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Going Coastal at Montana de Oro

Jun 21, 2017 11:00AM ● Published by Ben Ralph

Mountain of Gold

July 2017
Story by Ben Ralph

Big Sur. The scenic drive that showcases some of the most dramatic landscapes along the California coastline needs little introduction or pomp. Well known are its vistas and sunsets, its woodlands and its waves as they crash against the cliffs. So popular is Big Sur that it would be difficult to find a traveler who has not partaken in its glory, or at least wanted to. Alas, that is also the trouble. As with anything popular, the chance to casually enjoy the area becomes as mythical as the reputation. It may be considered wondrous, but it certainly isn’t a mystery, as shown by the slow traffic and booked campsites. It is not that such a place is not worth going, it’s just that you’ll likely have to share your wonder with 1,000 other wonderers; plus, Big Sur is pretty much closed due to mudslides, so there’s that.

There are other options for those who wish to partake in the great outdoors of the California coast with a bit more rugged appeal. Just south of Morro Bay, Montana de Oro State Park offers camping, hiking and other outdoor adventures for those who enjoy the mountains and the coast. Though off the beaten path and definitely not one of the more talked-about state park destinations, it is by no means small, covering more than 8,000 acres and seven miles of coastline. 

Though now part of California State Park, the land has a history of both peaceful and forceful changes in ownership. Originally inhabited by the Chumash and Salinan people groups, it later came under the control of the Spanish and, by proxy, their established Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The territory eventually became part of the California Rancho system and it changed hands several times until purchased by a local farmer, Alden B. Spooner II. His homestead and farm buildings remain as the park’s visitor center. The coastal area used to be inhabited and fished by local Japanese Americans until the internment during World War II. 

Ironically, despite the Spanish history, supposedly it was the land’s final owner, Irene McAllister, who called the area “Montana de Oro.” The name was apparently due to the abundance of California Golden Poppies that cover the area and not because there was an actual mountain of gold.

What remains is an area of near pristine preservation. As one enters the park area, the road weaves along the coast through a eucalyptus forest. Not native to California, the eucalyptus was originally planted in the area by Alexander Hazard in an attempt to capitalize on California’s need for lumber at the time; sadly, but not surprisingly, eucalyptus proved to be an incredibly poor source of lumber. It enhances the drive to the park, though, so that’s a win. 

The real treat is the coastlands and the highlands. Boasting an abundance of coves and wave-pounded rock formations, the seven miles of ocean frontage allow visitors to enjoy the biodiversity native to the area or to just indulge in a sunset soaked in the cool, salty breeze. To the east, geological formations caused by millennia of stressful tension between the tectonic plates meeting at the San Andreas Fault created the sudden rise in elevation, peaking at the nearby Valencia Peak and the more distant Alan Peak. To the north are the sand spit and tide pools known locally as Hazard Canyon, which, oddly enough, is probably the more relaxed, kid-friendly area. 

If coming for a day trip, the best option may be to park near one of the many trailheads; the most popular day hike is the Bluff Trail, which, true to its name, provides a casual stroll along the bluffs. There is free parking for day-trippers, as long as you’re out by 10pm; just don’t bring your dog because they’re not allowed. Horses are allowed, however, and are a popular accompaniment on many of the trails, especially the more distant Alan Peak Trail or Oats Peak Trail loop. The climb can be rough but the views of the Pacific more than compensate you for the trek. 

If staying overnight, there is a main campground area for tents, trailers or RVs and approximately four environmental campsites reserved for tents only. Reservations are encouraged, but they are not nearly as necessary as other more touristy state parks. Overnight stay may be recommended if you’re looking to do some of the more rugged, longer hikes, and, yes, there are designated areas to park your horse. Being the Central Coast, bringing a bottle of Pinot or Zin wouldn’t hurt, either.

For more information, refer to the California State Parks website for Montana de Oro: 

Recreation, In Print, Today Montana de Oro

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