It’s a symbol of fierce independence, an icon of the Californian coastline, and thousands of tourists come to visit it each week.
Often shrouded in fog, it has been desperately clinging to a rocky outcrop along Monterey Peninsula’s state park 17 Mile Drive for the last 250 years.
It’s survived a fire, plus all the elements the heavily pummelled coastline endures every year.
And its image has been replicated thousands of times by world-famous artists such as US landscape photographer Ansel Adams.
However, the US’ most photographed tree is also its most controversial. The rare Monterey Cypress resides on land owned by the exclusive Pebble Beach Company, a purveyor of golf resort services to one of the most beautiful and expensive golf courses in the world.
Pebble Beach Company have been reproducing an image of the tree as its logo for decades, and officially trademarked its image back in 1919. Which didn’t mean anything until they decided that no-one else was allowed to make a profit out of it in 1990, sending representatives out to scour galleries in the nearby artists’ enclave of Carmel.
It doesn’t stop the buses and cars full of tourists coming to see the humble tree, held into its pedestal by wires paid for by Pebble Beach, who are happy to accommodate tourists’ selfies.
I’ve cycled to the Lone Cypress from the township of Carmel via electric bike, which not only resolves the issue of parking but makes me exempt from the US$10 entrance fee vehicles must pay.
Nestled alongside the townships of Pacific Grove and Monterey in the north and Big Sur to the south, romantically-monikered Carmel-by-the-Sea has always attracted artists bewitched by the area’s dramatic coastline.
The town is bookended by its famous state parks – 17 Mile Drive and Point Lobos to the south, which is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
By now you’re getting the hint that Carmel is no ordinary beachside Californian town.
While the US’ most photographed tree may be instantly recognisable, Carmel is often overlooked by tourists, who often wizz right past it to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.
With a population of around 4000 and designed for walking, Carmel is built into a hill that slopes down into two sheltered white sand beaches. Line with more of those photogenic cypress trees and walking paths, the beaches are perfect for swimming.
But it’s the fairytale architecture here that really makes this town stand out.
It all started back in the 1920s when a man called Hugh Comstock arrived in Carmel in 1924 and met a dollmaker Mayotta Brown, who he fell in love with.
Comstock was no architect but he had an eye for the whimsical and created a life-sized ‘doll’s house’ to showcase her increasingly popular toys. The house was imperfect, thus charming. And it was named Hansel. And then another one was built alongside it and called ‘Gretel’.
The artistic community of Carmel fell in love with its design and everyone immediately wanted one of their own. For Comstock the land was cheap at US$100 and the houses were built with cheap materials.
The houses and business were built around courtyards with secret passageways which meant you never had to leave the same way you entered, and it’s a good way to avoid the tourist-choked main drag.
The Comstock style now thrives in Carmel, with houses fetching a sweet US$4 million; and was recently voted one of the prettiest towns in the US by architectural digest.
Clint Eastwood is one of its famous residents, and during the 80s had a run in with the local council over building restrictions and decided to run for mayor on a platform of ice-cream which was, at the time, against the law to sell.
He won, and served for two years, overturning the ice cream law, building a carpark by the beach for tourists, and saving its incredible Mission from redevelopment.
Its citizens have gone to great lengths to keep their town unique. There are no addresses here – houses go by name and mail must be delivered and collected to a central post office. To this day it is bad luck to change a house’s name. There are no parking meters of street lights, and no sidewalks outside the commercial area. High heels are illegal, in order to stop pedestrians tripping over the cobblestoned alleyways, although you can get a permit to wear them from city hall. There are no chain restaurants either.
And its incredible galleries which number more than 80 hold works from famous artists such as Picasso to sculptor Richard MacDonald, and photographers Robert Knight to Ansel Adams.
Although you may struggle to find images depicting the determined and infamous cypress, you’ll discover many other treasures that have been inspired by the incredible landscape along the Pacific coast.
Tally Ho Inn offers unique accommodation with balconies overlooking the sea. Rooms start from US$359 per night. tallyho-inn.com
Flaherty’s Seafood Grill, for incredible local seafood prepared Californian style. 6th Ave., Between Dolores & San Carlos, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93921; Website: www.flahertysseafood.com
Cruise along the coast to the Lone Cypress via e-bike from Mad Dogs & Englishmen; SW Corner of Ocean Ave and Mission St, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93921
A walking tour of Carmel will offer a lowdown of its unique history and architecture. See gaelgallagher.com/carmel-walks
The writer was a guest of Visit California