Over Memorial Day weekend, my boyfriend Bryant and I decided to explore some new territory and take a road trip through California’s Central Coast. I’d traveled extensively in the Bay Area and had been to LA and San Diego before this trip, but the Central Coast was a big blank spot for me. On Friday night, we drove two hours from Stanford to our second home of Monterey. We had watched the sunset and had dinner in Carmel and went stargazing on Asilomar Beach. The next morning, we drove through Big Sur. I was accustomed to doing the drive later in the day, when the morning fog had burned off, but seeing it socked in was still a really interesting experience.

 

On the way through Big Sur, we stopped by this beach that was full – literally, full – of elephant seals. They were sandwiched next to each other like sardines, grunting and burping and snoring and kicking sand up with their flippers. It was so amazing to scan our eyes across the beach, watching the plethora of activity on the beach and a few swimming in the water. Here’s a video of what it looked like:

 

Elephant seals migrate throughout the Pacific Ocean every year, and the West Coast of the U.S. and Mexico is their home base. This time of year, beaches are filled with juveniles and mothers coming back from their migration to molt for about a month. They fast during this period, consuming no food or water and going into sleep apnea for a few minutes at a time. Later in the year, the big males with the proboscises (long noses) come to rest, and this is when you can see them fighting for territory. In January and February, the males leave and the pregnant females come to the beach to give birth. Elephant seals were hunted extensively in the 1800s, and at one point, they were down to a population of only 30 individuals. But after successful ongoing conservation efforts, they now have a healthy population of 150,000. But elephant seals are facing new threats: rising sea levels from climate change will decrease beach area, making it harder for moms to give birth, keep track of their babies, and find enough territory.

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Our ultimate destination was San Luis Obispo, and we arrived mid-afternoon and walked around the town for a couple of hours. It was super small and cute, and we enjoyed visiting the Mission, Bubblegum Alley, and the main shopping streets.

 

After a quick stop in Pismo Beach, we were on to Santa Barbara. On Sunday morning, we explored downtown – State Street, the Presidio, the gorgeous Courthouse with a rooftop view, and a huge Moreton Bay Fig Tree. These trees are absolutely enormous, and are originally from Australia, but a sailor brought it here in the late 1800s. The tree reminded me of the slightly smaller one at my school in Melbourne, Australia, which I remember climbing when I was ten years old.

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In the afternoon, we ate lunch on Butterfly Beach, a beautiful secluded beach that we walked to along a section of the Coast Trail that included a beautiful rimmed garden overlooking the ocean. Even though it was a cloudy day, it was still so nice to sit outside and watch the waves crash onto the shore.

 

Next we toured a couple beach towns: Carpinteria just south of Santa Barbara, and Ventura a little further south, where we went surfing. Bryant’s not a super experienced surfer and I’m even worse, but we still had fun.

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We finished the night out with a delicious seafood dinner on the Santa Barbara Wharf. The next day, Memorial Day, we drove inland to Pinnacles National Park, where we were greeted by a balmy 90 degrees and beautiful rock formations that came out of nowhere in a seemingly flat-landed part of California. We did a 5-mile hike on the famous High Peaks Trail, and while it was very hot, we saw really gorgeous rock formations, very nice views, and got to see 2 California condors flying through the valley. They got so close that we could see their white and red heads – super rare since there are only 80 condors in Central California. We felt so lucky to see these special birds in America’s newest national park, which President Obama signed into effect in 2013.

 

We rounded out the trip with a lovely dinner at Cachagua General Store. It’s perhaps Carmel Valley’s best kept secret, so good that I’m not even sure I should be telling you all about it on this blog. To get there, it’s 30 minutes of tight turns on a sketchy mountain road, and the place is a little disheveled and higgeldy-piggeldy, but super cute and cozy. And the food is to die for. You’ll have to wait a while, since they only have four burners and things get hectic when they have a full house, which is all the time, since they’re only open Sundays for brunch and Mondays for dinner. I guess that’s what you can do when you own such a successful restaurant.