Point Lobos, ‘Crown Jewel’ of State Parks, to Require Reservations

2 min
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, south of Carmel, is planning to establish a reservation system because overcrowding is threatening the reserve. (Erika Mahoney/KAZU)

Point Lobos is preparing to be the first day-use California State Park to roll out a reservation system. Known for its picturesque hiking trails that hug the coastline, Point Lobos has long been called the "crown jewel" of the park system.

But visitors are loving it to death.

Wearing a full-brimmed khaki hat, Jim Coffin unravels a map of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The reserve is just south of Carmel. On this day, the Carmel local is playing tour guide.

“We have some friends from Denver, and we're showing them the park,” Coffin says.

They head down a trail that weaves between Monterey Cypress trees, traces coastal bluffs and opens up to Whaler’s Cove. Coffin says it’s a must-see for his all of his out-of-town friends. He also says it’s a must they visit during the week.

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“Because the weekdays are quite a bit less crowded,” he says.

More than 600,000 people visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve each year.
More than 600,000 people visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve each year. (Erika Mahoney/KAZU)

A busy summer weekend can bring in 6,000 people, far more than what was envisioned decades ago. The state designated Point Lobos as a Natural Reserve in the mid-1930s. That means its unique qualities of land meeting sea garner extra environmental protection for its plants and wildlife.

But too many people threaten the ecosystem.

California State Parks’ Sean James oversees public safety and public use for the Monterey District’s state parks.

“The more people walking on the trails, the more they're running into each other, the more they kind of walk off trail to get around each other, which damages the side of the trails and causes future erosion spots,” James says.

He says too many people can also damage the park’s tide pools and overtax its restroom facilities.

To better manage the crowds, California State Parks is planning to require reservations. It would likely be an online system. A pilot could roll out as early as next summer along with a shuttle to bring visitors into the park. Offsite parking for the shuttle may be located in the field at Rio Road and Highway 1.

James says the goal of the reservation system is to reduce visitations during peak times, like weekends and holidays, and spread them out to weekdays.

As it is now, visitors compete for the park’s 150 parking spots. Even on weekdays, those lots can fill up by 10 a.m. So, visitors end up parking outside the reserve along busy Highway 1.

Cars line up to get into Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Visitors compete for 150 parking spots forcing many to park dangerously along Highway 1.
Cars line up to get into Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Visitors compete for 150 parking spots forcing many to park dangerously along Highway 1. (Erika Mahoney/KAZU)

“We've seen people push strollers across the highway. We've seen some older folks trying to get across the highway quickly. And with vehicles coming at usually high rates of speed, it just creates a very unsafe dynamic,” James says.

In the long-run, requiring reservations will do three things, according to James: protect the reserve, increase public safety and create a better experience for visitors.

“We want the experience when they get here to be the experience that they've envisioned as opposed to the experience that you'd expect if you were going to buy a ticket to Disneyland, right? You'd expect it to be crowded and big long lines. That's not the experience we want at Point Lobos,” James says.

But park visitor Mike Valera is not sold on the idea of a reservation system. During their trip to Monterey, he and his wife decided to come out to Point Lobos on a whim.

“You know, coming up here in the spur of the moment type of thing, I wouldn't be real excited if I drive up and, ‘Sorry we're closed, you needed to make a reservation,' ” Valera says.

Barbara Barnhart, visiting from Colorado with her sister, agrees.

“It would have been really hard if we drove up and we couldn’t get in. That would have been really disappointing,” Barnhart says.

One of the biggest challenges California State Parks will face is getting the word out about the reservation system. That includes getting it out worldwide since Point Lobos draws international crowds.

A family from Texas hikes through Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. One of the park's main jobs will be publicizing the new reservation rule as the park attracts visitors from around the world.
A family from Texas hikes through Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. One of the park's main jobs will be publicizing the new reservation rule as the park attracts visitors from around the world. (Erika Mahoney/KAZU)

With proper publicity, park visitors Yvonne Bonifer and Dirk Nienhaus say they’re in favor of it. The friends have visited Point Lobos four times now, all the way from Germany. On this trip, they’ve come on a calm weekday morning.

“It even should more protect the place as such because, honestly, if it's getting too crowded and you cannot take beautiful pictures, then it's not so much fun as it currently is,” Nienhaus says.

Point Lobos regular and Marina resident Jo Heeb says while the reservation system will make it harder for locals to spontaneously show up, she understands the need for it.

“If you have so many people trampling over the same space, it's only going to break down the ecosystem. It's going to break down the area,” Heeb says.

State Park’s plan to create a reservation system follows in the footsteps of the National Park Service. In January, Muir Woods National Monument began requiring visitors to reserve a parking spot or shuttle seat. Yosemite National Park has explored similar options, and Arches National Park is considering a reservation system too.

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