Friday, April 19, 2013

Livin' la Vida Lobos

Here's a fact: There are oodles of places on the California coast that rival the beauty of Point Lobos State Reserve, which is located a few miles south of Carmel in Monterey County. Here's another fact: Many of those places are just as picturesque, just as jaw-droppingly dreamy and dramatic, but none are more so. The meeting of land and sea at Point Lobos is one of the loveliest on Planet Earth.

As the crow flies California is 840 miles long from top to bottom, but if one were to (and actually could) walk step by step along the entire shoreline -  on sandy, wind-swept beaches; inland around bays and lagoons and tidal marshes; atop mountains and cliffs and headlands; through forested ridges and wide open, seaside fields - once accomplished the pedometer would clock in at a whopping 3,427 miles. Yup, the coastal caress of California is not straight. (What?) Instead, it's chock full of ins and outs and ups and downs and easts and wests - intimate nooks and crannies alongside vistas so grand they'll take your breath away - and Point Lobos State Reserve has them all in spades.

Point Lobos is relatively small, as well. At just over 500 acres, compact, and many of the in-and-out or loop hikes can be enjoyed in 30 or 40 minutes (longer, of course, if you linger). Thus one might explore several of the well-maintained trails in a single day, especially during the late spring, high summer and early autumn months when sunset retreats toward the 9 o'clock hour in these parts. The entrance fee is $10 per car and includes a spiffy, fold-out brochure containing, among other things, the history of the reserve, facts on native flora and fauna, a list of brief hike descriptions, a very handy, well-executed map, and supplemental information on adjacent Carmel River State Beach (the gist of which seems to be: no matter how calm and inviting it looks, don't swim there).

A recent Rent-a-Sommie gig at Pebble Beach Food & Wine found me shacked up in Monterey-town for a slightly overcast but warmish April weekend. My work load for the festival was light, so after a tasty Friday luncheon featuring a luxurious, five-course menu paired with Portuguese wines I parked my Kia Soul rental car at Fisherman's Wharf and enjoyed a leisurely, three-hour round-trip stroll along Monterey Bay: south through John Steinbeck's romanticized (but now pretty touristy) Cannery Row, past world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium and into the quaint, seaside hamlet of Pacific Grove. Along the way there are loads of tacky souvenir shops and restaurants in the heart of Cannery Row, lots of historic buildings and plaques, and, at the south end, a handful of small, rocky, crescent-shaped beaches that are permanently fenced off as they are protected haul-outs for the endangered California harbor seal. Springtime is prime time, and I paused for a spell to observe the newborn pups as they made their way in the world: snuggling and suckling on mom, learning to swim with her in the shallows, noisily and awkwardly sparring with their peers. On the return tramp I parked my rump on a bench overlooking the bay and gazed west as the sun set: watched more harbor seals and sea lions cruise the calm blue waters, watched the offshore beds of giant kelp sway with the incoming swells, watched a group of gregarious, playful southern sea otters go about their aquatic business.

When my work at the Grand Tasting on Saturday finished around 4 p.m. I drove south again, forked over $10 to a smiling park ranger and entered Point Lobos. The park is very popular - for good reason - especially on weekends, but luckily, as I approached, an employee was just taking down the "Lot Full" sign, which meant I didn't have to ditch the car outside and hike in to the coast (a pretty walk, but time consuming). Instead I leisurely drove the main access roads twice, an attempt to get the lay of the land and decide where I wanted to spend the next three hours. Turned out to be an absolutely lovely three hours, and I'm so glad I made the time.

I've got lots of pictures, so let's get right to it.

These first five are from Whaler's Cove, a unique feature of the Central California coast if there ever was just one, and an utterly enchanting place. The terrestrial part of Point Lobos is, as I mentioned, around 550 acres, but in 1960 another 775 acres was added, all of it submarine: one of the first underwater nature reserves in the US of A. Whaler's Cove and a large area of adjacent ocean are part of the reserve. Registered scuba divers and, I believe, a limited number of snorkelers can access the water at a concrete ramp; from there an underwater world awaits discovery - giant kelp forests, rockfish, sea urchins, starfish, sea otters, seals and sea lions, perhaps a passing gray whale. The parking lot has restrooms, picnic tables and several trailheads: one follows the gentle arc of the inlet, another climbs to a beautiful vantage point above the cove and northern portion of the park.  

Next, some photos of the spring wildflower bloom. The park is currently awash in all the usual suspects: the iconic California poppy, fields of Douglas iris, spiky Indian paintbrush, fragrant blue blossom, bushy bushes of Monkeyflower and much more. It's quite the visual and olfactory juxtaposition: the riotous technicolor of flowers, the deep greens of fertile forest, the mysterious blues of vast Pacific Ocean and expansive sky, a wisp of white fog, and myriad earth-tone hues of rich soil, massive stone and fleeting sand.

Below, some landscape shots from the southern half of the park. There is no way the Little iPhone That Could could ever capture the magnificence of the place, but there you have it. This part of the park has, in addition to great hiking, a pair of small, rocky, isolated beaches where one can supposedly walk in the water, perhaps swim (though you should check on the legality of that, and very seriously consider the frigid idea before you do).

And finally, if and when you do decide to visit Point Lobos, a hike that should be at the top of your list; that you should not miss, even if you only take one. I was driving toward the exit when I decided that - Hell yes! - I had time for one more walk: The Cypress Grove Trail. The park brochure lists it as "the favorite of many visitors", and as soon as I started walking I was glad for my change of mind and abrupt U-turn back to the trailhead. It is simply spectacular! A microcosm of all the park has to offer. The views are unsurpassed, both on land and out to sea. The chance to spot animals offshore - seals, sea lions, otters, birds, whales - is in your favor as the trail leads out onto a promontory of rock surrounded by water, and the loop winds through one of the last two naturally occurring stands of endangered Monterey Cypress trees. The orange stuff in the following pictures is a type of algae that finds a happy home on the gnarly, windswept Cypress trees and rocks.

I'll leave you with two artsy-schvartsy silhouette shots. Point Lobos is a Muse extraordinaire, nurturing the artist in us all - be it painter or poet - and there is a whole community (with its own website) devoted solely to the images she has helped create.

So make the trek and be inspired. Feel the ancient soul of Planet Earth where the worlds of land and sea and air collide. Discover the timeless magic of Point Lobos for yourself.

Hopefully I will get another chance in the not too distant future.

Until then, peace out.
Peter J. Palmer

Monday, April 1, 2013

Just the Ticket

Well hello there, Stranger. I feel as though you've missed me.

Three full months into 2013 and behold my first post of the year. Finally. I could say that I'm not sure why it's taken so damn long, 'cause lord knows I've been tramping my way around the usual haunts and had the requisite fodder for inspiration: Hill 88 and Tennessee Valley in the Marin Headlands, the Steep Ravine Trail on Mount Tamalpais, the Batteries to Bluffs trail on the south end of the GGB. I could say that, but I know it'd not be the truth.

The truth is I was kind of bored. Not of getting out and working up a sweat, not of the time spent on hikes by myself and with friends. Not of the glorious seaside and woodland vistas that ease into view 'round every bend in the trail, not of all the fresh air and decompression, and certainly not of the erupting springtime wildflower bloom, which is just now hitting its stride in the rumpled hills and valleys of northern California. Okay, honestly...maybe I was just a wee bit bored with all the above, but only because I was walking the same set of trails, over and over again.

Truth is I was in a rut, and we all know how that feels. Be it in a job, in a relationship, with a cast of characters, with what's for dinner or with what dotted line on a map one chooses to follow, no doubt we've all been there before at some point in our lives. For me, all the usual beautiful was starting to become all the plain old usual. Which is why a few days ago - even though the forecast had called for rain - it felt extra special good to break from the usual, to shake it up a bit, to head south a ways and get a brand new hike under my belt. Turned out to be just the ticket.

I can't even ponder a guess as to how many times I've zipped by San Bruno Mountain: the isolated, hulking aerie of scruffy green chaparral that looms just south of the San Francisco city limits in San Mateo County. It's definitely more than 50, which, because it's on the way to San Francisco International Airport and I travel to Cleveland at least once a year, is double the years I've called the Bay Area home. Add up all the other reasons I've driven or been driven during the past quarter century and what would we find...100 times? 200? More?

San Bruno Mountain State Park is pretty compact, so to speak; certainly nowhere near as large and as wild and varied as Mount Tamalpais in Marin. The wide open summit rises to 1,314 feet compared to Mount Tam's 2,571', it doesn't have dense stands of coast redwoods nor the year-round creeks and waterfalls, and with only 12 miles of sanctioned trails one might exhaust the hiking possibilities in a single day. That said, it is lovely, more than adequately rugged, and well worth the time to explore.

The relative isolation of San Bruno Mountain harbors at least 14 endangered plant species and a handful of rare insects - butterflies, mostly. We saw no animals, save a few raptors soaring high above, but the rain held off as my hiking buddies and I pumped out the 3.1-mile Summit Loop Trail in an hour and a half. The hike is listed as strenuous in the park brochure and online, but it's perhaps more moderate+, with just a few breathy inclines at the beginning and at the end. It is, however, a delightful tramp; for our outing actually muggy and warm, and happily I soaked up the first time experience, the views great and small, the peaceful sound of the wind. Springtime is a superb season to visit the park, and on the trail we passed loads of brightly colored wildflowers: Footsteps of Spring, Douglas iris, blue-eyed grass, California poppy, San Francisco wall flower (a rare find), silver bush lupine, sky lupine, Indian paintbrush (including a yellow sub-species), wild lilac, rock cress, cow parsnip.

I have no clue what this is called, but it's funky good
and out in force atop the mountain.

And what of the views? Well, they are simply extraordinary: an unobstructed 360 rivaling anything, anywhere in the Bay Area! North to the "little boxes" of San Francisco, to my well-travelled stomping grounds of the Marin Headlands, to the familiar silhouette of Mount Tam; east to the expansive, slate gray waters of the bay, to Berkeley, Oakland and Mount Diablo; south to more tightly packed urban sprawl, and even further the dark, brooding mass of the Santa Cruz Mountains proper; west to the mighty Pacific and the Farallon Islands. Unfortunately I took only two pictures, and I will lament that decision until the next time I venture up the mountain, but the one below will hopefully offer a taste of the visual rewards, which are spectacular!

My hiking buddies for the day,
with the San Francisco skyline in the distance.

So there you have it. Lesson learned, for now: Shake it up, Palmer; break out of that rut; do the Hokey-Pokey somewhere new for a while. It will make a return to the usual all the more rewarding, for as they say: "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

San Bruno Mountain State Park
Area: 2,378 acres
Summit: 1,314 feet
Hours of Operation: 8:00 a.m. opening, closing depends on the time of year
Day use fee: $600.00 per car
No pets allowed

When you're ready to make the drive and discover San Bruno Mountain (once again, now is a great time!) here's a link to the official park website:

This picture, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with our hike,
but I just love daffodils - $5 right now for 30 stems - love them even more
when my apartment is clean.

Peace out.
Get out.
Happy Spring.
April Fools! (The day use fee is only $6.00 per car, not $600.00)
See you sooner than later, inspiration willing.

Peter J. Palmer