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Pt. Sur State Historic Park

Pt. Sur Light Station Trail

0.5 mile guided walk

During the nineteenth century, when coastal roads were few and poor, most cargo was transported by ship. Ships traveled close to shore so that they could take advantage of the protection offered by bay and point. This heavy coastal trade—and its dangers—prompted the U.S. Lighthouse Service Board to establish a series of lighthouses along California’s coast located about 60 miles apart.

Pt. Sur had been the death of many ships, and mariners had been petitioning for a beacon for many years when the government in 1885 appropriated $50,000 to construct a light station. The Pt. Sur light joined the one at Piedras Blancas situated 60 miles south and the one located 60 miles north at Pigeon Point.

The first light, which became operational in 1889, utilized one of the famed Fresnel lenses designed by French physicist Augustin Jean Fresnel. A whale oil lantern was the first light source. In later years, kerosene fueled the operation. Soot problems from the not-very-clean burning kerosene kept the keepers busy polishing the glass and worrying about surprise visits from supervisors who conducted “white glove” inspections.

The lighthouse became fully automated in 1975. The original light, visible for 23 miles out to sea, is now on display in the Maritime Museum of Monterey.

The old stone buildings, when viewed from Highway 1, are intriguing; they’re even more so when viewed up close on one of the tours conducted by volunteer docents. While the station undergoes restoration, the only way to see the facility—the only intact light station with accompanying support buildings on the California coast—is by guided tour.

The tour includes the lighthouse itself, the keepers’ houses, the blacksmith shop and the barn, where livestock was kept. You’ll learn the fascinating story of the isolated life lived by the four keepers and their families.

Docent-led tours are currently offered on weekends and on some Wednesdays: Saturdays 10 A.M. and 2 P.M., Sundays 10 A.M. and Wednesdays 10 A.M., weather permitting. There’s a fee for the tours, which have a limited number of slots— available on a first-come, first-served basis. Suggestion: Arrive early. For more information: (831) 625-4419.

 The walk to the lighthouse is interesting for more than historical reasons. Geology buffs will call the path to the light the “Tombolo Trail.” A tombolo, rare on the California coast, is a sand bar connecting an island to the mainland.

The view from atop the 360-foot-high basaltic rock is superb. You’re eyeball-to-eyeball with the gulls and cormorants. To the south is False Sur, named for its confusing resemblance to Pt. Sur, when viewed from sea.

In 1980, Pt. Sur Light Station was designated a state historic landmark, and in 1984 the U.S. Department of the Interior turned it over to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The old Lighthouse Service Board was long-ago absorbed by the U.S. Coast Guard, and the kerosene lamp and steam-driven warning whistle have been replaced by a computer-directed electric beam and radio beacon, but Pt. Sur Light Station, as it has for a century, continues to warn ships of the treacherous Big Sur Coast.

Directions to trailhead: Pt. Sur State Historic Park is located on the west side of Highway 1, some 19 miles south of Carmel and one-quarter mile north of Pt. Sur Naval Facility.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at