I like to describe experiences like I describe food. I don’t think I’m alone in calling a romantic gesture sweet or staying salty long after a grudge should end. I’d describe my visit to Point Lobos, a nature reserve at the north end of California’s ruggedly handsome Big Sur coastline, as simply umami: the savory sensation that’s one of the five basic tastes (together with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness).
Because food is pretty much always on my mind, I approach planning a trip the same way I think about ordering at a restaurant. The constant debate of whether to try somewhere new or stick to a familiar favorite almost always proves tricky. When nailing down the details of a road trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles, I almost passed over Point Lobos the way a picky eater might pass over an entrée prepared with the unfamiliar (I’m looking at you, fish sauce).
Neither I nor my girlfriend Elizabeth knew much about the Pacific Coast Highway stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles other than the highlights: Carmel, Big Sur, Santa Barbara and Monterey. We googled “Big Sur” and confirmed a day hike in Pfeiffer State Park was within a reasonable reach from our room reserved at The Hideaway Hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea. However, Google’s directions came with a warning: our chosen route on Highway 1 through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Santa Barbara was unavailable.
A little due diligence revealed that Google was correct. Mother Nature had done her best Gandolf impression and dumped more than 83 inches of rain on Big Sur, washing out significant parts of the Pacific Coast Highway and destabilizing the famous Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge with mudslides. We would not pass.
This was the moment of truth: like a server telling us the restaurant was fresh out of our order, we thought, now what? We rolled the dice on a trail even closer to Carmel with a wolf-like name as cool as Big Sur—Point Lobos. It truly didn’t disappoint.
We arrived early as the sun burned off wisps of morning fog. At first, my senses were overwhelmed by the bright sun, unique smells and pure activity of the nature reserve. Visually, the landscape is like nothing I’ve ever seen. The terrain started inland with lush, bright green foliage and then quickly transitioned into the Pacific Ocean’s cold waters that swirled in different shades of emerald, blue and black depending on the water’s depth and distance from the shore. Starkly different ecosystems blended together effortlessly, with minimal separation from strands of dark brown beaches, quiet coves, and cliffs teeming with diverse wildlife.
The landscape and location of Point Lobos doesn’t cater to heavy or light clothing, so dressing in layers was key. My down-filled Arcteryx jacket was a necessity on the windy cliffs near Bird Island (as the name implies a small island with lots of birds on it), but the day turned warm for us. The park’s temperature fluctuation every 100 yards or so depending on sun and shade meant I resorted to the jacket-around-the-waist “Disney World Dad look” for much of our visit.
The park’s trails running parallel to the craggy shoreline guided or exploration up and down the coast. Extreme changes in elevation provided a nice workout on our trek from the North end’s trailhead towards the South. Standing in one place, we experienced a harbor seal napping in a sheltered cove, hawks surveying from overhead, and patches of wildflowers undulating in the sea breeze. At every opportunity, we approached the water for a first-hand look and desktop wallpaper-worthy photos. Salt spray hung in the air, creating natural prisms of miniature rainbows over our heads as wave after wave crashed onto the slick black rocks at our feet.
Point Lobos is a feast for any fan of the outdoors, but a few highlights are requirements for a first-time visit. We started at China Cove, an overlook so beautiful and picturesque that, I kid you not, a guy had an easel and palette of oils painting the inlet scene on canvas.
Beyond the North tree line is a famous outcropping that looks towards Carmel across Whaler’s Cove. Whaler’s Cove is the hotspot you’ll want to hit for the most IG-worthy pictures and Drake-approved views.
Point Lobos was the travel equivalent of an umami bomb, complex and powerful with subtleties that took time to fully appreciate. Writing this now, I can taste the salt air and feel the sun’s warmth. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with sticking to what you know, I can’t recommend Point Lobos enough for those seeking an exquisite adventure off the beaten path.
Written by John M. Wilke