How lucky are we to have an abundance of gorgeous hiking trails in our State Parks and surrounding areas? Hiking is one of my favorite ways to explore our parks and feel connected to the land I love and call home. While I probably still have a hundred more trails on my hiking bucket list, I definitely have some all-time favorites here in our Central Coast State Parks. The San Simeon Creek Trail in Hearst San Simeon State Park is one of them. It’s perfect for wildlife lovers, plant lovers, and basically anyone who appreciates the outdoors!
The hike ranges in difficulty from easy to moderate, and the entirety is just under 3.5 miles–but you can adjust the length depending on where you start. It passes through parts of the San Simeon Natural Preserve and Washburn Campground, and you can access the trail from various points: the San Simeon Creek Campground, the Washburn Day Use Area, or the Washburn Campground. There are gorgeous panoramic views of the Santa Lucia Mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, and in some areas you can spot Hearst Castle. Along the trail, you can find vernal pools, remains of an old homestead, and of course, several plants and animals.
One of the most interesting things about the San Simeon Creek Trail is its ecologic diversity. In just one hike, you experience 5 different plant communities: riparian woodland, grassland, seasonal wetland, coastal scrub, and the Cambria Pine forest. One minute you’re surrounded by dry brush, and the next you’re surrounded by lush, green plants. Not to mention the abundance of wildlife that feed and live in these areas, too!
I always like to begin the hike by parking for free at Washburn Day Use Area, following the short boardwalk into the campground, and following the first stretch of the trail along San Simeon Creek. Although the creek is usually dry, there is still plenty to see.
I almost always spot mule deer in the dry creek bed. Most of the time they’re even visible if you travel southbound on Highway 1 passing Washburn Day Use. If you spot a deer while on the trail, try to move slowly and stay quiet if you want to get any good pictures or watch them for a while, as they’re super sensitive to sudden movements or loud noises. You might even see a whole family of them cross the trail in front of you–it’s happened to me twice!
There are a ton of interesting plants along the trail as well. The visibility of flowering plants will vary throughout the year, but there is always something to stop and see along the way. For example, in the summer and fall, California fuchsia is one of the brightest flowers you can find growing in the green-brown grasses near the creek. This flower is native to California and has a bugle-like shape. Other flowering plants you might find in this area are bull thistles, teasels, twinberry honeysuckles, California wild roses, lupines, nightshades, California poppies, and orange bush monkey flower (or sticky monkey flower).
Hiker’s tip: Wonder why they’re called sticky monkey flower? Touch your finger on the underside of the flowers or leaves. You guessed it–it’s sticky! This comes from a secretion of resin meant to attract butterflies.
After crossing the creek and passing through the seasonal wetland, you are led into a forest filled with Monterey pines and oaks. The Monterey pine trees are so special and significant because they are only native to the Central Coast and Mexico, so the Cambria pine forest is one of only five native locations you can find them. When Monarch butterflies migrate, they may roost in the tall pines as well. This forest feels like it’s full of magic!
The next part of the trail is my favorite area to walk through: the riparian woodland. There are lush, green plants surrounding the trail, shielding you from the sun. There is a beautiful bridge to cross over and you slowly wind uphill. Keep your eye out for any dusky footed woodrat nests–they will look like mounds of sticks! You may also find some blackberry bushes…
Hiker’s tip: Poison oak and trailing blackberry can look very similar! On this trail, what you may think is tons of poison oak is actually several blackberry bushes. This trail has both, but the trailing blackberry is definitely more prominent. Do you know how to tell the difference?
You’ve probably heard of the phrase “leaves of three, leave them be” for poison oak identification. This can only get you so far, as blackberry leaves also come in a trio. My trick is to look at the texture and shape of the leaves. Poison oak leaves look smooth and almost glossy, and their edges are scalloped. Blackberry leaves have jagged edges and small hairs, giving it a fuzzy look. You can also look at the vines or stems that the leaves grow on; poison oak stems are smooth, and blackberry stems have tiny thorns or hairs. My favorite phrase that I learned two years ago from a Junior Ranger is “if it’s hairy, it’s a berry!”
After slowly ascending out of the lush riparian woodland, you will now enter the grasslands. This part of the trail takes you near the Washburn campground and has great views of the Santa Lucia mountain range and the ocean. I always like to watch the sky for birds while up on these ridges–I mostly only see turkey vultures, but I always wonder if I’ll get lucky and spot a California condor. I have, however, seen turkeys cross the trail in front of me!
After passing though the grasslands, you slowly ascend down the ridges. There are plenty of interesting plants along this narrow part of the trail, many of hem the same as those seen at the beginning of the hike. One cool plant that you can find on nearly all parts of the San Simeon Creek Trail is rattlesnake grass, or greater quaking grass, named for its rattle-like clusters. Sometimes when the landscape clears up I just like to stop, close my eyes, and listen for the soft shaking of the grass in the wind. Fun fact: the seeds and leaves are edible (but in my opinion, tasteless).
Eventually, after winding downhill, you will make it back to where you started. I love this trail for its incredible diversity. There is so much to see, hear, and experience. I am so thankful for California State Parks for maintaining this trail and educating the public on its amazing natural resources. I highly recommend putting this one-of-a-kind trail on your hiking to-do list! You are sure to have a special experience.