Keyhole Arch | Beebower Productions

Finding the Key

The fabled Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, California was proving to be illusive.  Dad and I had repeatedly cruised up and down Highway 1 looking for Sycamore Canyon Road and the little bakery my massage therapist had assured me would be near the turn-off.  No canyon road and no bakery.  No beach.  No Keyhole Arch.  No photography nirvana.

We returned home and scoured our resources looking for GPS coordinates, something we should have done from the start.   But who would have imagined such a famous spot would be so hard to find?

In April, my parents loaded up the Mouse House (my nickname for their very small Casita) and headed west from Dallas, Texas.  They drove really far west to Monterey, CA.  They spent two weeks with me exploring the coast before heading off for the second half of their really, really, really long road trip through California, Oregon and Washington.  (Did I mention it was a long trip?)  I’ll be giving you Dad’s West coast photo round up over the next three weeks.

During their time in Monterey, Dad and I spent a great deal of energy hunting down photographs of landscapes, marine life and birds.  Thus we found ourselves spinning our wheels looking for the illusive Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach.

So back to our story.  Armed with the said GPS coordinates, we finally found the road to the beach and photography nirvana.  Park, walk across the sand past a small stream and boom.  There sits Keyhole Arch.   It’s one of the easiest landscape photo sites I’ve ever been to with Dad (if you discount the three trips to Big Sur it took for us to locate the beach).

What’s so special about this illusive pile of rocks?  During a few days of the winter months, the sunsets directly behind this stalwart sea arch causing the “keyhole” to glow in an amazing way.  Considering it was May we were a bit late to catch this incredible phenomenon, but Dad didn’t give up in capturing a great image.

We photographed the arch in early morning light and then returned for the sunset that evening.  So did a lot of other photographers, including a herd of folks attending a photo workshop on the beach.

Not intimidated, Dad worked his way into position to capture the sunset and some waves that were crashing through the arch.  Everything went off without a hitch until a drone roared to life above the photogs, zipped out over the arch and zoomed down the beach.  Minor distraction, kind of a like an annoying mosquito.  But if the truth were told Dad was a bit envious of the shots the drone could capture.

Anyway, back at home Dad created a composite of the morning and sunset shots to illustrate his “take” on this well-known, if hard-to-find, spot.

Photo Lesson

Research and triple-check your research before setting out on a photo adventure.   GPS coordinates are always good too.  Things aren’t always as easy to find as you might think.  

By the way, you can find the incredibly sharp Pfeiffer Beach turn-off at 36 degrees 14’ 24” N, 121 degrees 46’ 38” W.  The road is not marked with a sign.  The entrance fee is $10.

Point Lobos State Park

Eye candy abounds at Point Lobos.  Need unusual rocks, a craggy coastline, smashing waves, windswept Monterey cypress trees, small islands adjacent to turquoise coves, seals, sea lions, sea otters or birds of all sizes and shapes?  Lobos has you covered.  

Dad and I both found plenty to work with at the park.  The really cool part of Lobos is following in the footsteps of legendary landscape photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.  If it was good enough for them, it certainly is good enough for us.

Good doesn’t mean easy, though.  A couple of things can create challenges:  it’s crowded, the weather can change at the drop of a hat and you need to know where to go so you don’t waste time.

Alien Rocks at Point Lobos | Beebower Productions

Our best advice:  arrive early and walk the trails.  If you drive from point to point, you’ll miss some of the fantastic spots such as the alien-like circles the waves carved into the rocks in Dad’s photo.  You can’t see them from the road.

Not only that, you might not find a parking spot.  Lobos is super popular with tourists and locals alike.  Park officials actually limit the number of cars allowed in the park at one time so you can guess that the parking spaces fill up quickly later in the day.

The weather can go from a bright and sunny day to foggy and freezing in a matter of minutes.  Really.  If you’ve got your heart set on a brilliant sunset, you might be disappointed.  But if you’re flexible you might get an amazing fog-shrouded, ghostly cypress tree photo.  So stay flexible and dress in layers.  That coat feels mighty nice in June.  Really.

Finally, you really need to look at your first trip to Lobos as a scouting mission.  There are so many possible photos scattered throughout the park, you’ll want to develop at plan of where to go and at what time of the day you should shoot.  That, of course, depends on the sun’s location.  Some shots are better with sunrise light and others demand evening light.

Nesting Brandt’s Cormorants | Beebower Productions

Despite the challenges Dad felt fortunate to capture several good images during his day at Lobos.  Besides the alien rocks, he photographed a large nesting colony of Brandt’s cormorants on Bird Island.

Photo Lesson

Give yourself a lot of time to explore a place and scout pictures.  Carry a compass to determine where the sun will rise and set in relationship to the image you want to capture.  Take copious notes about this so you’ll know how to plan your shooting days.

Point Lobos is open year-round.  Admission is $10 per vehicle.  Learn more at

Herring Gull | Beebower Productions

Whale Tails and Other Ocean Stuff

Dad and I took to the high seas for our next adventure.  Just off the coast of Moss Landing, CA lies the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.   The waters team with humpback whales, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, orcas, gray whales and lots of seabirds. 

We set sail on a gray, wet morning with Captain Mike and crew aboard the Sanctuary part of Sanctuary Cruises.  It was a three-hour tour, but unlike Gilligan and his ill-fated friends, we did return to Moss Landing as promised.  Along the way, we saw a lot of humpback whales.

Boats can really hone your shooting skills.  Not only do you need to be ready to compose and shoot at breakneck speed if a creature pops up, you also have to keep yourself firmly planted on the deck.  Doesn’t sound too complicated, does it?  Yeah.  For landlubbers like us, it was especially exciting when we reached the big swells.  And even with autofocus it’s challenging to get those little red sensors to focus on the right thing when you’re bobbing like a cork.

Captain Mike, though, went out of his way to help us out.  He showed us the best spots on the boat to brace ourselves and he was very helpful about getting the boat positioned with the best light on our subjects.  About halfway through my first cruise with him, I commented that I liked him because he thought like a photographer.  Turns out he was a pro for many years.  That explained it.

Whale Tail | Beebower Productions

While we did see a lot of whale tails, we didn’t get to see any breeching whales or leaping dolphins or the much-coveted orcas.  You see, they’re wild animals.  And as much as we’d like to think they’ll cooperate with our cruise times, they don’t, at least not every trip.

That brings me to my next point.  When shooting wildlife, you have to be determined and persistent.  Sometimes it takes 10 trips to capture that one amazing picture.  By definition wildlife is going to do its own thing.  You just have to keep hanging around until you get.

Captain Mike’s photos grace his website.  He got those amazing images by hitting the water several times a day.  The odds go up considerably if you spend the extra time persistently looking for the sea creatures on a regular basis.

Photo Lesson

If you go, get the motion-sickness relief band.  It was originally designed by NASA for airsick astronauts.  They really do work. Captain Mike rents the bands for $7 and they’re worth every penny.   You can’t take great photos if you’re vomiting the whole trip.  Nobody wants to stand next to that guy.

Visit Sanctuary’s website at to learn other seasickness and boat tips or book your own trip.

Join us next Wednesday for part two of the West coast travels when Dad moves on to Yosemite, Redwood National and State parks.

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