Monterey County is a beautiful destination on California’s Central Coast. Located just 2-hours south of San Francisco, Monterey County encompasses the area from Monterey Bay to Carmel and Big Sur to Gorda. This region is known for more than just spectacular views, it boasts fantastic outdoor activities and a burgeoning food & wine scene.
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The coastline makes up the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is bursting with marine life and unparalleled natural beauty. Whether you are looking for a scenic road trip, your next favourite winery, or coming to hike the seaside trails and spot whales of Monterey Bay, the county makes for an unforgettable visit.
We visited Monterey County on our recent California road trip and spent a few action-packed days exploring the region. There are many more things to do in Monterey County than what we were able to squeeze into our visit, but we hope our favourite spots and activities will inspire you to add Monterey to your California trip!
As sustainable travelers, we try to make conscious choices about our visit to every destination, and our trip to Monterey was no exception. So here is our list of the best sustainable things to do in Monterey County, California.
Things to do in Monterey County, California
Ride the Free Trolley around Monterey
Did you know that the City of Monterey offers a free trolley service around town? If you’re keen to hit up all of Monterey’s top attractions in a unique and sustainable way, this one’s for you! The trolleys are the perfect example of old meets new with historic charm and modern electric engines.
The trolley operates daily in the summertime and on weekends during the off-season. The trolley has a convenient schedule with departures every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. The route circles around Downtown Monterey, with stops at Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Riding the trolley is easily one of the best free things to do in Monterey, CA. All of the stops are a must-see in Monterey and offer a glimpse into the area’s unique backstory. Be sure to stop at Monterey State Historic Park which is like a Monterey museum of history.
Unfortunately, the trolley service wasn’t operating when we visited in May but is set to resume in summer. You can view schedules and check for updates here.
Go Whale Watching
One of the top things to do in Monterey Bay, California, is to go whale watching. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is an incredible place to see whales any time of the year. There is a deep submarine canyon offshore, which is home to humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, gray whales, and orcas.
Discovery Whale Watch is one of the best operators offering Whale Watching Tours in Monterey. Their boats feature onboard biologists so you can learn all about these majestic creatures. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that Discovery Whale Watch has a 99% success rate on their Whale Watching tours throughout the year. And our tour did not disappoint, we were lucky enough to spot multiple humpback whales and even treated to an incredible humpback breach show!
Tours depart daily in the morning and afternoon from the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The boats pass by historic Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium en route allowing you to enjoy the view of the Monterey Bay from the water.
Have Clam Chowder at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf
The Old Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most iconic spots in Monterey. We loved the colourful buildings and shops that line the wharf. It’s worth a visit just to roam around and is also a great spot to grab some lunch or dinner.
The hero dish here is the traditional Monterey Clam Chowder served at almost every establishment along the pier. The Old Fisherman’s Grotto is known as one of the original spots serving up the local specialty since the 1950s. The restaurant has won a ton of awards and is undeniably one of the best places to have a Clam Chowder in Monterey. Try it in their famous crispy garlic bread bowl.
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Hike the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
Hiking is one of the best activities in Monterey thanks to the amazing landscapes and year-round pleasant weather. The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail offers great views and a convenient way to explore the area.
The trail spans 18 miles from Castroville to Pacific Grove, following the old Southern Pacific Railway route. You can walk the sands of Del Monte Beach before soaking in views of the Santa Cruz Mountains from Lovers Point Park.
There are options to explore the trails on foot as well as on a bike. Alternatively, you can rent kayaks from local businesses like Adventures by the Sea and Monterey Bay Kayaks and explore from the water. There are many places to stop along the trail for a drink, a bite to eat, or just to take a breather.
Other Hikes in Monterey County
Monterey County has loads of great hiking trails to explore. Some of the most popular hikes in Monterey, CA, venture through the region’s many state and regional parks. Our visit was short so we didn’t get a chance to explore all of the region’s trails, but a few locals recommended the following.
- Jacks Peak County Park is a local favourite and a perfect way to get a sweeping view of Monterey Bay, Carmel Valley and Point Lobos.
- Andrew Molera State Park with over 20 miles of trails through diverse environments.
- Moses Spring to Rim Trail Loop in Pinnacles National Park is known for cool rock formations and caves
For more day hike suggestions, check out the Top 10 Day Hikes in Monterey.
See Sea Lions at the End of Coast Guard Pier
Coast Guard Pier, located north of Old Fisherman’s Wharf near San Carlos Beach, is home to an army of barking sea lions. They are always fun to watch so it’s worth taking a stroll to the pier to check them out.
The pier is a perfect vantage point over Monterey Bay and is one of the best places to go in Monterey to see the local marine life.
Visit Fort Ord Dunes State Park
Fort Ord Dunes State Park is the newest park in Monterey County and is a popular spot for hiking, cycling, and bird watching, The sandy bluffs are fun to explore and offer fantastic views of Monterey Bay.
The park comprises 4 miles of shoreline and 4 miles of hiking and biking trails. Look out for interpretive signs along the way for a glimpse of Monterey history. Fort Ord Dunes was once an army training area but now serves as a habitat for endangered species.
Visit Asilomar State Beach
Perched on the shores of Spanish Bay, Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove is a lovely spot for sunsets and beach walks. The beach is sandy and backed by rocky coves with a winding walking trail that spans the 1-mile coastline. Asilomar Beach is also a popular spot for surfing and tide pooling. If you are lucky, you can also spot some marine life from the shore.
Follow the Scenic 17-Mile Drive
If an epic road trip isn’t already on your list of what to do in Monterey, CA, here’s one to add. 17-Mile Drive is a scenic route that winds its way along the Pacific Coast between Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach.
The loop starts at the Pacific Grove Gate in the North where mansions perch above the rocky bluffs. It then winds its way through Pebble Beach, one of the most prestigious communities in Monterey County overlooking Carmel Bay. Avid golf fans will recognize Pebble Beach Golf Links which wraps around California’s Monterey Peninsula as the #1 public golf course in the US.
17-Mile Drive is located on private property and has a toll road. The cost to enter is $11.25 per vehicle. The drive is nothing short of spectacular with plenty of photo opportunities, so it is certainly worth the price. There are 17 notable stops and attractions on the 17-Mile Drive, including spots like the Spanish Bay, Cypress Point Lookout, Crocker Grove and the impressive Del Monte Forest.
Walk the White Sands of Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach is an idyllic spot for sand and surf located on the south side of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The powdery white sand beach is home to a sandcastle contest that draws locals and tourists. The beach is backed by cypress trees and boasts stunning sunsets!
If the weather is nice, you can spend a day at Carmel Beach lounging in the sun or hitting the waves on a surfboard in true California fashion. Once the sun starts to tuck away, grab a bottle of local wine and sit back for a sunset picnic as you watch the sky dance with colour.
Sand beach by the Pacific Ocean coastline in Carmel California near Monterey. Photo courtesy of SeeMonterey.com
Go Wine Tasting
The Carmel Valley is a premium wine destination in Monterey County and one of the largest wine-growing regions in California. The unique microclimates of this region make for diverse growing conditions suitable for over 30 varietals. There are 65 tasting rooms to choose from in Monterey County (including in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Carmel Valley, Marina, Monterey and Salinas Valley), so if wine tasting is on your list of things to do in Monterey, be sure to plan for a few extra days in the region.
We got a taste of the wines from the region at the Folktale Winery, one of the best wineries in California known for its deep commitment to sustainable practices. The winery sits on 15 acres of organically farmed vineyards and fosters bright, acidic flavours.
They’re most known for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but we loved many of their other red blends and particularly loved their Mistral brand. The winery boasts a beautiful setting with a large outdoor seating area, live music and a beautiful space for weddings and/or events. We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon enjoying wine and food inspired by the California seasons.
Hike at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
If you want to explore Monterey in all its natural glory, a visit to Point Lobos State Reserve is a must. Known for its Monterey cypress trees and kelp forests, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a playground for nature lovers.
The Reserve is filled with wildlife, scenic views, and top-notch hiking trails.
- North Shore Trail is probably the most scenic trail in the reserve, offering great views of the Carmel coastline, Whaler’s Cove and Pebble Beach across the Bay.
- Cypress Grove Trail winds through rocky headlands and natural cypress grove and offers spectacular views of the seaside cliffs.
- Sea Lion Point Trail is where you’ll be able to spot some wildlife. The cove is home to a large colony of sea lions that can be spotted there throughout the year.
There’s a $10 entry fee to enter the Reserve, which helps cover land conservation costs and wildlife preservation.
Road Trip the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur
Hands down one of the best things to do in Monterey is the scenic drive to Big Sur. It was a drive that was recommended to us again and again by locals and visitors alike and we were so pleased that the scenery did not disappoint.
The 40-minute journey from Monterey to Big Sur is an awe-inspiring adventure from start to finish. It is truly one of the most picturesque drives we’ve ever been on. This stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway has graced several magazine covers and become an iconic symbol of California.
Big Sur’s majestic coastline offers many attractions and lookout points, so while the drive from Monterey to Big Sur only takes less than an hour, we recommend budgeting at least 4 hours for the return trip.
Keep in mind that it’s a busy route with a lot of traffic, so stay safe, obey signage, and be sure to only pull over in designated areas. Respect the natural beauty of this area!
Here are our favourite stops and spots to visit along the way!
Garrapata State Park
The whole stretch down the coast on Highway 1 from Monterey to Big Sur is dotted with parks and hiking trails. We really enjoyed Garrapata State Park, which is about halfway down and away from the crowds. Garrapata State Park boasts two canyon hiking trails and a beautiful beach at the foot of the Santa Lucia Range.
The park entrance is easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled on the signs! Trust us, the magnificent rocky coastline views and the hiking trails make this a worthy stop.
If you’ve ever seen photos of the Monterey coast, you’ve probably seen Bixby Bridge. The arch-shaped bridge was built in the 1930s and was once one of the tallest in the world. Now, it serves as a photo hotspot and an iconic part of visiting Monterey. Just be sure to respect the road signage and only pull over for a photo in designated spots.
Visit Andrew Molera State Park
The relatively undeveloped area of Andrew Molera State Park showcases Big Sur’s pristine natural beauty. There are trails leading to the beach and a campsite – a perfect stopping point for those traveling in an RV.
The Creamery Meadows Trail is one of the more popular trails in the park. It follows the Big Sur River as it makes its way down to the ocean passing through unique vegetation and scenery.
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Hike Your Way Around Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Set atop the lush forested mountains, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is often considered a mini-Yosemite. The park is located on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, surrounded by redwoods, oaks, cottonwoods, and willow trees.
There are a variety of hiking trails in the 1,000-acre park. The most popular is the newly reopened Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which features redwood groves and a 60-foot waterfall.
Keep in mind that Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is separate from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park—which is also worth a visit. The latter is located farther down the coast, past Big Sur’s main village and is home to the majestic McWay Falls.
See the Purple Sand at Pfeiffer Beach
One of the coolest things to see when you visit Monterey County is the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach. The purple colour comes from Manganese garnets that erode off the hillsides and pulverize into the sand. The sand is the easiest to see after rainfall or during a receding high tide.
Pfeiffer Beach is also home to the heavily photographed Keyhole Rock. At certain times of the year, you can see the sun setting in the middle of the arch, which makes for some pretty spectacular photos. Sadly, we didn’t time our visit with this unique effect.
Have Lunch at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn
If you are looking for a spot that offers the best views of the Big Sur coastline, Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn is just the spot. Post Ranch Inn is an ultra sustainable luxury resort that boasts an impressive guest list. This is a stunning and exclusive property to escape it all and unwind in nature. While the resort itself may not fit everyone’s budget, we were pleasantly surprised to find Sierra Mar restaurant very reasonably priced.
The restaurant is perched high above the cliffs and boasts floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the coastline. Grab a table by the window and enjoy a great selection of local California wines and creative dishes from their a la carte menu. Alternatively, book a four-course prix-fixe dinner that celebrates California cuisine with fresh, local seafood and seasonal vegetables.
Best Restaurants in Monterey, California
With access to amazing produce and local fresh seafood, eating is definitely one of the best things to do in Monterey and it was our favourite pastime while in the region!
Due to its location on the Pacific Coast, the region boasts some of the freshest seafood you’ll find in California. Many of them are active participants of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program which helps consumers and businesses make sustainable seafood choices.
We enjoyed a great meal at a sustainable seafood restaurant called, Passionfish in Pacific Grove. The menu is ever-evolving with the seasons to showcase the best of Monterey’s local harvest. As the name implies, the menu features plenty of freshest, sustainable seafood, slow-cooked meats, organic greens. The atmosphere is easy-going and casual.
Located in the Portola Hotel, Jacks Monterey serves up “California Cultural Cuisine” that represents the state’s diversity. The culinary team uses local ingredients to craft globally inspired dishes from pizzas to colourful poke bowls. Jacks is close to many great things to see in Monterey like Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s the perfect launch point to explore Monterey County with breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Alta Bakery and Cafe
Serving amazing breakfast and afternoon bites, Alta Bakery and Cafe puts the spotlight on pastries, bowls, and really good coffee. The historic buildings of downtown Monterey are the perfect backdrop for this elevated café. Try the vegetable frittata with a rose & white pepper latte or indulge in a garden herb mimosa.
Old Fisherman’s Grotto
Known for its Monterey Clam Chowder, Old Fisherman’s Grotto is an adored restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. As mentioned before, this is the spot to go for all your Monterey clam chowder needs. You can also feast on calamari, or pasta, or enjoy lobster with a glass of California wine. Plus, having a meal on Fisherman’s Wharf puts you right in the heart of the action and is one of the most fun things to do in Monterey, California.
Alvarado Street Brewery
With three locations in Monterey County, Alvarado Street Brewery is the ultimate destination for local brews. The original brewpub is located in downtown Monterey—on Alvarado Street no less—with a secondary brewpub in Carmel-by-the-Sea and a taproom in Salinas. They offer beers for every palette, along with a menu of small plates and stone-fired pizzas.
Turn 12 Bar & Grill
Turn 12 Bar & Grill serves American classics in a retro car-themed space for later night cravings. It’s located just above Del Monte Ave and offers an extensive menu of pizzas, meats, and comfort foods. Stop by for a margarita on the patio and try their ahi tuna and fresh guacamole.
Monterey Bites To Go
If you want to grab something handheld to take to the beach for a picnic, stop by La Sala’s Bi-Rite Market for a tasty sandwich. Or, venture away from the coast to Elroy’s Fine Foods to choose from amazing organic foods. And if you’re craving the full California tiki experience, head to Hula’s Island Grill & Tiki Room on Lighthouse Ave for tropical cocktails and fresh bites.
Where to Stay in Monterey, CA
Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay
The Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay is the ideal place to stay in Monterey County for any responsible traveler. It’s conveniently located near some of the area’s most notable sights and attractions and has received a AAA Four-Diamond rating. It’s considered one of the best hotels in Northern California thanks to its award-winning day spa, on-site restaurant, and beautiful rooms.
What’s more, the Portola Hotel is the only LEED-certified hotel on the Central Coast and implements several sustainable practices. They make all efforts to reduce waste and water, use green cleaning products, and serve local organic food. The rooms boast stunning views of Monterey Bay and city highlights are just steps away. Rooms at the Portola Hotel start at USD $350 per night.
Post Ranch Inn
As a bonus option that’s not in the city of Monterey, Post Ranch Inn is a leading eco-hotel in Big Sur. It’s an incredible place to stay on a Big Sur road trip and is an eco-luxe Inn committed to responsible tourism. The area is so popular yet so fragile so conservation efforts by the Post Ranch Inn do not go unnoticed.
Buildings around the property were designed to fit into the natural landscape and use natural materials that are gentle on the environment. By using reclaimed wood and solar panels, Post Ranch Inn marries charm with environmental stewardship. On-site facilities are impressive, with multiple pools offering stunning views of the coastline, an art gallery, a shop, the Sierra Mar restaurant and a Spa. We didn’t stay here during our visit but were offered a tour of the property while dining at Sierra Mar Restaurant. The atmosphere at Post Ranch Inn feels exclusive yet down to earth. Rooms at this high-end Inn start at USD $1,600 per night.
Have you been to Central California? What were your top places to visit in Monterey?
Disclaimer: Big thanks to Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau and Visit California for hosting us during our time in Monterey. As always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own.
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