Photographer's Guide to Big Sur:
Garrapata State Park

If you like dramatic coastlines with jagged rock formations, crashing surf, rocky coves, redwoods, mountain views, wildflowers, and a beautiful sandy beach that are easily accessed with just a short hike, then you will love this area. This is one of my favorite locations to photograph, especially late afternoon when the hills and coastline turn a golden yellow to red. Sunsets can be incredibly colorful, especially in the winter and spring. Wildflowers and other flowering plants bloom in spring and summer, adding striking colors to hillsides and coastal bluffs. There’s plenty to photograph here and you can easily spend a day or more doing so. If you have only a short period of time, then check out gate 4, 7, 8, or 10 or go to Garrapata Beach (see descriptions below).

Garrapata State Park stretches a little over 4 miles from Garrapata Creek Bridge at its southern end (1 mile north of the entrance to Rocky Point Restaurant) to Gate 1 at its north end, about 3.4 miles south of Pt Lobos. Open year round, dawn to a half hour after sunset, there are no day use fees. There is no main entrance, visitor center or kiosk and no amenities. Access to the coast and inland is by way of a series of numbered “gates” (actually openings in the fence line) which are not always numbered nor maintained. Most of the trails are well worn, whereas others that are less used tend to be overgrown with sage shrub or other woody vegetation including poison oak.

Warning: Garrapata is Spanish for “tick” which are found throughout the coastal bluffs. Poison oak also is rampant along the bluffs.

Soberanes Area

This location offers some of the most dramatic coastline and photographic opportunities in Big Sur and in a relatively small area. It encompasses the marine terraces and coastal bluffs from gate 1 to gate 10. Inland is accessed via the Soberanes Canyon Trail and the Rocky Ridge Trail (see below). Gates 1, 2, 3 and 4 are within 0.1 miles of each other and each provides a different striking view of the coastline looking south.

Note: If you face the ocean and horizon and stretch out your arms and hands to your sides, your right hand points north, your left south, your nose west, and your back east.

Image taken from Gate 1, Mile Marker 67:00 - Soberanes AreaGate 1 is 0.9 miles south of Mal Paso Road and 0.1 miles north of mile-marker 6700. I always get a thrill when I reach this gate because it is the first time you see the Big Sur coastline if you are traveling south like I normally do. Walk down the stairs and follow the trail straight out and around the edge of the bluffs for views of rocks below and the shoreline. If you follow the trail, you can get down below and closer to the rocks. However, be extremely careful – the path is slippery and if the surf is high, you may get wet or slip on the wet rocks like I have.

Image taken from Gate 2, Mile Marker 67.00 - Soberanes area

Gate 2 at mile-marker 6700 offers good views of the coastal bluffs laced with masses of sea figs. Near sunset, their banana-shaped succulent leaves are ablaze with red, yellow and green. From the turn out, take the stairs and head right (north) along the back trail paralleling Hwy 1 until you reach a footpath heading towards the ocean just before a stand of bushes. While photographing here, try including rocks in your foreground to add texture, accent and depth.

Image taken from Gate 3 in the Soboranes areaGate 3 provides access to a promontory overlooking the ocean and rocky coastline looking south. From the gate, take the left trail to the bench, then turn right and follow the footpath to an overlook. The trail continues around and down slope for a different view of the rocks and shoreline.

Image taken from Gate 4 along the Soberanes AreaGate 4 provides perhaps the most dramatic views in this section of the jagged and rocky coastline with mountains in the background and often crashing waves below. It is located just south of mile-marker 6693, 1.2 miles south of Mal Paso Road and 2.7 miles north of Granite Canyon Bridge and 1.4 miles north of Whale Peak (the large humpback hill on the ocean side of Hwy 1). There is no gate here, rather a wide two-track trail starting at a telephone pole at the trailhead. In about 100 paces take the path through the brush heading west and south to an overlook. From here, you can see more of the coastline than if you had stayed on the main trail. The descent to the lower promontory is slippery and potentially dangerous.

When photographing here, I like to use both wide-angle and telephoto lenses to capture the broad landscape and components of the scene. Vertical framing works well. I usually spend some time watching the waves to get a sense of how and where they are crashing against the rocks. The crashing waves may reach 30 ft or more or swirl over and around the rocks creating interesting patterns. Try to time your shot at the peak of the crash to add a powerful element to the image and when the water flows over the rocks.

Image taken from Gate 5  - Soberanes area

Gate 5 affords another good, yet different, view of the Soberanes coastline with Whale Peak in the distance. Located just north of mile-marker 6645, 4.1 miles south of Pt. Lobos State Reserve entrance, 0.4 miles south of Gate 4, and 0.6 miles north of Gate 7, and 4.9 miles north of Palo Colorado Road. There are two long dirt pullouts on both sides of Highway 1 where the gate is located. The trail to the left (south) that winds along the bluffs presents a better scene than the right-hand trail.

Gate 7 offers access to a small pool, waterfall, two monoliths offshore, a stone beach, blowhole-arch, coves, and a rocky coastline well worth exploring. Located at mile-marker 6600 on the north side of Soberanes Creek diagonally across the road from an old barn and just north of a row of Monterey cypress trees and 2.2 miles south of Mal Paso Road. Follow the main path straight out to an overlook with a view north of the coastline and two large rock monoliths just offshore. These formations usually receive a lot of crashing waves. The stone beach below is accessed from a spur trail just to the left of the main path and is a bit of a scramble down but worth the view from below.

Image taken from Gate 7  - Soberanes area

Take a few moments to listen to the sounds of the rolling rocks as the surf moves in and out – at times soothing, sometimes raucous. Be extra careful of crashing waves and walking on the rocks, it’s easy to lose your footing; best to be there at low tide.

Image taken from Gate 7  - Soberanes area

At the back end of the cove is a small waterfall that’s fun to photograph.

Image taken from Gate 7 - Soberanes area

Shortly before the overlook, there are two spur trails off the main path. The one to the left heads back inland and leads to a small pool and two small waterfalls created by Soberanes Creek as it flows to the ocean.

Image taken from Gate 7  - Soberanes areaThe spur trail to the right (north) of the main path meanders along the bluffs and coves below. Follow this path until in turns inland and look for a trail on the left (west) through the scrub which descends to a point overlooking a formation with a blowhole just offshore and a cave.

Image taken from Gate 7 - Soberanes areaFrom this spot, the more adventurous can take one of two paths. The small footpath to the left (as you face the horizon) leads to another promontory for a different view looking north towards the blowhole.

Image taken from Gate 7  - Soberanes areaThe second small path just to the right as you face the horizon follows a trail north to some wonderful views of the coastline, rock formations, blowholes, and coves. Be extremely careful, this trail is narrow, a bit steep in the beginning and slippery.

Gate 8 is 0.15 miles south of gate 7, 0.3 miles north of Whale Peak, and opposite a row of Monterey cypress trees. There are two options here after you go around the metal gate. The first option is to take the main trail to the right and out to the bluffs for good views of several coves below, the north coastline, the two rock monoliths, the rocky beach and waterfall. For the second option, go left under the cypress trees to the south side and around the bluffs for views of the coastline and coves looking north. You can continue from here around the base of Whale Peak for other expansive and dramatic views of the Soberanes coastline. If you stop for a moment and listen carefully, you will likely hear the barking of sea lions in the distance – they hang out on Lobos Rocks, the two guano-covered white-tipped formations farther out in the ocean.

Image taken from Gate 8 - Soberanes areaImage taken from Gate 8 - Soberanes area

Image taken from Gate 10 - Soberanes AreaGate 10 is on the south side of Whale Peak, 2.6 miles south of Mal Paso Creek and 1.3 miles north of Granite Canyon Bridge, and 0.8 miles north of California Fish and Game fenced entrance. Walk around the metal gate and down the trail to a wide marine terrace with striking views south.

The trail continues around the base of Whale Peak and heads north. In early to mid-June there is a profusion of flowering plants and scrubs, especially yellow lizard-tail covering the terrace.

Image taken from Gate 10 - Soberanes AreaImage taken from Gate 10 - Soberanes Area

Image taken from Gate 10 - Soberanes AreaContinue north, and after the “bridge” take the footpath down to the left that follows along the bluffs for good views of the coastline and several coves below that are accessible. Farther along the trail are expansive views of the Soberanes coastline and mountains looking north and east. The trail will circle back and connect with Gate 8 (through the cypress trees) and also to the north side of Whale Peak and back up to Hwy 1. It is a short hike up to the top of Whale Peak where there are wonderful views north and south and a bench to sit on and enjoy the view

Soberanes Canyon Trail

Image taken from Soberanes Canyon Trail by David Gubernick

This trail follows Soberanes Creek up canyon through redwood groves that offer a few good photo opportunities. Follow the path around the barn, across the creek and then up canyon past prickly pear cacti which typically bear fruit in winter. Farther inland the redwood groves get thicker and with a more lush under story of ferns, mosses and redwood sorrel.

Along the trails you will encounter several sets of stairs made of cut logs. Just to the right of a very long uphill set of stairs is a small footpath that goes down to the creek and continues to parallel the creek on its south side. This path is relatively flat and loops around to climb again exiting higher up and farther along on the main trail. Most of the time you will have this footpath to yourself and it is fun to explore. I recommend using a tripod here because of the lower light levels. You can also follow this path down from the other end on the main trail – you will have to look carefully for it. The main trail ascends and descends several slopes to a spot with a large downed redwood – a good place to rest and start your 1.5 mile return to the coast. Although the trail continues up to the top of the ridge, it is very steep and a strenuous climb and not recommended unless you are in good shape and looking for a vigorous workout. The Rocky Ridge Trail (next), although steep, is a better alternative to the top of the ridge. The canyon trail is accessed at a metal gate at the bottom of a row of Monterey Cypress trees lining the east side of Hwy 1 across from Gate 8 (see above) and just north of Whale Peak. In winter look for ladybugs on plants near the creek and early blooming redwood sorrel. Wildflowers are typical along the trail in spring and summer, but may be hard to photograph because the trail is narrow and because it is a popular hiking trail among locals.

Image taken from Soberanes Canyon Trail by David Gubernick

Image taken from Soberanes Canyon Trail by David Gubernick

Rocky Ridge Trail

This is a steep climb with a great view of Whale Peak and Soberanes Point to the south. There are several vantage points on the way up with the best views at the top of the ridge, a 3-mile hike and 1600 ft above the ocean. In springtime, there are great wildflower displays. Accessed from Gate 13 on the east side of Hwy 1, 2.2 miles south of Mal Paso Creek and 0.4 miles north of Whale Peak, across Hwy 1 from Gate 7 at mile-marker 6600.

Image taken from Rocky Ridge Trail by David Gubernick

Image taken from Rocky Ridge Trail by David Gubernick

Image taken from Rocky Ridge Trail by David Gubernick

Granite Canyon Bridge

Image of Bixby Bridgel by David Gubernick

This apparently nondescript bridge when viewed from Highway 1 offers two interesting perspectives from below — one from the north end of the bridge and one from the south end. North end: in the middle of the dirt pullout at the north end of the bridge is Gate 13 with a trail through the bushes that leads to an overlook with a side view of the bridge. The trail descends a short distance to a rocky shelf that is tricky to navigate but provides a good perspective of the rocky coastline looking south. South end: from the pullout at the south end, walk to the ocean side of the bridge and then under it. A word of warning: this trail is slippery, steep and potentially dangerous – proceed at your own risk. Descend and follow the path around the buttress and then west across the hillside and then down to a large rock shelf with a great view of the arch of the bridge high above. A wide angle lens is helpful to capture the entire arch of the bridge. In winter and early spring, there is a nice waterfall here that is not visible from the road. Beware of crashing surf. The bridge is 2.6 miles north of the entrance to Rocky Point Restaurant (second bridge after the restaurant), 1 mile north of the main entrance to Garrapata Beach, and 1.1 miles south of Gate 10 and 3.7 miles south of Mal Paso Rd. It is the first bridge encountered south of the Soberanes area.

Image of Bixby Bridgel by David Gubernick

Image taken near Bixby Bridge by David Gubernick

Image taken from Gate 17 by David Gubernick

Gate 15 is unmarked and has railroad beams for stairs. It is 0.3 miles south of Granite Canyon Bridge and 1.2 miles north of Garrapata Creek Bridge. The trail splits left and right and reconnects just below. From the left fork just near the stairs is a narrow foot path going across the bluffs and ending at a bench and an overlook south towards Garrapata Beach with bluffs in the foreground and eroded spires just beyond. The main trail descends to a rocky cove area which offers little photographically.

Image taken from Gate 17 by David Gubernick

Gate 17appears to offer little of photographic interest at first, but within a relatively short distance begins to entice you to explore further. There are two trails. The trail straight ahead leads up the small rise to a bench and is a wonderful spot to sit and enjoy the views. From here, the trail descends steeply to a marine terrace below, which in the spring and summer may be carpeted with flowers and the sweet aroma of Blue Blossom (Ceanothus thyrisflorus). When you reach the edge of the terrace, take the trail to the left (south) and look for a small foot path that drops down to a large shelf below – the path and shelf are essentially hidden from view. From the shelf there are good views of the coastline looking south; walk across the shelf to the north until you overlook a cove and a long sweep of the coastline. If the surf is up and active, the crashing waves can be impressive here. Return to the bluffs and continue on the main trail south to a good view of the jagged coastline and Garrapata Beach in the distance. The second trail at Gate 17 heads right and slowly descends and circles around to the terrace below and the same locations as the first trail. This path is easier to travel than the first trail but has a lot of poison oak, especially at the lower end. The gate is located near the 6400 mile-marker, 0.5 miles south of Granite Canyon Bridge, and 2.1 miles north of the entrance to Rocky Point Restaurant. The long dirt pullout has a mound at its north end.

Image taken from Gate 17 by David Gubernick

Image taken from Gate 17 by David Gubernick

Garrapata Beach

This is one of my two favorite beaches in Big Sur and is to be savored for its beauty as well as the excellent photographic opportunities it offers. I love strolling the long sweeping sandy beach, feeling the warmth of the sun or cool breeze on my skin, the sounds of the surf rolling on shore, the cries of seagulls flying above, the smell of the ocean, the taste of salty sea-spray, and the changing colors of the ocean and hillsides. It can be a total sensual experience. I hope you take some time just to enjoy the experience of being there. Garrapata is a popular beach among locals and tourists and can be quite busy in the summertime, although most people leave by sunset. At other times, you may have the beach virtually all to yourself.

Image taken from Garrapata Beach by David GubernickImage taken from Garrapata Beach by David Gubernick

This is a superb location for sunsets throughout the year, especially in winter when the sun is at a lower angle and the light is warmer and the creeks are flowing well from winter rains. Take some time to explore the beach and familiarize yourself with the various photo possibilities. As sunset approaches, as well as after sunset, I can get overwhelmed with all the possibilities and will often move back-and-forth between locations – one way to get some exercise, often exhilarating; if you prefer to remain in one location, then photograph what “speaks” to you the most, what calls your attention, what makes you feel good, what makes you say “wow.”

Image taken from Garrapata Beach by David GubernickGate 19. This is the main entrance to the beach and is located in the middle of a long dirt pullout 1.2 miles north of the entrance to Rocky Point Restaurant and just north of Garrapata Creek Bridge and 1.4 miles south of Granite Canyon Bridge; beach not visible from road. For direct access to the beach, follow the path between the guide wires and take the left fork which leads to stairs down to the beach. The right fork heads north along the bluffs with views overlooking the beach. From here you can continue north and follow the trail down to Doud Creek and out to the beach.

Most of the rock formations are near the base of the stairs which is a good place to begin exploring and photographing. These rock formations provide excellent foreground elements as well as subjects in their own right. At and after sunset, they are black silhouettes. I particularly like the Three Sisters.

Image taken from Garrapata Beach by David Gubernick

There are a few small coves and a cave at the south end of the beach where Garrapata Creek flows under the bridge out to the ocean. Late afternoon, the creek is golden-colored from the sunlight reflected off the hillsides above. It is often difficult to get to the south end during high tides.

To the north of the stairs, in the middle of the beach, flows Doud Creek lined with Calla Lilies at its backend in winter and spring; beware of stinging nettle plants here, which I learned the hard way can numb your hands and legs for awhile if you brush up against them. Please be careful not to trample the lilies.

Image taken from Garrapata Beach by David GubernickImage taken from Garrapata Beach by David Gubernick

The north end of the beach is an unofficial clothes-optional area and contains a small waterfall in winter and early spring. If you have time, check out the bluff trails above, especially north of Doud Creek which can be accessed from the beach by following Doud Creek inland a short distance to the Calla Lilies, go across the footbridge and up the stairs to the left, and follow the trail to the bluffs. The north bluffs also are available from Highway 1 at Gate 18 (see below).

Sunsets can be glorious here, especially if the sky is clear or has a few clouds and no coastal fog. Don’t leave after the sun sets because the sky often gets more intensely colorful. Look for reflected colors in the wet sand which can add a wonderful accent to your image and time your shot to capture it. If the colors in the wet sand start to diminish, try squatting down and getting at a lower angle. Look also for reflections of the rock formations in the wet sand. Stormy weather may bring dramatic skies and surf.

Image taken from Garrapata Beach by David Gubernick

Image taken from Garrapata Beach by David Gubernick

Image taken from Garrapata Beach by David Gubernick

Image taken from Garrapata Beach by David GubernickGate 18 is just north of Doud Creek, 0.3 miles north of gate 20, and 1 mile south of Granite Canyon Bridge, at mile-marker 6330. From this gate take the trail to the right (north and west) to the bluffs, turn left and trail curves around to a great overlook of the north end of Garrapata beach. Continue along the bluff trail south to the stairs down to Doud Creek and out to the beach.

Warning: Do not turn your back on the ocean nor get too close to the surf – people have drowned here. Equipment can get wet, damaged or taken out to sea, which I also learned the hard way. Take a few moments to watch the waves and notice where the sand is wet and dry and have an escape route in mind should the surf rush in. This is especially the case during high tides when you may have to climb up a rock face or hillside to avoid being hit by a wave. Best to keep your gear with you in a pack on your back – makes it easier to run from the surf if necessary and keeps your gear safe.

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