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A lone cypress tree stands against the sea on a rocky outcrop in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. (Photograph by Michael Howell, Getty Images)

Travels on the Run: Carmel-by-the-Sea

It doesn’t take much to fall in love with the village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a place I visit often when I’m home in my native northern California.

This run is the clincher.

Starting at the base of Ocean Avenue one early morning, as mist rises from the eucalyptus-scented hills, I trundle south along aptly named Scenic Road, following the path above the white-sand beach.

Shaded by cypress trees, I keep one eye trained on the crashing Pacific surf to my right, sometimes spying surfers playing in the waves—and dolphins. Whales might be there, too; I look for the telltale water spout, or a fluke splashing in the blue, but this time I see nothing.

To my left are English-style cottages, as charming and blossom-bedecked as can be. The names are pure storybook: Sandbox, Sans Souci, Robin’s Nest.

After awhile the road edges inland, hugging the golden marshlands at the mouth of the Carmel River—a birder’s paradise, with egret and heron sightings virtually guaranteed.

I weave through bungalow-lined streets, passing by Clint Eastwood’s historic Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant. Sheep graze on the salty meadow, framed by a ribbon of slate-blue ocean off in the distance.

A few more wiggly streets bring me to the twin-bell-towered adobe Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo (more simply known as Carmel Mission), situated amid flowering gardens. Father Junípero Serra—founder of the first nine missions (of 21) that line California’s coast, each located one day’s horseback ride apart—is buried here.

Pope Francis canonized the controversial Franciscan friar during his recent visit to Washington, D.C., much to the chagrin of opponents who view Serra as a brutal imperialist and mass executioner of Native Americans who resisted Catholicism—or at the very least, closed his eyes to the atrocities committed against them. All of that aside, Carmel Mission has always been a peaceful space to me, so I pause to stretch my legs.

I retrace my steps all the way back to Ocean Avenue—spotting Pebble Beach’s green fairways just up the coast—and chug up the hill past art galleries, alluring boutiques, and Cottage of Sweets, a moss-decorated bungalow straight out of Hansel and Gretel. And finally I stop, out of breath, at the historic Carmel Bakery and Coffee Company for a well-deserved cup of fresh-brewed coffee.

> Run Stats:

Mileage: 5.5 miles, out-and-back

Best time: Morning, when the streets are still quiet. Sunset is nice, too.

Start: Near the beach, where Ocean Avenue intersects with Scenic Road.

End: Carmel Bakery and Coffee Company on Ocean Avenue between Dolores and Lincoln Streets.

> The Route:

  • From the base of Ocean Avenue, head south on Scenic Road for 1.8 miles, winding along the oceanfront then around Carmel River State Beach. Along the marshlands Scenic Road turns into Carmelo Street.
  • Turn right on 16th Avenue.
  • In two blocks, turn left on Monte Verde Street.
  • In two blocks, turn right on 15th Avenue, which bears into Delores Street at the Mission Ranch Hotel, then Lasuen Drive.
  • At the intersection of Lasuen Drive with Rio Road, stop in front of the mission gate.
  • Backtrack 2.5 miles, back to the base of Ocean Avenue.
  • Turn right, and go up the hill for 0.34 mile to the Carmel Bakery and Coffee Company, or your choice of any number of other enticing cafés and breakfast eateries.

Barbara A. Noe is senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.