Things to do in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California

By Kay S
Last Updated

Point Lobos has been called the “crown jewel” of California’s state parks and it has been called the “greatest meeting of land and sea.” 

The reserve is known mainly for its unparalleled beauty. 

From wild Cyprus that can be found almost nowhere else on earth to three-story-tall kelp forests, Point Lobos offers what other parks in the area simply can’t. 

That is thanks in large part to the research and protection activities carried out in the reserve. 

The water habitat surrounding Point Lobos is one of the richest in the country. The reserve prohibits fishing and harvesting marine life. 

It also carries out scientific monitoring of marine species and ocean health. 

Tips for visiting Point Lobos

Point Lobos is one of the most popular attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway. However, erosion due to visitor activities is one of the biggest threats to Point Lobos. 

As a part of the most recent measure to protect the land and water, online reservations are being considered but are still to become effective. 

By attempting to control the amount of traffic visiting the park each day, the reserve hopes to reduce the amount of stress that visitors put on the natural ecosystems of the reserve. 

Here are a few other things you need to know about the reserve in order to plan a visit:

Hours, Fees & Directions

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is easy to find. It is just three miles south of Carmel on Highway 1. 

Immediately on entry, visitors can pay the $10 day-use fee at an entry booth. You can also get a map for $2 or print out your own off of the reserve’s website for free, before visiting. 

The park is open from 8 am to 7 pm. However, considering the extreme popularity of the reserve, we recommend arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon to find parking spots.

Parking & Other Amenities

The reserve has 150 parking spots spread across six lots but they all can often be full on weekends, holidays, everyday between memorial and labor day. 

It is not unusual for visitors to end up parking along the California Highway 1 and walking up to the reserve on these days.

However, this can cause traffic jams and accidents on the highway and hence, not recommended. 

Apart from parking lots, Point Lobos also has many other amenities for visitors. The China Cove, Whalers Cove, and Pine Ridge parking areas all have picnic tables available. 

These spots also offer bathrooms. Additional bathrooms can be found at park headquarters and near mound meadow. 

What to bring

The key to a good trip to Point Lobos is preparedness. 

While the days are often sunny and warm, chilly winds and thick fogs coming off the water can cool things down throughout the summer. And that’s why we always recommend dressing in layers on a trip to central California. 

Wear good hiking shoes and if visiting in summer, then pack a pair of sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen. 

Binoculars are also suggested to get a closer look at the reserve’s wildlife. Pairs are available for rent at the information station. 

Along with a camera, visitors looking to spend the day in the park should pack reusable water bottles – there are water fountains available for refills – and snacks. 

Food is not available close to Point Lobos and you should always carry your own while outdoors. 

Best Time to Visit

Point Lobos is beautiful all year round and the Mediterranean climate of the area means there is never really a bad time to visit. 

Summer does offer more sun and marginally warmer weather that is ideal for hiking the area. 

To beat the crowds either get in before 9:30 in the morning or after 3 pm when many families are leaving for the day.

If visiting in winter, be prepared for showers or cold winds near the coast. In spring, you will be treated to beautiful views of wildflowers along the trails. 

Point Lobos Climate

The area is known for its temperate Mediterranean climate with only a 20- to 30-degree difference between winter and summer months. 

While the seasons don’t change much, the days are ever changing. 

Often mornings start out cool and foggy before the sun breaks through. Afternoons are sunny and warm before cooling back off in the evenings. Layers are a must.

Things to do at Point Lobos

From hiking and kayaking to tide-pooling and photography, the hardest part of spending a day at the “crown jewel” of California’s parks is choosing what to do. 

Here are our favorite things to do in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve:

Hiking at Point Lobos

Point Lobos is a natural reserve which means that the park has very well-maintained trails and hiking is a popular activity. 

The trails either follow the bluffs and beaches or go inwards over the hills, through meadows, and under shady pine groves to the interior of the peninsula. 

Here, we recommend three of our favorite trails.

Cyprus Grove Trail

This trail is less than a mile long and takes hikers through one of the last naturally occurring groves of Monterey Cyprus. 

These threes used to cover much of the area but the changing climate 15,000 years ago killed most of them off. 

They can only be found in two locations that have the specific microclimate they need to survive. 

The trail also ranges toward the westernmost tip of the point and offers beautiful views of the Pacific.

Sea Lion Point

As the name suggests, this trail leads to the sea lion’s favorite place in the reserve.

The trail begins at the Sea Lion Point parking lot and winds through Cyprus before emerging at the coast. 

The rest of the trail follows the bluffs until it reaches the viewing point. There are two areas to watch the sea lions. 

The upper viewing area is often staffed with binoculars and a docent who will point out both the sea lions and other wildlife in the area. 

The lower viewing point is down a set of stairs and offers an unobstructed view of the animals.

North Shore Trail

The longest trail on this list at just under a mile and a half, it is also the most strenuous. The trail is mostly made up of rocky terrain and steep stairs. 

The trail hugs the bluffs of the north-facing coves offering views across Carmel Bay and chances to glimpse osprey, whales, and sea lions. 

While the trail’s rugged beauty is a draw, the stiff winds that often batter this side of the reserve can be too much for some. Be sure to pack a sweater or jacket.

To know more about all the trails in this beautiful reserve, read our guide to Hiking at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Whaler’s Cabin Museum

The ramshackle shingled cabin was built in 1862 and is the only remaining structure of one of California’s first Chinese communities. 

The area was inhabited by shipwrecked fishermen from China. They built a home and one of the country’s first commercial fisheries in the area. 

Japanese and Portuguese immigrants also began moving to the area and it was considered a racially diverse and tolerant area until anti-Chinese sentiment rose up in the 1880s. Many of the original families were forced to leave. 

The museum is one of the few in the state that acknowledges that America’s fishing industry was pioneered by Chinese immigrants. 

The shack features photographs of the crews, fishing gear, and pieces of pottery. Around the area are recreation cottages and real whale bones or abalone. 

Whaler’s Cove

The northernmost beach in Point Lobos is known for its Scuba Diving. It is one of two areas where registered divers can get into the water. 

The beach itself is narrow and can disappear entirely when the tide is high. The cove is easily accessed from the Whalers Cabin parking lot.

Sand Hill Cove

This rugged strip of beach is just a few feet wide and surrounded by uneven walls of sedimentary rock. 

The Carmelo Formation – or tilted layers – of the rocks create beautiful lines of color on the cliffside and are responsible for the multicolored pebbles that are often found along the beach. 

The rocks in the center of the cove are also excellent places to spot otters, seals, and sea lions.

China Cove

The beach at China Cove is sandy but narrow. The rock walls surrounding the beach gives it a private and isolated feel, even when full of photographers. 

People come all year round during low tide to snap pictures of the small cave and the natural stone arch built into the southern wall.

Gibson Beach

Also known as “Sandy Beach,” this is the most traditionally beach-like area in the park and it can be a challenge to find a spot in the summer. 

The best way to guarantee a spot for laying out in the sun is to get in early, like as soon as the park opens early.

Weston Beach

Weston Beach is less of a sunbathing area and more of a tidepooling area. The pebbly cove is mostly protected by rocks at its mouth, keeping out the worst of the waves. 

It is still possible to get swamped, so it is suggested that shoes and socks be left above the tideline while visitors search for starfish and sand dollars in the area’s many tide pools.

Docent-guided walks

These walks are available upon request, though the schedule shifts regularly based on docent availability. Visitors however need to reserve a docent-led walk before their visit. For more information, visit here.  

Guides take visitors through the park, pointing out both the lovely scenery and the details that many visitors might overlook. 

The tour talks all about the plant and animal life of the reserve and about seasonal events like the migration of different species of whales and the mating dance of the monarch butterfly. 

For those who want to explore the park in their own time, a free tour is also available through the Point Lobos app or by calling 831-998-9458.

Marine Animals & Wildlife 

Point Lobo’s rocky coastline and deep waters are exceptionally rich in marine life. 

The reserve works hard to conserve and protect the species and as a result, the marine life sightings at Point Lobos are abundant. 

Along with the otters, seals, and sea lions that this area is known for, the reserve offers chances to see other marine wildlife as well. 

Grey whales are often visible from the bluffs during the winter and humpbacks and blue whales have been spotted for the past few summers. 

Dolphins, purposes, and orcas or killer whales are visible all year round. Other unique ways to explore marine life include while tide pooling and scuba diving through kelp forests. 

To know what marine life you can spot during different seasons, check this wonderful website

Point Lobos also has diverse wildlife. Visitors can spot squirrels, brush rabbit, black-tailed mule deer, bobcats, gray foxes, lizards, and coyotes while hiking. 

Birding

Point Lobos is a delight for birders. Visitors can spot seabirds, shorebirds, residents, as well as migratory birds in the reserve. 

The peregrine falcons can often be seen making their death-defying dives – they get up to 200 mph – around China Cove. The Great Blue Heron Nests at Coal Chute Point are always a crowd favorite though aren’t always easy to find. 

Ospreys, that live among the pines of the reserve, can be spotted in all of the coves. Brown pelicans are often seen circling above the water before diving down to scoop a fish right out of the water.

Other shorebirds to spot include black oystercatchers, cormorants, and western gulls. Common land birds include woodpeckers, California scrub-jay, quails, and turkey vultures.  

Wildflowers at Point Lobos

The central California coastline bursts and comes alive with vibrant wildflowers every spring. Point Lobos is no exception. 

If you happen to visit the reserved, during the months of March to May, you may find the landscape painted in vivid colors.  

Common wildflowers spotted at Point Lobos include buckwheat, morning glory, buttercups, mock heather, lupines, and the famous California poppy.

Diving at Point Lobos

Along with its land attractions, Point Lobos is also known for its 40-foot high kelp forest and the valleys created between giant underwater rock formations. 

Divers often find schools of fish, otters, and sea lions while in the reserve. 

Diving is only allowed in Whalers and Bluefish Coves and only 15 diving groups – of up to four people each – are allowed out per day so advance reservations are highly recommended. 

The dive reservations can be full up to three months ahead of time, so we recommend booking them early on in your West Coast trip planning. 

Credentials and equipment are checked upon checking in for your reservation to make sure that divers are prepared for the challenges the water in this area offer. Read here to know everything about diving in Point Lobos

Tidepooling at Point Lobos

There are two tidepooling areas in Point Lobos. Weston Beach has a wide array of algae, sea snails, and sea urchins. They thrive in the calmer waters of this protected cove. 

The other popular area, Moss Cove has more wave action. The tide pools here tend to have more crabs, starfish, and other animals that prefer the tides in this unprotected northern cove.

Tidepooling along the coast is popular with families. While looking for animals, be sure to respect their distance and remember that collecting at the reserve – whether it be rocks, shells, or animals – is strictly forbidden.

Boating, kayaking & paddle boarding at Point Lobos

Kayaking and paddleboarding are allowed within the park for a $10 fee per vessel. The boat launch fee is $25 per boat. Having their own watercraft allows visitors to explore the dramatic coastline and sea caves at Point Lobos. 

There is nowhere within the park to rent watercraft, but visitors can bring their own. Also, there are plenty of places within a few miles that offer both day-long rentals and guided tours of the area. 

However, visitors should be prepared. Ocean kayaking is much more difficult than paddling on the calm waters of a lake. 

The waters in this area are notoriously strong so we recommend guided tours only for first-timers.

Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

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Pacific Coast Highway 5 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 7 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 10 Day itinerary
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