Located just north of Hearst Castle, Piedras Blancas is estimated to be home to more than 17,000 elephant seals who arrive at the rookery at year's end to breed and give birth. Juvenile males arrive in October and spend the month practicing their fighting techniques in anticipation of the adult males' arrival in November, though they tend to be no match for the adults, who can weigh as much as 5,000 pounds. Once juveniles have moved on to other sand, accepting defeat sometimes before a battle even breaks out, the adult males are left to war with each other, rearing back, slamming their bodies, and squalling for dominance, often all day long.
While the conflicts provide autumnal visitors an up-close-and-personal experience with these once nearly extinct animals, the outcomes are sometimes bloody or even fatal for the seals. (Humans and their pets are encouraged to stay behind the beach's fencing for their own safety. Posted signs remind sightseers that, among other dangerous attributes, the seals are "faster than you think.") Adult males will remain at the beach until almost the end of January, when they will migrate out to sea.
While juveniles make occasional appearances on the beach throughout the year, breeding/birthing season is one of only two times adult elephant seals reside on the beach. The seals also return when they make their annual molt, usually late spring and through the summer.
Part of Hearst San Simeon State Park, the Piedras Blancas colony of elephant seals was first documented in 1990 with a population of about two dozen. Two years and about four hundred seals later, the first pup was born, and the area is now thought to be home to around ten percent of all elephant seals.
[November 12, 2014 update: Per the settlement agreement with the federal government, Trev Lee has posted a public apology to his Instagram account. "I post this statement as an apology and expression of my regret for what I did and in hopes it will discourage others from doing what I did," he wrote. "I make no excuses for my actions; they were not only irresponsible, but unlawful. I implore others not to make these same mistakes." Read the full statement here.]
"Today has been a good day," he wrote in the caption of a wintry wonderland photo posted to Instagram. It was a crisp December afternoon in Yosemite National Park and Trevor Lee had gone on a hike through the snow and ice skated with the girl he was dating. Reason enough to be satisfied, but gaining some media fame must have helped. Lee, an employee at a park concessionaire of six months at that point, was just featured in Outside magazine and by Instagram's blog for his adventures in the park.
The photos were epic. Camping with views over Yosemite Valley, climbing giant trees, aerial skateboading, and so much more to inspire just about anyone to pick up and move to Yosemite immediately. Lee, known as @trevlee on Instagram, instantly began gaining thousands of more followers, which today totals over 50,000.
But there was one problem: many of the pictures depicted illegal activity, and four months later, Lee was in court facing nine misdemeanor counts.
The mysterious moving rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park have fascinated and perplexed visitors for decades. Scattered across the usually dry lake bed, the stones occupy the ends of furrows, or "trails," that the stones apparently plow in the lakebed as they move, propelled by some mysterious force.
Explanations for this odd desert phenomenon have ranged from strong winds and thick sheets of ice lifting the rocks to an algal mat on the lakebed surface that becomes slippery when wet.
This old mystery may have been solved this week. A research paper published Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS-One suggests that the rocks may move across the surface of the playa propelled by nothing more than light winds and a little water. And they back it up with the first documented observation of the rocks actually moving.
Dave Legeno, an actor who achieved fame playing the werewolf Fenrir Greyback in a trio of Harry Potter movies, was found dead Sunday by a group of hikers in Death Valley, likely of heat-related injuries. And his death serves as a reminder of the extreme danger the desert poses in summer to those visitors who don't take high temperatures sufficiently seriously.
Legeno, 50, was an accomplished martial artist and by all accounts in excellent condition. Authorities are saying he appears to have died of exposure to extreme temperatures in the washes near Zabriskie Point.
And though the precise circumstances of his death may never be known, it's very likely he'd be alive today had he followed a summer hiking survival tip widely known among those of us who live out here in the desert: Don't go hiking.
Monsoon season has started a little early in the Mojave Desert, and thunderstorms have been making their mark on the landscape. And as a result a major thoroughfare through the Mojave National Preserve is closed to traffic for at least a week.
Kelbaker Road, the Preserve's major north-south highway, will be closed for at least a week between between the Preserve's Kelso Depot Visitor Center and the town of Baker as crews struggle to repair two sections of pavement damaged by torrential rains on Sunday, July 6.
That closed section means at least a 30-mile detour for travelers hoping to get from the restored train station that houses the Preserve's visitor center to the nearest chocolate milkshake. And according to Preserve spokesperson Linda Slater, the closure could actually end up lasting longer than a week.
The toilets are closing at Hearst Castle, but don't worry, not all is lost. Starting next Monday, the castle's visitor center transition to porta potties outside the building.
The move by castle, which is run by California State Parks, is to comply with Governor Jerry Brown's Executive Order to redouble drought actions across the state. In January, he declared a drought State of Emergency as the drought entered another year, making it one of the most severe in recent California history.
"We're the biggest account and customer for the local water districts," said Doug Barker, State Parks District Manager for the region. "800,000 people visit every year. Each visitor using the restroom is a major demand on the system." The castle and visitor center is served by one water district, with nearby campgrounds served by another.
It's time for another fee free event in national forests, this time in celebration of National Get Outdoors Day, which is this Saturday, June 14. For Southern California, this means adventure passes won't be needed and lots of campgrounds, mostly in Los Padres National Forest, will be free. Details below.
The hotly debated Adventure Pass program that is unique to California's four most-southern national forests, recently took a hit in court, but they're still around. Casey Schreiner at Modern Hiker explained what's going on in depth last month. What you need to know for Saturday is that there's no need for them. Come Sunday, they'll be required again.
If you miss the peak floral display in progress at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve you still have a couple weeks to catch a truly fine bit of bloom farther east in the Mojave.
Despite the desert having endured the same bone-crushing drought as the rest of the state, a single bout of torrential rain that washed over Joshua Tree National Park at the end of February has brought out some really wonderful spring wildflowers.
Desert dandelions and cacti have been blooming in the park's lower elevations for a couple of weeks already and other species are already adding their own color as well, but if you plan your visit properly you should be able to catch some nice color well into May -- and we've got a suggestion of a floral spot you might not have thought of.
As I hinted last week, the announcement for the annual bicycle takeover of Yosemite National Park's Tioga Road, a precursor to the artery's opening to vehicles after all the snow is plowed, would happen last-minute. So here it is: Bicycle-only access will happen this weekend between 6 a.m. Saturday, April 19 and sunset on Sunday, April 20.
The information was quietly posted to the park's snow plowing update webpage this afternoon.
It looks like it's time to head out to the Antelope Valley. For the past few weeks, areas outside the state's official poppy reserve, like the so-called Boulevard of Poppies, have been displaying a nice bloom. Now, officials at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve are saying their flowers appear to have hit peak bloom and will last throughout the rest of the month (the nearby Poppy Festival is next week).
But if you're expecting one of those jaw-dropping sights like we had four years ago, when fields were awash in orange, don't. Rick Reisenhofer, State Parks Superintendent for the area, tells me that this year's bloom is at about 50 percent in his estimation. That's not bad when the past few years felt more like zero percent. And with springtime green grass to accentuate the colors, it's enough for me to head up, as well as many others: the reserve's parking this week has been filling up.