Standing before the Lone Cypress

The Lone Cypress, located on a rocky ledge along 17 Mile Drive  south of Carmel.
Tourists come to the seaside village of Carmel, Calif., for the qauint restaurants and lodging but they stay to see the Lone Cypress. The tree is located on a rocky ledge along private 17-Mile Drive, just south of Carmel.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Postcards from the West

You’ve seen the Lone Cypress. It stands along famously scenic 17-Mile Drive, raked by wind, swaddled in fog, clinging to its wave-lashed granite pedestal like God’s own advertisement for rugged individualism.

It may be 250 years old. It might be the most photographed tree in North America. It sits alongside one of the world’s most beautiful (and expensive) golf courses. It’s a marketing tool, a registered trademark, a Western icon.

David Potigian, owner of Gallery Sur in Carmel, explained it to me this way: This tree is to the Monterey Peninsula what the pyramids are to Egypt, what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. No wonder its keepers are hoping it will last 100 more years.


But let’s face it: This is one spindly old conifer, small for its species, scarred by a long-ago arson. For more than 65 years, half-hidden steel cables have held the tree in place.

If you pay the $9.75 per car to cruise 17-Mile Drive (which is private property, part of the 5,300-acre Pebble Beach resort), you will see the Lone Cypress and behold the spectacular collision of land, sea, golf and wealth that is Pebble Beach. But you won’t get within 40 feet of the tree. Chances are you’ll be joined by a few other tourists. Maybe a tour bus too.

This is the challenge of a classic postcard destination. Like many travelers, I’m drawn to these places — the Lone Cypress, Yosemite’s Half Dome and Monument Valley, for instance. Yet when I arrive, I don’t want a warmed-over experience. I want a jolt of discovery.

Even if you haven’t read Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise,” you have felt like the character in it who gazes upon tourists as they gaze upon the most-photographed barn in America. “No one sees the barn,” he says. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

I want to see that barn — or, in this case, that lonely tree. I’ve seen plenty of Lone Cypress images, but never stood before the genuine article and stared. When you finally get to such a place, you want to spot something that will draw you closer or transform your perspective. You want to understand what’s changed and what hasn’t since that first postcard photographer rolled up in his Ford, or maybe his Packard. And you want to know what waits beyond the edge of the postcard view.


The Lone Cypress is oft-photographed, but is there still something to be seen in it?

These stories are my stab at that. This is the start of a series in which photographer Mark Boster and I revisit iconic Western destinations.

So, Cupressus macrocarpa, the Monterey Cypress. Once you reach Pebble Beach, about 325 miles north of Los Angeles, you enter 17-Mile Drive, pay the booth attendant, then head past well-tended fairways, sprawling estates and coastal open space to stop No. 16.

On your way, remind yourself that as a species the Monterey Cypress naturally occurs no place on Earth but around Pebble Beach and Point Lobos. Every one of these natives is a rarity.

At No. 16, you find about two dozen parking spaces lining the two-lane road. Above the surf, rocks and foliage, there’s a wooden observation deck, and nearby there’s a fenced private home that has stood within 200 feet of the tree for about half a century. (It was a woman in this home, Frances Larkey, who saw the flames and called authorities when an unknown arsonist set the tree afire in 1984.) And out there on the rock, there’s the Lone Cypress.

Some tourists shrug and stay two minutes. Some make out and stay 20.

Above and below sea level, it’s a rich coastline. Elsewhere along 17-Mile Drive, you can stroll the beach at Point Joe, prowl the tree skeletons at Pescadero Point and take in the wide panorama at Cypress Point (which closes April 1-June 1 for seal-pupping season).


If you prefer to do your coastal rambling on foot without golf courses and private estates, it’s only a few miles south to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve ($10 a car). If you ask Kim Weston, grandson of famed photographer Edward Weston and a longtime Carmel local, Point Lobos beats Pebble Beach hands-down as a place to prowl with a camera.

So did I see the tree anew? Not exactly. We visited it morning, noon and night, watched tourists ebb and flow, chartered a boat to see it from the ocean. More than ever, I have a soft spot for that singular figure on the rock. But the best minute of the trip — the travel moment that felt fresh, enduring and uniquely rooted in this corner of the world — occurred just up the road.

I’d rented a bike. The sun was low, and I was meandering north from the Lone Cypress toward Point Joe. Ahead, 17-Mile Drive, nearly empty, gently rose, fell and curved.

I began to sense a deepening connection, began to feel as if I’d finally wedged myself between the landscape and everything else. A chilly breeze. Squawks and barks from Bird Rock. Orange sky. I have no picture to show of that happy, unobstructed moment, but I have the moment all the same.


Timeline: The life of the Lone Cypress

A look at key dates in the history of Pebble Beach’s famous tree along 17-Mile Drive.

Before 1813, experts think: A Monterey cypress seedling takes root on a chunk of granite on the Monterey Peninsula.

1880: Railroad magnates Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins want to lure more Americans west. Through their Pacific Improvement Co., they open the Hotel del Monte, a grand resort on the dramatic coastline near Monterey. The following June, they open a path for horse-drawn carriages and call it 17-Mile Drive.

1889: Correspondent R. Fitch, writing in the Monterey Cypress newspaper, reports that “a solitary tree has sunk its roots in the crevices of the wave-washed rock, and defies the battle of the elements that rage about it during the storms of winter.”

1897: The nine-hole Del Monte Golf Course, first venue of its kind on the peninsula, opens and soon expands to 18 holes.

1901: The Pacific Improvement Co. starts charging 25 cents for passage on 17-Mile Drive. Highlights include the Ostrich Tree (downed by a storm in 1916) and the Witch Tree (downed in the 1960s). The Lone Cypress is seen at Midway Point.


1919: Samuel F.B. Morse (a distant relative of the Morse Code inventor of the same name) buys the resort, which now includes a hotel, a lodge and two golf courses. On stock certificates, Morse includes an image of the Lone Cypress, which becomes a company trademark through the decades.

1941: Photos show the cypress’ rock has been shored up by stonemasonry.

1948: The U.S. Navy, which leased the Hotel del Monte during World War II, buys the hotel. (It’s now the Naval Postgraduate School.) Photos show the Lone Cypress is now supported by steel cables, but tourists can walk up to the tree and picnic.

1969: The tree is fenced off to protect its roots. Morse dies at 83, having built the resort into a promised land for golfers. Its ownership will change several times during the next 30 years, and the Del Monte imprint will fade as new management emphasizes the Pebble Beach name.

1999: A group, including Peter Ueberroth and Clint Eastwood, buys Pebble Beach Co. from Japanese owners.

2012: An upstart cypress begins creeping out of the Lone Cypress’ rock base, raising hopes of renewal for the landmark. Then comes a storm. The upstart is obliterated; the Lone Cypress remains.


2013: Pebble Beach Co. now operates three hotels, four golf courses, a spa, a beach and tennis club, an equestrian center and 17-Mile Drive. Neal Hotelling, the company’s director of licensing and unofficial historian, notes that a Monterey cypress in ideal conditions can last 500 years. As for the Lone Cypress: “We certainly suspect it will continue to live a good while. I would hope at least another 100 years.” The company has no plan for when the tree dies, Hotelling said, except that “we think the trademark will live on even if the tree doesn’t.”


Spellbinding Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

If the Lone Cypress stands for persistence, beauty and grace amid adversity, its distant cousin, the Old Veteran cypress of Point Lobos, stands for a grittier sort of staying power.

The Old Veteran hunkers down on a cliff top, its trunk bleached nearly white, roots groping the air, branches splayed by the wind. If Van Gogh had painted a Monterey cypress, this is what you’d get.

From the tree’s girth, you’d guess it’s centuries older than the Lone Cypress (which is estimated at 200 to 300 years). But who really knows? Whatever its age, it adds gravitas to the already spellbinding landscape of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, three miles south of Carmel.


For any traveler who can leave the car behind and do a little scrambling among the rocks and tide pools, Point Lobos is where you want to be.

But you want to get there soon after the opening (8 a.m. daily), because it can get crowded. Once the reserve’s 150 or so parking spots fill, the rangers go to a one-in, one-out system.

Just like the coastline along 17-Mile Drive, Point Lobos was home in the 19th century to dozens of Chinese immigrant fishing families that gathered abalone, urchin and other species. (Japanese and Portuguese immigrants worked the area too.) Unlike 17-Mile Drive, Point Lobos is public property, having been owned by the state since the 1930s. Admission is $10 a car, 25 cents more than the tab for 17-Mile Drive. Many visitors dodge that cost by parking along Highway 1 and walking in.

Besides Old Veteran (which is part of the 1.4-mile North Shore Trail between Whalers Cove and Sea Lion Point), the reserve includes the Cypress Grove Trail and tide pools at Weston Beach. There’s also a Chinese fishermen’s cabin that’s been converted into a cultural museum at Whalers Cove. Two coves are open to scuba and free divers.

If you’re a photographer choosing between Pebble Beach and Point Lobos, “Point Lobos is a far superior place to make creations and do solid, honest work,” said Kim Weston, a photographer whose grandfather, Edward Weston, shot extensively at Point Lobos. “What I like to do is come in the winter when it’s stormy and no one’s out here. It’s an amazing piece of land.”


Kim Weston: The trees remind us of our heroic self

Kim Weston of photography’s Weston clan finally turns his camera on the landmark. But admire just that one Monterey cypress? They’re all ‘magnificently beautiful,’ he says.

Of course we love Monterey cypress trees, said Kim Weston. They remind us of our heroic selves.

“They’re standing out there on the headlands,” said Weston, the third generation of one of America’s most famous families of photographers. “They’re battling nature, and they survive in very, very harsh conditions. And they’re sort of tortured in a way.…

“I think that metaphor resonates with artists and poets as well as the ordinary tour bus of 400 Japanese with cameras.”

Weston, who photographs mostly nudes and landscapes, lives with his wife and son in Wildcat Canyon, Carmel, just up the hill from Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.


His grandfather was photography pioneer Edward Weston. His father was acclaimed photographer Cole Weston, and his uncle was the equally acclaimed Brett Weston.

His son, Zach, recently started shooting nudes and landscapes.

Such a locally rooted, landscape-loving family must feel an intimate connection to the most-photographed cypress ever, right?

Wrong. As with earlier Westons, Kim prefers the trees and rocks of Point Lobos, which has its own stand of Monterey cypress.

Even though he teaches photography workshops locally and internationally, he had never shot the Lone Cypress. When Times photographer Mark Boster and I took him along on a fishing boat to check out seaside angles of the landmark, he took a few shots. But clearly, he’s not interested in confining his admiration to just one cypress.

“Some of them even in their dead state are magnificently beautiful just for their twisted form,” Weston said. “It still makes them an object beautiful to photograph, beautiful to paint, beautiful to write about.”