How to Make the Most Out of Carmel's 17-Mile Drive

Carmel, California's 17-Mile Drive


The 17-Mile Drive is one of those things that everyone wants to do when they visit Carmel and Pebble Beach but have you ever wondered why? What made this particular winding road get such a big reputation?

Here’s the mundane part first: The 17-Mile Drive is a road that passes through an exclusive neighborhood. And you have to pay an entrance fee just to drive on it. 

But what a neighborhood it takes you through! Not only is it full of gorgeous houses, but the ocean views are stellar. It’s no wonder it’s one of many visitors' favorite memories. If you want to see the Lone Cypress or visit Pebble Beach, it's is the only way to get there.

However, despite its big reputation, for many the 17-Mile Drive is a middle of the range tourist attraction. The alternative drive below offers equally nice views, and you don't have to pay a penny for it. 

Things to Know About the 17-Mile Drive

You'll pay a fee (per car) to drive on it and motorcycles are not allowed. The per-car fee gets you in, and you'll get a driving guide to take along with you. Bicycles can get in for free if they enter through the Pacific Grove gate.

Once you get inside the gates, you'll find signs and red-painted dashed lines on the pavement to help you follow the route. The 17-Mile Drive winds through a forested area and along the oceanfront, passing eight golf courses, three luxury hotels, and the famed Lone Cypress tree.

The 17-Mile Drive guide map you get at the gate will give a brief description of each point of interest, or you can check the 17-Mile Drive Map online.

Allow three hours or more for the whole drive, especially if you stop to eat or take a lot of photographs.

You can enter the 17-Mile Drive through any of four gates, where you will stop to pay the entry fee and pick up a map. The three most common entry points are Highway 1 at Highway 68 which is the most convenient entrance if you're coming from Monterey or are already on CA Highway 1. To use the Pacific Grove Gate, take Sunset Drive. From Carmel, the toll booth is on San Antonio Ave.

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Making the Most of the 17-Mile Drive

Coastal View on the 17-Mile Drive

Betsy Malloy Photography

Best Time to Go

The best time to take the 17-Mile Drive is fall or spring. Winter can be rainy and summer morning fog can linger until the afternoon, or even worse, all day. For the best chance of clear skies, go in mid- to late afternoon.

If your plans are flexible and you only want to go if it's a nice day, check the Pebble Beach webcams or call The Inn at Spanish Bay (831-647-7500) and ask.

The Pebble Beach golf course hosts some big golf tournaments, and when they're going on, it's impossible to get in. The U.S. Open Golf Tournament is held at Pebble Beach every year in June and the Pebble Beach Pro-Am is held every February.

The Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival happens in April. The Concours d'Elegance classic auto show in August also draws big crowds, and closes the drive for Concours Sunday (third weekend in August).

How to Get the Most From Your Trip on the 17-Mile Drive

The CA Highway 1 entrance is the most frequently used, but there's little to see between it and other entrances. The best way to go is through Pacific Grove entrance and out through Carmel (or vice versa).

Even though it's written on the bottom of the 17-Mile Drive entry fee receipt, no one looks, so it's a little-known fact that you can get a ticket refund if you spend a minimum amount (printed on the receipt) at any of the Pebble Beach Company restaurants along the 17-Mile Drive; they'll deduct the fee from your bill.

Of course, you'll take your camera, but also bring binoculars, especially if you want to get a good look at the birds, sea lions, and sea otters.

Be prepared for the weather. At the same time, it can be 80°F in Monterey and only 65°F at Spanish Bay.

If you want to picnic along the 17-Mile Drive, you'll find a Safeway store at the intersection of CA Highway 1 and Rio Road in Carmel, or try the 5th Avenue Deli (between San Carlos & Dolores) in downtown Carmel. You can also buy picnic goodies along the drive at the Pebble Beach Market next to The Lodge at Pebble Beach.

The best picnic spots are between Point Joe and Seal Rock, and you'll find picnic tables at many stops. Local seagulls roost on the tables when no one is around, so you may want to bring something to spread over the table before you eat.

Alternatives to the 17-Mile Drive

The 17-Mile Drive is beautiful, but the Pebble Beach Company doesn't have a monopoly on Monterey Peninsula scenery.

If you're just looking for great scenery, try this: Start at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and follow Ocean View Boulevard and Sunset Drive along the water's edge past Asilomar State Beach to CA Highway 68 (which will take you to CA Highway 1).

For a less expensive golf course with views that rival Pebble Beach, try the Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Course. Here non-residents can play a round for less.

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Stop #1: The Inn at Spanish Bay

Inn at Spanish Bay
Courtesy of the Inn at Spanish Bay

If you compare the stops in this guide to the official 17-Mile Drive map, you'll end up confused, so don't even try.

Because there's little of interest to see between the CA Highway 1 gate and Spanish Bay, enter the 17-Mile Drive from Pacific Grove instead. Follow the directions for the alternative drive above past Asilomar State Beach. Shortly after the road turns inland, you'll see a sign for the 17-Mile Drive entrance.

Beautifully sited next to rolling dunes and in the middle of a Scottish-style links golf course, The Inn at Spanish Bay is a top-notch hotel.

If you enter the 17-Mile Drive through the Pacific Grove gate, the hotel is a good place for a lunch stop. Or even better, reverse this tour and go in through Carmel, ending here just in time to enjoy the bagpiper who signals the close of the golf course every evening, passing right by their outdoor patio.

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Stop #2: Spanish Bay

On the Beach at Spanish Bay

Betsy Malloy Photography

It's called Spanish Bay to honor explorer Gaspar de Portolà, who camped here with his ship's crew in 1769 while exploring the coastline and trying to find the Monterey Bay.

Spanish Bay is the first stop that many visitors make along the 17-Mile Drive, with a big parking lot and a pretty beach. You'll find quite a few picnic tables there, but if you resist the urge to plop down at the first one you see and drive a bit further past China Rock, you'll find some quieter spots.

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Stop #3: Restless Sea

Restless Sea on the 17-Mile Drive

Betsy Malloy Photography

Between the sandy beach at Spanish Bay and Point Joe (which is just up the road), the ocean always seems restless. Some say it's because of ocean currents coming close to shore or submerged rocks, but you don't have to know the 'why' to enjoy the result. The ocean's constant motion brings food to the local marine life, and a large kelp forest grows in calmer waters near the shore.

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Stop #4: Point Joe

Point Joe on the 17-Mile Drive

Betsy Malloy Photography

When European explorers first came to this part of the California coast, they often mistook Spanish Bay for the Monterey Bay, its bigger counterpart to the north, and many of them met disaster on the rocks as they tried to make their way to shore.

Ships that wrecked here include the iron-hulled St. Paul which crashed on a foggy night in 1896, then hung onto the rocks for three months before sinking, and the steamer Celia which got lost in the fog and wrecked in 1906. Both crews and the St. Paul's livestock cargo were rescued, but the Celia's load of lumber was lost.

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Stop #5: Bird Rock

Bird Rock on the 17-Mile Drive

Betsy Malloy Photography

It's pretty obvious which rock along the coast is "bird rock" because of all the white stuff they deposit on it. On a typical day, you'll see Brandt's cormorants, pelicans, and California sea lions sharing the rock, and a harbor seal or two hanging out near the waterline. Sea otters float in the kelp beds and you might spot a sea lion having a noisy territorial dispute with a cormorant.

In case you wonder why the cormorants sit in such awkward-looking positions, there's a simple explanation. Unlike other seabirds that have waterproof feathers, the cormorant has to dry out between dives, stretching its wings in odd-looking directions to catch the sun.

The only restroom along the 17-Mile Drive is at Bird Rock.

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Stop #6: Harbor Seals

Harbor Seals at Cypress Point Lookout

Betsy Malloy Photography

Fanshell Overlook and Cypress Point Lookout are favored spots for mother harbor seals to deliver their babies. During pupping season (April 1 to June 1), both overlooks are closed to give the little ones and their mothers some much-needed quiet.

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Stop #7: Cypress Point Lookout

View from Cypress Point Lookout

Betsy Malloy Photography

The Monterey Cypress is a rare tree that grows only here and at Point Lobos just south of Carmel. The largest can grow to be 70 feet tall, and the oldest live about 300 years.

Just past Fanshell Overlook, the 17-Mile Drive enters the 5,300-acre Del Monte Forest of Monterey Cypress trees, which you can see in the distance from this favorite vista point.

Nearby in Crocker Grove is the largest of all Monterey cypress trees, named for Charles Crocker, who established the 17-Mile Drive in 1881. 

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Stop #8: The Lone Cypress

The Lone Cypress on the 17-Mile Drive

Betsy Malloy Photography

The so-called Lone Cypress isn't entirely alone, but it is very prettily situated. Its outline is so iconic that the Pebble Beach Company adopted it as their logo. To protect the more than 250-year-old tree from overzealous visitors, access to the point it sits on is prohibited. With all of that care, they hope it will live to be 300 years old. 

Oddly, the most popular stop on the 17-Mile Drive also has the fewest places to park. You may need to exercise some patience while waiting for a space to open up.

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Stop #9: Ghost Tree

Ghost Tree on the 17-Mile Drive

Betsy Malloy Photography

This Monterey cypress tree gave up the ghost (pun intended) some time ago, and the elements have bleached its trunk white over time. People like the way it looks so much that they've built a wall around its roots to keep it in place. The orange-colored stuff on the rocks is called lichen.

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Stop #10: Lodge at Pebble Beach

View from the Lobby, Lodge at Pebble Beach

Brad Coy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Lodge at Pebble Beach is home to the Pebble Beach Golf Links and is a fine place to stay if it fits into your budget. Even if you don't plan to spend the night, its public areas are open to everyone, and you'll find a few charming shops to putter around in.

Shortly after you pass the Lodge, you'll see signs for the Carmel exit. Take that and not only will you avoid any backups at Highway 1, but you'll end up in scenic downtown Carmel.

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17-Mile Drive Map

Map of the 17-Mile Drive

Google Maps

The map above shows the 17-Mile Drive route, entrances, and points of interest - and where it is located with respect to the area towns. Click on it to see a slightly larger version or more details and directions go to the interactive 17-Mile Drive Map.

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