Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Soberanes Point

The Pacific meets Soberanes Point and Whale Peak
2.5 miles loop, 350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to the trailhead, no fee required

The high, brushy ridges of the Santa Lucia Range plunge to the wild granite coastline at Soberanes Point, which juts out into the deep blue waters and crashing waves of the Pacific in Garrapata State Park on the northernmost stretch of California’s Big Sur coast. Whale Peak- really just a small hill- rises above this seascape, offering remarkable views of it all. This stunning tapestry of land and sea is easily accessible on this well-maintained, gentle, and short trail, which as an added bonus is just a short drive from the Monterey area and is still within reasonable distance for a day trip from the San Francisco Bay Area. The hike’s proximity to populated areas makes it quite popular, but as its trailhead is not marked along Highway 1, the hike sees far fewer visitors than nearby Point Lobos. Hikers looking for a very short leg-stretcher with minimal elevation gain can stick to the Garrapata Bluff Trail, which follows the coastline towards Soberanes Point, while those looking for a slightly more extended coastal experience can do the full hike by looping around and then climbing up Whale Peak for some commanding views of the northern Big Sur coast.

I hiked the Soberanes Point and Whale Peak loop with Anna on a nice late October weekend; the drive was about a hundred minutes from South Bay. From the last southbound traffic light in Carmel at Rio Road, we followed US Highway 1 south through Carmel Highlands for 6.5 miles into Garrapata State Park. Track your mileage closely here, as it’s the only straightforward way to get to this unsigned trailhead if you’re not using a GPS. At this point, there are a number of unsigned gravel pull-offs on the right side of the road; park in the first of these pull-offs, which can accommodate a handful of cars. If parking is full at the first access point, there are luckily three further access points to this loop trail over the next half mile on Highway 1, each also unmarked with their own gravel pull-offs, although starting from any of those parking areas will have you starting at a different section of the loop. The correct trailhead will have at the start of the hike for the Garrapata Bluffs Trail.

Leaving the roadside parking pull-off, the wide and well-graded Garrapata Bluffs Trail almost immediately came to an unsigned fork. The left fork led towards Soberanes Point, while the right fork was a short spur to a coastal viewpoint. We followed the right fork first, which quickly brought us out onto Garrapata State Park’s coastal bluffs. The views here were stunning: chiseled granite seastacks lay offshore, cone-like Whale Peak rose to the south, and the bluffs themselves had a highly eroded badlands look and were particularly colorful when coated with non-native ice plants displaying their fall colors. The spur trail ended after a hundred meters at a nicely built viewing platform where we had views north and south along the coast.

Waves meet the rocky coast
Waves pounding the bluffs of Garrapata State Park
Returning to the junction, we took the southbound coastal trail this time, which carried us over a small waterfall on Soberanes Creek via a sturdy footbridge. The trail followed the edge of the coastal bluffs and shortly afterwards came out to Painters Point, another spectacular ocean viewpoint from which we could admire the vista of Whale Peak and the granite coast. Massive waves rolled off the Pacific and sent spray flying 40 feet into the air as they crashed into the bluffs. Forests of kelp were tossed about with each oncoming wave in turbulent, cerulean waters beneath us, rich feeding grounds for the abundant marine life of the California coast.

Granite coast at Soberanes Point
Whale Peak rises above the Pacific
The trail briefly reconnected with Highway 1 at another roadside parking area before heading through a cypress grove and returning to the coast shortly afterwards. At 0.6 miles, the trail brought us to the foot of Whale Peak, where the trail split upon meeting the loop around Whale Peak. We did the loop counterclockwise, taking the right fork and enjoying the ocean views first.

Over the next 0.4 miles, the main trail circled around the west side of Whale Peak, staying high uphill above the coastal bluffs of Soberanes Point. However, a network of social trails here led down to the coastal bluffs, giving access to amazing views and tidepools at the point itself. These were likely official trails in the past, as I noticed retaining walls and other engineered features under the path, but seem like they are no longer maintained as the trail corridor Is brushy in many spots. We (and most other visitors) largely stuck to the social paths here to enjoy the great views, but when brush made the going tough we returned to the main path, which remained wide and well-groomed.

Big Sur coastline at Soberanes Point
Mountains meet the sea
The main path made a gentle descent as it rounded the south side of Whale Peak and came to another junction above the coastal bluffs on the southern end of Soberanes Point at 1.3 miles into the hike. The right fork was a short spur to a viewpoint with southerly views, while the left continued the loop around Whale Peak; we checked out the spur viewpoint before continuing the loop. The southerly viewpoint here allowed us to see the northernmost stretch of the Big Sur Coast from Soberanes Point all the way through Point Sur, about 10 miles to the south. Here, we could see the many ridges of the Santa Lucia Range dropping to the ocean at a boundary defined by the San Gregorio Fault, a quintessential Big Sur view.

View south from Soberanes Point to Point Sur
Leaving the viewpoint, we continued clockwise around the loop. The trail began to ascend gently but steadily as it began heading north again, this time heading inland towards the saddle behind Whale Peak. The trail soon began paralleling Highway 1, passing another roadside parking pull-off. At 1.6 miles, the trail came to an unmarked junction on the slopes of Whale Peak. The right fork continued the loop, while the left fork spur led to Whale Peak’s summit. We took the left fork, which wrapped up the uphill climb and ended up at a saddle between Whale Peak’s two summit humps. The southern hump featured fantastic views towards Point Sur, while views from the northern hump extended past Carmel Highlands to Point Lobos, with the Santa Cruz Mountains on the San Francisco Peninsula rising far in the distance. The summits offered commanding views over the Pacific Ocean; as Whale Peak’s name suggests, it is a good spot to look out for humpback and gray whales when they migrate through Big Sur’s waters.

Highway 1 winds south along the Big Sur coast
Soberanes Point view from Whale Peak
Garrapata Bluffs view from Whale Peak
Returning to the main loop, we descended the sides of Whale Peak, passing yet another parking pull-off, then rejoined the Garrapata Bluff Trail at the base of Whale Peak. We followed that trail north along the coast back to where we parked, enjoying some final coastal views on that last stretch.

The hike around Soberanes Point and Whale Peak is an easy and spectacular way to see the northernmost stretches of the Big Sur coast. Although popular, it's not overcrowded, lacking the name recognition of Point Lobos or Big Sur destinations further south. This is an excellent easy trail option for visitors to the Big Sur coast not looking to tackle the region’s overgrown and steep backcountry.

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