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California's lost coast

Finding scenic cliffs, redwoods, elephant seals and small towns on a remarkably undiscovered slice of coastline. Where are we?

November 10, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

DAVENPORT, Calif. — Here I stand, somewhere in the middle of California, watching surf crash beneath sandstone cliffs. In the deep water below, the skeleton of a derelict pier throws long shadows. A few paces away from me, cars zoom into the distance on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Where exactly am I? The cars are pointed north toward San Francisco. The area code is about to change from 408 to 415. Fresno is almost directly east of here.

And if you're a bit hazy on the geography beyond that, you're not alone. For all the bragging we do about our coastline, those of us at California's southern end seem to have overlooked a remarkable chunk of it.

Here, between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, we have about 60 miles of ocean bluffs and tide pools, row crops and lighthouses, redwoods and banana slugs, sea lions and small towns, all within easy driving distance of the San Francisco and San Jose airports. The population of this entire coastal area is less than 25,000.

Those who live here, deep in battle over new development and wary of creeping commuterism from Bay Area urban centers, aren't likely to describe their backyard as forgotten real estate. But for millions of Southern Californians, this is a sort of lost coast.

I've given myself four days to find it. I catch a flight to San Jose, rent a car, warily thread my way west through the Santa Cruz Mountains on winding, perilous California 17, then join the coast highway at Santa Cruz.

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Soon the scenery goes rural and I'm passing tidy rows of working farms blanketed in late-October pumpkins. About 11 miles above Santa Cruz, Davenport turns up.

Davenport was founded in the 1860s by Capt. John Davenport, a whaler from the East Coast looking to capitalize on the annual whale migration route near this coast every winter. The community's dominant feature these days is the cement plant that forced the town to relocate about half a mile south in 1906 and is still in operation. But forget the cement plant.

Davenport is its own small world, with a church, a bar and grill, a bakery, a Mexican restaurant, a few blocks of houses, a school, about 200 residents and a pair of offbeat galleries. David Boye Knives on Old Coast Road specializes in cooking knives as well as blades for hunters and divers. Lundberg Studios next door sells art glass. There's a scenic beach just across the highway, and a few hundred yards north, the skeletal remains of Davenport's old pier--a haunting view at sunset.

I meet a friend for dinner at the New Davenport Cash Store, the community's nicest restaurant, and I spend the night upstairs at the Davenport Bed & Breakfast Inn, the only lodging in the area. (The inn, which has rooms accented by folk art, offers upstairs rooms with partial ocean views and downstairs rooms in an adjacent building.)

Here's a clue to the relatively forgotten nature of this stretch: In the busiest summer months, when the Pacific Coast Highway at Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles carries about 66,000 vehicles per day, CalTrans figures show 11,600 daily vehicles on PCH at Davenport. Heading north to Pescadero and San Gregorio, as I am about to do, the traffic thins even further.

Before those towns, however, comes the prospect of love among the kelp: the dunes, grasses and seal-strewn beaches of the An~o Nuevo State Reserve. Every winter, under protection from state park rangers and volunteer docents, thousands of elephant seals gather to mate and give birth on these beaches, a smelly, noisy spectacle that has come to draw more human observers than it does elephant seals. (Travelers are urged to book reservations in advance for the Dec. 1 to March 31 mating season; telephone [800] 444-7275.)

The female elephant seals, which typically deliver about 11 months after conceiving, last year birthed about 2,000 pups. But a pup who gets in the way of a bull seal intent on mating runs a mortal risk. The bulls arrive in December weighing as much as 5,000 pounds. They mate, fight and fast for three months, and leave 2,000 pounds lighter in March. Call it the An~o Nuevo One-Ton Diet.

In other months, the scene is far sleepier. Parking and hiking 1.5 miles out to An~o Nuevo Point, I find 100 or so young elephant seals and sea lions. Some jostle in the shallow water. Others lie on the beach, occasionally barking at the blue sky or flipping sand onto their torsos.

Next the highway passes the lonely Pigeon Point Lighthouse, then Bean Hollow and Pescadero state beaches amid miles of ragged coastline. Then, at the edge of a wide marsh, Pescadero Road leads past a few acres of farmland and modest houses to the sleepy crossroads that is downtown Pescadero.

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