Monterey Trip Report

October 25 2022  |  Monterey Peninsula, California

California’s Central Coast is spectacularly beautiful and varied. A trip along the middle section of our famous Highway 1 takes you from sand dunes to redwoods, through miles of strawberry, artichoke and tomato fields, then winding along forested cliffs a thousand feet above the Pacific. This is the iconic landscape Steinbeck contemplates throughout his epic novel, East of Eden, and which was the lifelong muse of former Disney illustrator Eyvind Earle.

Old stone steps lead up to and underneath an arching old cypress tree. A natural wall of stone on one side reflects some of the pink sunset sky.


I've never met a mysterious portal I didn't like. California's Central Coast is some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen, and it is full of surprises like this twisted cypress tree arching over ancient stone steps leading off to who-knows-where. The world is full of magic, and I'm here for it.

I spent a few days exploring Monterey Bay and Carmel Bay last week, with the general idea of making some simple images of Monterey Cypress trees silhouetted in the fog. These trees are exceedingly rare in the wild: Only two small groves exist in the entire world – both here on the Monterey Coast. I spent most of my time at the grove in Point Lobos State Reserve, since the other one is located on private property, right up the road at the “number one golf course in the country”. So despite the vast richness of the landscape I just described, I concentrated most of my time in one tiny area along the Pacific shoreline where these trees can be found.

A 200-year-old Monterey cypress tree holds fast to a cliff overhanging the Pacific Ocean. The tree is gnarled like a giant bonsai.

Old Veteran

A 200-year-old Monterey cypress tree holds fast to a cliff overhanging the Pacific Ocean. Monterey cypress are exceedingly rare in the wild: Only two small groves exist in the entire world, both on the Monterey Peninsula. They are well-protected, and though it’s not possible to get very close, their exceptional character is evident from afar.

Monterey Cypress, more than some other tree species, have a tremendous amount of individual character. Their twisted, bleached grey trunks and stacked fans of deep green needles make them out to be larger-than-life bonsai. Their preferred habitat is within a mile or so from the ocean, drinking up moisture from the near-constant fog in our otherwise perpetually drought-stricken landscape.

Several large brown pelicans roost in an ancient, scraggly cypress tree atop a rocky oceanside cliff on a foggy day.

Pelicans at Rest

Pelicans roost among the ancient cypress and rocky cliffside terrain of Carmel Bay. A classic, uncolored infrared, this image is a personal favorite of mine. I love the subject matter - pelicans, a scraggly cypress tree and the rough seaside – and I had such a wonderful time exploring this exotic local destination.

What I hadn’t anticipated, heading into the cypress grove, was the huge cliffside pelican rookery situated halfway up the trail. As I came around the bend at Pinnacle Cove, I was suddenly right in the middle of thousands of these giant birds preening, napping, cavorting all over the place, and making a cacophonous racket. The cypress trees I'd come for were laden with the massive creatures. I was captivated.

A dozen huge brown pelicans roost atop a Monterey cypress tree in a dark wood.

At Home in the Trees

I came upon this cypress tree full of Pelicans quite unexpectedly while exploring Carmel Bay. Both because I didn’t know there was a huge pelican rookery right on the trail, and because I had never seen these massive birds hanging out in trees before. I see pelicans every day around Lake Merritt, but they are always flying or diving. This scene struck me as a very oddly decorated Christmas tree.

I am a tremendous fan of pelicans, which remind me of tugboats caravanning across the sky. Despite their reputation as oddly proportioned, graceless goofuses, I find them quite graceful and beautiful. At home, I watch them hunt in groups and individually from June to December. They cruise at an altitude of about sixty feet, reconnoitering the lake below. When they see something delicious, they collapse their wings and dive bomb it, hitting the water face-first at up to sixty miles per hour. When they bob back to the surface with a big, tasty fish in their grasp, they will often toss the fish up in the air and then swallow it down in one gulp. They do this to orient the fish face down, so it slides easily down their barbed gullet. To me, it looks like they are showing off a little.

Heavy fog and deep sea swirl around a tall rocky outcrop. The impression is of a land beyond time, inhabited only by seabirds.


Heavy fog and deep sea swirl around a rocky outcrop in Carmel Bay. Visiting on a sunny day, you can see a sweeping panorama from Carmel Bay to Pebble Beach. But I came here specifically for the Tolkien-esque atmosphere of a blustery summer day like today, and I am not disappointed. Surely there be dragons!

In the end, I spent two full days photographing one fairly small area of the preserve. It was just too interesting to watch the birds and the trees and the changing sky throughout the day. Focusing on a limited set of subjects and thoroughly exploring them was deeply satisfying, and I can’t wait to go back and explore another portion of this gorgeous landscape.

Sargassum horneri, an elegant but invasive seaweed floats like blue fairies along California's Monterey coastline.


Sargassum horneri, an elegant but invasive seaweed floats like blue fairies along California's Monterey coastline.

To the eye, this seaweed is dark brown and barely visible in the water. Through an infrared camera, it pops out from its dark surroundings in an ice blue hue.

Posted in Trip Report.