On area maps, at least in comparison to the much larger Monterey Peninsula to the north, Point Lobos appears as little more than a minor jut – a triangular peninsula between Carmel Bay and the rest of the central California coast to the south. But zooming in to this beloved headland reveals a different picture: multihued cliffs and aquamarine coves, crashing waves and serene tide pools, jagged bluffs and looming cypress trees. The diversity of landscapes—from sandstone slots to hidden beaches to thick forests—is nearly unparalleled, even for the spectacular Big Sur coast. A 4.6-mile loop walk around Point Lobos State Natural Reserve offers a flavor of this diversity, jam-packed with ocean vistas and opportunities for wildlife viewing. It’s no wonder that this place—at least when the weather holds—is very popular with visitors and locals alike.
There are many options for hiking at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, with a bevy of trails crisscrossing the peninsula. And the multitude of parking areas offer many potential starting points for a comprehensive circuit around the reserve. But perhaps the most common point of departure is to begin at the park entrance—for several reasons. First, if arriving in late morning or later, it is highly likely that the various parking areas inside the reserve will be full, leaving visitors to have to park along the shoulder of Highway 1 (about seven miles south of central Monterey and 3-4 miles from Carmel). Second, parking outside the entrance means one avoids the entrance fee. Third, starting here—in the thick of the forest out of sight of the ocean—allows for some build-up to the most spectacular sights ahead.
From the Point Lobos Entrance Station, hikers can head north or south to complete the hike in a counterclockwise or clockwise direction, respectively. (Note: Yours truly did the latter—and thus the description follows the loop clockwise.) Bearing south, head left at the first junction (encountered immediately), then follow the South Plateau Trail as it winds up and around gentle slopes under a canopy of pines and oaks, some laced with Spanish moss. As the path rises and falls, a patch of thick poison oak and other shrubby plants separates the trail from the road, visible at times to the east.
As the trail skirts Rat Hill (144’) on the left, it drops to a junction with the Pine Ridge Trail at 3/10 mile. Stay left, cross a short footbridge, and then proceed through a short boardwalk section. Pass a bench on the right at 6/10 mile, then head through an open brush area as the ocean draws nearer, dropping down a series of stairs to a set of two junctions. The first bears left and offers access to Gibson Beach, positioned in a moderately-sized cove with private property beyond. At the second junction, stay left, following the Bird Island Trail out to the end of a small peninsula.
Here the trail traverses a sturdy boardwalk overlooking Gibson Beach, with the Carmel Highlands area beyond. Steps later, the trail skirts a narrow inlet on the right; here the crashing waves carve deeper into the chalky, granodiorite cliffs. Just beyond, the trail ends with a short loop; heading left leads quickly to a wooden platform overlooking Bird Island, a milky-colored gathering spot for cormorants, seagulls, and other shoreline aviary species. The birds have an excellent view: in addition to the endless ocean beyond, one can also peer back to the south to catch sight of a large seaside natural arch.
Curving in a clockwise direction around the loop, the trail offers northward views and a close look at China Cove, a spectacular turquoise and emerald green inlet with a small beach frequented by harbor seals. Here there is a single bench, which offers an opportunity to rest and take in one of the most colorful coves on the Big Sur coast.
After the end of the loop, continue on the Bird Island Trail and bear left at the junction, edging around China Cove, revealing (at low tide) a small rock arch in the north-facing wall. Pass another bench with a view, then bear left and drop down a set of stairs, culminating at a very small parking lot (likely to fill up early in the morning).
Follow the left flank of the parking lot and then follow the sign for the South Shore Trail. Take this dirt route as it leaves the parking area and edges toward distinctive brown rocks—here the bedrock shifts from granodiorite to the Carmel Formation.
The trail quickly passes a spur to Hidden Beach on the left. This small sandy beach is reasonably popular with visitors. Pass a junction to another parking area on the right. Staying left, the route passes three orange cream-colored slots carved into the sandstone and conglomerate. These slots are off-limits but an intriguing sight that resembles the sandstone narrows of southern Utah.
Thereafter, the mild path passes a larger cove with an inaccessible gravel beach. Here the Mound Meadow Trail, which crosses over the Point Lobos Road, enters on the right. Stay left, coming up on Weston Beach on the left. Here the main attraction is the endless-entertaining tide pools, which are teeming with hermit crabs, snails, sea stars, sponges, violet-colored sea urchins, and other critters. It is easy to pass a half hour or hour here exploring the various pools and watching the waves ebb and flow in this low-lying area.
Beyond Weston Beach, follow the onward path, paralleling the paved Point Lobos Road on the right. Cut through a small parking area, continue around a small cove, and then come to a larger, paved parking lot. Here the South Shore Trail continues northward, with a sign noting that one is now on the “Whale Trail”: look out to the blue ocean to see if you can spot any humpback or gray whales.
The subsequent section is one of the best parts of the hike. Here the Carmelo Formation is a vibrant orange, cut with streaks of gray and topped by multihued ice plant—an invasive but nonetheless beautiful species. After skirting another beautiful slot and Sand Hill Cove, the trail rises significantly for the first time, climbing a set of stairs to the headland. Stay left at the fork, ascending the Sand Hill Trail to a spot known as Sea Lion Point. Here one can peer down into the relatively broad Sea Lion Cove, another popular spot for seals and, of course, sea lions.
After rising to a high ridgeline, the trail cuts abruptly east, away from the coast. Bear left at the next fork and follow the Sea Lion Point Trail as it empties out to a popular parking area. By now hikers will have covered approximately 2.5 miles. Here there is a small information kiosk—sometimes staffed by a ranger—and some nice restrooms (with running water!).
From here, hikers can choose to head north on the North Shore Trail, but it’s worth taking a brief, one-mile detour on the Cypress Grove Loop. Past the restrooms, follow the wide path as it edges northwest toward the thickest concentration of cypress trees in Point Lobos—one of just two naturally-occurring Monterey cypress groves in the world. Follow the path as it enters Allan Memorial Grove and turns into another loop. Bear left, passing under a canopy of beautiful cypresses.
Some of the cypresses are noticeably struggling—muscled out by their larger and taller counterparts. Moreover, visitors may notice some trees laced with what appears to be a red fungus. This is in fact a form of algae called Trentepohlia, and despite its appearance, has no harmful effect on the cypresses. Both the trees and the algae thrive in the often foggy and misty landscape of this scenic headland, at the northwest corner of Point Lobos.
Follow the loop trail up to an exposed point looking out over the ocean and a group of coastal islands. Follow the roped path as it edges north and then east, dropping to a point back in the thick cypress forest. Head left to explore a short spur, then continue east, eventually returning to the start of the circuit. From here, it is a short walk back to the parking area and restrooms.
Having completed the Cypress Grove Loop, next head left on the North Shore Trail, cutting across an open, brushy meadow. Stay right at the upcoming junction, then enter a denser thicket of trees. Climb a wooden staircase and stay left at the junction with the Whaler’s Knoll Trail. From here the path roughly follows the northern shore—mostly obscured—and then drops down a staircase to an open viewpoint with a short spur. Here one can see Guillemot Island, another popular destination for seabirds, and across Carmel Bay to Monterey Peninsula.
Continue on the North Shore Trail as it bears south and edges around another small cove that is popular with harbor seals. Stay left as the Whaler’s Knoll Trail comes in again from the right, then stay east on the North Shore Trail as it gradually cuts around the broader Bluefish Cove.
At a point around four miles into the hike, bear right on the Cabin Trail, descending gradually to the edge of the woods and spitting out at the Whaler’s Cabin. The cabin was not built by whalers at all—but rather Chinese fishermen who frequented the area in the 1850s. The cabin has a small museum and a volunteer docent.
From the museum, continue across Point Lobos Road and find the wide Granite Point Trail. Bear east as the path runs part of the length of Whalers Cove. About halfway along the beach, cross over a marshy tributary and then bear right on the Carmelo Meadow Trail. This final path leaves the shoreside and bears south for 3/10 mile, returning to the Entrance Station.
All told, this terrific loop hike clocks in at around 4.6 miles. For the most part, the difficulty is very mild; due to the length and a series of ups and downs on steep staircases, however, the route is listed as “Easy to Moderate.” Hikers can easily spend a whole day slowly meandering around Point Lobos, but it is possible to do this hike in as little as 2-2.5 hours.