Pescadero Gets My Seal of Approval

Jeff Regan
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I was offered a sunrise photo tour of the elephant seal breeding area at Ano Nuevo State Reserve in Pescadero, California, by the Coastside State Parks Association as a thank you for providing some photos, a $250 value. Susan and I thought, what a great reason to stay in our Unity at Costanoa KOA in Pescadero. The state park is only 34 miles from our house, but it was a 6:00 am tour start! Never mind that we spent $393 for three nights (not being a morning person, I needed to ease into my photo tour experience) and another $400 at Cascade Restaurant on the property, entertaining friends, plus groceries and diesel–but hey, we saved $250 on the tour!

Our 2018 Unity Murphy Bed
Cascade Restaurant and Bar

Costanoa is a beautiful property just north of Santa Cruz, featuring a hotel, cabins, yurts (expensive large tents), and an RV park managed by KOA. It is right off Highway One, and you can see the ocean from most sites–if you climb on your RV roof. We left midday on a Friday for the long 34-mile scenic coastal journey. We arrived 41 minutes later, or 19 minutes before 1:00 pm check-in. I know this because the nice lady at the counter told me I was early, and normally, they’d charge $10 per hour for being early. I wanted to ask if they pro-rate that because, by my calculations, I owed 16 cents per minute, or $3.04 for the full 19-minute early arrival fee, had I been required to pay and only if they pro-rate.

Our site had what looked to be a playpen for adults. Plus a wood-burning fire pit, we opted to use our portable propane fire pit, which is about the size of a dinner plate. Some RVers might have laughed at its diminutive size, but I didn’t hear them. I did receive a text from the RV park that said, “Hello from Costanoa! Be sure to flag down the Bar Cart for amazing cocktails!” I saw this shortly after almost being run over by it in the dark while walking our dogs.

Adult Play Pen behind our RV site
Our small but mighty propane fire pit

The small 1867 former whaling town of Davenport is 14 miles south of the RV park, known now for its cement plant, great beaches, sea stacks, and cement church. My favorite sea stack is Shark Fin Cove. Well, mine and every landscape photographer I know.

A very short drive north from the RV park is Pigeon Point Light Station, built in 1871 and my favorite lighthouse, not that I’ve ever met a lighthouse I didn’t like. A full renovation was started in 2024, lasting two years, culminating with the first order Fresnel lens being placed back into the lantern room in the tower–it is tied for the tallest in California. Pigeon Point is also a California State Park and hostel good for bird and whale watching.

Shark Fin Cove State Beach
Pigeon Point Light Station

A bit further north is the little town of Pescadero, meaning ‘Fishmonger” in Spanish, a farming, ranching, weekend tourist community with a population of around 600. Many structures date back to the 1800s, and it has been home to Duarte’s Tavern since 1894, owned and run by a fourth generation of the Duarte family. Originally a hotel and restaurant, they are known for their olallieberry pie, artichoke soup (also served as half artichoke and half green chile soup; that’s what I always order), and cioppino. Duarte’s received the James Beard American Classic Award in 2003 and recently was named Guy Fieri’s favorite California tavern. Or was that restaurant? Well, I know he loves the crab cioppino!

Duarte’s Tavern, Pescadero
Duarte’s bar area

Duarte’s half artichoke, half green chile soup

A new place to peruse next door is Madrone Arts, an art gallery in an old refurbished auto repair shop featuring art from local artists. Nearby, the goats at Harley Farms Goat Dairy are great for the kids, or is that Kids for the kids?

Madrone Arts, Pescadero

Ano Nuevo State Reserve is three miles south of Costanoa, plus a three-mile hike to the elephant seal breeding area. However, this guided sunrise photo tour would feature a bus for six of us on the journey in the dark. It was good to have a ranger watching my back because the huge males weigh from 3000 to 5000 pounds and can move quickly on land when they want to. The males feature large proboscis used to make loud roaring and drum noises during mating competitions. A successful alpha male can impregnate up to 50 females in one season. Many males will never get to mate during their typical nine-year lifespan.

Originally called Punto de Ano Nuevo by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1603 while passing by on his ship, it is a protected area with one of the largest mainland breeding colonies for the northern elephant seal from December through March, with weaned pups remaining through April. It takes 11 months before birth, and the mortality rate for pups during the first year after birth is 40%. The northern elephant seal came close to extinction in the late 1800s due to being hunted for their blubber. The first pup was born at Ano Nuevo, which wasn’t until the early 1960s. They are prey for killer whales and great white sharks. As our ranger said, “It’s tough being an elephant seal!”

The otherworldly sites and sounds of the bulls, females, and pups, including alpha males fighting and mating with females, were like something from prehistoric times.

Ano Nuevo State Reserve
Northern elephant seal bull
Mother and calf elephant seals

There is a small island where the lightkeepers’ homes are still standing but have been taken over by seals, cormorants, and other wildlife. As far back as 1916, the keepers complained about the sea lions, picked up by newspapers throughout the country: “When he opens the door troops of young sea lions march into the house, and at meal time the entire colony surrounds his domicile, barking for admittance. Sleep is difficult, he declares, for the slightest disturbance in the night is a signal for a sea lion chorus which can be heard all over the island.”

The lighthouse was taken down in the 70s. Researchers still go to the island and keep equipment in another structure, not shared with seals. Female elephant seals return during spring, and males in the summer to molt. They spend most of their time in the water the rest of the time and typically swim 2000 miles in an eight-month migration period. Reservations are needed during the breeding season.

Very close to the RV park is Highway 1 Brewery, which is open on Fridays and weekends, and Gazos Creek Beach House Alliance gas station has plenty of room at the pumps behind the building for an LTV and tow vehicle. It has petroleum diesel with no biomass or biodiesel.

The southern San Mateo Coast area offers many sights: beautiful beaches with volcanic rock/sea stacks at Pescadero State Beach, Bean Hollow State Beach, the Pescadero marsh reserve is great for winter bird watching, Pescadero Creek State Park and Big Basin State Park offer hiking in the forest with Redwoods, Santa Cruz is close by to the south, Half Moon Bay to the north, there are wineries near Davenport on Bonny Doon Road. It is an unspoiled, nature-filled area and not as well known as some Northern California coastal locations. Highly recommended. It’s got my seal of approval!

Jeff Regan

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