We received a wonderfully warm welcome into Monterey County from the folks at the REI store in Marina. They listened to our stinky skunk tale and could tell—and smell—that we were legit. They hooked us up with a new tent to call home, so that we could continue our journey south down the coast. Thank you REI! With a fresh tent and a fresh outlook on life, we hit the Monterey County CCT and got to work crushing some beach miles!

We walked along the broad open beach for many sandy miles, constantly looking to our right at the churning Pacific waves. The water was clear and light, and the sand fluffy and kushy to walk on. We got into the zone, but happened to look up toward the dunes at the exact right moment to spot a Western Snowy Plover scampering across the sandy horizon amongst the piles of kelp wrack. We were very excited to see this sparrow-sized light-colored shorebird because these tiny birds are very camouflaged, so it is tricky to spot them against the sandy landscape.

Can you spot the 3 plovers in this pic?
Can you spot the 3 plovers in this pic?

Snowy Plovers are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. They are sensitive little things, since their nests are little more than a scrape in a sand depression. Beach goers and their dogs can wander right through a nesting area and crush an entire nest, never knowing the damage they have caused. Their breeding season is in spring and summer, which coincides with the busiest time of human use on California beaches, so that puts them at even greater risk.

A little further down the coast we spotted a tiny sandy-colored puff ball dashing about, and then another! We think they were baby snowy plovers! They darted around, dwarfed even by the small clumps of dried kelp, and one stopped to stretch its teensy fuzzy wings! We saw one of the tiny puffs make it down to the tideline racing after a tasty insect meal, and we were happy, since we have heard that the journey from dune to tideline is dangerous for the little guys. It was a total dream to watch those cuties!

We kept walking so we wouldn’t disturb the plovers and found some awesome beach treasures—perfectly circular white sand dollars, giant sand crabs, razor clams in periwinkle and lilac, feathers, and a seriously purple cancer crab, which we carefully arranged on its own shell beach chair for a photoshoot.

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We made it down the sandy beach to the Pajaro River and scouted our way forward. The tide was at its highest and the river looked deep. We sucked it up and put our packs above our heads—boots attached. Mo led the way and we were soon waist deep in the river, forging ahead. The river sand started getting soft and sinking as we neared the center of the river, and soon the water was up to our chests! We reached the other side and scampered up the slurpy slope to dry sand. It was our deepest river crossing to date that we forded without a boat.

As we dried out after our crossing, two horseback riders walked down the beach toward us. They were scoping out the river from the south side, and seemed to be looking for a way across. The two men tried to direct their horses to cross the river, but the horses were not into it. Finally, one guy got the horse to walk in, but it quickly decided against the idea and bucked him off! After making sure the dude was ok, we all had a good laugh. They invited us to go for a ride, and we figured we had to say yes! After all, the California Coastal Trail is a path for hikers, bikers, and equestrians—so we’d better use all three modes of transportation.

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We kept heading south along the broad sandy shoreline of the Monterey Bay. The California Coastal Trail is a gateway to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of the most spectacular marine protected areas in the world, which stretches over 275 miles (about ¼ of California’s coastline!) from San Francisco to Cambria. It is known as the “Serengeti of the Sea” because of the abundant wildlife, including over 34 species of marine mammals, 525 species of fish, and 180 species of seabirds. It is also home to the Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon, which is 12,713 ft deep–deeper than the Grand Canyon!

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While pondering the plethora of marine species that call the Monterey Bay home, we were very sad to see that one species has been bogarting precious resources from this habitat in a destructive manner. Humanity has put a big ol’ straw in the sand dunes and sucks out hundreds of thousands of tons of sand every year to use in our country’s infrastructure, nearly all of which is partially built from sand – roads, buildings, bridges, etc. Besides air and water, sand is the most widely consumed natural resource in the world.

In Southern Monterey Bay, sand mining has been depleting dune habitats of their sandy structure since before 1900. Recent scientific investigations have showed that the Cemex sand mine in Monterey County has been eroding the local coastline by an average rate of 4 feet annually, when the beach should be naturally growing by 3 feet annually. Definitely an issue we will be keeping our eyes on…

Sand mining operation near Marina. We were perplexed by the "Sensitive Wildlife Area" sign in front of an old sand dredging barge.
Sand mining operation near Marina. We were perplexed by the “Sensitive Wildlife Area” sign in front of an old sand dredging barge.

We hopped on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail and zoomed along the busy pathway. It was awesome to see so many people out on the CCT! We took the path through the Monterey Wharf and along Cannery Row, of John Steinbeck and collapsed-sardine-fishery fame.

Lovely views from the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail.
Lovely views from the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail.

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As we rounded Lover’s Point, we came upon the absolutely lovely Asilomar State Beach. Asilomar means “refuge by the sea” and this is truly a gorgeous refuge. The sand dunes were restored here in the 1980s, after more than a century of livestock grazing and trampling. More than 20 species of native dune plants were reestablished here, and the dunes lead into a coniferous forest unmatched in scenic beauty. We loved the peaceful vibes and the bright blues and dark greens that made this landscape pop.

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While in Monterey, we visited with our friend the Other Morgan, a fellow Fellow from our cohort of California Sea Grant Fellows, who now works for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. We saw another Sea Grant Fellow and Bren Friend, Heather, who now works in Jo’s former fellowship position at the Coastal Conservancy. We also stayed with our friend Tyler from the Bren School, who works for the Monterey Bay Aquarium on their Seafood Watch program to educate consumers about sustainable seafood choices. It has been wonderful to meet up with all of our friends who are doing such rad work to keep our oceans healthy!! We are so proud of our awesome friends and the important work they do.

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After Monterey, we strolled the white sandy coves of Carmel, soaked up the scenery, and said hello to lots of dogs along the “friendliest dog beach in California,” before coming into Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
Point Lobos was christened the “Crown Jewel of California’s State Parks System.” The famous landscape painter Francis McComas called Point Lobos, “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” On this majestic headland, unique geology allows gnarled Monterey Cypress trees to grow here, in one of only two remaining naturally growing stands of Monterey Cypress on earth! These trees reflect the forces of nature and time, growing in the windy salt spray and surviving in their reduced habitat range, relegated to the coast where foggy climate still exists much as it did when these trees extended across the landscape 15,000 years ago, in cooler times.

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As we strolled across the gorgeous Point Lobos headland, we spotted some tiny puff balls scurrying about in the understory leaf litter. Upon closer examination, we were delighted to find dozens of baby quails sprinting along the ground and up onto a fallen log in their mini flock, called a “covey” of quails! So precious!

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Point Lobos has it all, from ocean vistas to rocky outcroppings, abundant wildlife and colorful wildflowers; this is a place of legendary natural beauty. In recognition of this unique beauty so deserving of protection, Point Lobos was designated as the nation’s first underwater Reserve, which was created in 1960. We must come back to explore the 5.4 square miles of gorgeous submerged habitat that extends from the onshore reserve!

Monterey County was magical; we are so thankful to have explored this amazing coastline!

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