Point Lobos, California China Cove

12 Best Things To Do In Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California

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Looking for things to do in the Point Lobos Natural Reserve?

Look no  further! There are plenty of wonderful things to do in Point Lobos for the whole family or for a couple looking for a romantic getaway weekend. Here’s your ultimate guide to all the things to do in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is considered a crown jewel of the Central California coast park system. It is just 2 hours south of San Francisco and has everything you could ever want in a nature area with its windswept views, emerald green waters, and exciting wildlife.

Overlook in Point Lobos
Point Lobos Trail

Visit Point Lobos to see seals, otters, migrating whales and flocks and flocks of birds!

Point Lobos is extremely popular among scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts and it’s also just a great place to take a leisurely stroll by the stunning California coast.

Carmel Beach
17 Mile Drive Carmel

12 Fun Things to do in
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve 

1. Point Lobos Hiking Trails

There are 16 hiking trails at Point Lobos. These aren’t strenuous hikes, more like nature walks along the coast, with easy, well groomed, accessible trails. 

My favorite trails to start your visit:

  • Bird Island Trail Loop – Probably the most popular trail, because it’s an easy 0.8 mile loop that leads you past some of the highlights of the reserve. It takes you by the magical China Cove and its emerald water, to Gibson Beach, to Pelican Point, and then to the Bird Island Overlook.


  • The Cypress Grove Trail – Another very popular trail that is only 0.8 mile loop to the highest point of the reserve known as Big Dome where the famous Monterey Cypress trees grow. You will also come to the South Point of the park which has the best viewing of the Gray Whales during their migration.

Some other top choices:

  • The Point Lobos Loop –  This is the longer trail for 7.5 miles along the coast.
  • The South Shore Trail –  This is a 2 mile trail along rocky cliffs and by the tide pools.
  • Sea Lion Point Trail –  This is a 0.6 mile loop to see the sea lions and some of the best ocean views.

2. Enjoy Point Lobos Whale Watching 

Certainly one of the best things to do in Point Lobos is to whale watch without leaving dry land! 

From many of the spots overlooking the Monterey Bay, Gray Whales can be seen migrating from December through April. Try the Sea Lion Point lookout for some good whale migration watching.

You might even see Orcas, the killer whales, during April and May. 

And the Humpback whales usually travel through the region between May and December. 

Whale watching is a big draw attraction in Point Lobos, but remember it’s never a guaranteed thing. Don’t be too disappointed if you don’t see whales during your visit. Just keep going back until you do!

Point Lobos China Cove

3. Enjoy China Cove

China Cove is probably the most alarmingly beautiful spot in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The striking emerald green color of the water is absolutely breathtaking. 

China Cove is one of the sandy strips of beach at Point Lobos where you can sit, relax, and take a swim.

Swimming and laying on the beach is allowed as long as it’s not baby seal pup season.

The staircase and beach access will be closed during the seal puppy season. But you’ll be able to see some moms and their babies from up above.

How do I get to China Cove?

China Cove is along the Bird Island Trail that is accessed by driving to the very end of the park road. Park the car and walk to the trailhead. When you get to China Cove, you’ll find a set of stairs leading you down to the sandy white beach.

Why is the water so green in this cove? 

Apparently it’s because of how the water absorbs the sunlight at the red end of the color spectrum. When there are particles in the water, rather than looking like clear water, it makes the water appear green instead of blue.

4. Bird Watching at Point Lobos

Even if you’re not an avid bird watcher, you’ll find hundreds of fascinating birds at Point Lobos, particularly in the Spring and Summer.  

Take a walk to the rocky outcrop of Bird Island at Point Lobos and watch the bird activities of beauties such as cormorants, seagulls, herons, egrets, hummingbirds, hawks, and many more. You might even see baby chicks during the hatching seasons in the Spring.

Look for the park docents who will sometimes have their big microscopes out for viewing the birds.

Things To Do In Point Lobos

5. Enjoy the Tide Pools at Point Lobos

Go exploring at low tide and look for fish, sea urchins, sea anemones, mussels, snails, and seaweed at the tidepools of the Point Lobos Reserve. 

All these creatures hang on to the rocks as the waves come and go and you can watch them in their natural environment as the tide goes out.

You’ll find tidepools on either the south shore of Point Lobos in the rocky area called Carmelo Formation, or on the north shore of the park at Moss Cove

Important Reminder: Don’t touch or move anything you see in the tide pools!

6. The Whalers Cabin Museum

As you arrive at Point Lobos and turn to your right you’ll come to the Whalers Cabin Museum. This historic building is the oldest structure in the Monterey Peninsula built by Chinese immigrant fisherman in the 1850’s.

This shack is along the Whaler’s Bay and Carmel Bay and was once the home of whalers in this old fishing village. Archeologists have found evidence of whale bones (cetacean bones) and know that Chinese and Portuguese fisherman lived and worked there.

The cabin was turned into a museum in the 1980’s and displays whaling tools, like harpoons and other weapons used to hunt the whales used for their blubber, skin, and teeth.

As you arrive at Point Lobos and turn to your right you’ll come to the Whalers Cabin Museum. This historic building is the oldest structure in the Monterey Peninsula built by Chinese immigrant fisherman in the 1850’s.

This shack is along the Whaler’s Bay and Carmel Bay and was once the home of whalers in this old fishing village. Archeologists have found evidence of whale bones (cetacean bones) and know that Chinese and Portuguese fisherman lived and worked there.

The cabin was turned into a museum in the 1980’s and displays whaling tools, like harpoons and other weapons used to hunt the whales used for their blubber, skin, and teeth.

Point Lobos
Carmel Beach

7. Can you swim near Point Lobos? Yes, at Gibson Beach.

Gibson Beach is on the south end of the Point Lobos park and is one of the best white sandy beaches in the reserve. This stretch of beach is about a quarter mile long and is tucked down below the rocks. This quiet spot is well worth the effort to get there.

You’re allowed to swim at Gibson Beach, but might want to just wade in the water, given the chilly temps! While the water will be cold, the views will be incredible and you might see seals and otters swimming in the nearby kelp forest.

Take the Bird Island Trail, pass China Cove, and you’ll land at Gibson Beach.

8. Visit Monastery Beach, “The most dangerous beach in California!”

The eight beaches in the Point Lobos Natural Reserve are tucked in the coves along the coast. They’re ideal for things like tidepool exploring, whale watching, sea lion habitats, and bird watching, but not all are the kind of beaches to lay out on and go swimming.

The closest beach to Point Lobos to lay on the sand and enjoy ocean views is Monastery Beach on Highway 1 near Carmel at 27952 California 1. This beach is a beautiful spot across from the Carmelite Monastery Mission, home of the Nuns of Carmel.

Swimming is not allowed at Monastery Beach, and in fact, the beach carries the nickname of “Mortuary Beach” because of its intense undertow which is notorious for dragging swimmers out to their death.

This beach, also called San Jose Creek Beach, is sometimes referred to as “the most dangerous beach in California.”

Enjoy the sun and sand, but stay out of the water!

At the north end of Monastery Beach you can find a trailhead that will take you to the Carmel Meadows and Carmel River beaches.

These beaches are also No Swimming beaches because of the dangerous undertow.

Point Lobos

9. Can you get in the water at Point Lobos? Try Snorkeling & Scuba Diving at Point Lobos

If you are a diver, then you know that Monterey Bay is a THE preferred diving spot on the California coast.

Point Lobos has one of the most varied marine life sanctuaries in the world. The kelp forests and great water temperature make Point Lobos a diver’s heaven.

The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve limits the snorkeling, diving, kayak, and vessel launch reservations to 10 teams of two people per team, per day. 

Please note that there are many wildlife species like birds, seals, otters, and whales, which might get  frightened if you get too close. Be super cautious and change your direction if they notice you.

Make the reservations online in advance on the park’s website.

The fees for diving activities are:

  • Weekend – Holiday Diving/ Snorkeling Reservation = $30+ Processing Fee
  • Weekday Diving/ Snorkeling with Reservation = $20+ Processing Fee
  • Kayaking/ Stand-Up Paddleboard Launch Fee = $10 per Vessel
  • Hand Launchable Boat Launch Fee = $25 per Boat
  • Vehicle Parking Fee =$10 per car

10. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Wanna see fish close up? Just a few miles north of Point Lobos and Carmel is the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row. The aquarium is the renowned home for marine life in the Monterey Bay. 

The famous aquarium highlights the marine world of the Monterey Bay. See all kinds of fish, sea otters, life in the kelp forest, cute penguins, swimming sharks, beautiful coral, and an underwater peek into ocean life.

This is a great museum for keeping everyone happy for hours.


11. Cannery Row

Head to Monterey for some shopping and dining along the water. Old Monterey and Cannery Row are the quaint areas of Monterey near the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The famous cannery was opened in 1902 and is now Cannery Row – a popular tourist attraction.

Enjoy chowder and fish and chips, buy souvenirs, and sip some wine by the water.

The famous novels by John Steinbeck, published in the 1940’s were inspired by the area and the old tin can factories in this historic fishing village.

12. Visit the Iconic Bixby Canyon Bridge

Travel just a short distance south of Point Lobos to The Bixby Canyon Bridge. This bridge is known as one of the most picturesque spots along the California coastline. The bridge blends into the landscape, making it a stunning expression of California beauty.

Cue up the Big Little Lies TV series theme song as you drive across. This is the bridge from the opening sequence of the show. 

The unusual design and interesting history of the Bixby Bridge add to its popularity. It was built in 1932 to help residents in Big Sur have access during winter rainy months. The coastal road used to flood, making it impassable which cut off residents from the rest of the county.

Park at the viewing parking lot on the northside of the bridge at the west side of Highway 1. Be patient, it’s a very busy tourist spot!

Bixby Canyon Bridge

When is the best time to visit
Point Lobos State Reserve?

The Fall or Spring will have the most mild weather. You might see Humpback Whales traveling between May and December or Orca Whales migrating between April and May. 

The summer is gorgeous, but will certainly be more crowded, but no less breathtaking!

The winter months might be damp and crisp, which can also be very beautiful. You might see the Gray Whales migrating between December and April.

How Far is Point Lobos from

Point Lobos is just a 10 minute drive south on Highway 1 from the charming Carmel-By-The-Sea on the northern end of Big Sur. 

Carmel’s pristine beach, fairytale cottages, great shopping, and fabulous food and wine are the perfect compliment to the Point Lobos park. 

Visiting Carmel-By-The-Sea and Point Lobos together will offer you soft white sandy beaches, rocky coastlines, Cypress trees, and a place to relax and soak in the gorgeous Northern California Pacific coastline.

If you drive down Highway 1 on the California coast, you’ll pass some of the most beautiful spots in all of Northern California.

  • Monterey to Carmel By The Sea is about a 4 mile, or 10 minute trip.
  • Carmel By The Sea to Point Lobos is another 4 miles down the coast.
  • Big Sur is another 20 miles south of Point Lobos.
Tradewinds Carmel
Monterey Mural Wall
Mission Ranch Inn

Where To Stay Near Point Lobos

There are plenty of places to stay in Carmel-By-The-Sea and Monterey. Both towns have so much to see and do, you can’t go wrong in either spot.

Here are places I have stayed at and can personally recommend.


Best Fairytale Charm: Normandy Inn 

The Normandy Inn is an historic property located very close to the beach in Carmel-By-The-Sea. I love the vintage cottages and cozy fireplaces. Perfect for a day after hiking in Point Lobos or swimming at the beach. Prices start at $279 p/night.

Best Asian Inspired Boutique: Tradewinds Carmel

The Tradewinds is designed with Japanese and Balinese decor and offers a tranquil experience just off of Ocean Ave in Carmel. Delicious breakfast brought to your room and luxurious amenities. Prices start at $433 p/night.

Best Luxury Spot In Carmel: La Playa

This is a beautifully restored property one block from the beach with plenty of rooms with views. Enjoy the afternoon wine and evening cookies by the fireplace. The champagne brunch on the patio overlooking the ocean is amazing. The gardens and spa amenities add to the luxury experience. Prices start at $529 p/night.

The Best Places To Eat Near Point Lobos

I visit the Carmel area frequently enough, that I have found some great restaurants to keep returning to! Here are some of my favs.

The Mission Ranch and Inn –– The Mission Ranch Restaurant is owned by the former mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood. It’s one of my favorite places to eat in Carmel. The room overlooks the ocean bluff with sheep grazing in the field. If you sit outside you can hear the ocean waves and watch the sunset. It’s a true fine dining experience for a reasonable price. Enjoy the delicious classic American cuisine in a beautiful atmosphere.

Catch – This is Carmel’s Fish House right on Ocean Ave. I love the complimentary serving of caviar and champagne paired with the sustainable seafood dishes and local fresh vegetables.

The Forge and The Forest –– We’ve been dining at The Forge and The Forest for over 30 years. We love sitting outside by the fireplace for Bloody Mary’s and a snack. 

The Tree House Cafe – The Tree House Cafe offers Mediterranean cuisine in a relaxed spot with outdoor dining overlooking the downtown. It’s really reasonably priced and you can’t beat the atmosphere and location.

Mission Ranch dinner
Mission Ranch
champagne and caviar

Parking Tips For Visiting Point Lobos

~ Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is open from 8AM to 5PM with the last entry allowed at 4:30 PM.

~ Point Lobos parking is available for 75 vehicles in the park for a $10 fee per car ($9 for seniors). There are $5 spots for those with disabilities and even a few wheelchairs for loan.

~ When the lot is full, you can park along the shoulder of Highway 1 and walk into the park.

~ ARRIVE EARLY to get a parking spot. This is a very popular park, especially during the summer.

~ Bathroom facilities are at the parking lot area.

~ Find super helpful rangers, guide maps, and binoculars at the parking lot.

All the No’s!

  • No Dogs allowed on the trails.
  • No Bikes on trails.
  • No Collecting.
  • No Skateboards.
  • No Smoking or Fires.
  • No Alcohol.
  • No Camping.
  • No Drones.

Some Fun Facts about Point Lobos

~ Sea lions are brown marine mammals called pinnipeds, have loud barks, “walk” on land using their large flippers, and have ear flaps.

~ Seals are also pinnipeds but have smaller flippers, wiggle on land, and you can’t see their ear flaps.

~ Point Lobos was one of Ansel Adams’ most frequently photographed places along the iconic Northern California coastline.

~ This area is also known as Isxhenta, a sacred Native American region.

~ The Point Lobos area is also known for  previously having a granite quarry. The granite from this quarry is said to have supplied the stones for the San Francisco Mint.

~ Point Lobos is just over 1 hour away from the majestic Pinnacles National Park!

Carmel Beach

Do the Things To Do In Point Lobos make it worth a visit? Absolutley!

In a nutshell…

Point Lobos is by far one of the most glorious of the California State Parks.  Just 3 miles south of Carmel-By-The-Sea, in the Monterey Bay, the ocean views, hiking trails, vegetation, and wildlife offer spectacular treats all year long. What you’ll love most is how easy it is to access the park and how family friendly it is.



Hi There! I’m Carrie.

Carrie Green-Zinn Bio Page

I’m a native New Englander, turned New Yorker, turned California girl! Following a dance career, working as a dance therapist, and being a school psychologist, I’m now ready to share my passion for photography and travel with you! I absolutely love seeing the world with my family and friends. I know you feel the same! Let’s go! 

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