‘It was totally worth it.’ Stunning photo captures Milky Way over Avila Beach arch

Justin Laughlin took this photo of the Milky Way galaxy behind a natural rock arch at Avila Beach at night on Sept. 30, 2019.
Justin Laughlin took this photo of the Milky Way galaxy behind a natural rock arch at Avila Beach at night on Sept. 30, 2019.

When Justin Laughlin drove to Avila Beach on Sept. 30, he knew he was racing against time to get a shot he’d dreamed of.

The shot? A picture of a natural rock arch with the Milky Way Galaxy behind it — something he’d thought about ever since he photographed the same arch during the day a few months ago.

“I’m familiar with that spot and I really love the arch. It really intrigued me,” said Laughlin, who lives in Morro Bay.

On Sunday, Laughlin was in the Pirate’s Cove parking lot near Avila Beach, enjoying the view, when he noticed that the sky was clear enough to see the Milky Way.

“The thought of that arch popped into my head,” Laughlin said. He thought about going down to get the picture, but the area where Laughlin stood to photograph the arch is only accessible at low tide, and the tide was high.

He checked when low tide would happen on Monday night, and made a plan to come back. He added that he didn’t check the weather, assuming it would be clear again.

“This was the perfect opportunity to go get it,” Laughlin said. He waited at his home in Morro Bay until right before sunset, then started driving.

He parked in the Pirate’s Cove parking lot and began the hike to the spot. At one point, he rappelled about 20 feet down using ropes that were already sunk into the hill.

“The hike and the climb were very difficult, especially in the dark. It was scary,” Laughlin said. “My heart was really pumping.”

He got into position and snapped a photo, using a Rokinon 12-mm wide angle lens and his Sony Alpha 7R II camera.

When Laughlin saw that he captured the photo he wanted, “My first thought was, ‘That was so worth it,’ ” he said. “I was just ecstatic. It was totally worth it.”

The tide was coming in, so Laughlin took a few more pictures just to make sure he got it, and then he hiked back up to his car.

Laughlin, who works as a tow driver for Pismo Coast Village RV Resort, moved to the Central Coast from Tulare about three years ago. He got his first camera last Christmas, after he’d hinted about wanting one to his fiancee.

Laughlin says the beauty of the Central Coast inspired him to pick up a camera and learn to use it.

“I just fell in love with the beauty of it,” he said. “I walked around with my cell phone taking pictures, and I thought, ‘You know what? I really, really would like to do better. This area is so gorgeous, and I want to capture it the best I can.’ ”

Laughlin said he hopes the photo will inspire other people to appreciate the Central Coast.

“I hope it inspires others to get out and explore and capture the beauty of this area,” Laughlin said. “Being here and not taking advantage of the area we live would be a disappointment.”

To see more of Laughlin’s photos, visit

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Gabby Ferreira is a breaking news and general assignment reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. A native of Houston, Texas, she was a reporter in Tucson, Arizona; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Palm Springs, California, before moving to San Luis Obispo County in 2016.