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Big Sur Attractions: Tips for Navigating Through State Parks

Low Tide. Pacific Ocean. Point Lobos Natural Reserve near Carmel, CA. Photo by Bee Lee.

Big Sur is an amazing place where the ocean meets land. It has the iconic cliff drops and blue ocean that people commonly post about when they mention their trip to the California coast. Also it is an easier drive in the Central Coast than the North Coast for a similar view.

Currently Big Sur is closed from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (Monterey County) to Ragged Point (San Luis Obispo County) on California Highway 1 for construction on the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. The only way to get from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Ragged Point (or vise versa) is to drive 4 hours around the Coastal Range.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Ragged Point, CA

Google Map directions from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Ragged Point. Image retrieved on 04/23/2017 from Google Map.

Even though Highway 1 is partially closed, parts of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve was flooded, and the eastern half of Garapatta State Park was closed, it was still a great day trip. There are lots of mosquitoes at Point Lobos, hiding on the trails tucked in the pines.

Our day trip:

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Carmel, CA (lunch)

Cannery Row in Monterey, CA

Garapatta State Beach

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has a small parking lot of 150 spaces and it fills up quickly. Usually by 9:00 A.M. there's already a line and the park may be full. It is $10 per vehicle to enter the park. No motor home or trailer allowed inside the park. There is no parking 100 yards near the park on the park side. There is public parking off of Highway 1 on the opposite side facing the park but it is dangerous. You will have to cross the highway as a pedestrian and return onto the highway with your vehicle-- which both may seem simple enough until you take into account the winding road, fast cars, and blind spots. It is free to walk in.

TIP: Obtaining a Map of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

There are three ways to get a copy of the map for this park; (1) pay $2 at the front for a physical copy of the map, (2) take a picture of the map posted by the front, or (3) go on Yelp and save a copy of the map posted by other visitors to your phone. This post is not endorsed by Yelp but often times it is the best resource to network and research based on real-life experience from people in a similar situation. I personally don't care to use a map because all trials loop around, there's three major parking areas, and all roads lead back to a parking area (but I also have a handheld GPS unit with a topograph, tracker, and parking marker in case if I get lost).

Point Lobos, continued...

There are 2 park staff inside the kiosk; one of them takes your money and gives you two pieces of paper (the quick and dirty version of the park rules), and the other person just stands there and does absolutely nothing. Every time I've come here, there's always two people at the kiosk and one of them is doing absolutely nothing-- he/she does not greet the visitors, say goodbye, offer information, or assist in any way, shape or form. Therefore, I've come to the conclusion that the second person in the kiosk must have been assigned the duty to stand around and do absolutely nothing.

TIP: Navigating the State Park Discount and Pass System

Read this before you ask park employees about discounts! There is no military discount at any State Park! If you went to Iraq or Afghanistan and continued serving your country, you will not receive a discount. If you received a Purple Heart (and have it in hand), no discount. If you are active duty in the military, no discount. There is no government, military, or professional discount.

Below is a list of discount offered from California State Parks. All discount is valid with day-use only EXCEPT if there's "disabled" in the name of the pass.

  • Disabled Veteran. Free day-use and camping for life. Must be a veteran and disabled with medical documentation. Application required; free application.

  • Senior Discount. $1 off day-use fee. No application. Show proof of valid ID.

  • Golden Bear Pass. Free day-use for one calendar year e.g. Jan. 1 or now until Dec. 31. Must be on welfare. Application required; $5 per application.

  • Disabled Discount. 1/2 off day-use or camping fee for life. Must be disabled with medical documentation. Application required; $3.50 per application.

If you don't fall into any one of those categories, they'll offer to sell you a pass. The pass is good if you plan to visit a State Park 15+ days, but most people don't so paying a single day-use fee saves more money. Below is a list of passes and the current prices on them. The prices increase every year and they're only good for one year e.g. April 2017 to April 2018.

  • California Explorer Pass. Annual day-use only. $195.

  • Golden Poppy Pass. Annual day-use only with restrictions to popular parks. $125.

  • Tahoe Regional Vehicle Day-Use Annual Pass. $75.

  • Boat Use Annual Pass. $100.

  • Historian Passport Day-Use Admission Annual Pass. $50.

  • Off-Highway Vehicle Day-Use Annual Pass. $50.

There's a pattern with California State Parks that is similar to the United States Forest Service-- let's make money anywhere we can. Want to collect a pine cone in the forest? There's a collecting permit for that. What to collect rocks in the forest? There's a collecting permit for that. With California State Parks: want to visit a park? There's a fee for that. Want to ride your boat inside the park? You can only go to a certain designated area of a designated park just for boats and there's a fee for that.

Point Lobos, continued...

Plan at least 3 hours just to hike one loop, walk along the coast, and enjoy the beaches. The water is too cold to swim in unless you have a scuba suit. If you have a California certification to dive or scuba dive, there's a fee to dive and you have to bring your own gear.

Carmel, CA

The food is not that great for the price you pay but it has a cozy atmosphere. I have not found a place I would recommend yet. My favorite activity in Carmel is to grab a bite to eat and sit outside. For me, there is no difference between a meal from Subway or Portabella. They're equally as pricey for the quality of food.

Cannery Row in Monterey, CA

Cannery Row was about 20 minutes from Carmel and it is a must-see, must-do, all-monkeys-aboard kind of activity. Any one and every one who has ever stopped in Monterey has stopped in Cannery Row for one reason or another, whether it was for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the free observation decks from the Aquarium, the tide pools near the Aquarium, Bubba Gum's seafood restaurant, souvenirs and trinkets of Monterey, or to find a nice shaded public parking spot to Old Town Monterey and city beaches. All beaches around here are free which makes finding parking difficult.

There's a beach for everything withing walking distance of Cannery Row; a beach to sleep at, a beach to look at wildlife, a beach to look at tide pools, a beach for birds, a beach for seals, a beach to barbecue, a beach to observe homeless people, a beach to drink at, a beach to smoke at, a beach for every need.

Garapatta State Beach

This is the last beach on the furthest south stretch of Highway 1 in Monterey County you can go until you get to the construction area. There's no fee. Parking is off of Highway 1. There's no signs to Garapatta State Beach from the highway. The sand is white and very fine like most beaches. There's not much I found unique about Garapatta State Beach except for all the drift wood.

Unfortunately the east side of Garapatta State Park is closed at the moment. It has several hiking trials that leads to hilltops overlooking the ocean. I can't wait for it to open up so I can hike to a vantage point overlooking the beach.

Photos by Bee Lee.

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