Coastal Explorations for the Intrepid Photographer (Part I)

Ever since my wife and I moved to the West Coast I’ve been drawn to California’s central coastline. Living in the Midwestern United States all my life, I had seen the Pacific Coast as the stuff of exotic vacations, views shoehorned in with city visits, amusement parks, wine tastings and redwoods. Now, living out here so close to the coastline allows for more intimate explorations into finding those picturesque, narrow beaches tucked between massive seaside cliffs and the vast Pacific Ocean.

Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur

Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur

California Highway 1, otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway (or “PCH”), is the artery that has thus far taken me as far north as Stinson Beach in Marin County and as far south as Big Sur. The drive can be a little treacherous, as the views are so breathtaking at some points they become quite the distraction. One must try to remain reasonably focused when navigating the PCH, but it can be difficult. Stunning vistas that literally demand your attention open up around a curve; you’ll want to screech to an immediate halt to gawk at the view. In my opinion, many of the best spots for photography along the coast are so well hidden from the road that you’d have to know ahead of time that where they are in order to stop. Often the only clue from the road is an unpaved stretch of turnoff or a small parking lot. It can be a pain, as the signs designating the beach area are also concealed at times. Once you discover these hidden gems, however, you’ll keep coming back. I’ll discuss two of them in this posting.

One of those spots that I keep coming back to is Pescadero State Beach, about 14.5 miles south of Half Moon Bay near the quaint little town of Pescadero. The main part of the beach is very visible from PCH, but there is another access a little further north that’s worth the stop. I love the interesting cliff formations at this point looking north, a seemingly endless formation of rock that disappears along the coastline. The long, narrow beach seems to call to you, especially if it’s only you and the crashing waves. The cliffs are the star here, and a foggy day can turn your image into a painting. I wouldn’t go with too wide a lens here; a focal length above 28mm would do nicely. You could still get the cliffs and the surf at the proper distance.

Pescadero State Beach

Pescadero State Beach

Pescadero State Beach

Pescadero State Beach

Now right here I have to pause and admit to something. I’m sometimes wary of following the call of these narrow beaches, as I’ve heard of the occasional rogue wave surging up onto the beach and washing helpless wanderers out to sea, never to return. In my first few months here on the West Coast, I’d heard of three such incidents. I haven’t heard of any since, but my instincts of survival have been strongly influenced by these terrible events. If I do muster up the courage to wander alone down one of these deserted beaches, I always remember the old saying, “never turn your back to the sea”. I take that advice to heart, and you should too.

Another great beach for the photographer is Shark’s Fin (or Shark’s Tooth) Cove just south of Davenport. Unlike Pescadero Beach, this is a tricky one to find. Except for the small turnout along the road, there’s nothing to indicate the existence of this beauty. The access down to the beach is a little treacherous. You have to slip under a drainpipe and navigate a steep, rocky trail to get to the water (my first time there, I slipped twice on the trail). Once down, however, you’ll see the effort was all worth it. The rock for which the beach is named rises above the surf like a giant sail, with waves crashing against the nearby cliffs. It’s a photographer’s delight. A great time to go is near sunset, when you can silhouette the Shark’s Tooth against the waning light. A wide angle lens here can yield some great effects, especially with flowing surf. Wander closer to the cliff wall where you can see a rivulet surging and receding with the waves. Make use of slower shutter speeds to get some cool motion blur here.

Shark's Tooth Cove

Shark’s Tooth Cove

Shark's Tooth Cove

Shark’s Tooth Cove

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Shark’s Tooth Cove

These are just two of many spots along the Central California Coast that I love. I’ll examine more in future postings. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions of more spots for me to visit, I want to hear about them.

Visit www.jimwatkinsphoto.com; contact directly at jimwatkins113@gmail.com

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