Hikes You Don't Want to Miss

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Cypress Grove Trail and south shore trail


The opportunity to hike through Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is not something you want to miss. Just south of Carmel on Highway 1, the Reserve offers spectacular hikes, scuba diving, cultural and geological sites, and an opportunity to view harbor seals, sea lions, seabirds, gray whales, sea otters, and more.  

The magic of Point Lobos made a deep impression on me as a teenager on a biology camping trip, but I didn’t truly appreciate it until I moved back to California. And I know I’ve barely scratched the surface!  When visiting with friends, I enjoy looping around the park, connecting trails as we follow the ocean. With the family, we enjoy exploring the Cypress Grove and South Shore Trails. Both are accessible for young kids, and each packs in plenty of “wow” moments for all ages.

We explore the following below:

The Cypress grove trail


Cypress Grove Trail Brochure

It’s hard for photos to do this trail justice, but we keep trying!  This trail has almost unbelievable vistas, and yet the entire circuit is only a 0.8 mile loop from the nearest parking lot.

Cypress Grove Trail leads you through one of only two wild groves of Monterey cypress trees remaining on Earth. The other being Cypress Point on 17-mile drive. California first began acquiring acreage at Point Lobos State Reserve in order to protect these trees. As you enter the trail, you’ll see a sign stating that the grove is a memorial to Mr. and Mrs. A.M. Allan, the couple who owned and began conserving the land in an effort to preserve its unique beauty.

With its dramatic ocean views and weathered trees covered in fuzzy-looking burnt orange algae, the trail feels otherworldly. The algae growth doesn’t harm the trees, but it does send a signal that this isn’t your everyday forest landscape! Though the loop itself is not long, I encourage you to take it in slowly. We try to explore each little detour that is open to visitors.  

As you can see in the photos, there are a few rocky inclines and many vistas are near steep cliffs. Some advise against bringing young children accordingly. Our kids stay close by us on the trail, so we feel comfortable, but it may not be for every family.  

Getting to the Cypress Trail

This is one of the most popular trails in a very popular park. We like to go on weekday mornings when we can take our time and enjoy some sections of the trail to ourselves. I’m usually there by 8am to grab a spot in the small parking lot near the trailhead.

If you miss out on parking, many people park along Highway 1 and walk in to the Reserve. Just plan for this extra walk to add to your overall trail miles. If you do walk in, turn left onto the Mount Meadow Trail from the main entrance and start on the South Shore Trail first. This is the reverse of what we did on this day, and covers the same ground.

South Shore Trail

View of the Tide Pools, South Shore Trail, Point Lobos Hike
Crab Found in Tide Pools on the South Shore Trail, South Shore Trail, Point Lobos Hike
Tides Coming In, South Shore Trail, Point Lobos Hike
Hidden Beach, South Shore Trail, Point Lobos Hikes

Weston Beach Tide Pools Brochure

South Shore Trail winds south from the Sand Hill Trail, near the Cypress Grove Parking Lot. You can follow it down to Weston Beach, where you’ll find the Reserve’s tide pools. The trail itself offers wonderful ocean views as it hugs the coastline the entire way, but I was most excited to show my kids Weston Beach. Because what kid wouldn’t like to follow their morning in a magical forest with some tide pool adventures??  Apparently, mine! More on that below.

The last time we visited in February, the tide pool area was roped off. Between animal conservation and rough seas, make sure to check the official Point Lobos website to see which trails might be open or closed if you have your heart set on seeing one thing in particular. This time around, I checked the tide chart to make sure we’d be there at low tide so the boys could enjoy some tide pool fun. They were so excited as they ventured onto the rocks, until the tide splashed up just a little too high. Then they freaked out.

My kids really only like looking at the ocean from afar. When we first moved back, a Santa Cruz friend invited us for a beach play date. After JJ got knocked down by a wave, my Virginia boys quickly learned the difference between a river and an ocean and wanted none of it. And, in all honesty, maybe I overreacted to seeing my 3 year old on his back in the water. Let’s just say we haven’t been invited back.

Anyway, for normal families, there is much to explore here, from sea stars to sea anemones to crabs. And you might even spot some migrating whales and dolphins in the distance! Just be aware of the number one rule of tide pooling: never turn your back on the ocean as “sneaker waves” can always catch you off guard.

Perhaps it’s warnings about “sneaker waves” that lead my kids to have this reaction at peaceful Hidden Beach, shown above, which is only revealed at low tide? Hopefully you’re smoother with the safety talks than I am! 

Getting to the South Shore Trail

You can access the South Shore Trail near the Cypress Grove Parking Lot via a short walk on the Sand Hill Trail Loop. You might also want to do this hike in reverse, starting at the Weston Beach tide pools and then walking northwest to the Cypress Grove Trail. There is a small parking lot along the beach area.

You may also want to start at Weston Beach if parking is full and you have to park out on Highway 1. In this case, walk in to the main entrance and take the Mound Meadow trail to the coast. It ends at the South Shore Trail. Explore the tide pools on Weston Beach, and then take the South Shore Trail northwest to Sand Hill Trail, as mentioned above. Make a right on Sand Hill Trail to get to the Cypress Grove Parking Lot and the start of the Cypress Grove Trail. After exploring the cypress trees, you can head back to Highway 1 via the Lace Lichen Trail that cuts through the center of the Reserve.

Other Popular

Point Lobos hikes

You can view a trail map of the full Reserve here. The following are some other popular Point Lobos hikes:

  • Point Lobos Loop Trail (6.7 miles): Starting at the main entrance gate, this loop follows the coast line in a large circuit around the park. You’ll take in many of the park highlights, including Moss Cove, Cannery Point, The Cypress Grove Trail, The South Shore Trail, and Bird Island.
  • South Plateau Trail to Bird Island (1.6 miles): This one is next on my Point Lobos Hike List. Not only am I curious to check out Bird Island, but this trail also passes the gorgeous China Cove and offers access to Gibson Beach.
  • Moss Cove Trail (2.8 miles): In addition to Moss Cove itself, this trail will lead you to  historic and cultural sites such as Ichxenta Point, the site of a village inhabited by native Ohlone people for over 2,500 years, and the Whalers Cabin and Museum which once housed fisherman at the height of the local whaling boom from the 1860’s to 1900.

Activities for Extension and Reflection

Discover Point Lobos App Description from the App Store

As much as we enjoy going to Point Lobos to simply immerse ourselves in its natural beauty, the amazing biodiversity of the area also presents plenty of learning opportunities for the whole family. Luckily, the Point Lobos Foundation and the State Parks Education Team have created plenty of resources to help us better understand our experiences at the Reserve.

  • Observation Checklist which helps your family play scavenger hunt as you spot and identify a range of flora and fauna (including a helpful sketch of Poison Oak!).
  • Coloring Book with information about some of the animals you might encounter.
  • Discover Point Lobos Tablet App for children 7+ (shown above). Free on the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store.
  • Brochure on the History of Whaling in and around Point Lobos.
  • Virtual Programs, live and on demand, taught by California State Park Interpreters.
  • Cell Phone Tour that describes many of the trails and features you may encounter during your visit.
  • Finally, if you can’t make it out for a Point Lobos hike but need a little mental escape, check out Google Trek Point Lobos, which allows you to go on a virtual hike of the Reserve.

Point Lobos hiking Basics

First and foremost, always check the official Point Lobos website before visiting. It will have the latest information on possible closures and how to keep yourself and others safe in the park throughout all seasons. 

  • How much does it cost to get into Point Lobos? Park entrance fees are $10 if you park in the Reserve. There are only 150 spots spread throughout the park, so parking fills up quickly. Visitors who can’t find parking park along Highway 1. There is no charge for walk in visitors. Printed trail maps are also available at the main entrance for $2.
  • When is the best time to visit Point Lobos? The park opens at 8am and closes at sunset. Arrive before 9am or later in the afternoon if you want to park in the Reserve. While a Point Lobos hike is worthwhile all year, visitors should expect more crowds over the summer as well as foggy mornings. Migrating gray whales are visible from the coastline from December through April.
  • Can I bring my dog? Dogs are not allowed inside Point Lobos, with the exception of trained service animals accompanying people who have qualifying disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Do you need reservations to get into Point Lobos? Point Lobos is currently not taking reservations for hiking, though the state is considering implementing a new reservation system to control overcrowding. Entrance is first come, first served only. Permits are only required if you plan to dive, kayak or use the boat launch. 
  • How long should we plan to stay at Point Lobos? We usually allow about 2 hours to walk the Cypress Grove Trail and South Shore Trail with young kids. But I’ve also stayed for over 4 hours with friends. There are many great options for short hikes, and you can piece them together if you’d like to spend a full day at the Reserve.
  • What should we bring to Point Lobos? Be sure to dress in layers, as the weather can be difficult to predict. Summer days are often the foggiest.  There are no restaurants or concessions in the park, so bring your own snacks, lunches, and water. There are some picnic facilities at Piney Woods, Bird Island, and Whalers Cove.

Point Lobos is a special place, and I love the idea of my boys growing up knowing its ins and outs. It’s crazy to think that this magical park is only 50 miles from our home in San Jose!  On this last visit, we got there early, enjoyed some exploring, grabbed coffee on the way home at Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting, and were back home before noon. If you need a mid-week change of scenery, make sure you add Point Lobos to your list!

Do you have a favorite hike in or near Point Lobos? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!

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