Ryan Chartrand

The Pecho Coast Trail is host to a docent-led hike that has breathtaking views of the ocean and a vast mélange of vegetation.

As the hike progresses, the docents periodically stop and point out different types of plants and animals and give background information about the veritable pot of gold to this trail’s rainbow – the Point San Luis Obispo Lighthouse.

It’s not what one would expect a lighthouse would look like since it’s a “prairie Victorian house” with a tower.

It is the only remaining lighthouse of this type on the West Coast.

Docent Rich Hovey explained there are many headlands and terraces on the West Coast, so there is no need to get the height of the lighthouse that many would first think of.

“Here we’ve got so much height from the natural platform that the tower is actually kind of modest in size,” Hovey said.

Inside the light tower, there is an $8,000 Fresnel lens that projects light for 17 miles.

By 1890, the lighthouse was ready for occupancy after Congress appropriated $50,000 for its construction in 1885, said John Houser, who has been a lighthouse keeper since 2000. A duplex is also on the land and is now occupied by a retired harbor district employee and his wife.

Originally, lighthouse keepers would have been paid several hundred dollars a year plus room and board by 1920. If they wanted to take a day off, they had to arrange for their own coverage and pay out of their own pockets.

The port around the trail has been many things, including the busiest oil port in the world when crude oil was transported there between 1914 and 1922. But at present, Hovey said that this is probably one of the quieter periods in the pier’s history since it serves a much more recreational purpose.

At one point in time around the trail, there was also a whaling village around the port. “They’d bring the whales up to dry land, carve ’em up and so forth,” Hovey said. “Apparently this was one of the worst-smelling places in the county at one time. Fortunately, it doesn’t smell that way now.”

In 1975, the facility was closed and empty for 20 years. Houser said it was sold to the Harbor District for “$1 or $2, under the condition that they fix it up to be a point of historical interest, so the Point San Luis Obispo Lighthouse Keepers were formed.”

Now, the lighthouse and all the buildings are being renovated, and perfection is the only thing that Houser and his fellow lighthouse keepers strive for. “We’re going back to the original 1890 look,” he said. “We’re really obsessive about getting things right in the house.”

The fireplaces of slate have been painted to resemble marble in their original appearance, with even each doorway individually numbered, removed, reworked and replaced. The lighthouse keepers are also on the lookout for the original coal stove to go into the kitchen,” Houser said.

Every third Saturday of the month, the lighthouse keeper volunteers come out to work on the house, but some come as frequently as two or three times a week, Houser said.

“We want to get this place done,” he said. “We’re very careful, very methodical and slow – instead of power sanders, we’ve got toothbrushes.”

The lighthouse keepers have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, Houser said.

“The goal is to have this place done by 2009,” Houser said. “But, done is a relative term; it’s actually, like, more complete.”

Depending on funding and donations to improve the road, public visits may be possible as early as next year. In the meantime, the docent-led hikes are the only real access for the public to explore this little piece of history.

The main reason this hike is docent-led is due to its location next to a power plant; PG&E doesn’t want people to go back and forth.

Hovey said the Coastal Commission helped to put the trail in.

“Back in the ’70s or ’80s, PG&E wanted to build a training facility and the Coastal Commission had some say in that because of where the plant was located,” Hovey said. “The commission allowed the facility to be built only if more access was provided, so PG&E decided the best thing to do was create a trail.”

It is no surprise there is equipment on the trail that detects radiation of miniscule amounts, due to the fact that Diablo Canyon is only feet away.

“I’m one of the few docents who doesn’t work for PG&E,” Hovey said.

The trail features a wide variety of plant life as well as a good view of sea creatures.

“We’ve seen whales, dolphins, a shark and they’ve even spotted sting rays,” Hovey said. “The sea lions will also be barking pretty much the entire time we’re on the trail.”

For those who have an interest in geology, the trail has rocks along it that were actually part of an ancient sea floor. It has been traveling along plate edges while being crushed and folded over, uplifted, heated and cooled.

“If it looks like a mish-mash of things, it’s because it is,” Hovey said. “You can see the black basaltic rocks and the greenish serpentine imprisoned in there.”

Docent Rick Hernandez went on to further explain the 25 million-year-old rock formations that one may see on the trail.

“You’ve got chert, sandstones, you can see that all stacked up the way they were originally laid out,” he said. “It’s really hard to find this within anywhere in the coastal ranges because of all the tectonic activities.”

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