City life, step aside! Monterey is the perfect California destination to soak up nature, get active, and enjoy the charisma of small towns. Just south of San Francisco and San José, you have access to one of California’s most gorgeous stretches of coastline, packed full of things to do for the outdoorsy. Here’s how to have an active vacation in Monterey County and details on all the best outdoor activities in Monterey. Plan for a stop at Carmel-by-the-Sea and check out activities around Big Sur because there are so many things to do in Monterey County!!
About My Trip
Let me recap for those who don’t follow me on Instagram @BellaBucchioti. I recently took my first trip out of Canada after 19 long, very long months! California is completely set up for responsible travel, so it was the ideal first destination outside my home border.
No matter how many times you travel to the golden state, you will find endless things to do in California in every season! The Carmel Valley had been on my list for a while with the scenic drives, wine tasting rooms, California coast scenery, ocean views and all the marine life like sea otters and whale watching.
California is one of my favourite places to visit in the United States, so a California road trip was calling my name. I brought my friend Kim aka @WestCoastLife who is an amazing photographer (and took all these photos) along for an October road trip through Sonoma, San Francisco, and Monterey to soak up the fresh air!
Things to know about Monterey County, California
Monterey County is located in northern California, roughly a two-hour drive from San Francisco. It has a mild, Mediterranean-like climate with an idyllic coast, sandy beaches, and lively communities. As such, an active vacation in Monterey County is a wonderful idea!
Here are some fun facts you might not know about Monterey County!
- It’s the #1 agricultural region in the US! Salinas Valley, part of Monterey County, is nicknamed the “Salad Bowl of the Nation,” thanks to the variety of fruits and vegetables grown here.
- It’s a wine lover’s paradise! It might not be as famous as Napa or Sonoma, but the Monterey County wine region produces the most premium grapes in North America and is spread across 40,000 acres.
- Monterey is home to Big Sur and the famous Bixby Bridge. The bridge is one of the world’s highest single-span bridges, standing at 714 feet long and 260 feet tall.
How to get to Monterey County
So, if you’re coming from abroad like we were, then the best way to get to San Francisco is to fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and then rent a car and drive there yourself. Easily kick off a northern California road trip by renting a car straight from the airport. Next stop is all the outdoor activities in Monterey!
However, there is also a regional airport in Monterey County. Monterey Regional Airport is located just 10 minutes from downtown Monterey. It’s also just 15 minutes from Carmel-by-the Sea, and 25 minutes from downtown Salinas. There are direct flights from many US destinations like Seattle, Phoenix, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Denver.
Then, another option is to take the Amtrak that passes through Salinas daily, connecting parts of California, Oregon, and Washington.
Things to do in Monterey on an Active Vacation
An active vacation in Monterey is full of adventure! From activities around Big Sur to the beautiful Carmel-by-the-Sea and more, here are the best things to do in Monterey County. Load up the car and get ready for an awesome northern California road trip!
Hugging the coast for – you guessed it – 17 miles, the scenic 17-mile Drive is one of the best things to do in Monterey. It’s a great way to get a feel of the area and soak up much of its coast. The route goes from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach, following along the Monterey Peninsula.
Also, most of the drive is coastal, full of dramatic coastal cliffs, green forests, golf courses, and gleaming sandy beaches. Get your camera ready for some gorgeous photos! Make stops at the Spanish Bay, Restless Sea, and Big Rock for some of my favourite spots.
Note: The route is not free to access, per se. Admission to 17-Mile Drive is $10.75 per vehicle. However, the gate fee is reimbursed with a purchase of $35 or more at all Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants, excluding Pebble Beach Market. So, keep your receipts if you eat out during your road trip!
The Lone Cypress
The Lone Cypress Tree is over 200 years old and the official symbol of Pebble Beach. It is located along the 17-Mile Drive. It is held in place by cables to prevent damage. This is a photo stop you need to make if you are in Monterey.
The 17-mile Drive brings you to Carmel-by-the-Sea, one of the best places in Monterey. This enchanting little place was founded in 1902. It’s known for the Carmel Mission, fairytale cottages, and old-world flair. Carmel-by-the-Sea is tiny, but that just means it’s perfect for walking and exploring it all in just one day!
While there, don’t miss visiting the historic Carmel Mission, originally built in 1770. It is a beautiful example of Spanish architecture and is dotted with palm trees around it. I would also recommend visiting one of its several museums, doing a wine tasting, and seeing the village. Of course, just walking around the cottage-filled village is reason enough why this is one of the best places in Monterey.
Carmel-by-the-Sea meets the coast at Carmel Beach. It was very windy the morning I was there and it brought along some gorgeous waves. The sand here is luxuriously soft, and the beach itself is clean and wide. I can’t recommend it enough for an active vacation in Monterey. It would be a great spot for surfing!
One of the best activities around Big Sur is a visit to McWay Falls. This 80-foot-tall waterfall is one of the most beautiful places in California!
The best way to see the waterfall is to take the McWay Falls Overlook Trail, a .06 mile out and back trail that hugs the coast. It’s easily accessible from Highway 1. From there, you’ll get one of the best views of McWay Falls.
One of the state’s most iconic bridges, Bixby Bridge is one of the best spots on a northern California road trip. This 1932 bridge soars 260 feet above a steep canyon with a rocky, rugged coastline on either side, leading into the Pacific Ocean. Then, on either side of the bridge, you’ll find lush greenery and rolling hills.
However, don’t walk across the bridge! Instead, see the view from either the west or east side of it. That’s how you get the best views, anyway. Bixby Bridge is easily one of the best things to do in Monterey.
Lobos Point State Natural Reserve
Lobos Point around Carmel-by-the-Sea is a must-visit on an active vacation in Monterey County! It’s an ideal spot to see some of California’s wildlife, go scuba diving, or enjoy a hike or swim.
Also, the reserve is a gem! It showcases everything to love about California’s coast, like wildlife, sparkling beaches, rugged coasts, and small coves.
One of the best places to see is Gibson Beach is also accessed from Bird Island Trail, a .08 mile round trip trail showcasing rocky shores and pine forests. You list of outdoor activities in Monterey County needs to include a stop here.
Pfeiffer Beach at Big Sur State Park
Just one mile south of the main entrance of Big Sur State Park, Pfeiffer Beach is a must-see. Pfeiffer Beach is one of the stars of the show in Big Sur. It has uniquely purple-hued sand and intricate rock formations that stand alone just out into the Pacific Ocean.
It’s so beautiful especially because you can walk over the rocks and stand under the small archway. Come here for sunset for an absolutely magical experience! This is definitely one of the best activities around Big Sur.
Tip! Park at the Day use Area, which is close by and easily leads to the beach.
Kayaking in Monterey Bay with Adventures by the Sea
Then, an active vacation in Monterey calls for kayaking! It’s one of my favourite ways to be in the ocean. An excursion with Adventures by the Sea will take you through Cannery Row and offers a chance to see otters, harbor seals, and sea lions along the dazzling Monterey Bay! The tour lasts two hours and includes everything you need. We sadly didnt get to go because it was way to windy but it is back on the list for next time!
Plus, if you have kayaking experience, you can also just rent the equipment and forgo the guide. There are so many fun outdoor activities in Monterey County!
eBike Tour with Big Sur Adventures
If you’re looking for outdoor activities in Monterey, Get active and embrace the fresh air with an eBike tour with Big Sur Adventures! Our amazing tour guide took us along Old Coast Road in Big Sur. Of course, it was full of backcountry beauty and fantastic views. You’ll break a sweat and it’ll be worth it!
Best part? You get a more secretive view of the famous Bixby Bridge! Plus, you’ll see Little Sur River and views of the Point Sur Lighthouse.
The tour lasts two hours and it’s one of the best activities around Big Sur!
If you are planning a California road trip, you might also like California Road Trip – Gold Country, Huntington Beach – Southern California Road Trip, Greater Palm Springs – Southern California Road Trip or Temecula Valley – Southern California Road Trip.
Where to stay in Monterey County
There are so many beautiful places to stay in Monterey County that it can be hard to choose. Here are my top picks that provide ideal access to some of the best outdoor activities in Monterey.
Carmel Mission Inn
The Carmel Mission Inn (which is where I stayed) is located in the charming Camel-by-the-Sea, this boutique hotel is perfectly situated to explore Monterey County.
The decor is boho and stylish with a fire pit, outdoor pool, super cozy room, and friendly staff. The place was seriously adorable and oozed a vibrant, relaxed charm.
Carmel Garden Inn
For homey vibes, gardens, and loads of natural light, the Carmel Garden Inn is a lovely choice. It’s like a little natural oasis in Carmel-by-the-Sea with rustic, simple decor, and cosy B&B ambiance. It definitely fits in with the cottage charm of the village.
Where to Eat in Monterey County
There are so many amazing restaurants to eat at in Monterey County, I wish I had had time for more! Plus, even though I’m celiac and dairy-free, it was easy to find delicious food in Monterey.
Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar
Flaherty’s is a cozy seafood grill & oyster bar in Carmel-by-the-Sea with everything from mussels and clam chowder to salads and fish tacos. The place is relaxed and stylish with a cool checker print tiled bar and subtle details. Their seafood dishes were well-prepared, and the prices weren’t too expensive.
Attached to our hotel, the Carmel Mission Inn, is the Shearwater Tavern. Here they serve up contemporary California flavours using local ingredients. They have everything from breakfast to dinner and cocktails.
We came here for breakfast and it was lovely! The ambiance was inviting and they had a nice selection of fairly priced food and coffee.
Ike’s Love and Sandwiches
For something quick and tasty lunch, Ike’s Love and Sandwiches in Monterey is a great choice. It seems like there’s a sandwich for every craving!
Alvarado Street Brewery
Locally inspired comfort food and craft beer in a snug setting is what you’ll find at Alvarado Street Brewery. Affordable, and perfect for any beer lover at lunchtime.
Happy Girl Kitchen Co
An adorable spot in Pacific Grove serving up specialty coffee, breakfast, and deli food, Happy Girl Kitchen Co is a great place to eat in Monterey County.
Carmel Poke Co.
If you love poke bowls, you will love a stop at Carmel Poke Co. for lunch or dinner. It is a great place for quick, healthy meal and they have a great selection of Kombucha and beer on tap.
Carmel Bistro Giovanni
The Mediterranean meets California for great Italian cuisine in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Carmel Bistro Giovanni is elegant with quality food and a vibrant atmosphere. A great dinner spot!
For excellent dinner cuisine and an extensive wine list, Rio Grill is one of the place places to eat in Carmel. It has a vintage, charming vibe and great energy.
An active vacation in Monterey is full of fresh California coastal air, delicious food, and stunning northern California road trips. Enjoy the best of this special peninsula!
Let me know if you have suggestions for other things to do in Monterey County. You will love all the outdoor activities in Monterey and the surrounding area. If you are like me, you will LOVE an active vacation in Monterey and the charm of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Bella Bucchiotti is a storyteller, food lover, dog mom and adventure seeker living on the Pacific coast. She shares her passion for food, dogs, fitness, adventures, travel and philanthropy, in hopes of encouraging followers to run the extra mile, try new recipes, visit unfamiliar places and stand for a cause. Bella lives with Type 1 Diabetes and Celiac Disease.