9 Spectacular Things to Do in Monterey, California

Imagine a day spent biking along the ocean spotting whales splashing in the distance. Then hopping in a kayak and paddling with friendly sea lions. Follow that with a quick hike to see an iconic waterfall. Then finish your day with some local wine on the beach as you watch the sun go down over the Pacific Ocean. Sounds like a full and active day, but a common one in Monterey County, California.

Monterey County, on the central Pacific Coast of California, is home to rocky coastlines, national parks, vineyards, beaches, and valleys. It ranges from Salinas in the north to Ragged Neck in the south.

I spent time in Pebble Beach last summer and hiked, kayaked, biked, drank, and ate my way through the entire area. Before I even got to Monterey  I knew I was in for a treat. Famous pictures of the natural beauty of the region filled my computer. I learned though, that pictures do not do justice to the stunning beauty of this part of the USA.

I didn’t feel guilty about all the food I devoured because the amount of active pursuits. Even better, there was something for every person in my family. Chris and I hiked and biked and kayaked. My dad and brother golfed on every course they could get a tee time at. My sister and her boyfriend enjoyed vineyard exploring and wine tasting. And my mom walked her way around towns shopping and antique perusing. The amount to do in this area made our family vacation so enjoyable. We were able to do individual things we liked, while still have quality family time.

A Breathtaking Bike Ride


Things to do in Monterey, California: Bike past the Lone Tree, 17 Mile Drive, Pebble Beach, California

The biking in Monterey is abundant, safe and beautiful, and one of the 100 best places to ride a bike in America. There are many places to go for a bike ride in the area. Popular bike paths, lanes, and routes include the recreation trail, 17 mile drive, and Carmel Valley Road.

17 Mile Drive

Biking 17 mile drive was one of the best bike rides I have ever taken. I happened to be staying in a house just off this road, so each day I explored different sections of the route. For 17 miles (who would’ve thought!) cycle past oceanfront scenery, coastal cypresses, rocks filled with seals, golf courses and gigantic mansions. Start at Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove and follow 17 mile drive signs the whole way. Some parts of the road are thin and don’t leave much space for cars and bikes, try and do this ride in the early morning. As a cyclist you do not have to pay the $10 entry fee to the road.

Monterey Recreation Trail

From Castroville to Pacific Grove the Monterey Rec Trail lasts for 29 miles and is a mostly paved path. The recreation trail follows what was once the Southern Pacific Railroad. This abandoned railway it made for the perfect place to construct a trail. The bike path itself is 19 miles of paved path and an extra 10 miles of actual road.

Like a regular street, there are two lanes on the trail; one for each direction of traffic. At some spots it splits into specific routes for bikers and pedestrians. There are lots of places to rent bikes, tandem bikes or surrey’s along the path. It’s a popular route, so it can get a bit crowded.

For the whole experience, start in Castroville. Here you will bike past huge fields with workers picking the latest produce. Ride past the Salinas River, and through the rolling hills of Fort Ord. You will get to the Monterey bike path and pass Monterey Bay Aquarium, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Cannery Row.

Head Out on a Healthy Hike

Things to Do in Monterey, California: Hike to the McWay Waterfall in Big Sur

Use your feet to explore the stunning scenery of Monterey. From beginner trails to expert routes, there is a trail  in Monterey County for every kind of hiker.  Take a quick walk at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park, spend a couple of hours in Point Lobos State Reserve, or take the whole day for an intense hike in Toro Park.

McWay Waterfall Trail in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park

Next to the Bigsby Bridge, the McWay Waterfall is one of the most popular sites along the Big Sur Coastline. Lucky for you, the waterfall is a quick walk from the main road; an easy and paved trail for just about any ability level. From the trail see views of both the northern and southern coast, and that famous waterfall. Cascading 80 feet down, this waterfall is the intersection of the McWay creek and the Pacific Ocean.

You can park in the state park lot, or just join the many cars that park along the side of the road. Head into the park (or don’t you can join the trail from the side of the road) and double back to the tunnel that goes under the road. Turn right and walk along the path. It is wide, fenced along one side and well maintained. Expect crowds and selfie sticks.

The path is ¼ mile long and offers many spots to catch a glimpse of the waterfall and the coastline. Once you reach the end, turn around and keep going past the tunnel you walked under. The path continues for another ½ mile or so along the coast. This is a great hike  to get some exercise on a long road trip.

Sea Lion Point & Cypress Grove Trails at Point Lobos State Reserve

Described as the “greatest meeting of land and sea”, this park is a place where someone could get lost for hours.  Nature trails wind through the forest then pop out onto a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Park on the road where all the cars are to avoid the fee of entering the park. The walk from the road to the start of these trails is about 15-20 minutes, depending on how distracted you get! Walk straight down the road to the Sea Lion Point or Cypress Grove trail. They begin at the same spot in a parking lot at the end of a long road. To the left is the one mile Sea Lion Point Trail which leads to some rocks filled with….sea lions (how did you guess?!). The Cypress Grove one mile loop is to the right and goes up to an overlook with views to the north and south.

Do both of these loops for some quality hiking. If you are up for it, head onto the North Shore trail. This is much longer and winds its way along the coast back toward the road.

The hiking in Point Lobos State Park is easy, beautiful and plentiful. Grab a trail map from the Park Ranger at the entrance and go whichever way strikes your fancy!

A Killer Kayaking Adventure

Things to do in Monterey, California: Kayak

photo by Kunal Mukherjee via Flickr Creative Commons

What’s the closest way to get up close and personal with sea life without actually getting IN the water? A kayak! Sea kayaking in Monterey County is an activity for every animal lover, adventure junkie and fitness enthusiast. While kayaking in the waterways of Monterey County, chances are you will see many animals. Harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, pelicans are common sights. While sharks, bat rays, dolphins and whales in the distance are possible!

There are kayaking opportunities for every kind of kayaker. The beginner should start in Monterey Bay and Elkhorn Slough. Protected from the open ocean they are calm places to leisurely paddle, and enjoy all the marine life. Many outdoor adventure companies offer guided tours, but these spots are great for a rental and a few hours of paddling on your own.

For a more moderate paddle, check out Stillwater Cove and Lovers Point in Pacific Grove. These kayak routes take you along the shore discovering the gorgeous scenery of the area.

Experienced kayakers should try a whale watching kayak through Moss Landing Harbor. This is the closest you will get to whales and dolphins, but it is a few miles of paddling through the open ocean. A tour through Point Lobos is another for the experienced paddler. Kayak for about 5 miles to look at  “the greatest meeting of land and sea” from the perspective of the water.

Adventures By the Sea and Monterey Bay Kayak rent kayaks, gear, as well as run tours.

WANT MORE MONTEREY?!

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Sensational Surfing

Things to Do in Monterey, California: Surfing

photo by James via Flickr Creative Commons

Monterey Bay is popular for surfing because of the number of beaches facing different directions. At any time of day, there is a beach in this county getting quality wind and optimal surfing conditions.

Beginners should head to Del Monte Beach. Here the waves are mellow and break on the beach in shallow water. It is a safe and comfortable spot for anyone to try their hand at surfing.

Carmel Beach and Asimolar Beach are for intermediate surfers. The waves are reliable, but recommended to only surf at these spots when the water is waist high and pay close attention to riptides.

Places like Lovers Point, Marina Sands and Moss Beach are surfing spots for the advanced surfer.

On the Beach Surf Shop and Sunshine Freestyle Shop rent surfboards and wetsuits. And Monterey Bay Surf School leads private and group lessons by reservation on Carmel Beach.

Try Your Hand At Paddle Boarding

Things to do in Monterey, California: Paddleboard

photo by Robin-and-David via Flickr Creative Commons

If you want a workout with a view give stand up paddleboarding (SUP) a try. A mix between surfing and kayaking, propel yourself through the water with a paddle while standing on a long flat surfboard. The calm harbor waters good for kayaking are the same places you want to paddleboard. Though not Monterey County, nearby Santa Cruz offers some pretty sweet paddle boarding spots. The Santa Cruz Harbor and Santa Cruz Wharf are both popular spots to paddle in the calm harbor and venture into the open ocean if you want.

Paddleboarding for a few hours is not just a whole body workout, but a way to get on the water and see it all from a new vantage point. Adventures by the Sea and Monterey Bay Kayaks rent Stand Up Paddle Boards and lead tours and lessons. SUP Shack and Kayak Connection rent boards in Santa Cruz.

Remarkable Rock Climbing

Things to do in Monterey, California: Rock Climb in Pinnacles National Park

photo by Tom Bricker via Flickr Creative Commons

Pinnacles National Park is where you want to go if rock climbing is on your agenda. There is a climbing route for every ability level in this park. The National Park Website has a lot of good information on where to climb, the grades and precautions for each route.

Sanctuary Rock Gym in Monterey occasionally offers trips to Pinnacle for guided climbs.

Stay Safe: The rock here is volcanic breccia meaning it’s much weaker than granite. Keep this in mind when climbing, perhaps don’t climb as high as you would on a granite face. From January to June the raptors in the park nest. This means certain rock climbing routes are off limits to protect the animals.

Hang Gliding

Things to Do in Monterey, California: Hang Glide at Marina State Beach

photo by Jerry Burke via Flickr Creative Commons

If you have already seen Monterey from the saddle of a bike, the top of a peak, the side of a rock cliff why not get a whole new point of view…..from the air! Kites and hang gliders fill the sky over Marina State Beach on a typical afternoon. This is when the winds pick up, and the best time to give this thrilling sport a try. The folks at Western Hang Gliders guide you through every step of the process during a half day lesson ($98). You start at ground school where you learn all about the sport, then work with your instructor to get off the ground. Once you’ve got the hang of it, buy more lessons to keep improving. They also offer tandem hang glides for $165, where you don’t have to worry so much about the steering and can enjoy the ride.

Horseback Riding

Things to Do in Monterey, California: Horseback Riding

photo by Presidio of Monterey via Flickr Creative Commons

For a relaxing yet exhilarating way to see the area, try doing it from the back of a horse. For those not in the know with horses, there are quite a few opportunities to hop on the back of a horse in Monterey County. Trot through Molera State Park with Molera Horseback Tours. Gallop along Salinas River Beach with Chapparal Ranch. You can even join a cattle drive with V6 Ranch.

Play a Round of Golf

Things to Do in Monterey, California: Play Golf

photo by Neil Conway via Flickr Creative Commons

The golfing in Monterey County is a golf enthusiasts dream. An article on the outdoor adventures of Monterey would not be complete without golf. It’s ranked as the top golfing travel destination in the world. In fact, my dad flew the whole family out to Monterey  to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing golf at Pebble Beach.

With 27 golf courses in the area, there is something for every kind of golfer, and every kind of budget. Play in the steps of the pros at Pebble Beach and Spyglass. Play past the oldest lighthouse on the west coast at Pacific Grove Golf Links. And play on an old military base at Bayonet Black Horse Course.

From 1800 feet above sea level to inches above the ocean water. From the saddle of a horse to the saddle of a bike.  Every single one of these adventures offers a unique vantage point for exploring the stunning Monterey Bay Coastline.

Looking for more ways to experience Monterey County, California? Check out A Highway 1 Itinerary and Where to Eat in Monterey.