Homer's Travels: A Blustery Day At The Point Sur Lightstation

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Blustery Day At The Point Sur Lightstation

On Saturday we were joined by the "J" on, possibly, our last California roadtrip. It will certainly be the last long California roadtrip. For our last long roadtrip we chose the Point Sur Lightstation to be our destination.

The "J" joined us at 7:00 am and we went out for breakfast at one of our favorite places, Mrs Olsen's Coffee Hut. The place has good food, large portions, good service, and a nice homey atmosphere. We decided by eating a filling Mrs Olsen's breakfast we wouldn't have to worry about lunch and it worked just as we planned.

We left Mrs. Olsen's at 8:00 and headed north. The Light Station holds tours at 2:00 pm on Saturdays. Reservations are not taken so it's first come first served. The drive was a little over four and a half hours so I figured we'd have plenty of time. The drive was full of our usual witty conversation. Somewhere before Santa Maria we started collecting witty phrases which will someday be the song titles of our first album. I think this may need a whole post by itself.

We decided to stop at Harmony on the way up to visit the Pottery store. I confirmed that the post office is now closed. While the Wife and "J" shopped, I took some more pictures. It seems I can always find something interesting to photograph in this tiny town. I added the pictures to my 2006-2011 Harmony, CA Google Photos album.

North of Harmony, past Cambria, San Simeon, and the elephant seal viewing area, highway 1 starts snaking along the coast. There really isn't any way to drive this stretch fast and, frankly, why would you want to. The stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway from San Simeon to Carmel is one of the most beautiful drives in the lower 48. I've driven it or part of it on four occasions and each time I am awed my how magnificent the mountains, sea cliffs, and the pacific ocean are. On our first drive down this serpentine way when we visited Salinas, we saw the Point Sur Lightstation and we stopped at the nearby Big Sur visitor's center to see if there were tours. Unfortunately the tour times were limited and we'd missed the last one for the day. It took only five years to find a way to get back to the lightstation.

We arrived an hour and fifteen minutes before the tour. We waited a little bit and other cars pulled up then drove away. We left and went to a nearby campground to use the facilities. We returned to the gate and waited. It was really windy and it felt quite cold though I expect it was up in the 50s. Fortunately we'd all dressed warm. The docent arrived right on time and opened the gate for us. The entry road passes through private ranch land. We all drove in and parked at the base of the morrow (i.e. rounded hill). I never counted how many people were on the tour but they limited the groups to under 40. There were probably 6 or 7 cars with each car having 3 or 4 people each. The people included Indians and Russians on vacation.

At the base of the rock we were joined by a second docent who would tell us the history of the lightstation on the way up. The wind, that was hard near the gate, was really whipping at the base of the rock. The docent explained that this was a result of the Bernoulli Principle. The wind blowing around the rock speeds up while the pressure drops, similar to what happens to an airplane wing. We would experience a much more impressive demonstration of the Bernoulli Principle when we went out on the light house catwalk but I get ahead of myself.

The road up the side of the morrow is about a half mile and climbs some 360 ft. As we walked up the road we would hit areas of low wind and the docent would stop and explain the history of the lightstation. The station was built in 1889. She was a very ... talkative person many of the group wanted her to just be quiet so we could get to the top but, as we listened to her, it turned out that she was telling a lot of interesting stories. I'm glad she shared all these stories of construction, engineering, fights over land and water, and ship wreaks off the coast of Point Sur, but many of these stories could have been told in the warm comfort of one of the buildings.

We finally reached the top, the first stop being the lighthouse itself. It is an attractive building that is still used today by the coast guard. We entered a room with displays of Fresnel lenses and foghorns. One display showed safety equipment. The docent mentioned that she wasn't sure why a cane was included in the safety equipment. I looked at it for a minute and realized that it was not there for it's original, body supporting purpose. It was to be used as a hook. If a worker touches high voltage, he may not be able to let go. A rescuer would use the cane to hook the victim and pull him free of the electrified equipment, hopefully sparing the victim and rescuer from electrocution. I explained this to the docent. I guess my stint working for the Navy and all the safety briefings helped.

After the displays we were taken up the spiral staircase up to the top of the tower. The deck above out head was studded with prisms that collected light from above and directed it below to light the room.

The docent then let us out on the catwalk (the square one in the photo above). That's when the real lesson in the Bernoulli principle happened. I was one of the first out. The wind outside the door wasn't too bad. Maybe gusting to 30 or 40 MPH. As I walked counterclockwise around the light, the wind became stronger and stronger. It strengthened to the point that I almost turned around and headed back. I took a picture of the coastline and then crept a little further around. I couldn't decide if I should be near the edge holding the railing or if I should be hugging the light. As I inched around I could feel my feet slipping on the metal surface. It was hard to take a breath. I'm not an expert, and the docent didn't know either, but I would guess that the peak wind speed was Hurricane strength (70 - 80 MPH). I looked behind me and saw the Wife. Her wide eyed expression said it all.

As I continued around, the wind diminished. I looked at the other tour people and warned them about the wind "in that corner." This, of course, made everyone go to that corner. Everyone came back wide eyed and smiling ear to ear. It was totally cool. The "J" didn't make it all the way to the corner before she decided to turn back. If all this tour was was to experience the wind at that one corner, it would be worth the 4 1/2 hour drive and the $8 admission. It was a hoot just to see the people's faces and their windblown hair.

The rest of the tour took us through the other buildings on the morrow. These included the fully restored workshop/smithy, the barn, and the head lightstation tender's home. The most impressive building was one that we could not go in. The Triplex was the home of the three subordinate lightkeepers and their families. Unfortunately the inside was not safe (someone put their foot through the floor recently) and we could not go in. Here are some pictures.

We did some shopping at the gift shop and looked some displays at the visitor's center. There is a video about the USS Macon which crashed off the coast of Point Sur, ending the era of the Naval rigid airship. One of the docents shared a 1930s year book with the Wife. The small school at the station had 6 students and the yearbook was all hand lettered by the students and illustrated with photographs. The third grader's handwriting was better than the Wife's high school student's. We walked around admiring the sights from the top of the morrow. The weather wasn't the best but I have a feeling this was the typical weather for the families that kept the light burning. You could see the now decommissioned Point Sur Naval Station nearby. There is still one active building that is probably collecting data from sonar arrays off the coast.

We all walked back down to our cars. The tour was a full three hours. Well worth the time and all the driving. We stopped in Cambria for dinner before making he long drive back home. It was a long day (15 hours - almost 11 of those driving). Our next long roadtrip will be in Nebraska.


  1. What! No stories of the mad cow that almost kicked us off the road on our way to the start of the tour. Oh, that's a good story ... tell it. Well, I can tell it ... a mad cow almost kicked the car on the way to the start of the tour.

  2. LOL, I'm not sure I've seen a mad cow. All the ones I see are busy chasing after babies in the field.

    HD, you are right, great distraction trip! Definately worth the drive.

  3. Now that sounds like a fantastic Saturday.

  4. Wife: Oops, I forgot about that. I will fix that in the next post.

    Dobegil: It was! We had a great time.

    JaG: It was a great Saturday drive. Lifted all our spirits.

  5. Great description of the Point Sur tour. I'm amazed you drove all the way up there for it! I took it a few years ago as I was driving down the coast. Believe it or not, it was unplanned, I just happened to be there on the right day about 20 minutes before the tour started!

  6. GH: You were lucky. AS for drive just for that. We have driven farther for less. I like to drive as long as there isn't very much traffic. The destination is just icing on the cake.