We are living in California because we have family here and we like the weather, but we didn’t expect this area to become the National Covid Hotspot. We do our best to resist strolling downtown areas, shopping in stores, and any other activity that involves people. We get outdoors for a few hours almost every day, and walking along the coast or the beaches is our favorite activity.
One of the most beautiful places to visit in this area is the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos covers a rugged rocky point with many tiny inlets. The offshore waters in the Marine Protected Area are described as some of the richest in the US, and the scuba diving the best on the west coast. We live just a few miles away from this wonderful park and looked forward to getting to know its trails.
Our first visit to Point Lobos wasn’t until almost two months after we moved into the area. Why did it take us so long to get there? Its popularity.
One million people visit the park every year, and there are 150 parking spaces. Doing the math, that means an average of 2,740 people visit the park every day of the year. If three shifts of visitors took turns each day, every car would still have to carry six passengers to fit a single day’s visitors in the 150 available parking spaces. The park closes at 5 pm, so there’s no sunset viewing or dinner picnics, either. Instead, it is possible to park along the highway. Many visitors do that, but it results in a long walk. By the time we parked along the road and walked in, we’d be out of time and energy to look around. We decided to visit a) during the week, b) in the winter, c) not during any holiday season, d) when the weather was poor.
This January, the weather has been glorious. The four inches of rain that we should be getting has not come, and the number of gloomy days has been a minimum. We ended up going to visit Point Lobos on a Monday afternoon, arriving at the entrance between 2:30 and 3 pm. The entrance was open, the “Full” barrier that is usually in place from 8:30 am most days, set aside. We were able to drive into the park as far as we wished and to park anywhere we wanted. Every parking zone had a space or two available. Once out of the car, we had to keep our masks on while walking on the paths. People passed us so frequently there wasn’t time to remove our masks before we needed them on again. The park may not have been full, but there were still plenty of people enjoying the views. We plan to visit more often once we have our “2021 Limited Use Golden Bear Pass”. (For $20 per couple, people over 65 can access state parks from January to Memorial Day and after Labor Day without paying the $9 Senior day use fee.)
On our first visit, we headed for Gibson Beach at the far south end of the park and were rewarded with a beautiful beach reached by a stroll past those harbor seals, along wide, level trails beside rocky cliffs.
In a park like Point Lobos, where there are so many visitors every day, there are also a lot of people to answer questions. We chatted with a volunteer docent, and passed staff members and docents along the trail and on the beach. There are also a lot of rules. No dogs, no bikes, no picnics on the beach, only in three designated picnic areas. If this sounds regimented, remember those 2,740 people per day trying to walk on the trails and the beach, see the harbor seals, and have a picnic. It takes a lot of management.
Fortunately, there are other options if you want to watch waves crash on the rocks or walk along the beach without strategizing about parking. Right in Carmel, Pacific Grove, or Monterey, there are beaches that can be reached on foot from any of the hotels or Airbnbs nearby. Street parking is easily available during this winter of Covid, though it may be more difficult to find during the summer months.
Driving south from Carmel on Route 1, there are pullouts that let you see the spectacular rocky coast from many places. There isn’t usually access to the beach, but for scenery, (and keeping your shoes clean), this drive is great. If you go far enough, you get to Big Sur, a composite of parks, reserves, beaches, and campgrounds (campgrounds are not yet open).
Driving the opposite direction, north from the Monterey Peninsula along Route 1, Ft. Ord Beach offers broad beaches and fewer people to share with.
We went to the corner of the Monterey Peninsula nearest our house on a gray Monday. Rain threatened, but never got worse than damp mist. The waves were big, 10 ft. or more, and we sat on a park bench to watch for a while. The water was a beautiful dark blue-green, and the breaking waves created patches of pastel color that were gorgeous and unexpected on such a day. As we sat, Jonathan noticed something in the water, a seal, perhaps. I said it was one of the many clumps of kelp, but had to eat my words when there turned out to be a large group of sea otters riding the waves and fishing. We used our birding binoculars to watch the otters float on their backs under the curl of the huge waves, riding up and over just for fun, or diving underneath as waves broke.
Following the breaking surf into the distance, we discovered surfers bobbing on their boards, waiting for a really big wave. A couple of them took off on long rides away from us along the shore. Nearby, we watched a few spectacular wipe-outs. When we left, they were all still in the water, waiting for that best ride of the day.
When we are not at the shore or planning a walk along the shore, we are checking the tide tables, either to go beach combing at low tide, or to watch the surfers and the big waves at high tide. We always have a mask with us, but most of the time outdoors we don’t need them. Watching the ocean has become one of our favorite diversions. The waves are constantly changing, breaking and whooshing onto the shore. On a sandy shore, the crash of the waves themselves is the loudest sound, while on a rocky beach, the rattle of rock and pebbles stirred by the waves and the undertow can be louder than the sea itself. The ever-changing, but always the same breaking of the waves is mesmerizing, a kind of meditation that lets me forget about the things that I can’t do, if only for a few minutes.