This article offers details on how to plan a visit to Point Lobos, one of the most exquisite natural reserves in California!
Point Lobos will always be associated with the words Francis McComas had for it: “The greatest meeting of land and water in the world.”
I tried and tried to stay away from this description, the one that is used almost every time this spot along the California Coast is described. I brainstormed several openings for this article but every idea, every thought seemed to circle back to this saying. I had no option than to succumb and use it here.
The quote may be overused, clichéd, and worn-out but, bear with me, Mr. McComas knew what he was talking about.
Point Lobos is mind-blowing in all aspects. Just thinking about the place gives me goose flesh (in a good way).
I have put together this guide so you can plan a trip to this coastal gem in the most efficient way and according to your needs.
Table of Contents
About Point Lobos
Point Lobos is often suggested as part of a Big Sur, Central California, or Pacific Coast Highway (CA-1) road trip. I agree with the recommendation but lament the way places are jam-packed into some itineraries. It is like Point Lobos is added as an after-thought or filler.
Well, you guys know I prefer to dedicate a decent amount of time to places that deserve it. And, let me tell you, it is difficult to get more magical than Point Lobos. Before I forget, don’t even think about skipping Point Lobos because you have already seen Big Sur. You are going to adore this place too!
Point Lobos is a marvelous mix of the different elements you can find in Coastal California. In all honesty, some parts of it look like the untamed wilderness.
We can describe Point Lobos (Lobos refer to the sea wolves or sea lions that call the area home) as a thin peninsula that forms the southern boundary of the Carmel Bay. The peninsula contains headlands, coves, rolling meadows, rock islands, beaches, and caves.
In terms of plants, cypresses, oaks, and pines are all around. To make things more interesting, big trees are covered with lichen and moss. Then, there are fallen trees and long branches that get in your way. The pop of color is added by yellow, orange, and red wildflowers.
Many visitors to Point Lobos don’t realize that some of the most beautiful landscapes within the Reserve are found underwater. While the Reserve hosts 550 fully protected land acres, its protected underwater area is over eighteen times that size, at 9,907 acres.
In this area, sea otters, sea lions, and harbor seals find shelter along the shore, and over 300 species of birds can be found benefiting from the abundance of protected food and habitat. The Point Lobos State Marine Conservation Area extends three miles offshore and provides shelter for many species of fish living in the kelp forests, sandy bottoms, and deep canyons. Cabezon, vermillion rockfish, and blue rockfish hide among the kelp, while mola mola may be found basking on the surface offshore.
Entrance and Parking
The entrance fee to the reserve is $10.
A lot of people avoid paying the fee by parking on CA-1 (Pacific Coast Highway) and walking into the reserve. Please pay the fee if you are able since this money helps to keep the Reserve in top condition.
The other advantage of paying the fee is that you can move around at ease. Since this is a big place, you may want to save some leg power by jumping into the car.
There are 4 major parking lots in the park: Whaler’s Cove, Sea Lion Point, South Shore Trail, and Bird Island. Restrooms and potable water are available at these spots.
Point Lobos can fill up fast (especially during the high season). It is essential to arrive early. Even if you get in, the parking lot located close to the area you want to visit may be full. Be ready to wait or park a little bit farther (this requires more walking).
How to Prioritize/Spend Your Time
From the information I have provided in the previous section, it is easy to deduct that there is a lot to see in Point Lobos
A series of trails form what we can call the Big Loop. That system of trails has a length of about 6 miles (one-way, without counting the walk from and to parking lots, backtracking, and so on). The loop takes you around the peninsula and gives access to most of the coastal areas.
Most mere mortals are not going to be able to cover the entire reserve in a day. There is going to be either a lack of time or physical strength. I have been three times and think I have not covered all that there is there to see.
So, you need a plan.
To get the most bang for your time, I suggest heading to the Bird Island area and completing that trail (0.8-mile roundtrip). You will be able to observe some of the most breathtaking parts of the park. Visiting Bird Island can take 1 to 2 hours.
Alternatively, park at the Sea Lion Point parking lot and walk the 0.8 mile Cypress Grove Trail. completing the trail should take about one hour.
Time permitting, you can visit Sea Lion Point or Whaler’s Cove (walk the Granite Point Trail).
Those who want to spend at least half a day on the Reserve can follow an itinerary similar to the one we completed during our last visit. We parked south of Sea Lion Point, walked the South Shore Trail, connected with the Bird Island Trail, returned to the car, drove to Whaler’s Cove, completed the Granite Cove Trail, completed the Moss Cove Trail, and walked back to the car. We took out time to visit the different nook and crannies and walk to the beaches to dip out toes in the frigid waters. That took us 4 to 4.5 hours.
- As mentioned, plan what you are going to do inside the park. Exploring the majority of the park can take an entire day. Choose hikes that you and your group feel comfortable with.
- If you want to minimize walking (or somebody on your party has limited mobility), drive among parking lots and see the main points of interest. Some walking will still be involved but you can take is as slow as you want.
- The Sea Lion Point, Granite Point, and Bird Island are ADA-compliant.
- As mentioned, the earlier you arrive, the better.
- Even if you plan to park outside, you should arrive early during high volume days. One of the times I visited, I saw people walking 2 -3 miles to the park entrance.
- If you park outside the Reserve, you can still donate some money towards the area’s maintenance.
- Do not walk on the roads inside the reserve. There are trails designated to move around.
- I will head to Point Lobos with a full stomach. There are no concessions inside the Reserve.
- Go prepared with water and snacks (or lunch).
- The Crossroads Carmel is a shopping center located 2.5 miles from the reserve’s entrance. In there, you will find a supermarket, a pharmacy, and several restaurants.
- Use the proper gear to protect yourself from the elements.
- Please, protect this gem of nature. Follow all signs and instructions.
- Take your time to enjoy what the park has to offer (even if that means a second or third visit).
Point Lobos – What to See
Now that you have a good idea of how to plan a trip to Point Lobos, it is time to show you what to do and see there. Get ready ‘cause this is one darn pretty place!
The following places are presented south to north (and clockwise since the peninsula is elongated)
This 0.8 (roundtrip) trail is probably the most popular on the reserve. It will take you to China Cove, Gibson Beach, Bird Island Lookout, plenty of coves, arches, and rock formations. Gibson Beach can be reached by a flight of stairs.
South Shore Trail
The South Shore Trail is about 2.5 miles (one-way). You can walk a bit less by parking in the South Shore Trail parking lot and walking south.
Along the trail, you will encounter The Slot, Weston Beach, Hidden Beach, rocks formed by tectonic activity, and tidepools.
Sea Lion Point
This point is accessed through an easy 0.6-mile (roundtrip) trail. You will hear the sea lions “barking” along the way. The area has great views of Headland Cove, Sea Lion Cove, and The Cauldron.
The Cypress Cove Trail (0.8-mile, roundtrip) traverses Point Lobos, the headland that gives the reserve its name.
As the cove’s name suggests, this is an area containing one of the two naturally occurring stands of Monterrey cypresses. The area was originally obtained to protect these trees.
Blue Fish Cove
This cove is known for a big promontory known as Guillemot Island. There is an area of cobble and pinnacles, some rising to within fifteen feet of the surface. These pinnacles and the kelp forest around them are home to many species of sea cucumbers. The cove also shelters a harbor seal rookery during winter.
The cove can be accessed from the Sea Lion Point parking lot (take the North Shore Trail) or from the Whale’s Cove parking lot. I will access it from the later in order to reach Cannery Point and its incredible views of Carmel Bay.
This cove features the Whalers Cabin, a building constructed in the 1850s to house Japanese and Chinese fishermen. This building has been preserved, and now houses a museum dedicated to the cultural history of the area. Shore whaling was conducted here by the Carmel Whaling Company from 1862 to 1884 and by the Japanese Whaling Company from 1898 to 1900.
The museum also highlights the history of Point Lobos, including its cinematic appearances and plans at the turn of the 20th century to develop the area for densely packed suburban housing.
From Whaler’s Cove, visitors can launch kayaks and stand-up paddles. Divers launch from this area too.
You can take a better look at this big cove from the Granite Point Trail (1.3 miles).
As mentioned, Granite Point is accessed through a trail of the same name. Before reaching the point, deviate to Coal Chute Point and The Pit (a cove). I recommend going to the shores of The Pit.
From the Granite Point Trail, you can connect to the Moss Cove Trail and check out the northernmost cove inside the reserve (only a little bit more walking is needed).
Point Lobos is a dream but you will also find tons of beautiful places within a short distance. I am telling you, this area is just too much to handle.
Take into consideration the following places:
- Monastery Beach
- Carmelite Monastery
- Carmel River State Beach
- Carmel Mission
- Carmel-by-the-Sea and Carmel Beach
- Scenic Road (Biking the road is better)
- Carmel Valley (wine tasting)
- 17-Mile Drive
Hope you have found tons of inspiration and useful information in this article. Let me know your Point Lobos memories!
More of California
San Francisco Itinerary: 1, 2, or 3 Days in the City
Things to Do in the Mission District, San Francisco
Have you visited Point Lobos? What are your recommendations?
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