Saturday, September 22, 2007

Paradise Beach

There are lots of Paradise Beaches in the world. You've probably been to a few. Last weekend, I visited my favorite.

We went south to the Pismo Beach-Arroyo Grande, CA area to spend the weekend with Liz's 78 year-old dad, Jerry. Liz's sister, Laurie, had died two years earlier of ovarian cancer. To commemorate the day, we went hiking on the beach – one of her favorite activities.

In the tiny Guadalupe Dunes parking lot, we ran into Laurie's husband who was visiting some of their favorite spots. From there, we headed south along the nearly deserted beach. Shortly, it was just us and a few surf fishermen. Off shore was a great stream of birds; mostly gulls and pelicans, also heading south. Apparently the anchovies were schooling and the birds feasting. Shortly we saw a mass of birds diving into the waves turning the surface to foam.

Just before the bluffs of Mussel Rock started to rise, we worked our way up into the dunes. The dune complex here is huge. As recently as 1982, vehicles were allowed to roam this area. Jerry was one of the dune buggy pioneers. He and Liz often reminisce about family outings in the dunes. Following a rough path through the dunes and beach scrub, we worked our way up over Mussel Rock. Stopping to chat with a couple coming the other way, we learned they had found some cougar (mountain lion, puma) tracks. There are plenty of tracks of all sizes in the sand: reptiles, birds, mammals. I'm not much of a tracker, but we think we saw tracks from snakes, centipedes, mice, rabbits, coyotes, deer, turkey vultures, and the rumored cougars.

The walking surface varies from loose sand, to hard pack and exposed sandstone. The wind had blasted the sand so hard in some spots that we barely dented the surface. It was a bit disconcerting to walk across a steep, open slope wondering if our soles would stick to the rock-like surface. There are a few exposed spots where the eroding sand drops over cliffs to the crashing surf below. Don't look down!

From the top of Mussel Rock, there are great views: north over the dunes, west over the ocean far below and south to Paradise Beach. We could see three fishermen. Aside from them the beach was deserted. A steep gully separates Mussel Rock from the beach. A trail of sorts leads straight down into the gully. Someone has installed a rope. It was a welcome aid as we, one-by-one, worked our way down the narrow, steep, loose-sand covered “trail.” In the bottom is a year-round stream, that drops over a 20-foot fall to the beach. Because of the drop, we had to work our way another hundred yards or so further south before we could safely descend to the beach. Calla Lilies grow along the cliffs. Some had been rooted up, apparently by wild pigs.

Liz and I backpacked here some years ago coming in from the Point Sal road to the south of the beach. At that time there had been a small, quaint driftwood shack up against the cliffs, but it had been washed away in later winter storms. Driftwood to driftwood.

Continuing south on the two mile long beach, we passed the fishermen – one had a fair-sized surf perch. Down further was a gathering of a dozen or so turkey vultures feasting on a seal carcass. They reluctantly scattered to the cliffs as we approached. In the carcass were still a few chunks of fresh-looking liver. Yum!

Sandstone cliffs supported some lovely hanging gardens above which the steep slopes rise over 400 feet. We spotted tracks in the sand that we guessed were from a mother cougar and two cubs looking for food washed up on beach.

The tide was in as we approached the southern end of the beach where we found a rocky inlet and stopped to have our lunch. There were six sea lions frolicking in the relatively calm pool. I found a spot that would have been great for diving, but despite the sunshine, it was a bit cool for swimming. Nearby tide pools were full of anenomes, little crabs and other life.

On the way back Jerry took the hard way up the cliff to the trail while we could only shake our heads at his tenacity as he struggled for sandy hand and foot holds. We conquered the rest of climb with the welcome help of the rope. Jerry took his time but seemed no worse for it after a rest at the top.

Large flocks of gulls and curlews resting on the sand from their earlier feast parted for us as we strode back up the Guadalupe Beach. We were tired but satisfied with our wilderness beach experience as we arrived at the parking lot after our nine mile round trip.