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Point Lobos: Central Coast Jewel

South of Carmel, Calif., a wild, rugged stretch of coast rich with forests, marine life, and nautical history has long inspired writers, painters, and artists.

Point Lobos view through cypress
Photo caption
Cypress trees frame a classic Point Lobos view.


In the early 1600s, Spanish sailors half-way around the world from home could cup their ears off the coast of California and listen to a sound that reminded them of their native shores. In the barking of sea lions along the rocky shore a few miles south of what is now Carmel, the explorers imagined they heard the howling of wolves. They called this new place Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, a name that has clung to the serrated stretch of shoreline known today as Point Lobos.

Often described as the crown jewel of California’s state park system, the Point Lobos State Reserve was set aside for protection in 1933 after weathering years of exploitation. Fishing crews, whalers, and abalone divers hauled their catches from its waters. Cattle ranchers and coal miners extracted profits from its land. And throughout its histor, the romantic site nourished the imagination. Where the Spanish once heard wolves, painters and poets found creative energy. The sculptured coves of Point Lobos, licked white by waves, appear in the writings of Robinson Jeffers and the photographs of Ansel Adams. Robert Louis Stevenson may—just may—have patterned parts of Treasure Island on his memories of the mist-shrouded coast.

Of the more than 1,000 acres in the Point Lobos park, some two-thirds are underwater, part of a rich ecosystem that makes up the oldest marine reserve in the United States. Crisscrossing the headlands and coastal forests of Point Lobos is a nine-mile network of trails laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture. Visitors wandering these paths can take in an abundance of wildlife, such as blue herons, harbor seals, and humpback whales.

Point Lobos still bears traces of the people who have set foot here—shell mounds left behind by the indigenous Ohlone, a cabin built by Chinese workers who hunted gray whales off the coast. But what defines the place is the raw beauty in its rough union of sea and shore. "Every moment of every day is different here," says Chuck Bancroft, a state park ranger who has lived and worked at Point Lobos for 25 years. "Each season brings different plants and wildlife. And every day brings subtle transformations, with the fog rolling in here, the sun breaking there, the constant changes of light and temperature. That’s part of what makes it such a special place."

The idea of Point Lobos as a treasure worth protecting was first put forth in the late 1800s by Alexander Allan, a racetrack builder who purchased the area from a coal company that had planned to sell it as residential lots. Point Lobos was something of a sightseeing attraction, and Allan worried that the same crowds who came to watch the sea lions would sully the delicate coastal environment. To limit access, he and his wife, Satie, outlawed camping and set up a tollgate with a 50-cent entrance fee.

When Allan’s heirs sold part of Point Lobos to the State of California in 1933, they also donated 15 acres of Monterey cypress forest, known today as the Allan Memorial Grove. The Cypress Grove Trail meanders through this stand of wind-coiffed trees, which are native only to the Monterey coast. The trail leads to a vista overlooking Sea Lion Rocks, a cluster of outcrops that deserves its appellation. The names of the park’s landmarks tend to be straightforward and descriptive: Big Dome, North Point, Headland Cove. A violent whirlpool called Devil’s Cauldron swirls between the shore and Sea Lion Rocks, where the blubbery animals bask most days. The Slot, a sliver of granite that resembles a mail slot protruding from the water, was a favorite subject of photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Throughout the years, visitors to Point Lobos have taken more than pretty pictures. In the wake of the Gold Rush, Chinese and Portuguese whalers established small settlements in a narrow, scenic inlet called Whalers Cove. Their operations were profit-able but perilous. When migrating gray whales passed Point Lobos, a sentinel posted on a high knoll would fly a flag, signaling the men below to row after their quarry in small, open boats.

The lives of those who earned their keep along this coastline are evoked in exhibits at the Whalers Cabin Museum, housed in a wooden shack that is the only remnant of a Chinese fishing village. Inside the tiny structure, images depict bountiful catches pulled from the sea. In addition to whales, local waters yielded squid, sea urchins, bluefish, and sardines. By the late 1800s, beds of abalone had spawned a bustling industry spearheaded by the Japanese. One photo in particular hints at the wealth of the shellfish harvest: In it, row after row of drying racks, each piled high with abalone, stretch like a caravan around the cove.

Another of the photos at the museum is of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson. In 1879 Stevenson followed a love interest (his future wife) to California and roomed for several months in Monterey. Two years later, back in Scotland, he sketched a map of an imaginary island to accompany a story he would soon write. This map became the outline of the fictional Treasure Island, the setting for the work that made Stevenson’s reputation.

Some observers later proposed that Stevenson had dreamed up parts of the book’s natural backdrop with memories of Point Lobos in mind. At the Whalers Cabin Museum, visitors can examine a copy of his hand-drawn map and read a caption that points out the supposed connection. spyglass hill looks like big dome, it says, comparing a Treasure Island landmark to a sugarloaf of land jutting out along Point Lobos.

Stevenson kept extensive diaries of his travels but he never wrote specifically about Point Lobos, and authorities on his work now largely agree that he likely didn’t set foot on its grounds. He did spend time at nearby Carmel Mission, from which he would have seen Point Lobos. It is easy to believe that a man with Stevenson’s active mind might have gazed out at the corrugated coast, its headlands ghostly in the ocean mist, and imagined it harboring a pirate ship.

In 1934 Stevenson’s tale begat a movie of the same name, parts of which were filmed at Point Lobos. Other Hollywood productions followed. Those cinematic vistas also make a stunning setting for a hike. In just a few hours, visitors can stroll across much of Point Lobos, from its south end near Bird Island, a rocky formation with a large population of nesting seabirds in spring and summer, to its northern meadows past Whalers Cove. Trails wind through a landscape that can look either haunted or hallowed depending on the interplay of sun and fog. Plants carpet the ground, changing with the seasons and shifting in color, from the sticky monkey flowers, which bloom orange, to the yellow suncups and pink seaside thrift that herald spring.

Studying tide pools at Point Lobos is a popular activity for amateur enthusiasts and marine biologists alike. Weston Beach, named for the photographer, is the best place to explore the tidal shallows. Docents lead guided tide pool walks; schedules are posted a month in advance.

Scuba divers enjoy exploring beneath the waters of Whalers Cove, although you needn’t don a wet suit to appreciate the marine reserve’s diversity. Along the easy 1.4-mile North Shore Trail visitors can watch wildlife from scenic overlooks. In Bluefish Cove, seals bob and otters backstroke through the kelp. More than 200 bird species have been spotted at Point Lobos, and from any coastal trail you can track their air traffic patterns: the speedy wing beat of cormorants, skimming close to the ocean surface, or the glide of pelicans soaring slightly higher up. From January to mid-May is the time to watch gray whales.

Sea lions are nearly always present at Point Lobos, and the barking of their pups provides a soothing sound track for afternoon picnics or early morning hikes. Muffled by the wind and the timeless crashing of the waves, the sound wafts across the water like an echo from the distant past.

Photography by MacDuff Everton


This article was first published in March 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.