From coastal hiking trails to paddleboarding alongside seals, this coastal California destination offers endless options for nature-loving adventurers.
Photo: Highway 1 / SeeMonterey.com
When you think of California, your mind probably gravitates toward the urban hubs of Los Angeles or San Francisco, or maybe the beachy vibes of San Diego. But nestled between the high-traffic cities on the state's Central Coast, you'll find a hidden gem: Monterey County.
Located about 100 miles south of San Francisco, Monterey County is a gorgeous section of the Pacific coast that encompasses 12 different towns, including the better-known communities of Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach, and Big Sur. There's also nearly 100 miles of pristine coastline, more than 175 vineyards, and a stunning national park. (You should definitely try to visit these 10 national parks before you die.)
Fun fact: The county has served as a longtime source of literary inspiration. (Many of John Steinbeck's novels are set in the area, including Cannery Row, which takes its name from the historic fisherman's wharf in the Monterey Harbor.) More recently, the dramatic coastline vistas provide a fittingly dramatic backdrop for the popular HBO series Big Little Lies, (based on a book of the same title by Liane Moriarty) with Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley. (If you haven't already binged it, cue up episode 1 right now.)
But don't mistake Monterey as merely a sleepy fishing village (or a fictional gossipy town). With an abundance of natural wonders—from the ocean to mountains to vineyards—Monterey County makes an ideal playground for active adults. (And you could totally add it to the list of the most Instagrammable places on Earth.) Plus, it's almost laughably easy to eat healthy in a region that's renowned for sustainable, fresh seafood. (To go with all the local wine—because, balance.)
Pick and choose from this list (or try them all!) to create the perfect California getaway. (Also consider Ojai, CA, for a ~chiller~ wellness vaca.)
Photo: Point Lobos State Park / SeeMonterey.com
What to Do In Monterey, California
1. Run along the Monterey Rec Trail.
Your workout will fly by as you take in the views along this 18-mile paved path along the Pacific. The Monterey Rec Trail provides plenty of views of the Monterey Bay, the rocky coastline, and you might even spot some seals in the water. Don't miss Lovers Point Park (which you'll definitely recognize if you're a fan of Big Little Lies).
Fancy a race-cation? Strategically plan your visit around the bucket list-worthy Big Sur Marathon in late April. Run the full 26.2 along picturesque Highway 1 (which runs right up along the coast) or pick one of the several shorter (but just as beautiful) course options. Warning: The hills are hard but worth it. (Also add these epic half marathons and marathons to your race to-do list.)
2. Take a walking tour of Monterey.
If slower is more your speed, get acquainted with the area on foot with the Original Monterey Walking Tours. You'll learn about Monterey's history and all the major players in the area's heritage, from Spanish settlers to the pioneers who drafted the California state constitution in 1849. (Monterey was the original state capital.)
3. Bike along the famous 17-Mile Drive.
The famous road weaves along the coastline from Pacific Grove down to Carmel-by-the-Sea past palatial homes, through thick cypress groves, and along the picturesque Pebble Beach golf courses. Contact Big Sur Adventures to rent an e-bike for a solo jaunt, or join one of their guided tours. Trust us: The electric motor will come in handy in case you come up against headwinds or hills (especially after a glass or two of wine in Carmel).
4. See the sights by horseback.
Guided horseback tours and trail rides are perhaps the most Insta-worthy way to explore Monterey County. Check out the Monterey Bay Equestrian Center or Chaparral Ranch, who can take you for a guided ride along the Salinas River State Beach.
5. Hit the hiking trails.
Monterey County is full of hiking trails that meander along the coast and provide stunning views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. Just off Highway 68, you'll find Jacks Peak County Park. A short day hike will offer incredible views of Monterey Bay, Carmel Valley, and the Saint Lucia Mountains, as well as one of the only remaining natural Monterey Pine Tree stands in the U.S. (Not to mention, you'll get all the incredible health benefits of hiking.)
Called "the crown jewel of the state park system," Point Lobos is another hiking area you don't want to miss. Trails range from beginner to challenging, so you can level up or take it easy. Big Little Lies fans: Go for a picturesque hike along the coast at Garrapata State Park and Beach, a spot you'll recognize from many scenes. (Find more day hikes in Monterey here.)
Up for an overnight hike? Head to Big Sur's Los Padres National Forest, where you'll find 323 miles of hiking trails over 1.75 million acres of pristine wilderness. Just keep an eye out for the diverse wildlife you may encounter on the trail, such as deer, raccoons, foxes, and even wild pigs and mountain lions.
6. Play a few holes at Pebble Beach (or a nearby course).
If you're looking to hit the links but would rather not spring for the fees to play Pebble Beach, Monterey County has more than 20 gorgeous public and private courses to choose from. Here, the complete list of Monterey County golf courses.
7. Go kayaking or paddleboarding.
Get up close and personal with seals (and maybe catch sight of a whale!) when you go out on the water with a kayak or paddleboard. Contact Monterey Bay Kayaks or Adventures by the Sea, who can provide all the gear you need, including life jackets. Just be prepared to get wet. (And, yes, paddleboarding totally counts as a workout.)
8. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
More than 40,000 animals and plants call the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium home. You don't want to miss the live penguin feedings. After, head down to Cannery Row, which is mostly overtaken with touristy shops, but you can still find some unique local restaurants.
9. Watch the sunset at The Inn at Spanish Bay.
If you're doing a bike ride along the 17-Mile Drive, definitely make a stop at The Inn at Spanish Bay for a cocktail while you catch a stunning sunset. As the sun goes down, a bagpiper will be playing in the distance to add to the almost otherworldly experience.
Photo: Old Fisherman's Wharf / SeeMonterey.com
Where to Find Healthy(ish) Eats
- Dametra Cafe: Refuel with fresh Mediterranean cuisine in this cozy, rustic space. After you nosh, sip some vino at one of the many wine tasting rooms in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
- Passion Fish: A modern, airy space, this Monterey restaurant specializes in dishes that feature freshly caught fish and local ingredients. Plus, all of their delicious fish is sustainably harvested.
- Crema: This charming spot in Pacific Grove serves a killer brunch (including bottomless mimosas and bacon micheladas) as well as tasty coffee drinks.
- Happy Girl Kitchen: Just two blocks from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, this cafe serves farm-fresh, local foods for breakfast and lunch, and sells jam, pickles, and other canned produce in their shop.
- Paluca Trattoria: Located right on Monterey's Old Fisherman's Wharf, this spot specializes in Italian-inspired entrees alongside traditional fisherman's wharf favorites. Big Little Lies fans will recognize it as the coffee shop the characters frequent.
- Nepenthe: Perched high above the Pacific coast just off Highway 1, this restaurant is known for its delicious food (including the famous Ambrosia Burger) as well as its jaw-dropping views.
Photo: Ventana Big Sur
Where to Stay
- Seven Gables Inn: Every room in this romantic bed and breakfast features sweeping ocean views and unique decor. Guests can enjoy a delicious home-cooked breakfast buffet every morning, plus wine and appetizers every evening.
- Portola Hotel and Spa: This nautical-theme hotel located right in Monterey gives you easy access to most of the area attractions. You can also take advantage of the on-site fitness center and spa.
- Ventana Big Sur: For a higher-end experience (and perhaps some celebrity sightings) check out this luxury resort in Big Sur. You can opt to stay in the hotel, or go for a glamping experience at a campsite nestled among the redwoods. (P.S. Ventana is just one of the gorgeous places you can go glamping if sleeping bags aren't your thing.)
- Campgrounds: Prefer to sleep under the stars? Pro tip: See if you can snag one of the limited spots at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where you can camp in a cypress grove above an 80-foot waterfall. (Note: Some parks and campgrounds can closed due to weather. Check the California Parks and Rec site for the latest updates.)
How to Get There
You can fly into San Jose (SJC), about an hour from Monterey, or the smaller Monterey regional airport (MRY). Alternatively, you can take the scenic route from a major hub: Monterey is about an hour and a half from San Francisco or about five hours from Los Angeles.