Friday, January 29, 2021

Point Lobos

Point Lobos coastline
5 miles loop, 450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve entrance fee required

Francis McComas, an Australian-born Modernist landscape painter, once described California's Point Lobos as "the greatest meeting of land and water in the world." Just south of the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel-by-the-Sea, Point Lobos is a landscape where the pounding surf of the Pacific meets a craggy coastline, inhabited by thousands of brown pelicans and other seabirds. This is one of the most magical spots along the entire, incredible California Coast and is preserved for future generations in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This five mile loop hike visits many of the highlights on the peninsula and delivers nearly nonstop, jawdropping coast views. This is one of my favorite hikes on the California Coast, but unfortunately, many other people feel the same way: come on a weekday to avoid the weekend crush of crowds. 

Point Lobos is just south of the Monterey Peninsula, at the northern end of Big Sur. There are many parking areas in the reserve, most of which fill early on nice weekend days; I'm going to describe a loop around the perimeter of the park that starts from Whalers Cove on the north shore of the peninsula. This hike generally hugs the water and visits the many spur trails leading out to viewpoints; if you're short on time, you can cut out some of those side trips to complete this trail more quickly.

I hiked Point Lobos on a nice October weekday with Anna. From Monterey, it is easy to reach Point Lobos State Reserve: we took California Highway 1 south past Carmel and the Carmel Monastery and then turned right at the entrance of Point Lobos State Reserve. After crossing the entrance gate, we turned right at the first junction and followed the Whalers Cove Road to its end at the parking area next to Whalers Cove. This final road is quite narrow and parking is limited at Whalers Cove, so you'll need to arrive early on a weekend or come on a weekday.

The views from the parking area were already excellent. We could see across Whalers Cove to the rocky headland of Granite Point and the first peaks of the Santa Lucia Range. To get a better view, we headed out on the trail, which left from the north end of the parking lot. We ascended a flight of steps to reach the top of some coastal bluffs; at the top of the stairs, we made a right turn to head out onto the bluffs of Cannery Point. The views from Cannery Point were already spectacular: Whalers Cove was below us, with a  forest of kelp underwater powering the productive marine food chains here. Coal Chute Point and Granite Point marked the other side of the cove and between these two headlands I spotted the towers of the Carmel's Carmelite Monastery in the distance. To the north, we could see across Carmel Bay to the hills of the Monterey Peninsula. 

Whalers Cove and the north coast of Point Lobos from Cannery Point
Multiple rocky islets rose dramatically from the the sea nearby, facing the brunt of the impact from waves sweeping towards the coast on the Pacific. These islets- along with much of the other exposed rock along the north shore of Point Lobos- were made up of granodiorite, an intrusive igneous rock that has a slight difference in chemical composition from its cousin, granite. This granodiorite makes for particularly dramatic seascapes, as it tends to erode into rugged forms. The granodiorite of Point Lobos is part of the Salinian Terrane, a granite-heavy chunk of the California coast that technically lies on part of the Pacific Plate rather than the North American Plate. A commonly accepted theory on the origin of the Salinian Terrane is that the block is actually a southern extension of the Sierra Nevada that has been dragged north by lateral movement along the San Andreas Fault.

Waves crash on offshore rocks
After enjoying the view at Cannery Point, we looped back to the main North Shore Trail, which ascended a set of steps to reach the top of a higher bluff. Atop the bluff, an unmarked spur trail broke off to the right, leading out to an excellent view to the north of Carmel Bay, the Monterey Peninsula, and the rugged coast.

View of the Monterey Peninsula from the north coast of Point Lobos
We continued along the North Shore Trail, which flattened out a bit after climbing the initial bluff but continued to deliver good views of the coast. At 0.3 miles into the hike, we passed a junction with the Cabin Trail, which headed off to the left, leading towards the Whalers Cabin Museum. At 0.4 miles from the trailhead, we passed another junction, this time with the trail to Whalers Knoll. We took the right fork to stay along the North Shore Trail at both junctions. 

After passing the Whalers Knoll Trail junction, the North Shore Trail embarked on a short uphill climb, during which we had fantastic views back to the east of the granodiorite cliffs at Cannery Point and the Carmelite Monastery in the distance. Here, we also began noticing the abundance of brown pelicans perched on the rocks in the area, which was just a taste of what was to come.

North coast of Point Lobos
After a short period of ascent, we came to another unmarked spur trail on the right side of the trail; we took this spur for a brief detour to reach a view of Guillemot Island. Despite its name, this island- a high, rocky ridge that stuck out from the ocean just offshore- was dominated by brown pelicans rather than guillemot. Hundreds of pelicans were perched on the rock and we had a front row seat to see these birds napping, yawning, and grooming themselves. At times, some pelicans would launch off the rock and initiate spectacular dives.

Brown pelicans at Point Lobos
After leaving the viewpoint of Guillemot Island, the North Shore Trail was fairly set back from the shore over the next half mile. We passed a junction where the Whaler's Knoll Trail rejoined the North Shore Trail; we took the right at this junction to stay on the North Shore Trail. At one mile into the hike, the North Shore Trail ended by intersecting with the Cypress Grove Trail at the parking area for Cypress Grove and Sea Lion Point. While it's possible to shorten the hike here by skipping the Cypress Grove Trail, you absolutely must take this 0.8 mile detour: some of the most dramatic scenery of the hike is on this trail. 

Turning right onto the Cypress Grove Trail, we followed it through coastal prairie for about 200 meters to an unsigned junction. The Cypress Grove detour is a loop, so it doesn't matter too much which direction you choose: we decided to take the left fork and do the small loop clockwise. The trail immediately passed through the Allan Memorial Grove, a stand of Monterey cypress. One of the iconic trees of the California coast, the tree is commonly planted in other areas along the West Coast and in New Zealand, but there are only two natural Monterey cypress forests remaining: here at Point Lobos and at nearby Cypress Point in Pebble Beach. The trees are massive but not particularly old, as far as California trees go: Monterey cypresses are not known to survive more than about 250 years.

Cypresses of Allan Memorial Grove
Emerging from the far side of the Allan Memorial Grove, we came to the rocky landscape of South Point. Here, waves pounded the dramatic coastline and the guano-coated rocky islets offshore. This was an incredibly dramatic scene, but it was still just an appetizer for what was to come.

South Point
Here, the trail became slightly rougher and rockier as it wrapped around South Point. Rounding the point, the trail came to Pinnacle Cove and the Pinnacle, which is the farthest extension of land of Point Lobos. This was a seascape of high drama: violent surf crashed against craggy coastal rocks, with the peak of the Pinnacle fading in and out of the fast-moving fog. The rocky nooks and crannies of the Pinnacle provided nests for what seemed like a veritable metropolis of brown pelicans: thousands of birds were perched on the rocks, some napping, some cleaning themselves, others launching themselves into the crashing waves to find a meal. The rocks were stained with guano. The drama of this scene was unrivaled; this truly was an amazing meeting of the land and sea.

The Pinnacle's great pelican colony
The brown pelican population of Point Lobos is astounding: tens, if not hundreds of thousands of these birds call the cliffs of this natural reserve home. Although the pelicans live here for much of the year, many still return to southern California to nest; the use of DDT during the twentieth century badly damaged the viability of brown pelican eggs here, damaging the pelican population. Bans on the use of the pesticide and time have allowed the bird's population to recover.

Pelicans at Point Lobos
We continued on the trail, which passed through forest as it wrapped behind the Pinnacle. There views were consistently excellent here until the trail returned to the forest as it approached North Point.

The Pinnacle
A spur trail led out to North Point, which did not have a particularly unique view; continuing along the Cypress Grove Trail, we took a spur trail to check out another viewpoint. This viewpoint, a little to the southeast of North Point, had a great view of Cypress Cove and of Big Dome, an impressive granodiorite headland crowned with Monterey cypresses. 

View of the Monterey Peninsula and Point Lobos from North Point
Leaving this viewpoint, we completed the Cypress Grove Trail, which brought us back to the parking area for that trail. We were now 1.8 miles into the hike, although we were just a mile away from where we parked at Whalers Cove by trail. Typically, the next stop in the perimeter hike around Point Lobos is Sea Lion Point. We were unable to hike out to Sea Lion Point as the trail was closed at the time due to a collapsed portion of a cliff; however, we could still hear the barking of the sea lions in the distance. When the trail is repaired, I am sure Sea Lion Point will be yet another magnificent coastal viewpoint on this hike. Skipping Sea Lion Point, we turned left onto the South Shore Trail to start following the southern coast of Point Lobos. This trail descended a sandy staircase and wrapped around Sand Hill Cove. While hiking around the cove, we came to a spot where a small cave under an overhanging cliff expelled seawater every time a large wave came in: it was a blowhole, but with a horizontally oriented mouth rather than expelled water outward rather than up.

Blowhole at Sand Hill Cove
As we followed the South Shore Trail along the south coastline of Point Lobos, the fog began to clear up and we were rewarded with sweeping views of the coast, islands and sea stacks just offshore, and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The south shore, lacking the granodiorite of the north shore of Point Lobos, is not quite as dramatic, but the constant views still made this stretch of trail very enjoyable. Around Weston Beach, a few paths broke off from the main trail to lead down to the shoreline, either to visit a beach or tidepools; at one point, we took a detour to see some tidepools. Although we did not see a great variety of marine life in these tidepools, it was still exhilarating to see the waves of the Pacific smash against the rocks and splash into these pools.

Tidepools on the south coast of Point Lobos
The terrain on the South Shore trail varied over the course of the trail, with beaches in some areas and eroded bluffs overlooking coves with kelp forests at other spots. The trail paralleled the road here, generally running just a couple meters from the main road and passing by a number of parking lots. About 0.8 miles after leaving the Sea Lion Point area, we passed a junction with the Mound Meadow Trail, which headed off to the left; we stayed along the coast, passing by pretty Hidden Beach on our way to the Bird Island Trailhead.

Cove near Weston Beach
Kelp forests along the Point Lobos coastline
After following the South Shore Trail for a mile from the Sea Lion Point area, we arrived at the trailhead for Bird Island, now 3 miles into the hike. We crossed the parking lot to join the Bird Island Trail, which ascended a staircase for some quick elevation gain to climb up a bluff. We had some excellent views along the south shore of Point Lobos here that stretched back towards Sea Lion Point. 

Point Lobos south coast
"The greatest meeting of land and water"
The trail wrapped around a headland and then came out to an overlook of China Cove. This calm cove hid a sandy beach at the base of coastal bluffs. Pelicans swam in the shallows on the beach and we spotted a number of harbor seals lounging on the beach. This is a popular haul out spot for harbor seals; do not disturb them.

Pelicans and harbor seals in China Cove
After a fifth of a mile of hiking from the Bird Island Trailhead, we arrived the junction between the Bird Island Trail and the South Plateau Trail, now 3.2 miles into the hike. While we would later take the South Plateau Trail to complete the loop, we first took the right fork for the Bird Island Trail to complete a short, 0.4 mile side loop to see some of the nicest scenery along the south shore of Point Lobos. The start of the side loop delivered pretty views over the secluded white sands of Gibson Beach, which lay at the base of the coastal bluffs. The state natural reserve boundary ended at the other side of Gibson Beach; we could see houses on the coastal properties beyond the beach.

Gibson Beach
We did this particular side loop counterclockwise. The loop took us out to the aptly named Pelican Point, where we had sweepings views of Bird Island as well as up and down the coast in both directions. The area around Bird Island was another outcropping of the granodiorite found along the north shore of Point Lobos; this made for more dramatic landforms here than elsewhere on the south shore. Bird Island and some of the nearby islets were absolutely teeming with brown pelicans and cormorants: birds were occupying every available perch on the granodiorite, covering the rock in thick layers of guano. While this hike had already passed multiple other populous seabird gathering spots- first Guillemot Island, then the Pinnacle- the greatest gathering of pelicans at Point Lobos was almost certainly at this appropriately named spot.

Pelicans and cormorants near Bird Island
Bird Island
Turning around at Pelican Point, we also spotted the only major sea arch of the hike. Here, a granodiorite headland had been partially eroded into an extremely picturesque natural opening. This striking scene was a fitting conclusion to our exploration of Point Lobos' south shore.

Sea arch on the south coast of Point Lobos
We returned to the junction between the Bird Island Trail and the South Plateau Trail, putting us 3.6 miles into the hike. This time, we took the South Plateau Trail. We quickly passed by a spur trail that led down to Gibson Beach, which we skipped but which you could add for about 150 feet of additional elevation gain and a few tenths of an extra mile of distance. The South Plateau Trail brought a break from the constant views we had enjoyed throughout the hike. For the next mile, we followed an inland trail across the width of the Point Lobos peninsula. The South Plateau Trail had a number of short ascents and descents as it crossed over the rolling hills that made up the interior terrain of Point Lobos; much of the elevation gain of this hike occurred along this stretch. After following the South Plateau Trail for 0.4 miles, we passed a junction with the Pine Ridge Trail; we stayed to the right at this junction to continue on the South Plateau Trail. The South Plateau Trail briefly approached Highway 1 before arriving at the Point Lobos entrance station, 0.75 miles after leaving the coast. We crossed the road here and connected up with the Carmelo Meadow Trail, a flat and wide path that we followed north for a quarter mile to return to the shores of Whalers Cove.

Returning to Whalers Cove at sunset
At the end of the Carmelo Meadow Trail, we came to an intersection with the Granite Point Trail. At this intersection, we had a lovely view of Whalers Cove. The waters of the cove were washing against a sandy beach beneath the bluffs in front of us, while the rocks of nearby Coal Chute Point was gleaming in the late day sun. At this intersection, the right fork led out to Granite Point, while the left fork returned towards the Whalers Cove trailhead. Hikers looking for a complete perimeter tour of Point Lobos can add some mileage to this hike by taking the right fork and visiting Granite Point, but we decided against it and turned left here. 

The flat Granite Point Trail took us along the top of coastal bluffs bordering Whalers Cove for about 250 meters to the Whalers Cove Road and the Whalers Cabin Museum. The Whalers Cabin was closed during our visit because of Covid-19 restrictions; it was a pity, as the Whalers Cabin is a structure significant to Chinese American history in California. The cabin was one of a number of structures built starting in 1851 by settlers from southern China. The Chinese Californians of Whalers Cove fished for abalone and were involved in local whaling operations in the 1860s. However, by the late 1870s, growing anti-Chinese sentiment among European-American arrivals on the West Coast forced the settlers here to leave.

From Whalers Cabin, we chose to follow the Whalers Cove road north for the final 200 meters back to the trailhead. If you'd prefer to avoid the road walk, you can follow the Cabin Trail west from the Cabin to connect with the North Shore Trail and then turn right and follow the North Shore Trail back to the parking area as well; that option is two-fifths of a mile long. Following the road provided views of Whalers Cove along the way and was probably the more scenic option.

This is an awesome hike with some of the most stunning coastal views in California. To best enjoy the hike, come during a quieter time of week; but make sure you don't miss this stretch of coast.

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