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

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