The shoreline south of Monterey is one of California’s top places to visit. We were driving down the Californian coast and found so many things to do in Monterey and Carmel that we decided to stay longer to see it all.
This post shows you what to do in Monterey and Carmel and around them.
Pacific Grove ice plants
First, there is the pretty coastal community of Pacific Grove and the scenic 17-Mile Drive along the coast, then the Carmel Valley wine-growing region and on the way south to Big Sur the Point Lobos State Reserve where you can spot seals and shorebirds.
And of course Monterey and Carmel have a lot to offer. They are tourist destinations in their own right.
Below you can see the Monterey and Carmel area on the map, and the driving routes to other Monterey area top places marked on the map.
Things to Do in Monterey and Carmel: the Map
If you’re not familiar with California zoom out the map to see where on the coast Monterey and Carmel are located. It’s a 3,5 hour drive down the coast from San Francisco (130 miles). You can read about the drive in my post Coastal Drive from San Francisco to Monterey.
From Los Angeles it’s a pretty long way and driving time almost the double. So stay longer once you come to the Monterey area, and not just drive through it.
Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey
Monterey is the Spanish city of California and it’s former capital. It is a seaside city and a fishing port with a long pier.
Walk on the Fisherman’s Wharf and in downtown Monterey and the visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or take a whale cruise from the wharf.
The only thing on Monterey this post includes is a whale watching cruise at the end of the post.
But next to Monterey lies the pretty community of Pacific Grove.
Pacific Grove, Lovers Point Beach
Downtown Pacific Grove consists of old wooden houses many of which today serve as inns or hotels. A pleasant place for tourists, small shops, cafes and restaurants in vintage buildings and just a short walk to a beautiful sandy beach.
But what attracted us most in Pacific Grove was the beachfront promenade west of the beach and the Lovers Point.
There were so many beautiful pink ice plants in bloom! And this was the beginning of May so it was after the best ice plant flowering season.
Ice plants in bloom, Pacific Grove
On a cloudy day ice plants covering the lawn make the whole Pacific Grove coastline look a bit magic:
Walking a bit further from Pacific Grove you can try and spot Monterey Bay whales behind the strange-looking coastal rocks. However, we couldn’t see any whales but instead there was a seal basking on a rock.
Pacific Grove: seal on the rock
More information on Pacific Grove on the Pacific Grove travel website.
One of the 17-Mile Drive sandy coves
At the southern edge of Pacific Grove comes the Spanish Bay where you can enter the 17-Mile Drive toll road.
It’s not a motorway however, far from that. It’s a narrow winding road that takes you along the Pacific Coast to Carmel. The 17-Mile Drive has been classified as one of the most scenic drives in North America, so don’t miss this small toll road on your trip to Monterey and Carmel!
As the name says the drive is 17 miles long. It’s a loop drive that in addition to Carmel takes you inland to a pretty forest (Del Monte Forest) with cypress and pines. There are park gates at Pacific Grove, Carmel and off the Highway 1.
If you want to see it all the whole loop might take about three hours depending on how much you stop and hike.
There are some fantastic hikes in the forest and along the ocean shore.
So the 17-Mile Drive is a great nature destination but it’s also a residential area for millionaries that wanted to build their mansions here, at a convenient distance to all the golf courses that exist here.
But for us, the rocky shores and sandy coves were what we most wanted to see on the 17-Mile Drive.
You could spend hours hiking along this coastline and observing the flora and fauna you meet!
More on the 17-Mile Drive on the Pebblebeach.com website.
But then, there’s something else when you drive on – you can also spend hours looking at Carmel fairy-tale cottages…
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a hillside village with Hansel and Gretel cottages.
There are twenty-one of them so you can see this kind of houses all around the village. They were created by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s and 1930s. He wanted to build this kind of houses for his wife. He built one, built another one and bought more land to build more houses that today are worth millions. And that became the building-style of Carmel-of-the-Sea.
Otherwise Carmel has a lovely beach, the Carmel Mission and lots of art galleries, small shops and cozy cafés along the main street Ocean Avenue.
And not to forget, there are lots of wine-tasting rooms where you can sample wines of the nearby Carmel Valley. A perfect tourist destination!
Carmel River State Beach with a lagoon and wetland nature preserve
More information on Carmel on the official Carmel travel website.
A short drive south of Carmel you can find the other great nature destination of the Monterey and Carmel area, the Point Lobos State Reserve.
Point Lobos State Reserve
China Cove, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos right off the Cabrillo Highway has an amazing ocean setting. The state reserve is small enough to easily to explore on foot. You can drive in the nature reserve, park your car and take short hikes, the most popular of which are the Cypress Grove Trail, the Sea Lion Point Trail and the Bird Island Trail.
These photos are from the Bird Island Trail in the southernmost part of the reserve, and I can tell you that we enjoyed this hike. First there was a seal colony, mothers nursing their pups and hunting for fish in the waters in between, to feed themselves.
Walking on there was the Bird Island with a shorebird colony, a beautiful sight at a distance but very noisy when you get closer.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve shorebirds, California
And we also spotted a whale, really! A big one and quite close to the shore. Our first whale in California!
Cypress Grove Trail
Driving back from the Bird Island trail there is an easy trail to a cove where you can see sea otters.
Sea otters are funny animals, just floating on their backs in the water and yet looking very active. Californian sea otters have been near extinction and now increasing again. And they only live in this area, along the Big Sur coastline.
Spring really is a good time to visit California, It’s less crowded on the roads and in the spring you will have the best chances to see flowers and spot local wildlife.
Whalers Cove seen from the trail, Point Lobos State Reserve
Our last destination in the State Reserve was the Whalers Cove that also has a lot of seals along its sandy beach. You can observe seal moms feeding their pups right on the seashore below you.
From Whalers Cove there is a trail leading to the next cove, Bluefish Cove, and back through the forest. Whalers Cove also has an old fishing hut that now serves a small museum.
Above some more views of Whalers Cove: the old fishing hut, seals on the beach and rocky shoreline towards Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Seals in Whalers Cove, Point Lobos State Reserve
More information on the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve:
The state reserve of Point Lobos is where the world-famous Big Sur coastline begins. It is a dramatic coastline where many curves and high bridges are needed to get the US Highway 1 through the area.
Visiting the Big Sur coastline, California
The northernmost bridges are a very short drive from Carmel so drive a bit longer and go and see the Big Sur bridges on your trip to Monterey and Carmel.
I will tell about Big Sur in a later blog post so we will not travel that far south this time. Instead we will go inland, to the Carmel Valley that was our base for exploring the Monterey and Carmel area.
Carmel Valley vineyards
The wine-growing region of Carmel Valley is just a 15-minute drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea. The valley is backed by the Santa Lucia Mountains and it is beautiful countryside with horse ranches, vineyards and forests.
The center of the Carmel Valley is the small community of Carmel Valley Village that has art and antique shops, fine dining restaurants, country pubs – and lots of wine-tasting rooms:
Talbott Vineyards tasting room
Don’t miss the Carmel Valley tasting-rooms on your trip to Monterey and Carmel. Most of them are located right in the village center, at walking-distance from each other. That makes touring them very easy.
These photos show different Carmel Valley tasting-rooms, from the family-run Talbott that offers high-quality Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands and on a steep mountaintop near Monterey to the Cowgirl Winery that has made tasting super easy. Simple glasses and good instructions, that sounds very American!
A Carmel Valley pub
The Carmel Valley in itself is mainly farming and forested area and most of the vineyards are somewhere else, in the Santa Lucia Highlands and in the Salinas Valley. The village also has some original country pubs used by the locals, like this one.
Some more photos on Carmel Valley pubs and fine dining and some Carmel Valley scenery:
We were so lucky that we happened to find the Carmel Valley! It began with a hotel booking. We were on vacation and wanted a pool, an outdoor hot tub and a sunnier inland climate instead of daily coastal fogs from the Pacific Ocean. The Carmel Valley has a sunnier climate than the coastal resorts and it’s a bit warmer there than on the coast where it can still be chilly in the spring.
If you want to know where we stayed, it was Contenta Inn in the Carmel Valley. A good motel that met our needs, very quiet in the spring. The location was perfect in the village center, at walking-distance from dining and tasting rooms.
Information on the Carmel Valley on the Monterey Tourism website.
The sunny Carmel Valley was a lovely place to stay at, just a short drive from Carmel along the valley road.
And on a not so sunny day we took our last Things to do activity in Monterey. We went on a whale watching cruise on the stormy Monterey bay:
Monterey Bay Whale Watching Cruise
Whale watching in Monterey
Why did we go on a whale cruise in Monterey, and not somewhere else?
The Monterey Bay is the best place in the US to view whales, year-round. That’s because of a canyon that exists in the Monterey Bay. The canyon is very long and deep, it’s the continuation of the Grand Canyon. It is 2 miles deep at its deepest point and that makes it possible for big marine mammals like whales and dolphins occur near the coast.
Their food is fish and krill and they feed within the canyon. Since there is food they can stay here all year round. The only exception are the grey whales that migrate between Alaska and Mexico. They can only be seen here in winter and spring.
Monterey whale watching cruises
The cruises depart at the end of the Fisherman’s Wharf where you can find a number of different tour providers. We took a Princess Monterey Whale Watching tour that took about 3 hours.
Other tour providers are at least the Monterey Bay Whale Watching Center that says to have 4 hour tours and Randy’s Whale Watching & Fishing. All tour providers give an almost 100 % guarantee to spot whales.
So we went on a tour and the whales didn’t mind the rain. They appeared to us, all the time and at both sides of the vessel. We were busy running around the boat that was rocking in the strong sea waves, to spot as many whales as possible.
This one only showed his back and others came still closer and breached, just like the huge humpback whale below. Humpback whales are the most curious and playful of all the whales and there were many of them around us that day. And there were dolphins as well.
After the whale experience it was now time to continue our journey towards south and Big Sur.
Californian windmill, US Highway 1
So these were my top picks of the things to do in Monterey and Carmel in the Central California. Hope the article was useful to you and if you want to read more on California you can find my other California posts here: