Camping at Montaña de Oro State Park in California

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Whenever some local volunteer at a magnificent state park tucked away on California's Central Coast waxes on about mountain lions, bobcats and rattlesnakes to a couple of wide-eyed Angelenos, you can be pretty sure of two things. First, probably nothing more predatory than a turkey vulture wil...

By Jordan Rane // 11.05.08
 

Whenever some local volunteer at a magnificent state park tucked away on California's Central Coast waxes on about mountain lions, bobcats and rattlesnakes to a couple of wide-eyed Angelenos, you can be pretty sure of two things.

First, probably nothing more predatory than a turkey vulture will be encountered over the next 48 hours. Second, what may actually be going on (at least unconsciously) during this warmly grave reception is an attempt at crowd control.

Welcome to Montaña de Oro State Park. Please don't tell all your friends about us.

"We do have a resident mountain lion here," a local volunteer dryly told my 6-year-old son, Jackson, and me when we pulled into Montaña de Oro's sleepy headquarters beside a foggy patch of rugged, bluff-lined coast that could be Oregon or Scotland.

"There's also a family of bobcats that we think live near the back section of the campground," she added, handing me a pocket tidal chart before turning her attention to Jackson. "Would you like to see a rattlesnake skin?" she asked.

Of course he would.

"Yep, there are rattlesnakes here," our earnest host reminded us, as we ran our fingers along the evidence -- a flawless snake epidermis hanging on a hook in a back room like an old nylon stocking with eye sockets. "During the summer especially, you'll find them dozing by the trails."

After a spate of warnings about poison oak ("it's everywhere"), coyotes ("you'll hear them howling in the night"), the surf ("it's rough") and a recent car break-in ("they're very rare here, but don't leave your camera on the front seat"), we were fully initiated. Montaña de Oro State Park -- 8,000-plus acres of buckled seascape and trail-lined hills hiding off on the far side of the San Andreas Fault -- is our oyster.

Until fairly recently, this sweet spot with its seven miles of serrated coast, sand dunes, scrubby peaks and rolling eucalyptus groves was still largely considered a local secret, safely hidden from neighboring tourist magnets such as Big Sur, Hearst Castle and Morro Rock.

"Not anymore," said Jeff Sears, the park's veteran ranger and a San Luis Obispo native who remembers this cherished outpost long before it started making "Top 100 Parks" lists and breaking the half-a-million-annual-visitors barrier.

"In the past, most folks driving up or down Highway 1 or 101 had no idea this place even existed. It used to be a campground where you could just kind of show up -- even on a Friday."

So it's a good thing we arrived with reservations (now essential between spring and Thanksgiving) on a cool, overcast Tuesday in late August. Nestled behind park headquarters at Spooner's Cove in a canyon surrounded by sagebrush hills, the main 50-site campground was completely booked. So were the park's four secluded, walk-in "environmental sites" (two in the eucalyptus groves, two on a pair of hills overlooking the coast), where overnighters can choose an even more intimate rendezvous with nature if they don't mind forgoing a campfire (prohibited in the backcountry) and hiking in.

Our plan was to spend the first night car-camping and the second night at Environmental Campsite No. 3 -- one of the ocean-view spots and the most prized of the four backcountry sites for its views and easy access.

"Do you think we'll see a rattlesnake?" Jackson asked over dinner. The sun was down. A late-summer mist was rolling in. As full campgrounds go, an aura of pure tranquillity wafted over this hushed amphitheater of silhouettes whispering mainly in German, French and Italian. Clearly, Montaña de Oro State Park has made it into the European guidebooks.

No, I assured Jackson. We definitely would not be running into any rattlesnakes this visit. That was a promise.

The next day, while walking the park's signature Bluff Trail -- a flat 2.1-mile path winding along 30-foot cliffs and the pounding Pacific -- we ran into a rattlesnake.

"It's on your right, about 60 feet up the trail," said Randy Bello, a park docent leading a group of 30 day-trippers in the opposite direction.

"You also said we wouldn't see a mountain lion," said Jackson.

"We haven't."

"Yeah, but we're here another night."

Environmental Campsite No. 3 is about 300 yards up a hill from the park's main road. It's a short enough commute from where we're parked to double back and haul up pillows, blankets, board games, two good-size stuffed animals and every other creature comfort to get our minds off the mountain lion that isn't going to show up tonight.

There's a picnic table. And a little food locker, occupied by a startled field mouse nursing her 23 babies. Next to that is a flat of sandy space where we pitched our tent directly above one of the prettiest views of the California coast you could ever hope to have all to yourself.

Hundreds of feet below us, the bluffs of Montaña de Oro stretch southward toward the park's gates where the recently opened Point Buchon Trail continues on neighboring PG&E land.

We stared down at the coast, watching a veil of pea soup mist perform its vanishing act to a faint ocean soundtrack. Then we were all alone on a hill in the fog. Just a father and son and a couple of dozen mice.

"There's no way a mountain lion could find us in this fog," Jackson said, as we retreated to our nylon home and broke out the Monopoly.

"You're right," I agreed. "There's no way."

Rane is a freelance writer.