Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2020

Day Tripping to California’s Point San Luis Lighthouse

By Chuck Graham


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The 1890 San Luis Obispo Lighthouse in Avila, ...
Photo by: Chuck Graham

The launch off the secluded beach was nearly effortless; nary a ripple lapped on the sand in northern Avila at Port San Luis Harbor. Protected by a long rocky jetty extending out to the south, the calm waters were a safe haven for several species of marine mammals best observed from the seat of a kayak before paddling to the Point San Luis Lighthouse.

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A number of southern sea otters and pups wrapped ...
Photo by: Chuck Graham

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Whales Cove.
Photo by: Chuck Graham

Wildlife Watching

As Holly Lohuis and I paddled our kayaks off the shoreline and through a maze of anchored boats, a raft of southern sea otters wrapped up in a dense canopy of giant bladder kelp fastidiously groomed their dense fur, the thickest in the entire animal kingdom. Their pups were adorned in light brown fluff, resting on their mothers’ bellies as they, too, were groomed by their attentive moms, all the while nursing above chilly waters.

As we floated in our kayaks and marveled at this keystone species, the pull of nearby bellowing California sea lions was too much to resist to the immediate north. Piled atop a floating dock, the eared-pinnipeds hauled out, soaking in the morning sun as we glided by eventually beneath the Harford Pier.

Holly and I aimed for guano-covered Smith Rock. Another small raft of otters enjoyed the lee of the broad rock face, sharing it with several sleepy surf scoters, seabirds that migrate down from Alaska. Squadrons of California brown pelicans roosted above on its craggy crest. Below them was a pair of black oystercatchers standing watch over their two fuzzy black chicks. They momentarily revealed themselves before vanishing underneath the security of their mother’s wings. It was a busy day on and around Smith Rock.

Whales Cove

Beyond crowded Smith Rock was Whales Cove and the long jetty that stretched over a half mile into open ocean. The jetty was loaded with barking sea lions. A couple of solitary sea otters lazed in the shallows off Whales Cove, a perfect place to land kayaks and standup paddleboards, walk the beach, and have lunch.

It was also a nice pit stop to continue north on foot. At the top of the wooden staircase was a scenic overlook of Port San Luis. We enjoyed stellar views that extended from Avila Beach all the way south to the Guadalupe – Nipomo Sand Dunes National Wildlife Refuge and rugged Point Sal.

From there, Holly and I made the easy stroll up the paved road leading to the historic Point San Luis Lighthouse, a nice diversion in between our out-and-back day trip of kayaking. Construction of the lighthouse finished in June of 1890, following several significant shipwrecks.

Interpretive areas revealed the history of the region dating back to Chumash Indians, who once thrived in the area, and eventually leading up to the current restoration efforts. We were free to explore the grounds of the lighthouse, but access inside the light station required a docent.

It was another fantastic place to have lunch, swing on a swing, and listen to the surf crash on the wave-battered bluffs below.

Back on the Water

As we returned to Whales Cove, perpetual northwest winds had increased. The convenient tailwind allowed us to simply glide and float past Smith Rock as we barely paddled to where we began.

The sea otters were especially active on our return. Where the moms groomed and nursed their mewing pups, there were a few young adults that broke the peace of rafting otters. Rambunctious, somersaulting, and jostling, the young otters plowed into napping parents, forcing dispersal from the security of the kelp forest.

Once the otters had settled down, they always returned to the canopy, wrapping themselves in the long strands to maintain position, especially in the increasing northwesterly winds.

We steered our kayaks between the sturdy pilings of Harford Pier, past raucous sea lions before banking left toward our launching locale, one of the best-kept secrets along the Central California Coast requiring just a short paddle north.

If You Go

If you cannot bring your own kayak (BYOK) or have access to one, you can easily rent one from Avila Beach Paddlesports, located at the beginning of the Harford Pier.

Established in 2009 and owned by world-class paddler and photographer Vince Shay, Avila Beach Paddlesports was created for a paddling-friendly neighborhood environment so visitors could enjoy and learn about the teeming waters of the Central Coast.

Rates for kayak and standup paddleboards are $30 for 2 hours and $40 for a half-day. For more information, go to www.avilabeachpaddlesports.com, or call (805)704-6902.

Due to COVID-19, other options to access the lighthouse have been suspended until further notice. Continue to check the options below for the most current updates.

There is a docent-led hike on the Pecho Coast Trail on PG&E property. Call (805)541-TREK, www.pge.com.

There are trolley tours operated by Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers. Call (805)540-5771, but due to COVID-19, tours are temporarily suspended. Visit www.pointsanluislighthouse.org for info.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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