Forty-eight years ago, Marlene and I made our first trip to California. I remember traveling up a mountain road called Highway 17 where we got caught in a traffic jam. Some things don’t change.
On this same trip, we visited the Carmel Mission. Well, Marlene did. I couldn’t go into the mission because I was wearing Bermuda shorts.
Forty-eight years later, dressed in disreputable sweat pants and a sweat-stained Big Basin cap, I and my four dollars were welcomed. I was told I could take pictures anywhere (without flash). Some things do change.
The Basilica of Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, founded by the famous Junipero Serra in 1770, has been beautifully restored. The present stone church, built in 1793, is an excellent example of Spanish colonial architecture. Interior walls curve inward as they rise. Following the sweep of the wall, the ceiling forms a dramatic catenary arch. Outside, the Moorish-inspired tower is home to nine bells and flocks of doves. As I walked through two museums, basilica sanctuary, cemetery, and two courtyards, I felt a sense of early California history. I had come to this place to hike the nearby trail, but after 48 years, it was good to step back in time.
Mission Trail Park
My original destination, Mission Trail Park, is Carmel’s largest park. The 35 acres include a forested canyon fed by a small stream, hillside meadows on the east, and views of Carmel Point and the Pacific to the west.
The five miles of trails are well-maintained but often poorly signed. For example, several intersections are labeled “trail,” without an indication of a specific trail name. Fortunately, this isn’t a big problem because the trails generally run south to north from the Rio Road entrance.
To reach this entrance, one of four ways into the park, turn right from Highway 1 at Rio Road. Drive about half a mile west on Rio Road. You’ll see the Carmel Mission on the left. You can leave your car in the pullout on the right side of the road, or park in the lot on the left while visiting the mission.
For the easiest, smoothest, most level hike, simply follow the wide Serra Trail along the east side of the stream to the end of the trail defined by two footbridges, then backtrack to the intersection with Willow Trail. This trail crosses the stream, parallels the Serra Trail along the west side of the stream, then joins the Serra Trail near the Rio Road entrance.
For a bit more challenging walk, take the well-marked, single-track Doolittle Trail to the right as you enter the park. The trail takes you uphill along the ridge then back down to the main Serra Trail. In a short distance, you’ll find the Doolittle Trail going back up the hill. When you reach a Y-fork, take the Mesa Trail to the right. A few little switchbacks take you to a grassy meadow. Here you can sit on a comfortable bench to view the mission, Carmel Point, and the ocean.
At your next Y, take the Flanders Trail uphill to the right, then take the next fork left to stay on the Flanders Trail to the Flanders Mansion and Lester Rowntree Garden. The garden displays native California plants and offers views of Carmel and Point Lobos. From the garden, take the wide trail back down to the Serra Trail, then turn left toward the entrance. To avoid some of the backtracking, you can cross the stream at Willow Trail, paralleling Serra Trail part of the way back to the entrance. The round trip distance is about 1.5 miles.
Scenic Bluff Pathway
It doesn’t seem right to visit Carmel without seeing beautiful Carmel Beach. From Mission Trail Park, you can simply follow Rio Road past Carmel Mission where the street changes its name to Junipero Avenue. It’s a short drive on Junipero to Carmel’s main street, Ocean Avenue. Turn left on Ocean, then take it west to the parking area. Watch for Scenic Road to the left. Drive two blocks to parking spaces on the right.
You can walk along the pathways south on sandy bluffs for almost a mile to Carmel Point. It’s easy walking on the well-groomed trail through landscaped gardens and under the shade of Monterey cypress. For a change, you can take any one of eight stairways about a city block apart to reach the white sands of the beach. The entire distance to Carmel Point and back is 1.6 miles.
The mission self-guided tour costs $4.00. Parking for the mission, park, and Carmel beach are free. The park and the beach are dog-friendly.
While in Carmel, enjoy great restaurants and shopping. It’s a quite civilized way to enjoy the end of the trail.