A visit to the “Crown Jewel of California State Parks”

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It was only minutes into our hike when we first saw a crescent of cliffs, trees and water. Waves lapped on the sand, while low clouds cast a brooding overtone of kelp forests gently swirling in the surf. And to our delight, we spotted a white and gray harbor seal, looking like a chubby rock with flippers, while he was napping on a real rock.

This was Whaler’s Cove, our first stop on the scenic perimeter hike to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, located just four miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea and seven miles south of Monterey. The approximately six-mile hike through the park takes visitors through some of California’s most awe-inspiring views central coast.

My husband and I weren’t the first to gasp, not by a long shot. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has inspired many poetic descriptions. The California State Parks the system itself calls the park his “crown jewel”, and landscaper Francois McComas described it as the “world’s greatest meeting of land and water”.

It’s easy to see why. It’s impossible to have bad eyesight in the park, even during one of the busiest travel times of the year, the 4th of July weekend.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve offers breathtaking views of California’s central coast.

Fiona Lee/SFGATE

Point Lobos receives over 600,000 annual visitors, so we knew it would be crowded, especially on holidays. The main parking lot off Highway 1 was full and like many other visitors we found parking along the highway about a half mile away.

The map we bought for only $2 described the perimeter trail as a three to five hour hike. Three hours is totally possible, but that’s only if you cross without visiting the historic whalers hut, stopping to take photos, peek into the tidal pools, or hop off to relax on a sandy beach.

Doing any of these things will make the hike much longer – and still worth it. Point Lobos is a park best enjoyed slowly, letting all its splendor unfold.

It’s a fairly family friendly park, even with some steep stairs on the trail, but the steep cliffs with only a guide wire for protection could be dangerous for young children. Unfortunately for dog owners, furry friends are not allowed.

The Graff family from Oregon walks toward Point Lobos State Nature Reserve along Highway 1 after parking along the road when park lots filled up at the State Nature Reserve from Point Lobos in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., on Saturday, October 6, 2018.

The Graff family from Oregon walks toward Point Lobos State Nature Reserve along Highway 1 after parking along the road when park lots filled up at the State Nature Reserve from Point Lobos in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., on Saturday, October 6, 2018.

MediaNews Group/The Mercury News/MediaNews Group via Getty Images

We started by asking a docent at the main entrance about the best way to stay on the Point Lobos Peripheral Hike, which consists of many small, interconnected trails along the shoreline.

“Keep the water to your right,” he advised. This turned out to be great advice as we headed north via the Carmelo Meadow Trail, to Whaler’s Cove, then west to Cypress Cove.


It’s hard to see now in the middle of the landscape, but Point Lobos was once a thriving mall. In 1851, Whaler’s Cove was home to what may have been California’s first Chinese fishing settlement, after a small party crossed the Pacific from southern China. There was a whaling station and an abalone cannery, with the community growing to also include Japanese and Portuguese settlers, as word spread of the abundance of the waters.

As hundreds of other Chinese settlers arrived in the area, nearby Monterey was also where Chinese fishermen traded in the abalone and fishery trade, including squid, sending their harvests to China. via San Francisco, according to a docent from the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium. Today, the whalers’ hut is the last remaining building of what was once a small village consisting of 12 buildings.

The Whaler's Hut at Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel-by-the-Sea is the last remaining building of what was once a thriving Chinese settlement.

The Whaler’s Hut at Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel-by-the-Sea is the last remaining building of what was once a thriving Chinese settlement.

photo by Chris Axe/Getty Images

As we traveled through history to enjoy the incredible views along the trails, we quickly realized that Point Lobos also offers great glimpses of wildlife, especially birds. Pygmy nuthatches glisten in the branches; you should also expect to hear busy peaks. There are at least three bird islands, including one called Bird Island to the south, as well as Guillemot Island and Cypress Cove to the north. On these islands, reminiscent of the Farallones, visitors can see massive flocks of cormorants, as well as brown pelicans soaring effortlessly over the waters. And don’t forget to look up, where ospreys can be seen looking for prey.

Although we unfortunately didn’t notice any sea otters, we did see a whale splash out into the Pacific Ocean when we stopped at Cypress Cove at the north end of the park. And at Sea Lion Cove, the water was a gorgeous, crystal-clear teal, with more harbor seals lying on its white sand.

Harbor seals bask in the sun at Sea Lion Cove, a protected no-access area in Point Lobos State Nature Reserve, Carmel.

Harbor seals bask in the sun at Sea Lion Cove, a protected no-access area in Point Lobos State Nature Reserve, Carmel.

Fiona Lee/SFGATE

Cormorants and other seabirds, including the brown pelican, can be seen in several "bird islands" at Point Lobos.

Cormorants and other seabirds, including the brown pelican, can be seen at several “bird islands” in Point Lobos.

Fiona Lee/SFGATE

After Sea Lion Cove, we took the South Shore trail, always keeping the sea to our right. Along this stretch the crowds got bigger and we sometimes had to wait for other visitors to leave before we could take in the view. There is, however, another joy to discover in this part of the park, and that is the tidal pools. In certain marked sections, visitors can climb on the rocks to examine the small ecosystems that each tidal pool contains. I would recommend visiting the park after a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, because then you – or your kids – can apply what you learn in the purple sea urchin and striped crab exhibits that can be seen at a few meters underground. the surface.

When we turned to the final stop in the park, the South Plateau trail, it became more serene. Far from the crowds along the coast, only the forest and the birds surrounded us. As we walked up the trail and then another half mile to our parked car, we thought despite the crowds, it was worth it. After all, we were part of those crowds too.

Kelp forests, essential to California's maritime ecosystems, are visible in the clear waters of a creek at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel.

Kelp forests, essential to California’s maritime ecosystems, are visible in the clear waters of a creek at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel.

Fiona Lee/SFGATE






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