Guide to Historic Piers and Lighthouses of Highway 1
Historically, the towns along San Luis Obispo County’s unique stretch of Highway 1 long served as harbors and destinations for trade. From the Chumash people and Portola expedition, to whaling in San Simeon and sneaking moonshine at Spooner’s Cove, this region boasts a rich seafaring history.
Fortunately, many structures remain from the heyday of these ports, before railroads and highways displaced the work of cargo and passenger ships. Better yet, they are all open to the public, some for a small fee but many for free. Take in all the piers and lighthouses of coastal San Luis Obispo County, or choose just one or two to explore. Either way, you’ll witness the impact of how this region’s coastal position shaped its history.
San Simeon: A Bay With A View
This picturesque bay once served as a satellite for Mission San Miguel, as well as a whaling station for Portuguese sailors. Later, it would become the connection point between the world’s antiquities and the spectacular hilltop estate of William Randolph Hearst.
Piedras Blancas Light Station
Built in 1875, the Piedras Blancas Light Station sought to protect ships passing by San Simeon from wrecking on the rocky shoreline. The lighthouse once stood 100 feet tall thanks to the glass cupola over the Fresnel lens. Today, that lens is displayed next to the Veterans Memorial hall in Cambria, reducing the light station’s height to 70 feet. Still, the historic building remains an important and fascinating site for both the connoisseur and the curious. Book a tour of the property, taking in the sights and sounds of the ocean, crashing below.
San Simeon Bay Pier
In 1878, California State Senator George Hearst built a wharf to transport goods to and from his 40,000-acre rancho. That wharf would later receive antiquities from all over the world to fill the spectacular home of his son, newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. That wharf no longer remains, but a new pier was built in 1957 at Hearst Memorial State Beach as a recreational fishing pier. Today, the structure stands against the picturesque backdrop of San Simeon Bay, and continues to invite recreational fishing.
Cayucos: The Port That Cass Built
Before Captain James Cass landed in Cayucos in 1867, the town already had a sea-centric history with the Chumash people. In fact, the name “cayucos” translates roughly as kayaks or canoes. But with Cass’s arrival from the East Coast, the Cayucos coastline became a player in international trade. Don’t miss Captain Cass’s home, which still stands today and houses a cozy restaurant with a view.
Stretching over Cayucos State Beach, the Cayucos Pier was built for trade in 1872 by Captain Cass and his partner, Captain Ingals. After a $3.5-million restoration in 2015, the pier stands today with plenty of room for fishing, walking, and watching surfers catch waves.
Los Osos-Baywood Park: Safe Harbor
Beautiful Los Osos – Baywood Park enjoys a protected position on an inlet of the Morro Bay National Estuary, where the waters are calm and quiet.
Baywood Park Pier
This peaceful little pier stands watch over the bay beside Baywood’s 2nd Street. The pier was built in 1955, and has been rebuilt several times due to natural causes. Today, it welcomes the young and young at heart to sit and enjoy the sound of lapping waves and birdsong.
Avila Beach and Pismo Beach: Connection to the Coast
Avila Beach’s San Luis Bay has seen the sails of Sir Francis Drake and Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” of Navy battleships. But it’s a wharf and small rail line, built in the late 19th century, that really connected Avila Beach to the rest of the world.
Point San Luis Lighthouse
As ship travel increased in the mid-19th century, so, unfortunately, did shipwrecks. In 1877, Congressman Romaldo Pacheco brought a bill before Congress to build a lighthouse that would protect passing ships. The Port San Luis Lighthouse opened in 1890 with a French Fresnel lens that could be seen 20 miles away. Today, the lighthouse still stands, and docents lead historic tours there for casual visitors and lighthouse fanatics alike.
Harford Pier / Port San Luis Pier
In the late 19th century, Harford’s Pier (now called Port San Luis Pier) managed import and export from across the globe. Harford also built “The People’s Wharf” near where the Avila Beach Pier stands today, which received cargo and passenger ships. Both of these piers connected with Harford’s light gauge railroad, which took passengers and goods between Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo. Today, the Bob Jones Bike Trail follows the shape of Harford’s railroad.
Avila Beach Pier
In 1908, the County of San Luis Obispo built the 1,685-foot Avila Beach Pier, about the same time the Avila Beach Breakwater was built to protect Harford Pier. (Fun fact: Engineers blasted parts of Morro Rock to build the Avila Beach Breakwater.) The pier served as an important wharf for fishing and passengers, with several hoists and a large warehouse. Today, the pier welcomes visitors who enjoy watching surfers, waders, whales and other sea life.
Cal Poly Pier
In 1914, between the Harford and Avila Beach Piers, the Pacific Coast Railway Co. built a pier for commercial shipping, later leased by Union Oil Co (Unocal). Both Harford and the Pacific Railway Pier shipped enough oil to make Port San Luis the largest crude oil shipping port on the globe. But not for long: as standard gauge railroads took over, the need for the piers and narrow gauge railroad disappeared. In 1941, Unocal bought the Pacific Railway Pier, which became critical to supplying the U.S. Pacific Naval Fleet throughout World War II. The pier stayed important for oil transportation until it’s destroyed in a storm in March, 1983. Unocal replaced the wooden pier with a concrete and steel pier, in the same footprint, and gifted the pier to Cal Poly University in 2001. Today, it’s called the Cal Poly Pier, dedicated as an educational marine research facility for the University.
Pismo Beach Pier
Between Avila Beach and Oceano, the Pismo Beach Pier also has a long history in commerce. Built in 1881, the wooden Pismo Pier imported goods and exported crops, building materials and asphaltum. The Pier has recently been renovated, and makes for a pleasant walk or fishing excursion.