Where cliff and surf collide

High tide and high winds churn the sea floor beneath the Pinnacle, viewed from Cypress Grove Trail.

There’s no scene here that fails to take your breath away. Tendrils of fog drift through stands of pine and dissolve over coves cut steeply in granite. Squadrons of pelicans sweep low over rock castles battered jagged by eons of sea. On the lee sides of cypress limbs, rust-orange algae cling like frost. Sea lions bray from their island citadels and sea otters float on their backs in carpets of kelp. And accompanying every image and every scent is the thunder of water breaking against rock. Welcome to Point Lobos.

In the long, narrow display case of the California coastline, Point Lobos State Reserve is the jewel that glistens like no other. Nestled between Carmel and Big Sur off Highway 1, Point Lobos State Reserve occupies only 1,300 acres of coastland. But they are 1,300 acres of concentrated beauty.

Point Lobos is both monumental and intimate. Whether your tastes gravitate to whales or wildflowers, the cracking of cliff against surf or the silence of grazing deer, whether you spend a weekend or an afternoon, the images, the scents, the galvanizing salt breezes here will be impossible to forget.

The state takes the fragile beauty of the reserve seriously. Entrance into the park is limited to 450 visitors at a time, not only to reduce wear and tear on the ecosystem but to provide a measure of solitude in this inspirational environment.

The reserve is named after its Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where you’re serenaded by choirs of sea lions perched on an archipelago of rocks. If you want to come straight to the point, take the entrance road straight ahead and park at Sea Lion Point.

The Monterey Cypress known as Old Veteran clings to the granite of Cypress Cove’s east wall in defiance of the wear and tear of wind, rain and gravity.

From here you can get a good view – and earful – of Point Lobos’ stellar attractions: the harbor seal and California sea lion. The smaller and more plentiful harbor seal is a year-round resident of the reserve, while the adult male sea lion – some measuring 8 feet and weighing 800 pounds – leaves Point Lobos in June and July to cruise for chicks in the Channel Islands off Southern California.

If you’re out for a scenic hike with a dramatic arc, Whalers Cove at Cannery Point is a good spot to park. Take your first right past the entrance kiosk. Along North Shore Trail, beginning at Whalers Cove, you can experience Point Lobos in a gradual crescendo of grandeur. You’ll see the ocean foam over the brown rocks of Cannery Point and follow pelicans carving a graceful glide around Guillemot Island.

Hop onto a side trail at Cypress Cove and behold the poignant dignity of Old Veteran, a Monterey Cypress that epitomizes the struggle for survival in this rugged environment, defying the force of wind, gravity and erosion. Anchored onto the edge of Cypress Cove’s east wall, Old Veteran’s roots dangle precariously over the ocean and its branches support banks of foliage that hover like clouds.

When you come to Cypress Grove Trail, hang a right and take the loop around Allan Memorial Grove, where the trail escorts you past a vignette of The Pinnacle, a mini-mountain jutting from the ocean floor. Cypress Grove Trail climaxes at Headland Cove, where all the reserve’s virtues converge: wave and rock, cliff and forest, bird, mammal and fish, and the ocean’s unfathomable span.

Beach Aster, South Shore Trail.

At Headland Cove you’ve reached the reserve’s midpoint. There are many more wonders to savor, both inland along the South Plateau and Mound Meadow trails, and at the sea’s swelling edge on the South Shore and Bird Island trails. If the sea is in a theatrical mood, head down to a peninsula of rock called The Slot, where the Pacific becomes a paragon of physics: gathering itself, cresting and striking with optimal force. Water becomes thunder; blue-green erupts in geysers of glinting white.

A word of caution about The Slot: observe the swelling and slamming of the sea from a safe distance. Let The Slot bear the brunt of breakers. Come too close and, in the most lethal sense of the phrase, you’ll “get carried away.”

Beneath the surface of the Pacific a mile north of the point, the bottom of Carmel Bay drops a thousand feet down. In another five miles the Monterey Canyon plummets to a depth of 7,000 feet. The result: over half of Point Lobos is under water. A full 750 acres of the reserve is devoted to divers, who take advantage of the reserve’s proximity to deep water and the phenomenal variety of creatures it affords. At Whalers Cove, adventurers in wetsuits plunge into 70-foot high kelp forests where southern sea otters play and rockfish weave in and out of view. Harbor seals and California sea lions are plentiful here. From the scale of the tiny to the colossal, from iridescent phytoplankton to gray whales on their migration routes, the world under the water’s surface is one of the chief attractions of this place.

A walk through Point Lobos is an exercise in time travel. Two types of rock inhabit its foundation. The Carmello Formation, a sedimentary rock at least 55 million years old, dominates the terrain of Sea Lion Point, Whalers and Moss coves and the south shore. In some places it's twisted into such bizarre and lurid shapes you’ll swear you’re walking on another planet. The other dominant rock, Santa Lucia granite, forms the craggy majesty of Point Lobos’ famed north shore and Hidden Beach. The granite solidified some 80 million years ago.

The Pacific Ocean unleashes its fury at Sand Hill Cove, which pits overeager photographers against lethal plumes of seawater.

But rock and seawater aren’t the only treasures of Point Lobos. The reserve is one of three places on the coast where the Monterey pine grows naturally. Without the fog drip provided by the Point Lobos’ microclimate, the tree wouldn’t survive the area’s dry summers. The other tree for which the reserve is famous is the Monterey cypress. Its gnarled roots cling fiercely to sheer walls of granite along Point Lobos’ many coves. The rust-colored substance glazing much of the coastal foliage is, ironically, green algae turned orange by carotene pigment. Wildflower aficionados will enjoy the spectrum spanned by Point Lobos’ delicate petals, from blue blossom to the amber of sticky monkeyflower to the lavender tones of beach aster.

We Californians are blessed with an abundance of natural wonders. We’re also blessed with striking-distance proximity to the quintessence of coastal splendor. When our spirits sense the call of the sea, we know it’s time to get to the Point.

For more information, visit www.pointlobos.org.