Coastal Explorations for the Intrepid Photographer (Part II): San Gregorio State Beach – The Primordial Landscape

San Gregorio State Beach approach from the north

San Gregorio State Beach approach from the north

What the hell?

How could the State of California let this happen?

Look at this mess!

These were the thoughts that initially barreled through my mind as I approached the beach at San Gregorio for the first time. From the parking lot, the place looked like the aftermath of a wild party, like 6am on Bourbon Street the morning after Fat Tuesday. It seemed unbelievable. As I got closer, however, I realized that it wasn’t garbage strewn over the beach. It was actually piles of driftwood, lots of it all over the place. Some of the wood was stacked neatly to construct temporary shelters here and there. There was even a small stream that emanated from an inland river and cut a swath across the beach before it flowed into the Pacific. My righteous indignation turned into profound curiosity as I eagerly navigated the small dirt path leading down from the parking lot to beach level.

Beach flow from San Gregorio Creek to the ocean

Beach flow from San Gregorio Creek to the ocean

Of all the beaches I have explored along the California coast thus far, this one intrigues me the most. San Gregorio State Beach hugs the coastline near the tiny town of San Gregorio, about 11 miles south of Half Moon Bay. Photographically, this beach offers great opportunities to work with strong leading elements, interesting foreground/background juxtapositions and a landscape constantly in transition. There are also challenges: precariously shifting sands in a stream that often cuts off a good part of the beach; narrow avenues of escape in extreme high water situations; and the bogeys of all beaches, changing weather conditions and the ever-dangerous “rogue” waves. Remember: Never turn your back to the sea!

There is also an interesting historical footnote to this beach. In 1769, Captain Gáspar de Portolá and a party of Spanish explorers left San Diego in search of Monterey Bay. Traveling overland, they missed the fog-shrouded Monterey Bay and wound up here. They camped by San Gregorio Creek for three days to rest and treat the sick (California Historical Landmark 26).Afterwards, they journeyed on and became the first documented Europeans to see what is now San Francisco Bay.

View of beach looking to the south

View of beach looking to the south

My last two visits to San Gregorio were under vastly different conditions. The first of those two visits (April 14, depicted above) were under foggy, wet conditions. Although it looks rather innocuous in the image above, the stream is visible cutting across the foreground was wide and fast, with the flow action quickly eroding away the soft, wet sand. I attempted to ford it, but the sand beneath my feet started to give away; it felt like walking in quicksand. I immediately aborted that plan! Beyond the stream in the mid-background, you can see some of the structures built from the beach driftwood. Beyond that, there are the cliffs disappearing into the fog. I wanted to go there, but good sense ruled the day. Besides, I just had to turn around for a good shot.

Shorebirds

Shorebirds

Tidepool rock

Tidepool rock

Oceanside viewing

Oceanside viewing

Even in this lousy weather, the sandstone cliffs of San Gregorio yielded some beautifully haunting images. The sharper foreground rocks in the images above were a perfect offset to the marginally fog-obscured background cliffs and sky. This countered the overall flatness of the light and carried a sense of depth throughout the photographs. A slight enhancement of the colors in the foreground rocks in post-processing also helps to achieve this feeling of depth.

Another way to add punch to your beach image on days like this is to include interesting foreground elements, and San Gregorio has no shortage of this. There is a little of this in the image immediately above, as the black sand tends to form a perceptible pathway leading into the foreground rock. However, the foreground elements are more prominent in the two images above it. In the top image, the thin film of water left by the receding surf allows for a nice reflection of the cliff – this leads your eye directly to the birds looking for food in the mid-frame. In the middle image, the orientation of the rock in the tide pool leads the eye to the cliff in the right of the frame. This again adds to the feeling of depth in the flat light.

Sandstone cliffs

Sandstone cliffs

I made a return trip to San Gregorio State Beach a couple of weeks later. In contrast to my prior visit, it was bright and sunny this morning. This time the estuary had dried up enough to allow easy access to the southern end of the beach. This is the part where the beach derives its “primordial” character. Here you get to pick your way around the piles of driftwood deposited on the beach by the estuary. Some industrious souls have used some of this woody debris to construct primitive beach shelters, pyre-like stacks and other structures. A few of the shelters are actually well appointed; I found one three-stump dwelling (the stumps are substitutes for easy chairs) that was actually quite comfortable. These structures and the loose woody debris strewn about offer a wealth of opportunities for capturing interesting imagery. The beach at San Gregorio is a compositional nirvana, a target-rich environment for leading elements and subjects alike. x017p_filtered x013p_filtered

A peek inside one of the huts

A peek inside one of the huts

Looking out a hut entrance towards the Pacific Coast Highway

Looking out a hut entrance towards the Pacific Coast Highway

Now for an interesting side trip. The town of San Gregorio lies about a mile inland, so I decided to drive down California Route 84 (alternately known as San Gregorio Road and La Honda Road) to check it out. I drove and I drove…and drove some more. I knew I had driven more than a mile, but never saw anything of a town. I turned around and headed back to the coast. A little while later I finally saw it; San Gregorio is tiny to say the least. There is a general store and a few other buildings where 84 intersects with Stage Road. That was pretty much it.

The San Gregorio General Market, Stage Road

The San Gregorio General Market, Stage Road

I decided to go into the store for something to drink, but this place was something more than just a grocery stand. This was a throwback to another era, like walking through a time portal. I wandered around in amazement at this cool stuff filling the store, from lanterns to hats to wine, cast iron cookware to…well, almost anything! They even have live music performances at this place. If you ever visit the beach, the general store is a must-stop. (http://www.sangregoriostore.com)

San Gregorio State Beach is an interesting stop for any traveler, especially for us photographers. This beach provides a different set of opportunities and challenges to create compelling images. Worth the trip!

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

Information: Directions: San Gregorio State Beach is located right off of California Highway 101 (Pacific Coast Highway), roughly 10.5 miles south of Half Moon Bay and 38 miles north of Santa Cruz. Further Information: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=529

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