Whalers Knoll
Big Dome
Sand Hill
Whale Peak

Thu, Mar 31, 2011
Etymology
Whalers Knoll
Big Dome
Sand Hill
Whale Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2
Whale Peak later climbed Sat, Feb 1, 2014

I'd been to Point Lobos once before, stopping by for maybe an hour on a drive along the coast. For years I've been wanting to spend more time exploring this beautiful coastal area, not just because it has five minor, named summits, but because it is reported to be one of the most scenic areas on the Pacific Coast. Late March brought unusually warm temperatures to the Bay Area following weeks of rain, and with a forecast of 82F in San Jose, it seemed as good an opportunity as any for a day on the coast. There was no fog forecast anywhere in the area and it turned out to be a wonderful day.

It was a leisurely start from San Jose, as I did not take off until the family had left for school just before 7:30a. Heading out of town against the usual rush-hour traffic, I had none of the headaches associated with the commute direction. I parked outside the entrance ($10 fee for limited parking spaces inside the reserve) and walked into the preserve. There is a trail map at an information kiosk near the pay station, as well as a few others placed around the park. I studied this enough in a few minutes to navigate my way the rest of the time I was there.

In all I spent almost three hours walking about five miles of trails, which covered perhaps 80% of the trails available - the reserve is not all that big, but it packs a great deal of scenery into a small space. The north shores are the most rugged with dramatic cliffs and isolated rocks pounded by the surf. The western shores do not have as steep a profile though still dramatic. There is access to the water on this side near Devils Cauldron. The long southwest shoreline has a number of secluded beaches and coves with access available to several of these.

I first visited the north shore, taking the Carmelo Meadow Trail to Whalers Cove. There is a museum located on the west end of the cove, though it was closed during my visit. Outside is an assortment of whale bones from several specimens and a collection of large, castiron pots once used to reduce whale blubber to oil. Climbing some stairs to Cannery Point, I followed the North Shore Trail to a junction with the aptly named Whalers Knoll Trail, my first stop. None of the summits in the reserve are very high, this one the second highest at 240ft. The trail winds its way up and over the top, though it does not reach to the highest point. Normally I would have made a short sidetrip to visit the summit, but Point Lobos has an absurd amount of poison oak, the greatest density of the stuff I have seen in my life - and that's no small quantity. It would suffice to get within about 30ft of the highpoint. Though Whalers Knoll was once used as a lookout, it would serve that purpose poorly today. Trees, brush, and vines grow in a tangled mess over most of it and one has to search out the nooks for any sort of view. To the north of the summit, just before the trail heads downhill, there is a bench overlooking Big Dome and Monterey Bay in that direction.

Down the north side trail, I made my way towards Big Dome, my second stop and the highest point in Point Lobos at 260ft. This is the only real summit of any note, an impressively rocky outcrop jutting into Monterey Bay mostly covered in trees and underbrush. There is no trail leading to its summit, but I found a discouraged use trail starting where the North Shore Trail passes closest to Big Dome. To avoid the ubiquitous poison oak, it was necessary to dance carefully and ever so slowly along the path that led up the east side, diagonally rising towards the summit on the north end. It was the most interesting summit of the day, enjoyable for the both the scrambling and the fine views to Carmel and Monterey Bay to the east and north, as well as North Point to the west.

After returning to the North Shore Trail, I made my way west the Cypress grove at North Point. I followed a side trail to an overlook and then a second use trail that lead out to a rocky pinnacle at the tip of North Point, also with dramatic views. There is a second, more impressive point (simply called, "The Pinnacle") at the northwest tip of the reserve that I did not visit as it appeared to be a much more daunting (that is, dangerous) undertaking. I circled the Allan Memorial Grove and followed the Cypress Grove Trail out to a parking lot near Sand Hill, my third summit stop.

A trail neatly circles the low-topped summit of Sand Hill, but does not reach its highpoint. As the name implies, there is much sand interspersed with low shrubs on this wind-swept point on the west shore. As a summit it's mostly a disappointment, rather flat with little elevation profile. I next followed the South Shore Trail southwest along that side of the reserve towards the southern end of the park at Bird Island and Pelican Point. There were several artists at various positions around Pelican Point painting the colorful scenery. There is a large field of poppies located on the point adding bright orange color to the ocean scenes. China Cove has a steep staircase reaching down to a secluded beach on one side of Pelican Point, with a wider, sandier beach on the other side of the narrow neck that connects the point to the mainland.

The last two summits are along the South Plateau Trail that leads north back towards the entrance, Vierras Knoll and Rat Hill. One would never recognize either as a summit except from the perusal of a map as neither offers much relief nor views. Once again the trail does not lead over the summits, this time at a greater distance of perhaps 100-200ft. Though I looked for a way to reach one or both, I gave up without ever leaving the trail - there is simply too much poison oak in the area to wade through, a great deal of certain torture for nebulous gain.

Back at Highway 1, I got in my car and headed south for Garrapata State Park as it was still relatively early in the day, not even noon. There is an easy summit called Whale Peak just off the ocean side of the highway in the state park. It took of all about three minutes to hike the use trail to the summit, but the views along the coast both north and south were quite impressive (the northernmost of two points is the obvious highpoint). I also hiked the short, one-mile trail along the cliffs around the base of Whale Peak, and made an excursion out to the surf-swept rocks further west. I found a 1932 benchmark labeled "SOBERANES" (for Soberanes Point) alongsides the trail, encased in a concrete block. Though not as grand as Point Lobos, this was a very scenic and worthwhile visit as well. I was done by 12:30p and back home in San Jose by 2p. Most folks in the Bay Area don't consider Big Sur as a day trip, but compared to some of the longer drives I've done in a day, it was immensely pleasant. Driving a convertible on the sunny ride back was rather pleasant as well...


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