Camping the California coast

December 11-15, 2023.

Sunset State Beach > Pismo Beach

Classic coast sunset

The Capoeira bonanza left me with a wretched cold. We had five days to get to a show in L.A., so we decided to soak up some sun on the California coast. I mapped out a route that had us driving 1-3 hours per day, landing at a state park each time. It’s the best way to see the coast, which is notoriously unfriendly for boondocking.

Sunset State Beach

We rolled into Sunset State Beach late in the evening on December 11, after spending the day in Cupertino. I’d managed to pull myself out of bed for a minute to walk to a nearby produce market and stock up on all the fresh foods. The next morning, Aaron woke up early and drove to the park’s day use area by the beach. Once I had enough energy to mobilize, I staggered out of the van onto the sand. The sun was intensely bright. A steady wind blew across the beach. I clung onto my mug of tea and slowly ambled across the broad expanse. Hundreds of birds were enjoying the day, giving me plenty of entertainment as I wandered along the shoreline. I found a spot to sit and watch them: curlews, sandpipers, plovers, gulls. The sun felt good on my skin.


I walked back to the van in time for lunch. We ate at one of the picnic tables as if we were in our own private patio. There weren’t many other people in the parking lot. Later that afternoon, we moved the van to a small pullout at Garrapata State Park where Aaron did some work and I took a short walk down to the beach. It was just before sunset, a really pretty (and cold) time for exploring.

Pfeifer Big Sur

We still had to make the drive to Pfeifer Big Sur, arriving around sunset. Because there are so many big trees in this area, it felt very dark and gloomy. We didn’t have any time to wander around the park. I remember the drive in being pretty, and that’s all. By the time Aaron had to set up shop in the morning, we needed to be out of the park. And since the highway is indefinitely closed south of the park, we had to do a big loop to get back on the coast. It was kind of a ridiculous route, but it’s the best we could do within the parameters we had.

Unfortunately, the closest place with an easy place to park and access to services was Salinas. It was a dire, depressing town with the most sterile looking library I’d ever seen. It’s where I ended up dragging my very sick carcass to find a restroom. And, like most libraries in California that I’d visited, I was greeted by a security guard upon entry. Instead of funding programs to help people who need it, we seem to have an endless amount of money to police and terrorize and punish them instead.

The depressing Salinas library

Hearst San Simeon

After work, we finished the drive to Hearst San Simeon State Park and found our spot in the primitive camping area. And early the next morning, with no time to enjoy the park, we pressed on. This is our routine. We pulled into the Elephant Seal viewing area, however, which would give us an opportunity to see something cool later. The California coast was going by so fast. And I was still sick as a dog.

At 2 pm, I’d finally mustered up the strength to crawl out of the van. I wandered out to the boardwalk and was stunned to see SO MANY elephant seals sprawled out on the beach. I didn’t know they were going to be so close and that there would be hundreds of them. Males, females, babies. Seals in the water, seals in the beach. Stationary seals, flapping seals. Seals making their guttural calling sounds, seals snoozing peacefully. It was way cooler than I thought it would be. I walked around for about an hour, then brought Aaron out to see them, too. That was an experience I wouldn’t soon forget.

Elephant seal stack

Pismo Beach

We rolled into camp at Pismo State Beach minutes before sunset and we raced to the edge of the campground to catch it. Our little use trail petered out above a steep drop into pools of water. We found ourselves stranded above the sand. It was a nice little viewpoint, however, so we took in the scene and retreated to the van. Behind us, we could hear the buzz of traffic and see the lights of a tourist strip. It felt like we were camping smack in the middle of town. An odd place for a state park, I thought.

Pismo beach sunset

I had grand plans to do a little city walk the next day but my energy levels were in the tank. I laid low until the noon checkout time, then we headed up the road a couple minutes to the Monarch Butterfly Grove. This was another unexpected delight. We strolled along the short path through the garden, surrounded by towering eucalyptus trees. I pointed at a few butterflies flitting about overhead. Cool, monarchs! Then we rounded a corner and stopped where several people were standing. There were viewing scopes pointed at the trees. WHOA. MONARCHS. They clustered by the hundreds on branches dangling from the canopy. Hundreds more floated in orange blurs in the sky. I’d never seen so many butterflies in one place. It was the elephant seal experience all over again.

All the monarch butterflies

If I were to do it all over again, I’d spend two days at each campsite and I’d plan on not being sick (as if you can do that). We had to breeze by a lot of interesting things. I’d also like to return once the highway south of Big Sur is open. But I remind myself that I can’t see and do everything on any given trip, and the things left undone just mean that the next time I’m in the area, I know exactly where to go first.

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