One of the most popular tourist attractions in California is driving down the Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. 1 and U.S 101), which takes visitors along the beautiful Pacific Ocean coastline. Along the way, you'll encounter the Monterey Peninsula towns of Monterey, Carmel, and Pacific Grove, which each offers a variety of things to do.
From stopping into the Monterey Bay Aquarium to learn about the aquatic life of the Pacific Ocean to taking a day trip to Big Sur for surfing, beaches, and even an operational lighthouse, there's no shortage of fun to be had along the PCH.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of California's most popular attractions and is often rated as a top family destination in the United States. It takes about half a day to tour the exhibits at a leisurely pace, but the aquarium can sometimes be very crowded, which may slow down your trip.
One of the most popular exhibits is the living kelp forest housed in a two-story-tall tank, which shows guests what life is like in the bay outside the aquarium. Additionally, younger kids will enjoy the touch pools, which invite guests to reach out and touch a few ocean creatures like bat rays, starfish, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins. You also won't want to miss the Outdoor Tide Pool, which is home to the aquarium's popular otter exhibit.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is located at 886 Cannery Row in Monterey and is typically open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. While tickets are required to enjoy the facilities, some area hotels offer package deals that include admission to the aquarium.
Land and water meet in dramatic style at the rocky Point Lobos State Reserve, which is located just south of Carmel. This now-famous attraction is well worth a visit just for the easy hiking and shoreline views. However, it's also home to a wide variety of fascinating creatures you can observe, and if you're a diver, you can do that at Point Lobos, too.
With half of the park located underwater, you won't even skim the surface of what you can do at Point Lobos if you don't dive in; however, diving is permitted only at Whalers and Bluefish Coves, and you will need reservations to make a scuba trip, especially on the weekends and holidays.
The Point Lobos State Preserve does charge an admission fee to use the parking lot, which is located three miles south of Carmel on California Highway 1; and although you can park along the PCH to avoid paying, park admissions go toward conservation efforts for the nature preserve.
AddressCarmel St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, USA
Depending on your budget, you may do more window-shopping than buying in Carmel, but that being said, a leisurely stroll around town is a pleasant way to spend some time as it's fun to check out downtown Carmel's boutiques and art galleries anyway. Additionally, there's no extra charge for peeping into flower-filled courtyards and enjoying the sights, and you can even walk a few blocks down to the beach.
One of the best tourist attractions in Carmel is the 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach. Guests can take a leisurely adventure through exclusive neighborhoods, past scenic beaches, and along a historic route less traveled than even Highway One.
Carmel also offers a variety of great restaurants including Mission Ranch, which serves a tasty Sunday brunch buffet and offers pastoral views of sheep grazing in front of the ocean. In the evening, you can also head to the Highlands Inn's Sunset Lounge for a sunset cocktail overlooking the ocean.
Out-of-town visitors (and local friends, too) always enjoy Sunday brunch at the Mission Ranch. The food is reliably tasty, and the service is usually rather attentive. However, one of the best features of this Carmel restaurant is its views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding wilderness, which never fail to impress, and there's even a live jazz ensemble to keep you feeling mellow while you eat.
This is, by the way, the place owned by actor and director Clint Eastwood. You probably won't find him there, but it's fun to know that this famous establishment is owned by an even more famous celebrity. Perhaps because of wanting to mitigate the exclusivity implied by Clint Eastwood's celebrity persona, the restaurant does not take reservations and seating is available only on a first-come, first served basis.
However, this may mean you'll have to wait a while to dine at Mission Ranch, especially during weekends and holidays. Fortunately, there are plenty of other things to do while you're in downtown Carmel to keep you busy while you wait for your table to be ready.
Take the 17-Mile Drive
Address17 Mile Dr, Pacific Grove, CA, USA
As mentioned, the 17-Mile Drive is a well-known, scenic drive that takes visitors from Carmel through 17 miles of the Monterey Peninsula, past some gorgeous scenery, over-the-top houses, and the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links. It will take an hour or two to tour, depending on how many time you stop.
The 17-Mile Drive is an exclusive road that passes through an even more-exclusive neighborhood and can be entered from one of five gates along Highway 1 and Highway 68 as well as from San Antonio Avenue in Carmel and Sunset Drive in Monterey. A fee will be charged per vehicle and motorcycles are not allowed on the 17-Mile Drive.
The best time to visit the 17-Mile Drive is during the fall or spring as the winter season can be rainy and the summer morning fog can linger well into the afternoon. If you want to make a day out of your trip, consider stopping by Pebble Beach and checking the weather forecast before you depart for the 17-Mile Drive.
Monterey Bay is one of the best places on the West Coast for whale watching since it experiences the longest whale migration season in California, which more or less lasts all year long. In fact, the only thing that changes is what type of whale you might see when you go out: It might be humpback whales feeding, orcas pursuing a gray whale and her calf, or even a rare beaked whale.
Humpback and blue whales can be found throughout the year in Monterey Bay, and it's not unusual to also spot a rare fin or minke whale here, too. However, if you're looking for one of those picturesque moments with some of the ocean's biggest creatures, you'll want to visit from mid-December to April when the migrating gray whales pass through the Monterey Bay.
Although you can generally see these magnificent creatures from the shorelines on the Monterey Penninsula, there are also a variety of whale watching cruises you can take to get an up-close look at the action. In Monterey, Monterey Whale Watching is your best bet; in Moss Landing, you'll want to book a trip on Sanctuary Cruises instead.
Speaking of boat tours, a harbor cruise on the glass-bottomed boat Mermaid is the best way to get a sea lion's eye view of the Monterey Bay. Offered by Monterey Whale Watching, which also leads excursions out to see the migrating whale pods year-round, the Harbor Cruise gets you up close to some of the Bay's wildlife and lets you see the town from a completely different point of view.
You don't need reservations to board the Harbor Cruise on the Mermaid, and the cruises go out about every half hour. You can get more info at the Monterey Whale Watching website, which offers special discount pricing for groups and also provides information about seasonal events hosted by the organization throughout the year.
Big Sur Village is about a half hour's drive south of Carmel. If you can't go further down the coast than that, you can make a day trip out of heading to Big Sur and back. It's far enough to take in some pretty spectacular coastal scenery along the way, including the Point Sur Lighthouse.
Once you're in Big Sur, there's also no shortage of things to do. If you travel down the PCH a little ways from Big Sur, you can stumble upon the Pfeiffer Beach, which is famous for its purple sand and gorgeous sunset views. You can also stop by the Post Ranch Inn or the Ventana Inn for a relaxing trip to a day spa overlooking the ocean. Alternatively, you can spend your afternoon leisurely browsing the private book collection at the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
If you continue another 10 minutes' drive past the village, you can even enjoy a meal at the scenic (and always busy) Nepenthe Restaurant, which is one of the most famous restaurants along the entire Pacific Coast Highway.