Tide pools: Montana de Oro, a surprise on the California coast

Road Journals Blog—Montaña de Oro State Park blew me away.

I grew up in Los Angeles and have lived in San Francisco for years, and thought I’d visited all the great coastal sites in between. But no.

Montaña de Oro is in Los Osos, just west of San Luis Obispo. In figuring out tide pool sites to profile for my VIA article, several experts suggested I visit the park’s Corallina Cove, which I did late one October afternoon when the tide was fairly low.

The pools were outstanding, backed by ochre bluffs and ranging in size from tiny pockets barely big enough for a golf ball to some larger than a bathtub. In some areas, purple sea urchins filled hundreds—thousands?—of tiny pools. One kitchen sink-sized basin of pink algae, scuttling hermit crabs, brightly colored sea snails, and green anemones was so still that I saw the reflection of a gull flying overhead as I peered at the submerged critters. In a rare treat, I spotted a sunflower star, a kind of trippy, pink sea star with up to 24 arms.

I stayed until close to sunset, when the incoming sea had covered most of the tide pooling area.

Why didn’t Corallina Cove make the final list of profiled sites? Like Seal Rock State Park in Oregon, craggy rocks covered with algae and living critters (among them anemones, urchins, and barnacles) made viewing difficult. (A basic rule of tide pooling is to not step on living things.)

But what a magnificent park—one of the largest state parks in California. Inside its more than 8,000 acres visitors can find hidden coves, tide pools, abrupt ocean bluffs, coastal plains and streams, and even a 1,347-foot peak. Apparently the park is no secret—nearly a million people visit each year. Which goes to show there’s always something to be discovered in your own back yard.

Christopher Hall's article, "Pool party," with photos by David H. Collier, appears on the cover of the March/April issue of VIA.

This blog post was first published in January 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.