The best hike in Carmel: Palo Corona Park trails and views

by California

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, walking, running or wildlife-viewing destination for visitors and locals alike.

The first time I was there in 2017, Palo Corona Regional Park felt like a private playground since parking limitations required requesting passes in advance from the Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks District office. Although a pleasure, it was also too bad since the views and trails are stupendous. As of summer 2018, that has all changed with a huge expansion of the park that is just the harbinger of grand things to come in terms of coastal park, trails and greenspace access.

Although at this point the addition is not huge, it adds parking and quick public access on Carmel Valley Road with plenty of parking. That means the old system of needing to apply for a parking/access pass in advance is gone. Just up and go, enjoy a short stroll, or head up into the hills for an all-day adventure.

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: The best hike in Carmel

 In 2002, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks District partnered with The Nature Conservancythe 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. Of that, 700 acres were open…until 2018’s great addition.

In 2016 and 2017, the Rancho Cañada Golf Club’s two courses across the river from the park and facing Carmel Valley road closed; in April 2018, the 185-acre property was transferred from the Trust for Public Land to the Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks District. Just three months later, the building had been repurposed into a parks office, the greenways were overgrown, golf cart paths had become walkways, and access was open to all with easy parking. The official grand opening and dedication was Sept. 28, 2018.

“Now you can wake up Saturday morning and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to Inspiration Point. And you can,” without any need to have applied for a permit, said Rafael Payan, Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District general manager.

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A juvenile bobcat hunting at Palo Corona Regional Park in Carmel.

Morning treat at Palo Corona Regional Park. We had just parked our car at the new Rancho Cañada entrance to the park when we spotted this juvenile bobcat hunting on an adjacent grassy open (formerly a golf course green). Such a beautiful animal. This photo was shot from a distance and upwind — wind blowing into our face — so as not to disturb, though the bobcat really didn’t seem to be fazed by cars coming and going in the nearby lot or the cars whizzing along nearby Carmel Valley Rd.

Since the golf greens were watered from the neighboring Carmel River, the transition not only saves water and preserves the river habitat, it also protects wildlife. This we experienced first-hand in August 2018, when a young bobcat sauntered across the parking lot and then starting hunting on the now overgrown greens, oblivious to us creeping along trying to get a few photos. A local walking through noted that he has seen a lot more wildlife since the transition.

A great future for a chain of greenspace

In addition, the property – together with the southern section – provides a public land corridor from the peninsula to the national forests. And, a parks 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.

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.

Prior to the additions in 2018, the most that ever used the park in one day (we were told for our 2017 story) was maybe 20 or 30 due to the permit process and limited parking. You had incredibly beautiful serenity. Today, this best hike in Carmel will attract more people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find serenity.  Just head past the immediate vicinity of the newly opened Carmel Valley Road access and up into the hills. You’ll be rewarded with grand views of the Pacific Ocean.

Payan practically busts with excitement when he talks about the future for the Monterey parks system. The plan is to link a number of parks so you literally will be able to go from the Salinas River to the north, to Hearst Castle or even San Luis Obispo to the south. All of this is possible once the various systems involved work out the details. He said his hope was to establish these connections in two to three years, but realistically it would take five to 10.

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. This will be a “park in progress,” he said. “Let’s open this as soon as we can. We’re not waiting until it’s 100 percent.”

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!

Trails to take in Palo Corona Regional Park

We’ve been on nearly every trail there was on several visits to Palo Corona Regional Park.  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).

The short Rumsien Loop is interesting, too. Only a half-mile, it takes you up and around a short knoll where there are 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.

And FYI, dogs, horses and bikes are not allowed in the park past the new former golf course area. This new area still has mostly flat trails with a total distance of a few miles, although they loop around a bit. If you want more, head back and across the bridge into the former Palo Corona Regional Park area.

Bridge To Old Section in Palo Corona

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.

In 2017 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. A year earlier I hadn’t applied for required permit access and was shut out. Now, the park is open to anyone and from what we experienced in our short hike in the summer of 2018, Palo Corona’s popularity will soar. And for good reason — it features the best hikes in Carmel by far.

Looking for other very interesting hikes, perhaps ones where you can enjoy wildflower walks in and around the area? Check out our Sierra foothills wildflower hike article and our Table Mountain Preserve: wildflowers and waterfalls article to learn more.

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Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian now focuses her writing and photography talents on travel. Fluent in German, Therese also runs a translation business (ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. She's a French speaker, and loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication. Therese is an award-winning member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.
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