Note: (January 2018) This part of Garrapata State Park (west of Hwy 1) is open, but because of the 2016 Soberanes fire, the park remains closed on the east side of Hwy 1. Check here for the latest information about all of the parks and trails along the Big Sur area.
It rained this week. The first serious rain in 10 months around Monterey. Not enough to remedy California’s worst drought since something like the 1500’s, according to the tree rings, but it’s a start. And it looks like winter again too… Overcast skies, rolling clouds and threatening rain.
It was even wetter when we pulled over at gate 9 along Hwy 1 in the Garrapata State Park. The ‘gates’ aren’t real well marked and they’re not really gates at all, so for the record, we drove past the spot where the cars are parked under the big trees on the left, and looked for the first available pull off on the right/oceanside. This puts you right on the Soberanes Point Trail, which is about a 3.8 mile path that circles ‘Whale Peak’ and runs along the cliffs just above the rugged cuts, rocky beaches and ocean swells. You get great views of the endless pounding that the coastline takes from the Pacific rollers.
With Susie’s help I broke out the AF100 (video) and I immediately realized that these overcast and almost rainy skies were making for great conditions to shoot in. The bright highlights and deep shadows that you have to fight on a typical California day around here have given way to an even, diffused light that reveals the complex textures and colors of the rocks that are normally blown away by the blinding sunlight. Usually when the sun is out I bracket every shot 1.5 stops over and 1.5 stops under, and HDR it later. No real need today.
There are short spurs all along the trail that lead out to cliffside vantage points. Each of these reveal still another view of this rugged and dynamic coastline. A feast for the eyes and lens. Of course, most of these locations also present a great opportunity to fall off the cliff and crack your head open on the rocks below. Pay attention to what you’re doing.
In the distance we could hear the seals on the small rock islands just off the shoreline. Right below us in one of the rock cuts we could see an otter in typical form, floating on its back, working on a meal, protected by the sheer rock walls from the pounding surf just yards away.
There are other short paths that lead to beaches below so you can get right to the water’s edge, with massive rock formations offering some protection from the large surf nearby. Other beaches feature these fantastic ‘pebbles’ the size of wine barrels, all smoothed over from centuries of polishing from the unrelenting surf.
A few wildflowers lined the footpath all along the way. With just a little more rain there might be a real explosion of color in the coming months.
We continued walking along as it got colder and it seemed like the surf was building. If you want some real waves-crashing-on-the-rocks shots, be patient. The waves come in sets and just when you think you’ve got a great shot and start to move on, here comes a huge set that just reels up revealing the true fantastic blue color of the water just before it smashes into the rocks.
After about 2 hours it finally did start to rain, just as we were rounding the last rise to return to the trusty Honda. Just as it is when you’re camping, somehow the snack of crackers and salmon tasted just a bit better out here in the fresh sea air with light rain coming down.
I’ve written before that Point Lobos is always our first stop for visitors and it remains the best place for a quick study of the California coastline environment. But having hiked along the Soberanes Point Trail makes that call more difficult. The easy to navigate path is only 20 minutes further down the Hwy 1 and puts you face to face with some of California’s dramatic coastline, ocean sounds and smells, and fresh air, with an endless string of photo ops along it’s entire length.
Kid Factor: (+) Great California coastline experience, easy hiking, some surf-protected beach access, wildlife. (-) Cliffs, poison oak, ticks.
Photo Factor: (+) Classic California coast shots, plants and wildlife. Bring all of your lenses. I found myself switching from telephoto to macro almost every other step. A tripod is handy if you want to take longer exposures of the surf. Overcast day is no reason to stay away as it cuts down on the struggle with highlights and shadows. Can be foggy most of the summer, but that’s a major part of the landscape too. (-) If it’s wet, cliffs can be slippery. We ended up with a few ticks when we got back to the car, even though we stayed on the trail. If it’s blowing be thinking about the salt air and bring something to clean your lenses. Remember to wipe your gear off later. Having lived along the coast in Florida for years I know that salt air and aluminum don’t get along too well, especially after a few months.
Fitness Factor: Easy to moderate trails with (according to my gps) about a 300 foot change in elevation. You’re never too far from the car on this hike. Some larger stairsteps.
Also: As with any trip just about anywhere in California, bring some extra clothing. Think layering. If it gets too warm, peel it off. But if it gets cold, you’ll be glad you have it nearby.
View Soberanes Point Garrapata SP in a larger map