Miller, Mark James

Brown pelicans fly overhead in V-formations. Mule deer, bobcats, raccoons and coyotes roam about at night. Tidepools are brimming with life.

Layers of rust-colored rock, one on top of the other in geometric precision and thrust at an upward angle by tectonic forces 3 million years ago decorate the shoreline. Trails lead to peaks as much as 1,649 feet high. You can walk into a cove where a century ago smugglers brought in illegal liquor bound for local speakeasies.

This is Montana de Oro State Park, 8,000 beautiful acres located seven miles from Morro Bay.

Montana de Oro means “Mountain of Gold” in Spanish. But no one ever dug for the yellow metal here. The park gets its name from the golden wildflowers that are everywhere to be seen, the Sticky Monkeyflower and the California Golden Poppy that cover the hills and the open fields of this majestic piece of land, visited by 500,000 people a year, were the inspiration for the park’s name.

As with everything else on the Central Coast, the Chumash and Salinan natives were the first on the scene, perhaps as much as 13,000 years ago. The first Europeans to see Montana de Oro would have been Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his crew when they sailed past in 1542. Two hundred and twenty-seven years later Gaspar de Portola and company marched past on their way north.

In 1845 Gov. Pio Pico gave the land to James Scott and John Wilson in the form of a grant. In 1892 it was acquired by Alden Spooner, who ran cattle, built a dairy farm, and raised sheep, goats and pigs. He also built a creamery powered by a water wheel, and when faced with the dilemma of getting his products to market in a place where few roads existed, built a chute on a bluff and slid his goods down to the shore, where they could be taken away on ships.

Now known as Spooner’s Cove, it was called Smuggler’s Cove during the Prohibition Era, where rum-runners unloaded their cargoes of illicit spirits.

The Spooner Ranch House Museum and General Store recall the Spooner era. The shelves feature jams, jellies and many other trinkets, mostly with a local flavor. There are spinning wheels and old saddles to be seen, as well as a well-used piano and a hand-operated telephone on the wall.

Six million years before humans walked the Earth, what is now Montana de Oro was under water, the floor of an ancient sea. Once living organisms made their way from the surface of that sea to the very bottom, there to mix with the sand and the silt and provide the bonding agent needed to form Miguelito shale, the sedimentary rock that is perhaps the most spectacular sight to see at Montana de Oro. Layer after layer decorates the shoreline. Once flat, these layers of mudstone were pushed upward and tilted to a 30-degree angle by the grinding of the Pacific plate against the North American plate — the same forces that cause earthquakes in California.

A trail took us down to secluded Corallina Cove, home to Black Oyster Catchers, Western Gulls, and Pelegic Cormorants. Crabs, starfish and sea anemones live in the tidepools. The waves wash in and out rhythmically, just as they have for uncountable millennia, and one gets a sense of what the Central Cost was like when the natives saw it 13,000 years ago.

With any luck it will still be here 13,000 years from now, and future generations will be able to enjoy all that it has to offer.

Mark James Miller is an associate English instructor at Allan Hancock College and president of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at


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