Where & Why
On our recent fall California road trip we had the opportunity to witness some of the most scenic vistas in the US along the Pacific Coast Highway in Monterey County. We had done plenty of homework planning (check out more of our planning process here) our route and we found that the Monterey section of the PCH was known to be one of the prettiest, so we didn't want to miss out!
We started our trip off with a day in San Francisco before driving south to make our way out of the city, hopping on US 1 ASAP because let's be honest driving on the PCH should be on everyone's bucket list. With our end destination setting in the sunny skies of the City of Angels we were anxiously mindful to soak in all of the California sea breeze along the way that we could.
Not long into our journey we started to spot gorgeous cliffs feeding into the Pacific Ocean with waves crashing along the edges providing breathtaking sights for the majority of our drive to Monterey.
Monterey County, made famous by it's diversely beautiful sights such as the 17 mile drive (for the golf lovers), Big Sur (for the adventure seekers) and Bixby Bridge (for the vast scenery) is one of the original counties in the state of California. Established in 1850 it is located approximately 290 miles north of Los Angeles and 150 miles south of San Francisco making it a relatively central destination for many coastal explorations in California.
How to get There
Monterey has a regional airport conveniently located approximately 10 minutes from downtown Monterey, 15 minutes from Carmel-by-the-sea, 25 minutes from Salinas and 45 minutes from the heart of Big Sur. The most cost effective option though is to fly into the bigger airports like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose (for the hands-down best pricing comparison be sure to check Skyscanner). From these larger airports you can rent a car (see below) and drive into Monterey County.
From select larger airports, such as San Francisco International, you can potentially take shuttles such as the Monterey Airbus.
Another option is to take a Greyhound Bus to Monterey via areas such as Salinas.
The train is a great leisurely, scenic option for those traveling up and down the Coast. Amtrak provides routes to Salinas which is a quick drive up the road from downtown Monterey and Carmel, or you can take the Amtrak shuttle from Salinas to downtown Monterey.
Let's not forget that a large portion of Monterey lies on the coast, approximately 500 square miles of the county is actually water. Therefore, Marinas, such as the Monterey Harbor provide locations for you to pay to park your boat for a short period of time.
Of course our personal favorite is driving so you can experience some beautiful American roads and sights that you wouldn't be able to stop and enjoy with other transportation options.
Highway 1, known as the Pacific Coast Highway, is one of the most iconic routes in America. It offers vastly rich views of the coastline. You can take this route all the way fromLos Angeles to San Francisco. However, be sure to check for road closings and road work ahead of time when planning your trip along this route.
Another great scenic drive that goes through Monterey is county is Laurle's Grade which is a cut-through that takes you from Carmel Valley Road (another beautiful scenic route) to Highway 68.
When to Go
The best time of year to visit this beautiful region of California is Spring, particularly May and April. This is due to the warmer temperatures, thinner crowds, and awesome food festivals that have been established throughout the years.
Personally, we scheduled our trip for October and while the temperatures were cooler (light sweater and dress, or short sleeves and long pants weather) we definitely enjoyed our stay and were comfortable throughout our time there. Weather was consistently cool mornings and evenings, with warm temperatures during the day. In the fall you certainly have the risk of facing more rain, however we were lucky and didn't experience this. In October we weren't overwhelmed with crowds and/or traffic. The lack of crowds made the area easy to maneuver and access which was nice for things such as watching the sunset at Bixby Bridge.
The Summer months are the most popular times of the year to travel to Monterey County so naturally you do face the risk of heavier crowds and traffic, especially along the PCH.
Regardless of which season you choose to visit you should still be prepared for chilly weather, especially in the evenings and mornings so be sure to pack accordingly.
What to Do
There is a wide range of activities for visitors (and residents) in this region of California. From wine tasting, to hiking, to shopping, to beach relaxing there is a little bit of something for everyone!
1) Explore the Great Outdoors
Monterey County is almost overflowing with California State parks. These are great opportunities for hiking, exploring, picnicking and even camping. These are a couple of our favorites.
2) Bixby Bridge vista
This awesome sight needs its own category! Not only is this iconic spot one of the most photographed locations in California, but it's also the most instagrammed location along the Coast in Big Sur. It's easy to see why after watching the sun set while sitting on the edge of the overlook.
With Bixby being an easy 13 mile drive from Carmel, we opted to pick up a dessert pastry in town to make the capture of that moment even sweeter. It was the perfect date night adventure! You have the option of pulling off either along on the northern side or southern side of the bridge depending on your preference. We chose the northern side. It provided great sitting spots and plenty of room to maneuver around the other vehicles. You won't want to miss out on one of the country's most well known landmarks while you're on your journey!
3) 17 MILE DRIVE
4) cALIFORNIA'S FIRST THEATRE
Used as a location for lodging, a tavern, and eventually a theatre, this little building has a large history that fully encompasses the depth of Monterey, County.
5) Carmel, CA
If you find yourself in this part of California you HAVE to stop through and walk the quaint streets of Carmel-by-the-Sea. This is also a great opportunity to check out the lifestyle of some well known Hollywood icons such as Clint Eastwood - who at one time was the Mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, or perhaps check out the seaside's quaint mansions.
If the ritz and the glam aren't what you're looking for, don't worry, it wasn't what they were looking for either. Carmel has a small town feel with enough character to charm anyone. It's quaint, with beautiful scenery and just a few steps from the ocean. Check out the delicious pastries at the Cottage of Sweets, taste wine and olive oil at Trio Wine Bar, and then stop by and glamour at the life size ferris wheel in the window display at Thinker Toys.
With such a large area surrounded by various landscapes you are bound to find great opportunities to view wildlife. The coast is filled with opportunities to view seals, whales and other nautical wanders. Check out the Monterey Aquarium, or take a whale watching cruise. Drive through the 17 mile drive and you're certain to spot a seal. The opportunities are vast.
7) Wine Tastings
This region of the coast is lined with beautiful lighthouses. From Point Sur lighthouse in Big Sur to Point Pinos in Monterey they all have their own special charm and view to add to the books.
Where to Eat
Monterey County is filled with delicious dining options. From sweets to seafood you can really get anything that you're looking for at excellent quality. Just a few recommendations from our notes:
1) Cottage of Sweets: Celebrate with homemade fudge and other assorted candies. Named as one of the top ten candy stores in America in 2009 by USA Today, the Cottage of Sweets does not disappoint. It's right on the main road in Carmel-by-the-Sea so you can't miss it. If all else fails just let the delicious smell guide you to it's open doors.
2) Casanova: Eat at the exact table Van Gogh ate at in this fine dining establishment in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
3) Hogs Breath Inn: This wild west establishment has been open for over forty years. At one point it was actually owned by Clint Eastwood. If you're looking for low key, good American Food here's your place.
4) Pebble Beach Market: If you do find yourself driving the gorgeous 17 mile drive you may just want to stop in and grab a sandwich at their very own market! There are also many sit down restaurants you can choose from but the sandwiches at the market were more than enough for us!
5) Wagon Wheel: This was our favorite find. Sitting just outside of downtown Carmel you can find this quaint, cozy, westernized dining experience. It is a hole-in-wall joint with more than enough to offer. We actually now only buy the hot sauce they were serving here, in cases.
Where to stay
We had the awesome opportunity to stay in a perfectly quaint and cozy lodge in Big Sur. Fernwood Resort was the perfect stop for us. There is an option to camp in the campground behind the main cabins and market. We chose the cabins which were equipped with heated floors, comfy linens and warm water - something we didn't get the night before during our camping expedition. The market, attached to the cabins, has everything you need including coffee and hot tea for the cooler mornings.
Camping is also a very popular option when visiting Monterey County. With ten plus state/national parks just within Monterey County, if you have a tent and sleeping bag you will not be out of a place to reside for the evening.
Mission Ranch: Stay in one of Californias first dairies, refurbished and restored by Hollywoods own Clint Eastwood. While dining on the patio you can enjoy the beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean and the gazing sheep in the vast landscape that encompasses the grounds.
Tips & things to keep in mind
Parking in Carmel-by-the-Sea: There's an ongoing joke that this quaint town makes all of its money on parking tickets, so be sure to follow the parking laws when driving around.
Packing: The weather does vary in this region. While the days can be sunny and warm, the evenings and mornings can get quite chilly. Be sure to pack a variety of clothes or bring clothing that can be layered to ensure comfort. You will also want to bring a rain jacket or umbrella, just in case.
Driving: When driving along the PCH always be sure to check out road closings to ensure your most enjoyable journey.
Carmel-By-The-Sea: Some fun facts about Carmel; To this day, there are still no addresses on houses or businesses, as well as no street lights. You will get direction tips such as: turn left at the yellow flower bush and pass the fourth house on the left. Carmel also has zero chain restaurants/establishments. Forget about Starbucks, you'll find something better and although this isn't entirely enforced, if you plan on wearing heels over 2 inches in height, you will need to obtain a permit from the City Hall.
Monterey, CA: The State Constitution was originally signed here. There are a variety of 26 golf courses that lie within the Monterey Peninsula. Monterey, County is one of the top agricultural regions in the country. Also, one of histories most iconic actresses, Norma Jean, known by many as Marilyn Monroe, was crowned the Artichoke Queen in this county in the 1940's. Another interesting fact is The Monterey Jazz Festival is one of the most notably recognized Jazz Festivals and one of the oldest standing buildings in California is the Monterey Custom House.
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We are the Best's! Jo and Mo. Founders of BestCapturedTravel!
We have been immensely blessed with many opportunities to see various parts of the world. We live an average, working life in Raleigh, NC but through our many opportunities have developed a passion to see the world. Our goal is to share with other desiring travelers different tips and experiences from around the world as we begin to check them off our bucket list. If anything, we hope to provide a little sense of motivation and adventure to those wishing to embark on their own journey!
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