When it comes to awesome parks, California has an unfair advantage. The state is huge, and it encompasses tons of landscapes that are so unique-- from the lush green redwood forests in the North to the strange and mysterious deserts in the South, and everything in between, California is 163,000 square miles of American beauty. So at first, it may seem weird that the so-called "gem of the California parks system" is Point Lobos State Reserve, a park in that weird "everything in between" part of the state... but once you get to know Point Lobos, it's pretty clear why it's so special. Here's our guide to exploring this unforgettable coastal park!
Point Lobos State Reserve is a special little patch of coast in Central California. It's at the northern end of Big Sur, and the rocky cliffs that form the point's headland give way to rolling patches of forests, canyons, and wildflowers on one side, and the crashing waves of the Pacific on the other. You can swim, scuba dive, drive, hike, and kayak around the reserve, which protects an incredibly diverse ecosystem of wildlife (which include harbor seals, sea lions, elephant seals, orcas, sea otters, gray foxes, coyotes, Monarch butterflies, and more) and plant life. The first thing you should do upon arrival is drive out to Whaler's Cove and just soak in the vast beauty for a bit.
Kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming are all permitted (barring any other circumstances) just about anywhere in Point Lobos. Snorkeling and scuba diving give you a view from below the surface that's just as impressive as the view from land-- you'll swim through quiet kelp forests and meet all kinds of marine creatures. Kayaking lets you explore the smaller beaches, tucked away among the rocky coastline-- look for the breathtaking China Cove! It's the perfect hidden beach... tricky enough to find and access that it's not too crowded, but not so hard to get to that it's impossible to visit.
Note that access down to China Cove is closed during the spring when harbor seals are starting to have their seal pups. It does make the wildlife spotting from afar extra special, though!
The Whaler's Cabin Museum is a little shack has been around since even before whaling was a big thing! It was built in the 1850's by fishermen from China, and there used to be several others like it, but now only the one remains. No one is even sure if whalers ever lived in the so-called Whaler's Cabin Museum (although whale vertebrae were used to build the house's foundation), but the nickname has stuck, and since it's the oldest structure built by the Chinese in Monterey, it's been preserved as a museum. On display, you'll find old Japanese diving equipment, Chinese fishing tools, a harpoon collection, and old whale bones, among other things.
Sea Lion Point Trailhead is, naturally, a hike that really shows off the wildlife in the reserve. The parking lot leads to a pretty easily accessible loop trail that winds past incredible rock formations, coves, scenic overlooks, and more. There are often docents here on the trail that can help you spot the sometimes-hidden creatures who call Point Lobos home. The whole hike is less than a mile long, but it connects to the longer Sand Hill Trail if you find yourself completely intoxicated by the views here and want more.
Oh, and if you're wondering about the differences between seals and sea lions, you'll know which you're looking at pretty easily since sea lions can "walk" on land and seals have to worm and wiggle their way along the beach.
Bird Island Trail is great because it's a hike that will take you to the elusive China Cove and Gibson Beach. It's only .8 miles long, with lots of points where you can loop back to the trailhead, which has a bathroom and picnic tables. Both China Cove and Gibson Beach are good for swimming and wading (if you don't mind frigid water) or sitting out on the soft, white sand. The trail gets its name from Bird Island, which you can spot from Pelican Point. The island serves as a seabird colony in the spring and summer. Herons, gulls, and cormorants are the birds you're most likely to spy on the hike, so keep your eyes peeled!
North Shore Trail is another stellar hike in Point Lobos. If you're looking for something with more of a secluded feeling, this is your trail. It's a little rockier, longer, and generally more rugged. There are some stairs here as well, but they're worth the effort since they'll take you high above the coves and cliffs for endless views. It'll take you between Whalers Cove and Sea Lion Point, and it's about 1.4 miles one way. The coastal scenery of Bluefish Cove, Carmel Bay, and Cypress Cove are to die for. Pro tip: Towards the west end of the trail, there's a spur trail called the Old Veteran Trail, which offers views of the Old Veteran Cypress, a lone tree that is somehow still growing into the side of the cliff in Cypress Cove. It's an iconic photo op in Point Lobos!
After you're done uncovering all of the beauty Point Lobos has to offer, hop on the Pacific Coast Highway and head north to Carmel-by-the-Sea. To get there, you'll cross the famed Bixby Bridge, crossing Bixby Creek as it empties into the Pacific.
The bridge has played an important role in Big Sur's history ever since it opened in 1932. Until it opened, the folks of Big Sur spent their winters virtually cut-off from the rest of the world since the Old Coast Road was pretty much impassable in bad weather. The bridge, one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the entire world, connected Big Sur to the world just as the automobile’s popularity was taking off. Today, the Bixby Canyon Bridge is not only one of the most photographed bridges in America, but also one of the most popular bridges in pop culture. It’s been in countless TV episodes, movies, commercials, and even video games.
To snap that perfect shot of the bridge, there's a pull-off just north of the bridge on the west side of the road that's popular for photographers, and a well-maintained dirt road known as the Old Coast Road, also north of Bixby, also offers great photo opportunities.
Sadly, camping is not available in Point Lobos... but don't worry! Nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea is a picture-perfect beach town with some accommodation options that range from world-class to charming and quaint. One of the more luxurious hotels is La Playa Carmel, located in a 1905 mansion built by a member of the Ghirardelli family.
Wake up in your plush room (which might offer views of the ocean or the incredible estate gardens), enjoy a champagne breakfast, and then spend the day exploring Carmel-by-the-Sea's Ocean Avenue, cruising 17-Mile Drive, strolling on the beach (located two blocks away), touring wineries, or simply lounging by the hotel's gorgeous pool. Have them pack you a beach picnic, or plan your wine-tasting experience for an effortless way to experience all that Big Sur has to offer.
The Normandy Inn is far and away the most adorable hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Evoking Old-World French country charm, they offer afternoon sherry in the parlor, cozy rooms, a cafe with complimentary breakfasts, flower gardens, and more... basically everything you need for a quiet and relaxing weekend at the beach. The location is perfect; you're steps away from the beach and all of the little attractions that make Carmel-by-the-Sea a perfect Big Sur town.
For added fairy-tale vibes, grab lunch at the Tuck Box Tea Room. Grab waffles or eggs benedict here from the breakfast menu, a sandwich or English pie for lunch, or a plate of their famed scones (served with preserves) and a cuppa for afternoon tea. The place, from the menu to the decor to the old recipe used for the scones, has remained virtually unchanged since the 1940s, so the place is pretty special. Don't expect anything too fancy... take your time and just enjoy the experience.
Since you're in Carmel-by-the-"Sea", you should take advantage of the fresh seafood as well. Flaherty's Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar is the perfect place to sample the local offerings. Go casual at the Oyster Bar, or make a reservation at the Grill, and sample a little bit of everything, since they offer just about every kind of seafood in every style of preparation known to man. Oysters Rockefeller, abalone, chowder, stew, lobster ravioli, crab cakes, fried calamari, sand dabs, fish and chips, lobster tacos... seriously, the menu is incredible, and since these guys are experts at handling seafood, you can't go wrong with anything. Pair your meal with a bottle of wine and make a night of it!
Big Sur is an intoxicatingly enchanting place. From the stunning beauty of the central California coast at Point Lobos to the worry-free and almost storybook-like atmosphere of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a visit here is unlike anything anywhere else. Relax, reconnect with nature, and re-energize as you immerse yourself in the wonder of this slice of the country.