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An Active Vacation In Monterey County, California

Swap city life for serene surroundings in Monterey, California’s ultimate nature escape. Tucked between San Francisco and San José, this picturesque county boasts a stunning coastline, overflowing with opportunities for the great outdoors enthusiast. Let’s dive into the best ways to experience an action-packed vacation in Monterey County, including insider tips on outdoor activities and must-visit spots like Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur.

About My Trip

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As a recap for those who may not follow my social media accounts, I recently embarked on my first international journey after 19 long months, and California was the perfect destination. With its comprehensive setup for responsible travel, it was an ideal first stop outside of Canada. For those unfamiliar, California offers endless opportunities for exploration in every season. The Carmel Valley has been a longstanding fascination of mine, boasting picturesque drives, wine tasting rooms, breathtaking coastal scenery, ocean views, and a chance to spot marine life like sea otters and whales. My fondness for California knows no bounds, making it a top destination on my US travel list. I was joined by my friend Kim, an exceptional photographer (@WestCoastLife), who captured all the stunning photos that tell this story. Together, we embarked on an October road trip through Sonoma, San Francisco, and Monterey to revel in the crisp autumn air. This California road trip adventure is brought to you in collaboration with Visit California.

Things to know about Monterey County, California

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Located just a two-hour drive from San Francisco, Monterey County in northern California boasts a mild Mediterranean climate, picturesque coastline, sandy beaches, and vibrant communities, making it an ideal destination for an action-packed vacation. Little-known facts about this charming region include its status as the #1 agricultural area in the US, earning the nickname ‘Salad Bowl of the Nation’ due to the diverse range of fruits and vegetables grown in Salinas Valley.

Wine enthusiasts will also find themselves in paradise, as Monterey County produces premium grapes across 40,000 acres. While it may not be as renowned as Napa or Sonoma, this region is a must-visit for any oenophile.

Monterey is further distinguished by its stunning natural beauty, featuring Big Sur and the iconic Bixby Bridge, one of the world’s highest single-span bridges standing at an impressive 714 feet long and 260 feet tall.

How to get to Monterey County

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When arriving in San Francisco from abroad, flying into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is a convenient option. From there, consider renting a car to drive to your destination, allowing you to easily embark on a northern California road trip with stops like Monterey. Alternatively, the Monterey Regional Airport, just 10 minutes from downtown Monterey and 25 minutes from Salinas, offers direct flights from various US cities. If you prefer not to drive or fly, Amtrak trains connect California, Oregon, and Washington daily, with a stop in Salinas.

Things to do in Monterey on an Active Vacation

Experience the ultimate active vacation in Monterey, where adventure awaits around every corner. From the breathtaking natural beauty of Big Sur to the charming coastal charm of Carmel-by-the-Sea, there’s no shortage of exciting things to do in Monterey County. So why not load up the car and embark on an unforgettable northern California road trip? With so many incredible experiences at your fingertips, you’ll never want to leave.

17-Mile Drive

As you hug the coast for an impressive 17 miles, the scenic 17-Mile Drive unfolds like a masterpiece of natural beauty, revealing the essence of Monterey. This iconic route weaves its way from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach, showcasing the Monterey Peninsula’s diverse landscape. The majority of the drive is characterized by dramatic coastal cliffs, lush forests, meticulously manicured golf courses, and pristine sandy beaches, begging for your camera’s attention. Take a moment to stop at the Spanish Bay, Restless Sea, and Big Rock – these hidden gems are sure to leave you in awe. While there is an admission fee of $10.75 per vehicle, this expense is offset by a purchase of $35 or more at any of the Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants, excluding Pebble Beach Market. Simply keep your receipts from your culinary adventures along the way and your gate fee will be reimbursed.

The Lone Cypress

Standing tall for over two centuries, the Lone Cypress Tree has earned its esteemed status as the official symbol of Pebble Beach. Nestled along the picturesque 17-Mile Drive, this ancient giant’s stately presence is carefully preserved by cables that prevent damage from the elements. For those venturing to Monterey, a visit to this iconic landmark is an absolute must.


Carmel-by-the-Sea, a charming 17-mile drive from Monterey, beckons visitors to its whimsical world. Founded in 1902, this quaint town exudes an old-world charm that’s hard to resist. With its signature fairytale cottages, Carmel Mission, and picturesque streets, it’s the perfect destination for a leisurely stroll or day-long exploration. One of the main attractions is the historic Carmel Mission, originally constructed in 1770, showcasing Spanish architecture amidst lush palm trees. In addition to marveling at this architectural gem, visitors can indulge in wine tastings, explore one of its several museums, and simply absorb the village’s unique ambiance. With its compact size, it’s effortless to discover every nook and cranny on foot.

Carmel Beach

Carmel-by-the-Sea’s picturesque coastline comes alive at Carmel Beach, where the ocean’s fury meets the shore on windy mornings like the one I experienced. The waves crashed against the shore with unbridled energy, creating a mesmerizing spectacle. The soft, luxuriant sand beneath my feet and the pristine, expansive beach made for an idyllic retreat from the hustle of daily life. For those seeking an active getaway in Monterey, Carmel Beach is an absolute must-visit destination – its conditions are perfect for surfing enthusiasts, while the tranquil atmosphere invites relaxation and rejuvenation.

McWay Falls

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Visiting McWay Falls in Big Sur is an unforgettable experience, with its breathtaking 80-foot-tall waterfall rivaling some of California’s most stunning natural attractions. For an unobstructed view of this majestic sight, take a short stroll along the McWay Falls Overlook Trail, a leisurely .06-mile out-and-back path that winds along the coastline and is conveniently accessible from Highway 1. This picturesque route offers a unique perspective on the waterfall’s grandeur, making it a must-see for anyone exploring Big Sur.

Bixby Bridge

Standing majestically 260 feet above a dramatic canyon, Bixby Bridge is an awe-inspiring landmark on any northern California road trip. As you approach this iconic 1932 bridge, you’ll be struck by its sheer scale and the breathtaking views it affords of the rocky coastline plunging into the Pacific Ocean below. The lush greenery and rolling hills that flank either side of the bridge add a touch of serenity to the scene, making for an unforgettable experience. While it’s not recommended to walk across the bridge itself, the best vantage points are actually found on the west or east sides, where you can fully appreciate the stunning vistas on offer. For many travelers, Bixby Bridge is a must-see attraction in Monterey and a highlight of any California coastal adventure.

Lobos Point State Natural Reserve

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In Monterey County, Lobos Point near Carmel-by-the-Sea is an absolute must-stop on your active vacation agenda. This stunning location offers a unique blend of opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts, scuba diving aficionados, and nature lovers alike. Whether you’re looking to hike, swim, or simply take in the breathtaking views, Lobos Point has it all. The surrounding reserve is a true gem, boasting an impressive array of California’s iconic coastlines, including sparkling beaches, rugged shores, and secluded coves. One of the standout attractions within this coastal paradise is Gibson Beach, accessible via the 0.08-mile Bird Island Trail, which winds its way through rocky shores and picturesque pine forests. This picturesque trail and beach combination should undoubtedly be at the top of your list of outdoor activities in Monterey County.

Pfeiffer Beach at Big Sur State Park

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A mere mile south of Big Sur State Park’s main entrance lies Pfeiffer Beach, a gem that shines brightly among its peers. The allure of this coastal wonderland is undeniable, boasting a mesmerizing palette of purple-hued sand and intricate rock formations that appear to defy gravity as they stretch out into the Pacific Ocean. The experience is elevated by the ability to traverse the rocky shores and stand beneath the natural archway, creating an otherworldly ambiance. Catching sunset at this enchanting spot promises an utterly magical encounter, making it a top recommendation for activities in Big Sur. For added convenience, park at the nearby Day Use Area, which serves as a seamless gateway to the beach.

Kayaking in Monterey Bay with Adventures by the Sea

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A trip to Monterey isn’t complete without getting out on the water – and what better way than by kayak? As a personal favourite of mine, kayaking offers an immersive ocean experience like no other. Adventures by the Sea’s excursions take you through the iconic Cannery Row, where you can spot otters, harbor seals, and sea lions thriving in the stunning Monterey Bay. The two-hour tour comes fully equipped with everything you need, minus your own sense of adventure. Unfortunately, we missed out on this experience due to strong winds, but it’s now firmly back on our list for next time.

For those with kayaking know-how, the option exists to rent equipment and go solo, skipping the guided tour altogether. With so many thrilling outdoor activities waiting in Monterey County, there’s no shortage of excitement to be had.

Where to stay in Monterey County

Monterey County’s diverse landscape offers a multitude of enchanting accommodations, each with its own unique charm and proximity to exceptional outdoor experiences. My personal favorites among these gems cater seamlessly to those seeking adventure and immersion in nature, while also providing unparalleled access to the area’s most breathtaking attractions.

Carmel Mission Inn

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Located in the picturesque town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, The Carmel Mission Inn – where I had the pleasure of staying – offers the perfect blend of exploration and relaxation. This boutique hotel’s bohemian chic ambiance is reflected in its stylish decor, which features a cozy fire pit, an inviting outdoor pool, and plush rooms that exude warmth and comfort. The staff is equally impressive, providing top-notch hospitality with a smile. The overall atmosphere at The Carmel Mission Inn is nothing short of charming, radiating a vibrant and relaxed energy that’s impossible to ignore.

Carmel Garden Inn

The Carmel Garden Inn is a haven for those seeking a tranquil retreat amidst nature’s splendor. As a cozy bed-and-breakfast, it seamlessly blends rustic simplicity with the warmth of a charming cottage, perfectly capturing the essence of Carmel-by-the-Sea’s natural charm. The inn’s design effortlessly conjures images of lush gardens and an abundance of sunlight, transporting guests to a serene oasis in the heart of this picturesque village.

Where to Eat in Monterey County

While exploring the culinary scene in Monterey County, I was impressed by the sheer variety of exceptional eateries available. Despite my dietary restrictions as a celiac individual with dairy intolerance, I found it surprisingly effortless to discover mouthwatering options that catered to my needs.

Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar

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In the charming coastal town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Flaherty’s stands out as a warm and inviting seafood grill & oyster bar. The menu boasts an impressive array of options, from succulent mussels to creamy clam chowder, alongside refreshing salads and delectable fish tacos. Amidst this culinary haven, the atmosphere is effortlessly relaxed yet stylishly refined, with its iconic checker print tiled bar serving as a focal point. Furthermore, the subtle attention to detail only adds to the overall ambiance. While the seafood dishes are undoubtedly well-crafted, what truly sets Flaherty’s apart is its reasonable pricing, making it an accessible destination for anyone seeking a satisfying dining experience.

Shearwater Tavern

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Adjacent to our hotel, the Carmel Mission Inn, lies the Shearwater Tavern, where the chefs craft contemporary California cuisine utilizing locally sourced ingredients. This cozy eatery serves an array of dishes, from morning meals to evening fare, alongside expertly crafted cocktails.

Our breakfast experience at the tavern was nothing short of delightful! The warm ambiance and diverse menu options, which were reasonably priced, left us feeling satisfied and eager for a return visit.

Ike’s Love and Sandwiches

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When it comes to satisfying your hunger with a speedy and scrumptious lunch, Ike’s Love and Sandwiches in Monterey is an excellent option. With its impressive array of sandwich options, you’re bound to find something that hits the spot.

Alvarado Street Brewery

Step into the cozy atmosphere of Alvarado Street Brewery, where the combination of locally inspired comfort food and expertly crafted beers will tantalize your taste buds. This unassuming spot is a haven for beer enthusiasts seeking an affordable retreat during their lunch break.

Happy Girl Kitchen Co

In the charming town of Pacific Grove, nestled within Monterey County, lies a hidden gem that’s sure to delight – Happy Girl Kitchen Co. This unassuming eatery has earned its reputation by serving up exceptional specialty coffee, mouthwatering breakfast dishes, and satisfying deli fare. Whether you’re in the mood for a quick morning pick-me-up or a leisurely brunch with friends, Happy Girl Kitchen Co is the perfect spot to satisfy your cravings.

Carmel Poke Co.

Satisfy your cravings for poke bowls and more at Carmel Poke Co., the perfect spot for a quick and nutritious meal. Not only will you find an array of delicious options, but also a curated selection of Kombucha and craft beer to pair with your dish. Whether you’re in the mood for lunch or dinner, this eatery is sure to hit the spot.

Carmel Bistro Giovanni

In the picturesque town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Mediterranean’s flair for delicious Italian cuisine meets California’s laid-back charm. Among the many exceptional dining options, Carmel Bistro Giovanni stands out as an upscale gem. This refined eatery boasts a vibrant atmosphere and serves up top-notch cuisine that makes for a truly memorable dinner experience.

Rio Grill

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Rio Grill in Carmel stands out as a top dining destination, boasting an impressive wine list to complement its exquisite dinner options. The restaurant’s vintage charm and lively atmosphere make it an ideal spot for a memorable meal. Meanwhile, Monterey offers the perfect blend of fresh coastal air, delectable cuisine, and stunning northern California road trips, making it an unforgettable getaway. Whether you’re looking for outdoor adventures or simply want to soak up the charm of Carmel-by-the-Sea, there’s something for everyone in this special peninsula. If you’re like me, you’ll adore the active vacation options available in Monterey County and the surrounding areas, offering a unique experience that combines relaxation and excitement.