The Coast with the Most: 12 Monterey County Moments Worth a Trip
Monterey County encompasses the best of California -- in one place -- from wine country to redwood forests to 99 miles of coastline.
Go wine tasting in lush Salinas Valley, play a round of golf in Pebble Beach, hike through towering redwoods in Big Sur, and shop the boutiques in Carmel-by-the-Sea -- all in one weekend.
Did you know there's an airport too? Nonstop flights connect San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas to Monterey Regional Airport. Alternately, San Jose International Airport is just over an hour's drive (75 miles), and San Francisco International Airport is about a two-hour drive (110 miles) to Monterey County.
It's time to put the every day in the rearview mirror and set out along scenic Highway 1 to chase down these moments:
1. Join the fun in downtown Monterey.
Colorful Fisherman's Wharf is a prime spot to see sea lions and gulls; whale-watching tours, glass bottom-boat rides and kayak rentals can be found here. Next door is the waterfront street of Cannery Row -- you can't miss it thanks to the red historic cannery. Families can play laser tag or chow down on fresh seafood, while adults should head upstairs for wine flights at A Taste of Monterey -- its second floor location offers terrific bay views.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-see on Cannery Row. Life-size whale models swim overhead in the Marine Mammal Gallery, while real-life giant Pacific octopuses disguise themselves in the Tentacles exhibit. Stay dry in the Splash Zone with 45 interactive exhibits that educate children about coral reef, rocky shore animals and kelp. And keep an eye out for sea turtles, sharks and jellyfish in Open Sea, the aquarium's largest exhibit.
These popular attractions are less crowded during fall and winter months. During the summer months, visit on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons for fewer crowds.
Where to stay: Hotel Pacific near Fisherman's Wharf has spacious suites with free breakfast.
2. Play in the Pacific.
The waves at Monterey State Beach are small and calm, and it's common to see kayakers and scuba divers alongside children building sandcastles. Further north is a different story, with towering sand dunes covering the beaches of Seaside, Sand City and Marina. Look up and, you'll see paragliders and hang gliders taking advantage of the perfect conditions.
For a quieter beach day try Zmudowski State Beach. This well-hidden beach is about two miles off Highway 1 in Moss Landing -- you might think you're on the wrong road, but just keep driving. It's just one of a number of secret beaches in Monterey County.
Where to stay: Most rooms have fireplaces at this cozy Colton Inn, just a half mile from Monterey State Beach.
3. Drive around the bend for ocean views and famous sights.
Arguably one of the most famous (and scenic) roads on the West Coast is 17-Mile Drive. This two-lane road twists its way across oceanside cliffs providing uninterrupted dewy morning and evening sunset views. Pose for a selfie at Lovers Point or Lone Cypress, one of the most photographed trees in the world. Your destination is the exclusive neighborhood of Pebble Beach, famous for legendary golf courses and high-end resorts -- don't miss the evening bagpiper performance at The Inn at Spanish Bay.
17-Mile Drive entrances are in Pacific Grove and Carmel. Access requires a $10 cash fee which can then be used as credit toward purchases along the route.
4. See the towering redwoods of Big Sur.
Big Sur, located 26 miles south of Carmel, is a one-stop shop for jaw-dropping nature vistas. Redwood trees up to 30 feet in diameter have populated this park for more than 3,000 years.
There are several state parks within Big Sur: Pfeiffer Beach stands out with a rugged shoreline that makes for dramatic sunset photo ops, while Andrew Molera State Park stands out by offering horseback rides through the forest and down to the beach.
Big Sur makes for a long day trip, but there's a variety of overnight options here, from campsites and rustic cabins to five-star resorts. Be sure to pack a jacket, as it can get windy.
5. Hike it or bike it.
Beginners take note: Jacks Peak Country Park has well-marked hiking trails and Pinnacles National Park has trails for all levels -- try Moses Spring Trail, as the kids won't want to miss its caves. Don't forget a flashlight.
Point Lobos State Reserve's popular Cypress Grove and Sea Lion Point trails are prime to see -- you guessed it -- cypress trees and sea lions. Experienced hikers should go for the eight-mile Beach Trail at Andrew Molera State Park which challenges with strenuous elevation gain and rewards with coastline vistas.
Prefer a set of wheels? Four-seater surrey bikes are perfect for families and available to rent along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. The trail starts near Cannery Row and goes down to Lover's Point and Pacific Grove.
6. Try to hit the fairway at the 18th hole.
Pebble Beach Golf Links is a bucket-list pilgrimage for any serious golfer. The par-3 7th is only 106 yards, but the picturesque peninsula green is fiercely defended by wind. The finishing par-5 18th runs 543 yards along the bay, with sea lions barking applause for tee shots into the fairway. Tee times are coveted at this pricey public course ($525 a round). Only guests at Pebble Beach Resort can reserve a round more than one day in advance.
If Pebble Beach isn't in the budget, there are more than 450 holes of golf in the county with courses that rank among the world's best. Highlights include the very difficult Spyglass Hill and redesigned Poppy Hills, the 36 holes at one-time military courses Bayonet and Black Horse (good luck in “Combat Corner”), the shorter Pacific Grove Golf Links with its $50 greens fee and views of Point Pinon Lighthouse and the family-friendly par-3 Peter Hay Golf Course.
7. Get up close to sea otters and whales.
California is one of the only places where whales can be seen year-round. The best season to see them is spring when gray whales migrate north along the coastline. Be sure to reserve whale-watching cruises in advance as trips can fill up fast. If you're traveling with little ones, opt for a glass bottom boat ride from Fisherman's Wharf. It's a smoother ride, and you'll still see plenty of sea lions and sea otters.
Moss Landing State Beach is a sure bet to see sea otters from the shore. There is a protected cove near the dunes where sea otters are often huddled together in rafts -- that's what a group of floating sea otters is called.
8. Stroll and shop in quaint European-style towns.
It's worth it to park the car and walk through the neighboring towns. Dollhouse-like Victorian buildings and flittering monarch butterflies are focal points of Pacific Grove -- aptly nicknamed Butterfly Town USA -- and the broad sidewalks make window-shopping a breeze among the boutiques and galleries.
Perhaps the best-known town is Carmel-by-the-Sea; whether its fame is due to one-time mayor Clint Eastwood, the picturesque beach lined with driftwood or the shops straight out of a storybook (there's a literal Cottage of Sweets) it lives up to the hype.
Where to stay: Wayside Inn is a quintessential cottage-style inn in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea.
9. Taste pinot noir straight from a vineyard.
Monterey County's 85-plus vintners are making their mark on the California wine scene. Sample local chardonnays, pinot noirs, syrahs and cabernets at family-owned wineries in the Carmel and Salinas valleys along the River Road Wine Trail. It's easy to tour on a self-drive itinerary, but why not leaving the drive to someone else and board the Grapevine Express? It's $5 roundtrip with hourly departures from downtown Monterey and 13 stops between there and Carmel.
There are plenty of tasting rooms across the county as well. In Carmel-by-the-Sea alone there are 18 options. Plus, the visitor center there offers a Wine Tasting Passport for $65 (a $90 value) that includes wine flights at nine places, all on Ocean Avenue -- and they don't expire until you use them all up.
10. Tickle the taste buds with fresh seafood.
Seafood reigns supreme here: think steaming bowls of clam chowder, freshly shucked oysters and just-out-of-the-fryer fish and chips. In fact, it's so quintessential to Monterey that Sardine Factory was a key location in "Play Misty for Me," Clint Eastwood's 1971 directorial debut -- the whole movie was actually filmed in Monterey County.
A must-visit for food in downtown Monterey is The Wharf Marketplace. Inspired by Seattle's Pike Place, the market features local produce, cheese, seafood and wine; that's as farm-to-table as you can get. Lettuce has never tasted as fresh as it does here -- after all, nearby Salinas is known as the "salad bowl of America." About 70% of the nation's lettuce is grown there. Next door in Carmel Valley, The Farm Stand at Earthbound Farm combines a cut-your-own herb garden with an outdoor picnic area and organic salad bar.
11. Indulge in a spa day among waterfalls and redwoods.
Chardonnay bubble baths, seaweed wraps and private yoga sessions -- enough said. It's time for a spa day in Big Sur, Carmel Valley, Monterey or Pebble Beach. Customize a spa day at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur with calming meditation, purifying Shaman Fire Ceremonies and mud body wraps. Wine enthusiasts will love the chardonnay massage oils and facial treatments at Bernardus Lodge.
Get the most bang for your buck at Refuge Spa, an immensely relaxing co-ed spa. A kid-and electronics-free spa day starts at $44 for access to four Nordic cool pools, a eucalyptus steam bath and six hot pools with thermal waterfalls in Carmel Valley -- truly invigorating on a cold day.
12. Capture a sunrise and sunset.
Dawn patrol isn't just for surfers at Lovers Point Beach. This east-facing Pacific Grove beach boasts a sunrise over the ocean, one of the only ones the West Coast. Yes, the sun does rise and set in Monterey County. For spectacular sunsets, head to Big Sur, where the light bounces off rock formations at Garrapata and Pfeiffer beaches.
Where to stay: Carmel Mission Inn is an affordable option between Carmel Beach and Monastery Beach -- plus it has an outdoor pool.
Ready to go?
Fall and winter are when we see some of the best hotel deals of the year in Monterey County. Midweek rates are often lower, so extend your weekend an extra night or two so you can explore even more.