Point Lobos and the Battle of Sea and Land

The Pinnacle, Point Lobos State Reserve

The Pinnacle
Point Lobos State Reserve
Carmel, California

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POINT LOBOS STATE RESERVE, CA -- One hundred feet below me is a cauldron of raging surf. One after another, the storm waves advance, rear upward and burst against the granite cliff, sending foam and spray into the air. Then they ricochet backward, striking the next wave, sending more spray upward.

And yet, here on the trail, above the cauldonís tumult, and the roar from the surf all around, I can still hear the barking of the sea lions crowded on a small, bare, rocky island a half mile out to sea.

The roar of the surf and the barking of the sea lions ... thatís the sound track of Point Lobos.

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Cypress and Granite, Point Lobos CA Cypress and sea, Point Lobos CA The Pinnacle, Point Lobos CA

... and perhaps you can imagine that sound, and the fragrance of salt spray and seaweed, as you view these images.

These first scenes appear on Point Lobos along the Allen Memorial Cypress Grove trail. This trail loops through the shade of Monterey cypress and then emerges onto the view-packed headland.

If I had to select just one trail to show a visiting friend or relative, the Cypress Grove trail would be my choice. The views are iconic ... cypresses contorted by the gale ... granite pinnacles opposing the force of the waves ... and the surf echoing among the rock walls of Cypress Cove.

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Big Dome, Point Lobos CA Cypress Grove trail, Point Lobos CA Cypress Cove, Point Lobos CA

Cypress and surf, Point Lobos CA Monterey Cypresses, Point Lobos CA Winter surf, Point Lobos CA

The Cypress Grove trail is 8/10 mile long, starting and ending at the Sea Lion Point parking area. The park website estimates that the entire loop can be walked in 30 minutes. However ...

... this isnít just any trail. Itís a source of inspiration. I walk it as I would an art museum, pausing frequently. The views are that powerful.

So donít be surprised if you spend an hour on this trail ... or more.

* * * *

The Granite Point trail offers a different experience ... turquoise coves and promontories with views of forested headlands, the sea and the Monterey Peninsula.

You'll find the trailhead at Whaler's Cove, near the parking area. The trail begins by skirting the bluffs which encircle the cove. As you follow the trail, to the sound of wavelets lapping just below, you may see a group of scuba divers well offshore. Divers rave about Whaler's Cove, its kelp forests, and variety and numbers of fish and other marine life. In fact ...

... some divers tell of an occasional harbor seal or sea lion becoming their swimming "buddy" on a dive, following them and swimming around them.

Whalers Cove, Point Lobos CA View to Big Dome, Point Lobos CA Rocks and surf, Point Lobos CA

At the far end of Whalerís Cove, a short detour will take you to a panoramic view across Whalerís Cove to the cliffs of Big Dome, and beyond to the horizon of sea and sky. To your right youíll look down at another horseshoe-shaped cove with a secluded beach.

A quarter mile beyond this viewpoint, a detour off the main trail will lead you to the beach. On a recent visit, I happened to join a family there. Along with some harbor seals, basking on a rock just ten yards offshore, the five of us had the beach all to ourselves.

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Secluded cove, Point Lobos CA Harbor seals, Point Lobos CA Blue heron, Point Lobos CA

As you look out to sea from this quiet cove, you'll see Granite Point, which forms the cove's northern wall. Back on the main trail, a detour will take you to more views at the tip of Granite Point.

It's 1.3 miles to Granite Point from the trail head at Whaler's Cove. Your first few yard beyond the Whaler's Cove parking area will follow the paved drive leading back to the park's main road. Look for the Granite Point trail branching off to your left along Whaler's Cove.

All along the way, there are viewpoints that beg to be savored for a long while. My favorite is that beautiful and secluded beach which I shared with the family and the seals. That alone is worth an afternoon.

* * * *

Point Lobos is a place of starkly contrasting moods. And nothing illustrates this better than a day on the Granite Point trail, followed by the North Shore trail.

On a clear day, the Granite Point trail provides a sun-splashed romp above the turquoise surf, through prairie and coastal scrub. In contrast, the North Shore trail will take you into the shade of the Monterey cypress forest, which slopes downward to the granite cliffs of Bluefish Cove.

Along the North Shore trail, Point Lobos CA Cypress, sea, cliffs and forest, Point Lobos CA Granite and sea, Point Lobos CA

On a winter Sunday afternoon, I saw hardly another soul on the trail. In the quiet of the forest, the surf's rush and drag had the slow, steady rhythm of breathing. The cypresses made ragged silhouettes against the water, the cliffs, and the forest beyond.

Especially on this trail, follow the short detours. They lead to viewpoints that will take your breath away -- that is, in addition to those along the trail itself.

Cypress, Point Lobos CA Bluefish Cove, Point Lobos CA Veteran cypress, Point Lobos CA
The North Shore Trail follows the headland 1.4 miles between Whaler's Cove and Sea Lion Point. To experience the abrupt contrast between the Granite Point trail and the North Shore, make a continuous hike by walking through the Whaler's Cove parking lot to the North Shore trailhead. Look for the steps leading up the bluff at the parking area's northern end.

If you want to include the Cypress Grove trail or other shore-side trails in your day, park at Sea Lion Point, where you can start the North Shore trail at its western end. The North Shore trail branches off the Cypress Grove trail a short distance from the parking area.

* * * *

Point Lobos is a showcase of the battle of sea and land -- especially when the winter surf is up. On the Sea Lion Point trail, you can get as close as you safely dare to the waves exploding on the rocks around you. And you íll get within a city blockís distance of those barking sea lions, huddled on a rocky island across the strait.

Restless sea, Point Lobos CA Sea Lion Rock, Point Lobos CA

By the way, Point Lobos is named for those sea lions. The Spanish referred to them as sea wolves, and named the area "Punta de los Lobos Marineros," which means "Sea Wolf Point."

The Sea Lion Point trail starts near the southern end of the Sea Lion Point parking area. After passing through coastal scrub, the trail descends a stone stairway to the rocky point. Youíll find open areas where you can approach the surf. Youíll can also enjoy some great views of Point Lobos, which youíve explored if you walked the Cypress Grove trail.

You may notice that the rock here is far different from the granite youíve seen on other trails. Itís a conglomerate of stream cobbles deposited in the ocean 60 million years ago and cemented together over time. Now, uplifted and exposed to the onslaught of the surf, itís become a barren rockscape of weird shapes and hollows.

Surf and onlookers, Point Lobos CA Sea Lion Cove, Point Lobos CA Winter surf, Sea Lion Cove, Point Lobos CA

Sea Lion Cove lies just below you as you descend the rock staircase. Donít miss it. From its beach on a clear day, you have a view for miles down the coast to Point Sur.

Southward View, Point Lobos CA Point Lobos from Sea Lion Point, Point Lobos CA

The Sea Lion Point trail is a slow saunter of a little over half a mile. If you plan to explore the rocky areas, wear shoes with a good tread. And remember that, even where the rocks appear dry, the algae can make them a slip-and-fall hazard.

* * * *

The South Shore trail really isn't just a trail.

Itís an adventure.

At many points along its one-mile saunter, you can go off the path and explore the rocks jutting out into the surf. You can linger on a sandy beach. The headlands, inlets and tidepools are all there for you to discover.

Earlier, I said that the Cypress Grove trail would be first on my list to show friends and relatives. Donít think that was an easy choice. A day on the rocks along the south shore will show why.

South Shore, Point Lobos CA Advancing surf, Point Lobos CA South shore, Point Lobos CA

China Cove, Point Lobos CA South shore, Point Lobos CA South shore, Point Lobos CA

When the ocean is aboil Ė and even when it isnít Ė this is the place to savor it. From here, there are about 1,000 different views and perspectives of turquoise surf and crashing waves.

Surf and onlookers, Point Lobos CA South shore, Point Lobos CA South shore, Point Lobos CA

The rock is the same layered conglomerate and sandstone you see on the Sea Lion Point trail. Water-filled troughs alternate with tilted ridges in some places, making the scramble a slight challenge ...

... so donít forget those shoes with the good tread.

The South Shore trail wanders for about a mile through coastal scrub along the bluffs fronting the shore. You could do it in an hour. But if you walked that fast, youíd miss the whole thing.

* * * *

Clear turquoise water enclosed within rocky bluffs ... little wavelets gently lapping onto a soft sandy beach ... is this Tahiti?

No, we're just enjoying still another of Point Lobos' starkly contrasting moods. I'm on a tiny beach tucked into the end of China Cove on the Bird Island Trail.

China Cove, Point Lobos CA China Cove, Point Lobos CA China Cove, Point Lobos CA

The lake-like calm and the tropical color of the water makes wading almost irresistible. But remember Ė although those still, placid turquoise waters may appear tropical, the water temperature certainly isnít.

So take a deep breath before that bracing first step into the wavelets. And then, after you'íve gotten used to it, you can leisurely enjoy the clarity and peace of the cove, and the play of light on the sand clearly visible beneath the water.

The Bird Island Trail makes a short walk along the very southern portion of the reserve. Itís an 8/10 of a mile (1.3 km) round trip, starting and ending at the south parking area. The trail connects China Cove and Gibson Beach, with its rolling waves and broad, curved sands.

Pelican Point, Point Lobos CA Gibson Beach, Point Lobos CA Gibson Beach, Point Lobos CA

In between the two beaches, the trail meanders onto Pelican Point, separated by a narrow strait from Bird Island. Bird Island hosts a sea bird colony in the spring and summer, when you'll see hundreds of cormorants and other sea birds gathered there.

Pelican Point also has views of the northward shore and, just below you, grottoes echoing the pulse of the surf.

As always, keep an eye out for sea otters, seals, sea lions and migrating whales.

Stairways connect the trail to the two beaches. The treads are a bit uneven, so take care on your way to the sand.

About the Reserve

Point Lobos State Reserve lies three miles south of Carmel on Highway 1. Itís roughly two hours from San Francisco. Directions from San Francisco International Airport are here.

From Los Angeles, the drive north to Point Lobos is six or seven hours, taking into account normal stops along the way. Directions are here.

The reserve closes half an hour after sunset. Youíll see the time of sunset posted at the entry to the park, across the drive from the ranger kiosk.

At the kiosk, ask for a trail map.

The reserve charges an entry fee of $10.00 per vehicle. There are nine small parking areas in the reserve. However, the reserve limits the number of vehicles allowed into the park. Once that limit has been reached, additional vehicles may have to wait in line to enter on a one-vehicle-out, one-vehicle-in basis.

To avoid a line, and the entry fee, you can park in designated areas outside the reserve on Highway 1. Itís an 0.8-mile (1.3 km) walk from the entry kiosk to the Sea Lion Point parking area.

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