Living in wine country gives you a different perspective on geography. Or maybe more noticeably, the topography of land often dictates what you can or can’t do with an area as far as farming goes. When it comes to the California Central Coast, there’s no more dominant presence than the Coastal Range, which essentially is the Santa Lucia Range of mountains.
The Santa Lucia’s create a barrier between the cool Pacific Ocean and the inland valleys, such as the Salinas Valley and in our particular area, Paso Robles. Although the mountains top out at just over a mile high, the several mile wide range that runs roughly northwest to southeast, is enough to affect weather patterns and growing climates quite drastically. In fact, no other coastal region in the U.S. has as dramatic a rise in elevation as the Coastal Range does.
Named by explorer Sebastian Vizcaino of Spain, a little more than 400 years ago, the Santa Lucia’s run from Monterey Bay in the north, down to San Luis Obispo in the south. With its famous cliffs and panoramic views, one of the more famed scenic roads, Hwy 1, runs roughly along it’s western edge and also one of the most famous tourist stops in all the world, Big Sur, envelopes much of the northern and western parts of the Santa Lucias.
The highest point in these mountains is Junipero Serra Peak at 5,857 feet and smack dab in the middle of the Coastal Range – as the crow flies, maybe 10 miles west southwest of King City. During the winter, snow can be seen around the long relatively flat summit on a regular basis.
Not a lot here, plenty to see
The Santa Lucia Range is sparsely populated and actually is made up of mostly state and national forests along with the nations largest Army command post (Fort Hunter-Liggett). Part of the Los Padres National Forest’s Ventana Wilderness encumbers a large portion of the Santa Lucia mountains.
The terrain in certain parts of the range, especially in the northern reaches, are incredibly rocky and shear. As such, the area is difficult to traverse with very few trails. The region is subject to earthquakes and the unsteady nature of the rock formations make climbing in the Santa Lucias quite a task. Pines, redwoods and oaks – such as dominate Paso Robles (‘pass of the oaks’) – are common throughout these mountains.
Mountain lions are regulars in the Santa Lucias and now bears have worked their way up into the southern sections of the range, mainly in San Luis Obispo County. With almost no population, there is a lot of wild life throughout this pristine and rugged part of California. There are also indigenous trees found only in these parts, such as the Santa Lucia or Bristlecone Fir along with the Monterey Pine.
The region is distinct with climes such as the Monterey Bay and Big Sur with their cool foggy weather set off against its southern neighbors like Paso Robles with their relatively dry and often hot days. In fact, its the Santa Lucia Range that filters the cool Pacific Ocean from the interior valleys, making for such unique diurnals.
Some consider the Santa Lucia Range to contain at least half of all plant life grown in California. You likely won’t find anywhere else in the Golden State the combination of flora from the ‘two Californias’ (drier southeast versus the wetter northwest), as it’s not unusual to see Yuccas growing right along side Redwoods, especially in the Ventana Wilderness.
Enemy is fire
And speaking of Ventana, fires have damaged large portions of the Los Padres National Forest due in part to the governance from the state and more importantly federal agencies. Without proper care and management of this exceptional expanse of wilderness, brings devastation with total lack of conservation in mind. Deficiency of fire suppression in the Coastal Range has brought hellacious fires that consumed and produced huge loss of wildlife over the past decades, including a couple of raging infernos in June of 2008 that burned about 200,000 acres.
Still, tucked between the giant metropolitan population bases of the Bay Area and Greater L.A., this vast countryside has somehow stayed unspoiled. The region is rough and rugged while also being gorgeous yet delicate. With endemic fauna and inimitable beauty, the Santa Lucia Range offers one of the more exclusive regions rising up along the Pacific Ocean … or maybe all the world.
Additional sources: Cal Fire, California’s Wilderness Areas the Complete Guide Mountains and Coastal Ranges
Daryle W. Hier