When you are in Carmel on the Monterey Peninsula of California’s coast, the ocean and beaches are a huge draw. But don’t forget to seek out inland trails to find what may be the best hike in Carmel. Palo Corona Regional Park is nestled in the surrounding hills with pastoral views and sweeping ocean overlooks from on high. It is a great hiking destination for visitors and locals alike.

What makes Palo Corona Regional Park so amazing is that you end up feeling as if you’re in a huge private playground. Due to parking limitations at both the east and west entrances, you have to contact the Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks District office in advance for a parking pass and permit (a couple of days is preferred but not more than 30 days). I wandered the hills, trails and overlooks; sat on any number of benches (I felt like the Mad Hatter, trying them all out); and talked to the grazing cattle for company since in nearly three hours I only caught a fleeting glimpse of two people, both from far away. Most of the time I was on my own to enjoy the park’s serenity.

Signs marking the way on one of the best hikes in Carmel.

Well-signed trails keep you fully on track. This is one intersection that takes you up to Inspiration Point, which is the feature photo on this story. See that little cut in the trees on the hill in the background? That is the trail that goes up, up, up and around to the back to take you up top!

Palo Corona Regional Park: Why it is one of the best hikes in Carmel

 In 2002, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks District partnered with The Nature Conservancy, the Big Sur Land Trust and the State of California to acquire the former Palo Corona Ranch (10,000 acres!). Once finalized in 2004, it became THE largest land conservation in Monterey County and one of the most significant due to its size and habitat. The acreage was then divided between the State Department of Fish and Game and the parks district for protection. The Palo Corona Regional Park was created from the northern 4,350 acres, with some 700 currently open.

So, there you are on the hillsides and in the trees of Carmel, cruising along 700 or so acres, and you may only see a handful of people — if any. Apparently the most that have even been in the park at one time is 20 or 30, a parks representative said. Expect the numbers of visitors to be higher than my solitary mid-week trek in early spring if you go on the weekends, a holiday or when the weather is really nice. If that beautiful serenity doesn’t make for a best hike in Carmel, we’re not sure what does.

The best hike in Carmel boasts lots of wild and scenic areas.

Educational signage at various points helps you understand the habitat, history and landscape.

In addition, the property – together with the southern section – provides a public land corridor from the peninsula to the national forests. And, the representative said, it is home to some significant prairie grasslands that are now rare in California, as well as rare and endangered species, such as the California Tiger Salamander.

Permits needed for the best hike in Carmel at Palo Corona

Only 13 permits are issued for the west entrance on Highway 1 per day, and only eight for the east entrance from the land trust’s South Bank Trail, which just opened in 2011. Since it takes about 1.5 miles from the east parking area to even get to the Palo Corona gate along the South Bank Trail, the west entrance, which is right on the road, is more popular. I took the South Bank Trail, however, since it is a beautifully maintained flat strip of land, popular with locals and dog walkers. Click here for the permit application and be sure to select which entrance you want to use.

HITT Tip: If you can do longer hike or run, opt for the east entrance! Or perhaps if parking permits for Highway 1’s west entrance are “sold out.” The Palo Corona east gate is peaceful and easy to get to. Just take Carmel Valley Road about 2 miles from Highway 1, turn right on Rancho San Carlos Road and drive about a third of a mile. On the right you will see a small sign noting the parking lot for the South Bank Trail – and a large dog park.

Trails to take in Palo Corona Park

I covered about every trail there was on my hike in Palo Corona Regional Park. We’re obsessive like that sometimes at HI Travel Tales. We wanted to be able to tell you about it all! Click here for a park map. If you are up to it, don’t miss the rather steep trek to Inspiration Point off the Palo Corona Trail. Give yourself time to enjoy the view (pictured above as our lead image).

HITT Tip: The parks district has supplied plenty of tables and benches throughout! In fact, so many, you could rest nearly every half-mile or more, which is why a hike can take so long. Do take advantage of that and carry a picnic lunch or snacks or a book and spend some time in the park. Or just sit and ponder your navel and enjoy the view.

Best hike in Carmel sign with map.

Once inside a gate, there is a kiosk with a large map, the rules and any announcements, plus a sign-in and printed maps to take. Also note the post’s signage: Throughout the park, you find these with more details about distance, slope, elevation and trail surface than we have ever seen!

The short Rumsien Loop is interesting, too. Only a half-mile, it takes you up and around a short knoll where there are – you guessed it – a couple of picnic tables and a number of benches. Although at an elevation of only about 260 feet (compared to Inspiration Point’s 600 feet), you still get a nice vista with a peek of the ocean from the sun-swept knoll.

Future plans for Palo Corona, Carmel and Monterey County’s parks

 In process, we were told, is work on the general development plan that will integrate the Palo Corona Park with the Rancho Canada Golf Club, just to the north on the other side of the river. That plan is expected to be completed in 2017, a parks district representative told HI Travel Tales. In addition, parking may become less limited since a larger parking area and a north entrance would be added from the golf club area.

Take a look here at this map from the Big Sur Land Trust, showing the parks and other open spaces in the area to see the potential there.

Thinking about poaching access? Don’t. Rangers do randomly visit the park and they will ask for your permit (do carry it!). And you can’t just walk in. We tried that two years ago, ignorant about the need for a permit. The gate stopped us cold – and frustrated! At both entrances there are gates with padlocks, so when you get your permit, you will also get a combination to use on the lock.

Entrance to the best hike in Carmel.

Here is the east entrance gate with padlock, bench (of course!) and bike racks, so you can bike in from wherever, lock up your steel steed, and head off on a hike.

And FYI, dogs, horses and bikes are not allowed in the park. There is a bike rack at the east entrance I can vouch for, so you can pedal the South Bank Trail and then park it and hoof it in.

The serenity and the views at South Bank are a true treat, making it the best hike in Carmel that doesn’t include being on the beach.

HITT Tip: There is no water, so do take your own, as well as any snacks you may need. There is a porta-potty at the barn, not far from the west entrance, if you are desperate. Print a map and take it, just in case the maps at the gates are non-existent. Wear sturdy shoes since not all of the trails are groomed, not to mention maneuvering the cow patties you will encounter! Click here to see the park’s rules.


The California Travel Map

California Travel MapThere is so much to see and do in California! Use our travel map of California, in tandem with our many articles like this one, to help you decide where to go, what to do next, and even find your way from one fantastic sight, restaurant or place to stay to the next.

Heads up! This information on the best hike in Carmel was accurate when we published it on HI Travel Tales, but, as we know, traveling is all about changes (and inflation, sadly). It is your sole responsibility to confirm prices, transportation schedules, hours of operation, safety and health considerations, and any other important details before your adventure.