It’s not easy to pry land from the clutches of the 19th century. But a coalition of park rangers and conservationists did just that at the historic Point Lobos Ranch, located a few miles south of the mouth Carmel Valley. This spring, a patch of majestic coastal canyon, through which runs the San Jose Creek, will be open to the public after being locked away for at least 122 years.
The story starts in 1898 when a coal company was trying to build a neighborhood of 1,000 homes at Point Lobos. A racetrack builder from Chicago named Alexander Allan swooped in to buy the land, hoping to prevent it from ever being developed. Allan’s real estate holdings reached from Point Lobos, which he turned into a camping destination, deep into the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Unlike the oceanfront portion, which the Allan family sold to the state in 1933, eventually creating the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, the mountain holdings long remained in private ownership. They were used for grazing. In 1993, the Allan descendants sold 1,300 inland acres to the Big Sur Land Trust and in 2010, they sold 317 more.
The land trust transferred the lands to California State Parks and to the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, then raised $600,000 from Prop. 84 funds to develop the San Jose Creek Trail. Hikers can expect meadows and a redwood-studded canyon, as stunning here as elsewhere on the Central Coast.
“The fact that you now have somewhat of a wilderness experience so close to an urban area is amazing.”
“This area is extraordinary due to its physical beauty, enormity and dramatic features,” says Rachel Saunders, the land trust’s director of conservation, while hiking the new trail on a recent morning. “The fact that you now have somewhat of a wilderness experience so close to an urban area is amazing.”
To get to the wilderness, start at Palo Corona Regional Park, parking by the Discovery Center at Rancho Cañada. This trailhead area has its own history of shifting from private land to public park. It used to be a golf course and is now undergoing a process of “rewilding,” to use Saunders’ term. After winding through former golf greens, the trail hugs a chain-link fence and crosses the Carmel River. Then, there is a series of cattle guards to go through – cows still graze here, mimicking historic species that were on the land. “Their grazing supports native plants and keeps weeds down,” Saunders says.
Finally, the climb starts, and, graciously, a canopy of coast live oak provides some shade. From the peak, Inspiration Point, hikers can catch an expansive view of the Carmel coast. About half a mile longer and the trail reaches Animas Pond.
This is where the new hiking begins. Take either fork, Wilson Ridge Trail or Whisler Trail, and soon you’ll hear the gentle purr of San Jose Creek. Steelhead trout, red-legged frogs and songbirds live here. So do mountain lions. One left its scat at the edge of one of three brand-new bridges crossing the creek.
“It looks like a rustic bridge but there’s a lot of engineering done from the rocks to the abutments,” says Brent Marshall, superintendent of the Monterey District of California State Parks. The bridges rest on massive wooden girders that were manufactured in Oregon. Park rangers and crews from the nonprofit American Conservation Experience carried the girders into the wilderness and manually hoisted them into place.
“We believe that these bridges are above the 100-year floodplain,” Marshall adds. “Rather than a peaceful trickling river, it would become a roaring stream and full of debris.”
The group of seven hikers has separated a bit and spread out on the trail when a voice calls out: “You want to see something really creepy?”
It’s Nikki Nedeff, a Big Sur Land Trust conservationist whose perceptive eyes enrich the day’s hiking experience; everyone gathers around her. “Look at this collection of ticks,” she says. “A whole family waiting on a blade of grass.”
Everyone begins inspecting themselves, running their fingers along the seams of their clothes. Each hiker finds a tick or two hanging on.
Saunders, who contracted Lyme disease on the East Coast decades ago, says the disease is rare in California but urges careful inspection after the hike at home. Later on, Marshall gives a little speech praising the spirit partnership that created the new trail; as if on cue, his MPRPD counterpart, Supervising Ranger Caine Camarillo, flicks a tick off the back of Marshall’s shoulder.
The journey is about to conclude at the end of five miles of trail. I am still shuddering because of the ticks when we encounter the largest patch of poison oak I’ve ever seen. While I focus on my discomfort, Saunders is wiser: “It’s all the things that keep us humble,” she says.