Carmel Surf
Credit: Photo courtesy of

There are multiple ways to experience Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Located a two-and-a-half-hour drive south of San Francisco, on California’s Central Coast, Carmel-by-the-Sea is best known for its Hugh Comstock-designed cottages, wine tasting rooms and boutique inns. But there’s a flipside to this picturesque ‘burg. As I discovered during on a Central Coast road trip, Carmel is fit for the outdoor enthusiast — on land and sea.

On The Water

Carmel Beach is a scenic stretch of whitesand that crests gently from Pebble Beach in the north towards Point Lobos State Park in the south (more to come on that). It is dog friendly. It’s also campfire and booze friendly. And it is the ideal spot to watch a sunset.

With classic NorCal waves rolling in year-round, it should be no surprise that such a beach is also a coldwater surfing hotspot. However, apparently this is a surprise — during my two days in the area, I noticed a dearth of wave-chargers. Sure, there were some local kids in the waves but considering the ease of access from several communities (Carmel, Gilroy, Monterey, Pacific Grove), the consistent head-height shore break (at the time), soft sand and the fact that the 21-and-over crowd can have a brewski on the beach post-surf, the water seemed relatively empty.

Carmel Surfer
Credit: David Webb

According to locals, Carmel Beach gets surfable when the waves hit about one metre, and keeps its shape until the break is well overhead. Mid-tide is optimal for waves; be wary of rips at any time. The best waves are found at the base of 8th Street, a short walk south from the main beach access point. While hard-charging locals get pipelined with impunity at Carmel Beach, newbies will find waves and whitewash to learn on too. (Just give locals a wide berth.) And remember — water temperatures hover around the low teens (Celsius), so a 4/3 mm wetsuit is a minimum. Lessons and rentals are available at several places in Carmel — contact the Lamp Lighter Inn for surf or SUP lessons.

Point Lobos State Park
Credit: Photo courtesy of

On the Land

Located about five kilometres south of Carmel, Point Lobos State Park is a showpiece of Pacific coast ecosystems. It’s all here: walk past a field of wild lilac and into a stand of Monterey pine and cypress trees. Keep your camera handy for birdlife such as cormorants and Great Blue Herons; mammals like deer or bobcats; and marine life that includes otters, sea lions and whales. Overlook a stony shoreline relentlessly pounded by the open Pacific to see caves, lagoons and rock formations in abundance. (Scuba divers and kayakers also cherish the area.)

Wilderness walks are popular within Point Lobos. Most of the hikes are easy — an hour here, a half-hour there — but there are 15 marked routes that will occupy most of your day. Granite Point Trail, which starts at a historic Whaler’s Cabin (now a museum), is a good place to start, or simply follow the sound of crashing waves and birdsong as you self-guide through this charming coastal forest. Looking to spend a few hours? Trek along the coastal path — easily done in a half-day, this series of connecting paths treats hikers to marine vistas throughout its length.

Point Lobos
Credit: Photo courtesy of

Beyond its vibrant natural world, Point Lobos has a rich cultural history dating back more than 2,500 years to the original peoples of the land, the Rumsien First Nation. Visitors interested in delving into both sides of this area are advised to participate in a guided walk, offered regularly by volunteers from the Point Lobos Foundation. Check the Point Lobos Foundation’s online calendar for more information; these 90-minute walks are scheduled throughout the year.

However, Point Lobos may be best experienced in solitude, or with a like-minded companion, perched on an outcropping in meditation alongside the ebb-and-flow of the tides.

It’s true — there is much more to Carmel-by-the-Sea than fine wine, five-star dining and boutique inns. But it’s nice to know that’s all there too, in case you want it.

If You Go:

Point Lobos Foundation: