One of the most popular tourist activities 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, where 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. You can learn about California History, see amazing scenery, and enjoy a meal of local seafood.
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. Although you can park along the PCH to avoid paying, park admissions go toward conservation efforts for the nature preserve.
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 amidst the boutiques and art galleries. 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.
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, head to the Highlands Inn's Sunset Lounge for a sunset cocktail overlooking the ocean.
Out-of-town visitors (and locals, 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.
Actor and director Clint Eastwood own the place though you probably won't find him there. 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.
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 times you stop.
The 17-Mile Drive 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 is charged per vehicle and motorcycles are not allowed.
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.
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, book a trip on Sanctuary Cruises instead.
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, 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 Pacific Coast Highway a little ways from Big Sur, you'll stumble upon 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, 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, 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.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo is the official name of the Carmel Mission. This beautifully restored mission was first built in 1797 and is a must-see when visiting quaint Carmel for its California history, authentic restoration, and quiet gardens with bubbling fountains.
The mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra, known as “The Father of the California Missions" who is buried in the cemetery there. The mission is an active parish and you can attend mass and events.
Visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove. Migratory Monarch butterflies usually arrive in October and stop at the sanctuary, clustering on pine, cypress and eucalyptus trees. It's because of this phenomenon that Pacific Grove is nicknamed "Butterfly Town, U.S.A." The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History has information on butterfly viewing and the natural history of the area.
Once actual seafood canneries on piers along Monterey Bay, the area has been repurposed with luxurious waterfront hotels, seafood restaurants, and fun boutiques as well as the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The area was made famous by John Steinbeck's 1945 novel about Depression-era Cannery Row, entitled Cannery Row.
As you walk Cannery Row, you'll see places depicted in Steinbeck's book such as Lee Chong's Market, where you could buy "a pair of slippers, a silk kimono, a quarter pint of whiskey and a cigar." Much of this history exists today in the cannery buildings, cannery workers' little wooden houses in a park, and elevated building walkways emblazoned with seafood company names.
The Monterey State Historic Park is a place where you can go back in time to early California. Here you'll find a collection of historic houses, gardens, and adobe buildings. You can walk the “Monterey Walking Path of History” and view the place where Spanish explorers first landed in Monterey in 1602, and then stroll past the historic homes and gardens (which are really worth seeing) including the Customs House which is the oldest government building in California.
If you want to go the inside of many of the historic homes, you will have to tour with a State Park Guide; sign up for one at the Pacific House Museum.