California’s Central Coast; A Photographer’s Paradise

How would you like to photograph dramatic ocean scenes, wildlife, Spanish missions, urban landscapes, agriculture, mountain vistas, wildflowers, marine mammals, surfing and sailing, fishing villages, multi-million dollar real estate, thriving artist's colonies, remote lighthouses, and even a real castle?

Mission Santa Barbara photographed at first light. Every Brooks Institute of Photography student's nightmare. I like it anyway.
All Photos © 2006, Joseph A. Dickerson, All Rights Reserved

This photographer's paradise extends from Santa Barbara in the south to the Monterey Peninsula in the north. I'd love to share all my favorite spots with you, but they wouldn't let me have the whole magazine to do so, thus I'll settle for highlighting a few of my top picks.

No trip to California's Central Coast would be complete without some time in Santa Barbara. The idyllic climate, beautiful harbor, stunning mountain backdrop, and Mediterranean architecture will tempt you to stay a while.

(Left): A small clump of monarch butterflies at Pismo State Park. This year there were around 32,000 butterflies in attendance. The peak was in the early 1990s when the count was a whopping 230,000. (Right): Pismo Beach has great walking beaches with lots to see. Seals, cormorants, and pelicans inhabit the offshore rocks and it is usually not too crowded.

You'll definitely want to visit Mission Santa Barbara. I prefer early morning light on the facade with its unique double bell towers. The harbor area has much to shoot and do, including, in season, whale-watching excursions.

When you're ready head north on US Highway 101 until you arrive at Buellton with Solvang, the country's largest Danish community a couple of miles to the east. Come to town and try the ableskievers and visit Mission Santa Inés. You're in the Santa Ynez Valley, and the large mountain to the north is Figueroa Mountain. At the right time of year you can catch glimpses of Lance Armstrong's Discovery Team prepping for the Tour de France on its challenging grades. Take either Highway 246 or Highway 154 to get back to Highway 101 and continue north.

Our next scheduled stop is Pismo Beach where, from October until February, you can find one of the largest concentrations of monarch butterflies in the country. You'll be astounded to see literally thousands of butterflies in the air at one time. If you visit in the summer you'll experience California brown pelicans by the thousands and, with luck, sooty shearwaters by the millions. At times there will be shearwaters, pelicans, and gulls in huge numbers feeding on the small fry that have been driven to the surface by larger fish and seals feeding on the bottom of the schools. When this happens close to shore it is an amazing photo opportunity.

Just north of Morro Rock, park at the base of the rock itself, is a popular surfing spot. If the conditions are right you can get great surf action shots.

Pismo Beach is the Clam Capital of the World so plan on some chowder, and nearby Oceano is home to some impressive sand dunes. Ansel Adams, the Westons, and many others have traveled to the area just to photograph these magical dunes.

When you are tired of funky little beach towns you can continue north on US Highway 101 until you get to San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo (not San Louie, please) grew from the original mission site and has a lovely and vibrant downtown with plenty to shoot.