Whether you are doing Big Sur as a day trip, or you are doing the full Pacific Coast Highway drive, you should definitely make time for the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Visiting the historic station will help you learn just how tricky this coastline was (and still is) for ships and how the Piedras Blancas lighthouse helped to illuminate the way.
It doesn’t hurt that the lighthouse sits on a stunning piece of coastline that features tons of seabirds and marine mammals. And–bonus–there is a nearby elephant seal rookery!
This guide will give you some history of the lighthouse and practical tips for visiting.
History of Piedras Blancas Light Station
The Chumash and Salinan Native Peoples have lived on this stretch of Central coast for thousands of years. But with the Spanish colonization of California, land development and ship traffic began to increase. The light station sits on land that was once a Mexican Rancho,. In 1874, it came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Lighthouse service and the station was built to serve the ship traffic.
The original light tower was originally 100 feet tall. It featured a Fresnel lens and a fog signal building was added in 1905.
The light station is named “Piedras Blancas” for the white rocks that sit just offshore from the lighthouse. These aren’t the white cliffs of Dover, however. In fact, the white on the rocks comes from the poop of seabirds like pelicans and the nesting Peregrine Falcons.
In the early days, life was very hard at the Piedras Blancas light station. There was no road going through Big Sur. The lighthouse keepers were dependent upon infrequent resupply runs from ships. This was tricky because the nearby harbor was rocky and impossible to navigate during storms. As a result, the station had to be somewhat self-sufficient by raising their own chickens and fishing from the local shoreline.
In 1948, an earthquake rocked the coast, damaging the upper portion of the lighthouse. The repair removed 30 feet of the tower. But even with that, Piedras Blancas is still a fully functioning (if automated) lighthouse as well as popular historic site.
In addition, the local wildlife and oceanic activities makes the light station a favorite spot for researchers from NOAA, the US Geological Survey and the University of California. When you visit, you might see researchers out there tracking whale migrations or studying the resident elephant seal population. While there, keep your own eyes out for sea lions, sea otters, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor seals.
If you are keen on California history, you love marine life or are simply a sucker for a pretty coastline, you should definitely make the time to visit Piedras Blancas.
How to Visit the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
The light station buildings are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as part of the California Coastal National Monument. So, it is under federal jurisdiction, but it is neither a National Park nor a State Park. The BLM also has jurisdiction over the Trinidad Head lighthouse, the Point Arena-Stornetta lighthouse and others.
The lighthouse is open to the public, but access is restricted to scheduled tours, several times a week. Guides are scattered throughout the station and they can answer your questions about the area’s history and natural beauty. There is also a small visitor’s center with displays.
Here’s an FAQ for Your Visit
How Do I Book a Tour for Piedras Blancas Light Station?
You must book your tour in advance. You can do it on the Recreation.gov website or by calling (877) 444-6777. The tour costs $10 for adults and $5 for kids 6-17. Kids 5 and under are free.
Can I Use My National Park Pass at Piedras Blancas?
You can’t get in free with a National Park Pass, but you do get a 50% discount. But pay attention when you book the reservation, so that you choose the discounted ticket option.
Where and When Do the Tours Happen?
The tours occur on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, except for federal holidays. They run from 10a-12p. You’ll need to meet the tour group at 9:45 at the nearby Old Piedras Blancas Motel, which is 1.5 miles north of the lighthouse. They will then caravan you into the station through the locked gate.
Can I Bring My Dog?
Sorry. The pup will need to stay in the car.
What Else to Do Nearby
Be sure to leave time for the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. It’s just a mile or so south of the light station. There are always elephant seals at this spot, although what you witness will depend upon the season. The males come, fight, mate and then go. The females mate, then come back to birth and also to molt. The pups hang out before they venture off to the great Pacific deep. It’s always something, but always a surprise.
The rookery has a very generous parking lot and about a mile of walkway which offers a lot of viewing options.
If you are headed north, be sure to use our Big Sur guide for ideas on hikes, beaches and more wildlife viewing.
If you are headed south, stop off in tiny little Harmony California. It’s a quick, quirky stop with some California history, a glass blowing studio, wine tasting and ice cream! Then head down to Cayucos. They have lovely coastal hikes, a dog-friendly beach and amazing cookies.
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