Skip to Main Content
Contact Us Search
Parks Title

Carmel River State Beach

Carmel River Beach Trail

2 miles round trip

Carmel River, which arises high on the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains and empties into the sea just south of Carmel, is a river of many moods. Some of its forks, swollen by winter and spring rains, can be capricious, frothy waterways as they course through the Ventana Wilderness.

Tamed by Los Padres Dam on the northern boundary of the national forest, the river’s descent through Carmel Valley is relatively peaceful. At its mouth, too, the Carmel River has differing moods and appearances. About May, a sandbar forms, turning the river mouth into a tranquil lagoon. During winter, the river bursts through the berm and rushes to the sea. Steelhead trout swim upriver to spawn.

At the north end of Carmel River State Beach is a brackish lagoon, where shorebirds feed. Carmel River Lagoon and Wetlands Natural Reserve is here, and even the most casual bird-watcher will be impressed by the abundance of waterfowl. Ducks, mallards and coots patrol the lagoon. Egrets and herons stand amongst the reeds. Hawks hover overhead. Bring your binoculars.

This walk explores the river mouth, then travels the length of Carmel River State Beach to a point just north of Point Lobos named Monastery Beach, for the Carmelito Monastery located just across Highway 1 from the shore.

Directions to trailhead: During the summer and autumn months, the sandy berm at the Carmel River mouth provides a fine path between river and sea. At this time of year, you can start this walk at the north end of Carmel River State Beach. From Highway 1, just south of the town of Carmel, turn west on Rio Road. When you reach Santa Lucia Street, turn left, then proceed five more blocks to Carmelo Street. Turn left and follow this road to the beach.

You can also start at the south end of Carmel River State Beach, easily accessible from Highway 1.

The hike: Follow the shoreline down coast over the sandy berm. In places, the route is rocky, the domain of nervous crabs who scatter at your approach. You’ll surely notice the iceplant-lined path above the beach; save this path for the return trip.

After rounding a minor point and passing some wind-bent Monterey cypress, you’ll arrive at Monastery Beach—also known as San Jose Creek Beach, for the creek that empties onto the northern end of the beach. With the chimes from the nearby monastery ringing in your ears, you might be lulled into thinking that Monastery Beach is a tranquil place, but it’s not; the surf is rough and the beach drops sharply off into the sea. Even the most experienced swimmers should be ultra-cautious.

For a little bit different return route, take the state beach service road, which farther north becomes a trail. This dirt road/trail, just before reaching the lagoon, climbs a small hill where a large cross is implanted. The cross was erected by the Carmel Mission in 1944, and is similar to the one put here by the 1769 Portolá expedition in order to signal the Spanish ship that was to resupply them. Unfortunately, the expedition did not realize how close it was to its intended destination—Monterey Bay—and turned back south.

From the cross, follow a path down slope and intersect another path that leads along the south bank of the Carmel River. Follow the berm and beach back to the trailhead.

© 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