the trailhead and Piedras Blancas Motel, 2 miles south.
A river of yellow primrose paints the shadow of where Highway 1 stood until 2017. Highway 1 realignment moved it a hundred yards farther inland due to impending bluff erosion. The Pacific Coast's scenic byway splits private land from public. East of it is Hearst Corporation ranchland, while the west belongs to State Parks. Conservation efforts, led by the Hearst Corporation, mean this view should stay this way—virtually undeveloped—in perpetuity.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- SALTY RELIC Hearst San Simeon State Park has plans to develop
"Piedras Blancas was a little private island, so that stretch of land where we have the currently proposed campground is the only place where development is allowed," Falat said. "All of the Hearst properties fall under conservation easements, which do not allow for development."
Hearst San Simeon State Park spans 18 miles of coastline, starting in Cambria and expanding north to San Carpoforo Creek. There are two sections of that contiguous coastline west of Highway 1 that aren't part of the park: a private property still owned by the Hearst Corporation north of William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach and the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse property, which belongs to the federal Bureau of Land Management. Falat said that State Parks works closely with both to manage the resources in tandem, because native plants and animals don't abide by boundary lines.
"[The Hearst Corporation has] been our primary partner on this stretch of coast," Falat said. "We interact with them almost daily in some shape or form ... because we're sharing the same spaces, and they've been a good partner."
Since the 1950s, the park has slowly morphed into what it is now. Almost none of Hearst San Simeon State Park would be possible without families like the Hearsts, the Junges, and the Molinaris—all of whom once owned ranch land that became part of the park. In 2006-07, State Parks was one of the beneficiaries of what is arguably the biggest conservation land deal in state history. Approximately 82,000 acres of Hearst Ranch property was put under conservation easement, and 1,000-plus acres were eventually deeded over to State Parks with development restricted to the Coastal Trail.
California Coastal Conservancy documents from 2004 show that the state would pay roughly $95 million for the deal, appraised at $110 million. State tax credits paid for $15 million. The Conservancy and Wildlife Conservation Board footed most of the bill with State Parks paying $3 million and Caltrans giving $23 million (for Highway 1 realignment purposes).
Tim Duff, a project manager for the Coastal Conservancy, said the state agency purchased the 35-acre hotel property separately for between $3 million and $4 million.
"We purchased that and transferred it to State Parks," Duff said. "We initially were looking at redeveloping the motel. We looked at developing it as a lower-cost overnight accommodation."
Or a youth hostel, but Duff said one of buildings had to be demolished, so plans changed. Instead, State Parks proposed 14 cabins, 29 drive-in campsites, and 10 hike-in/bike-in campsites. A second phase of the plan could include refurbished, lower-cost motel rooms in what's left of the old hotel.
The Coastal Conservancy granted $40,000 to State Parks to help them through the planning process for the trail, campground, restrooms, and cabins. That process is ongoing. Caltrans agreed to partially fund the $2 million cost to build the northern portion of the trail. But the estimated $1 million cost for the campground and cabins isn't funded yet.
"There haven't been new campgrounds developed in decades, probably, and that's due to money," Duff said.
Faded concrete that's starting to crack runs from the Piedras Blancas Motel parking lot to what is now a State Park residence half-encircled by scraggly cypress trees. Where the pavement ends is close to where tents might get staked and RVs could motor out awnings. Cabins would populate the low grass between the cypress and the edge of the trees.
Although this could be one of the first campgrounds on the North Coast since the 1980s, there is one other campground in in the works for the SLO coastline: The Harbor Terrace Development Project in Avila Beach. With the California Coastal Development permit already in place, Port San Luis Harbor District commissioners approved a 50-year lease with Red Tail Acquisitions for the Avila Beach Road property in February. Harbor Terrace will have 57 RV sites, 53 walk-in and drive-in tent camping sites, and 51 cabins at a range of price points.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- the Piedras Blancas Motel site into a campground, cabins, and refurbished motel rooms.
The Coastal Conservancy granted the project $450,000 for the planning and permitting process, which can be expensive and extensive in the coastal zone. The Avila project has been in the works since 1977 and falls under California Coastal Commission jurisdiction.
"Developers are wary of getting a project designed and permitted within the coastal zone," Duff said. "So we said we would help with the design and permitting process."
Duff said developers often don't want to invest money in a project that isn't worth the economic risk. It can be costly for little reward if it's providing lower-cost accommodations or doesn't get permitted altogether. The recent push by state legislators should help make things a little easier, Duff said. It would make more funding available to build facilities, and one of the mandates in Assemblymember Fletcher's low-cost coastal accommodations bill is for the commission, the conservancy, and State Parks to work together to develop them.
"State Parks has the land, they have the knowledge and the experience in building and operating campgrounds. The Coastal Commission is the regulatory agency ... . Our role is as a funder," Duff said. "It's kind of tied into environmental or economic justice, providing a fair economic opportunity for lower-income people to come and enjoy the coast overnight."
State Parks owns almost a third of the California coast, more or less (it depends on what agency you ask). Duff said that agency is a "major partner" in developing the facilities because the cost of land on the coast is "probably the biggest constraint." The conservancy is working on a statewide plan, due out this fall, which Duff said would identify opportunities for developing new campgrounds and lower-cost accommodations up and down the coast.
"It could mean all sorts of things: new and expanded campgrounds, youth hostels, buy a roadside motel and converting it," he said. "And if the park bond passes, we'll have some money."
The real focus of the bill that put the bond measure—Proposition 68—on the June primary ballot is "social equity, including access to parks for all Californians and targeting water and flood control investments in areas with the most unmet needs," according to an October 2017 press release from state Sen. de León's office. If it passes, the measure allocates $1.6 billion for water, $1.3 billion for parks, and $1.5 billion for natural resource conservation. About $218 million of that would go to repair and improve state parks.
"Clean and reliable water resources, including secure flood control systems, and access to parks and recreational space are vital to our economy and well-being as a state," de León said in the release. "This bond allows us to invest in critical priorities that have been neglected for years, while lifting people up with good jobs and livable, healthy communities."
Managing for change
Bright orange poppies perched atop a coastal bluff stare down its ragged edge toward the water. About 70 feet away, the white, salt-air battered Piedras Blancas Motel is trimmed in light blue. The motel used to have two additional wings of rooms, but those buildings were razed because they were going to fall into the ocean.
"Those have all been claimed by Mother Nature," State Parks North SLO County District Services Manager Doug Barker said. "The campground has to be set back 75 years from bluff retreat."
The campground is proposed to be set back at least 80 feet (and the cabins would be closer) from the edge of the bluffs, but the future of coastal erosion isn't going to follow the patterned average of the past 50 years. On average, about 1 foot of bluff "retreats" into the ocean per year, Barker said. However, last year's storms consumed 5 to 10 feet of land near the motel. So how long the motel will last is a questions mark—Barker thinks it will make it another 25 to 50 years—and that will affect how much State Parks is willing to spend to remodel it. The building is within 50 feet of the bluffs in some spots.
Although State Parks has based its setbacks on long-term averages, the Coastal Commission is advising the state agency to look at setbacks that are greater than they have been in the past.
"The [California] Coastal Commission likes to look at long-term bluff retreat, so we proposed putting those cabins on wheels so we can move them," Barker said.
Putting cabins on wheels is a pretty novel idea, according to Daniel Robinson, a Coastal Commission staffer working on the project.
"Getting maybe 20 years or 30 years out of them in a single location is better than saying, 'You're not safe for 100 years, so you're not going to do your project.' So they move it back about 40 feet where it can last for another few decades," Robinson said. "Managed realignment. ... It's the way that we would like everyone to do it."
In a letter submitted to the proposed project's mitigated negative declaration documents, the Coastal Commission requested that State Parks rethink their setback plans for the campground.
"It is not clear whether the project setback took into account current estimates of sea level rise moving forward, and the way those rising seas are expected to lead to increased erosion over time," the letter states.
The science of sea level rise and climate change are pretty new, according to Robinson, who added that the Coastal Commission adopted a guidance document on the subject in 2015. He said that State Parks needs to take sea level rise into account when it comes to setbacks for the coastal trail as well. The letter also points out that viewshed impacts from the highway, the coastal trail, and the campground need to be more fleshed out. As the development is happening on a relatively flat area of land, Robinson acknowledged that it would be hard to completely shield tents, boardwalks, and restrooms from view.
"What we want to do is make sure that if there are impacts that they're mitigated for. The advantage of having a lower-cost campground out there that's maybe visible in some way, that's a trade-off," he said. "It might not be perfect, but just like any issue, I think we try to get to a place where we feel comfortable that what the applicant is doing is adequate or sufficient or protective."
Protection of the ever-expanding Piedras Blancas Point elephant seal population is the primary goal of Friends of the Elephant Seals, which works with State Parks on the 6 miles (and growing) of Hearst San Simeon State Park coastline that make up the rookery. Tim Bridwell, the nonprofit's co-president, said the group is concerned about the proximity of the proposed campground to the seals on Arroyo del Corral Creek beach.
When State Parks starting planning the campground four or five years ago, that beach didn't have a population of seals, Bridwell said. However, things change. Initial estimates for 2018 predict there will be a 4 to 5 percent increase in seal pups born compared to last year.
"We had just over 25,000 seals last year, and we had pretty close to 5,400 births," Bridwell said. "Obviously with the population increasing, pretty much every year, the rookery has actually moved in both directions. ... Over the course of three years, [Arroyo del Corral] beach has turned into a birthing beach."
The primary concern, Bridwell said, is human safety. Friends of the Elephant Seals is also worried about too much seal-human interaction, which can cause seals to find another beach to hang out on.
"I think if you get a chance to educate people about the animals, and you're factual, then I don't think too many people are going to walk up and try and put their 3-year-old on top of a 5,000 pound seal," Bridwell said.
Signs with rusting edges warn walkers about the dangers of elephant seals, which are visible from one end of Arroyo Del Corral beach to the other. State Parks' safety suggestion has been on the cliffs above Arroyo del Corral for longer than the recently installed elephant seal fencing.
SLO Coast District Superintendent Falat expressed a similar sentiment to Bridwell. He sees the campground as an opportunity for education, to put people in touch with nature in a tangible way that could breed a desire to protect and conserve the natural resources we have left.
Falat said that there will always be the 1 percent of people who make poor decisions about how to interact with 5,000-pound mammals, but he added that humans and wild animals have to coexist collectively.
"Giving people more opportunity to learn hopefully creates better stewards," he said. "And that's what it's going to take to protect this park right here."
Editor Camillia Lanham enjoys gawking at elephant seals but thinks they smell funny. Send comments to.