Moon Monterey & Carmel

With Santa Cruz & Big Sur


By Stuart Thornton

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Quirky galleries, deliciously fresh seafood, and dramatic hikes and drives: discover what the locals love about these seaside towns with Moon Monterey & Carmel. Inside you'll find:
  • Flexible, strategic itineraries including long weekends in Monterey, Carmel, and Santa Cruz, and a three-day road trip from Big Sur to Cambria
  • Top sights and unique experiences: Visit the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium or take a whale-watching tour to catch a glimpse of sea otters, harbor seals, and migrating whales in the wild. Stroll along soft sand beaches or browse artisan galleries and boutiques in Carmel's idyllic downtown. Cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur and pull over to soak up the breathtaking ocean view, or wander the halls of the opulent Hearst Castle. Catch happy hour at a historic brewery, or dine on fresh seafood as the sun sets over the bay
  • Outdoor adventures: Explore the stunning coastline on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, dive into a kelp forest, or rent a surfboard and catch a wave.
  • Honest advice from Monterey local Stuart Thornton on when to go, how to get around, where to eat, and where to stay, from budget motels to historic inns
  • Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
  • Handy tools including tips for seniors, visitors with disabilities, and traveling with kids
  • Helpful resources on COVID-19 and traveling to Monterey and Carmel
  • Background on the culture, history, weather, and wildlife
  • Full coverage of Monterey, Carmel, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Cambria, San Simeon, Morro Bay, and Salinas
Experience the best of Monterey & Carmel with Moon's practical tips and local insight.
Hitting the road? Check out Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip. Looking for more outdoor adventures? Try Moon Northern California Hiking.

About Moon Travel Guides: Moon was founded in 1973 to empower independent, active, and conscious travel. We prioritize local businesses, outdoor recreation, and traveling strategically and sustainably. Moon Travel Guides are written by local, expert authors with great stories to tell—and they can't wait to share their favorite places with you.

For more inspiration, follow @moonguides on social media.


the bell tower at the Carmel Mission

coastline along Highway 1 in Big Sur

DISCOVER Monterey & Carmel


Planning Your Trip

The Best of Monterey and Carmel







Best Beaches


Wine Time

a coastal sunset in Monterey.

Monterey Bay is California in microcosm. Here, you can experience the best the Golden State has to offer—without the big-city crowds and complications.

The best days in Monterey are spent in the water. Dive into a kelp forest. Explore the scenic coastline on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Scout for migrating whales passing near the shores.

The idyllic village of Carmel possesses seaside charm. From white-sand beaches to luxurious hotels, it promises a refined, high-class vacation bursting with art galleries and tasting rooms. Nearby Pebble Beach offers world-class golfing and stunning scenery.

Not far away, excursions range from quirky beach town Santa Cruz to opulent Hearst Castle. Big Sur is the region’s most dramatic stretch of coastline, and the perfect geography for an unforgettable road trip.

Monterey Bay is not just a collision of land and sea, but also a juxtaposition of jarring colors and symbiotic ecosystems. From world-class wines and fine foods to a wonderland of marine life, Monterey encapsulates the California dream.

monarch butterflies in the Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

a humpback whale in Monterey Bay


1 Monterey Bay Aquarium: See the marine habitats and sea creatures of the Monterey Bay at this artfully done aquarium (click here).

2 Whale-Watching: Spy humpbacks, blue whales, and gray whales as they migrate through Monterey Bay (click here).

3 Walk Through History: Monterey and Carmel are some of California’s most historic cities. Wander into old adobes from the Mexican and early American eras at the Monterey State Historic Park, then go admire the gilded altar and verdant grounds at Carmel Mission (click here).

4 Kayak the Coast: Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard and explore Monterey Bay. Not ready to go off on your own? Book a tour from Cannery Row (click here).

5 Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: This throwback amusement park set right on the beach thrills summer lovers with its wooden roller coaster, rides and arcades, and live concerts (click here).

6 Surf Santa Cruz: Try out your surfing skills at superb surf breaks like Steamer Lane and Cowell’s Beach (click here).

7 Wine-Tasting: Monterey County is great for growing grapes. The Carmel and Salinas Valleys offer casual tasting rooms, while Carmel-by-the-Sea has almost 20 tasting rooms within a few-block radius (click here).

8 Cruise the Big Sur Coast Highway: An unforgettable drive, this twisty, two-lane highway offers a scrapbook worth of postcard-perfect views (click here).

9 Hike in Big Sur: Big Sur has some of the state’s best and most varied hiking. Walk through coast redwood forests, hike to stunning waterfalls, and discover pristine seashores (click here).

10 Tour Hearst Castle: Explore the opulence of another era with a guided tour of the hilltop estate of William Randolph Hearst (click here).

Planning Your Trip

Where to Go

Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium to learn about the area’s fascinating marine life, and then head out on a kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or on a whale-watching trip to view sea otters, harbor seals, and migrating whales. Afterward, explore downtown Monterey and dig deep into the scenic town’s rich history at the adobe buildings of Monterey State Historic Park. Take in the silence in San Carlos Cathedral, which was built as a place of worship for the Spanish military in 1794.


Wander around in the art galleries of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and then take a stroll on the light sands of Carmel Beach. Get a dose of history at the Carmel Mission or Tor House. If you are a wine lover, be sure to hit the wineries in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea or head out to Carmel Valley to taste some of the region’s best varietals.


Stroll around Oldtown Salinas before a visit to the National Steinbeck Center, a museum devoted to famed writer and Salinas native John Steinbeck. Follow that with lunch at The Steinbeck House, where the writer was born. Head south down Salinas Valley to spend some time in Pinnacles National Park and gawk at the amazing rock formations.

Santa Cruz

Have some throwback fun on the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk then grab a board and surf one of Santa Cruz’s many waves. Be sure to experience the town’s vibrant downtown with a walk along Pacific Avenue, stopping for lunch in one of its many restaurants. Drive into the Santa Cruz Mountains for the coast redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, or see a colony of elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park.

Big Sur

Some of the most beautiful coastline in the world is along this section of the Pacific Coast Highway. Make sure your camera or phone has lots of room for photos of Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls. Slip on your hiking boots for a longer day hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or Andrew Molera State Park.

a rock formation at Pfeiffer Beach

Cambria, San Simeon, and Morro Bay

Tour grandiose Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Take time to visit the area’s unique natural features, such as Cambria’s Moonstone Beach or Montaña de Oro State Park, outside of Morro Bay.

Know Before You Go
When to Go

The Monterey region’s best feature is its all-season appeal. In summer, expect significant crowds at popular attractions, wineries, beaches, and campgrounds. In fall, the area is a bit less crowded, but the weather is still warm. It’s also when some of the best surfing waves occur along the coast. Winter is the rainy season, although the days between storms are often clear with mild temperatures. The crowds are lightest at this time, except on holiday weekends. During spring, the land is green and colored with wildflowers. The winds can really kick up in the afternoon along the coast.

Summer fog is likely along the coast. Bring layered clothing. Also bring sunscreen; that coastal fog doesn’t stop UV rays.


It is essential to make advance reservations for lodging and camping in Big Sur, Monterey, Carmel, and Santa Cruz, especially during summer. It’s necessary to reserve a spot in a Hearst Castle tour before arriving. Expect the Monterey Bay Aquarium to have significant crowds during the summer (visit between 2pm and 6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday when there are fewer people.) Finally, an advance reservation is the only way you’ll be able to play on Pebble Beach’s famed golf courses.

seagull by the Monterey Bay Aquarium


If you’re road-tripping through the region, visit the California Department of Transportation website ( for current road conditions, especially for trips to Big Sur and into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The Best of Monterey and Carmel

The major attractions of the Monterey Bay region can be explored in a long weekend, but taking up to five days will allow for a more immersive experience. The two best approaches to exploring the area are to choose a home base (like Monterey or Pacific Grove) and plan day trips; or to take a road trip through the region, beginning in Santa Cruz, continuing into Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur, and ending in Cambria or Morro Bay.

Monterey: Maritime Escape

Time in Monterey should be spent exploring the bay itself, whether by visiting the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium or heading out on the water on a kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or whale-watching vessel.

Day 1

After an early arrival in Monterey, take a leisurely walk around the Monterey Harbor on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. Be sure to head out on the Coast Guard Pier if you want to view some harbor seals and sea lions up close.

Monterey Bay

Grab a quick lunch of fresh, raw seafood at The Poke Lab or a fine Greek salad at Epsilon before heading over to Cannery Row to spend the afternoon taking in furry sea otters and swirling jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Head back to downtown Monterey for a beer at the popular Alvarado Street Brewery or enjoy a stellar cocktail and snack at Montrio. Stay there for dinner or head to Monterey’s Fish House for oak-grilled seafood.

Monterey’s popular Cannery Row

The Portola Plaza Hotel in downtown Monterey has an ideal location near Alvarado Street and Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, while Monterey Bay Inn is perched right over the bay just walking distance from Cannery Row. Budget travelers can bed down at the HI-Monterey Hostel, conveniently located a few blocks from the aquarium, or at Lone Oak Lodge off North Fremont Street.

Day 2

It’s time to experience Monterey’s amazing marine life firsthand. Mornings are the best time to hit the water, before the winds start. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from Monterey Bay Kayaks and paddle out into the bay from nearby Monterey State Beach. Or, head underwater by scuba diving or snorkeling off Monterey’s Breakwater Cove, one of the best beginner dive spots in the state.

Another way to experience the bay is to secure a seat on a whale-watching tour that leaves from Monterey Harbor. During the winter and spring migrations, gray whales swim right along Monterey’s coast.

For dinner head to Wave Street, one block from Cannery Row. Have a drink at The Sardine Factory, a longtime Monterey landmark. Enjoy a steak dinner next door at the Whaling Station, or walk up Lighthouse Avenue for island fare and fun at Hula’s.

Day 3

Begin the day with a breakfast in downtown Monterey at Café Lumiere, which serves delicious, locally roasted Acme Coffee, or take a short trip to Crema in Pacific Grove for one of the area’s best breakfasts, known for its huevos rancheros and chicken-and-waffles.

Return to Monterey and explore its historic buildings. The Monterey State Historic Park has historic adobes and old government buildings scattered around downtown that are well worth visiting. The Custom House and Pacific House Museum located around Custom House Plaza are good places to start. Take an hour-long guided walking tour of the park for an overview of the area’s history.

Fans of old Victorian buildings should spend time in Pacific Grove and take in its quaint downtown along Lighthouse Avenue. Be sure to detour down to Lovers Point Park for its views of the curving bay.

Pacific Grove’s “Magic Carpet” during spring

Stay in Pacific Grove for dinner. Passionfish is known for serving tasty and sustainable seafood, while Poppy Hall serves California soul food.

Day Trip to Salinas

Break a sweat and then crack open a bottle of wine on a day trip around inland Monterey County. Start by embarking on the hour-long drive to one of the country’s newest national parks: Pinnacles National Park, a wonderland of rock spires, sheer walls, steep canyons, and caves. The park’s west end, the closest entrance from Monterey, provides access to a handful of trails. One recommended hike is the Juniper Canyon Loop, which goes up to the impressive High Peaks.

Cool off afterward by crossing the Salinas Valley to reach the River Road Wine Trail, a string of wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Post up on the outdoor deck at Hahn Winery Tasting Room for views of Pinnacles rising in the distance as you sample pinot noir and chardonnay.

Head to Salinas for dinner. Choose between upscale European fare at Patria, hearty Italian food at family-friendly Gino’s, or tasty tri-tip at Salinas City Barbeque.

Carmel: Art, Wine, and Beaches

Carmel-by-the-Sea has one of the state’s best beaches, along with a downtown full of art galleries and tasting rooms. Carmel Valley is home to an up-and-coming wine industry.

Day 1

Start your time in Carmel with an open-faced breakfast sandwich made with organic ingredients at Carmel Belle. Then stroll along Ocean Avenue, taking time to peer into the art galleries and upscale boutiques. Make your way west as the road starts its descent to Carmel Beach, one of the finest beaches in the entire state. Once on the sugar-white sands, take off your shoes and let your dog run on the beach. Save some energy for the walk back up Ocean Avenue.

Carmel River State Beach

After returning to your vehicle, head three miles south on CA-1 to reach Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which is rumored to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There, the Cypress Grove Trail boasts twisted Monterey cypress trees and stunning coastline views.

Return to Carmel-by-the-Sea for a drink and snack on the rooftop bar at Vesuvio, or sample some high-end mescal and Mexican food at Cultura Comida y Bebida.

Spend the night with the sounds of the nearby sea at La Playa Carmel or stay in the Far East-inspired Tradewinds Carmel. Traveling with a furry friend? Consider the pro-pup Cypress Inn, co-owned by actress and animal-rights activist Doris Day.

Day 2

Get a hearty breakfast at the Little Swiss Café or grab a coffee and pastry at Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co. Then take in the grounds of the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, better known as the Carmel Mission.

Following a self-guided walk around the mission, take a tour of the nearby Tor House, a fascinating castle-like structure on Carmel Point constructed by nature poet Robinson Jeffers. Tours are only offered on Fridays and Saturdays.

It’s late afternoon, and you deserve some wine. Carmel-by-the-Sea has a handful of tasting rooms downtown, including the popular Scheid Vineyards Tasting Room.

For dinner, enjoy the opulent atmosphere and aged steaks at Seventh & Dolores or get some of the freshest sushi around at the hole-in-the-wall Akaoni.

Day 3

For your third day in this area, head inland to Carmel Valley. Save your appetite for a hearty down-home breakfast at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant or a more creative egg dish at Jeffrey’s Grill & Catering.

Work off those calories with a hike at Garland Ranch Regional Park, an expansive parcel of land with steep hikes, ridges, and fine views of the valley. One option is the Mesa Trail. Head to Refuge Spa to soak your sore legs in its warm waters.

Carmel Valley is a burgeoning but unassuming wine region, so be sure to head to the Carmel Valley Village for some wine-tasting. Seven tasting rooms are located in a small strip mall, while several more are a short walk away. Some recommendations include I. Brand & Family Winery and Boekenoogen Vineyard & Winery.

Enjoy dinner at Café Rustica, with its superb pizzas and entrées, or soak up the wine with a steak dinner at Carmel Valley Chophouse. If you are still standing, visit the Running Iron Restaurant and Saloon and take in its Old West decor with a nightcap.

Santa Cruz: Coast and Mountains

Visit Santa Cruz to experience an eclectic California surf town, explore redwood-cloaked mountains, and take in the lightly developed north coast.

Day 1

Getting to Santa Cruz is an easy 50-minute (44-mile) drive up CA-1 from the Monterey Peninsula. The eclectic beach city is an ideal place to try and catch a wave, whether you are a novice or an accomplished wave rider. Cowell’s Beach is great for learning, while both Pleasure Point and Steamer Lane have larger waves. Afterward, visit the one-room Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, just above Steamer Lane.

Walk along West Cliff Drive and stop into The Picnic Basket for a sandwich or salad. Wander across the street to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to ride the wooden Big Dipper roller coaster.

Head to downtown Santa Cruz’s lively Pacific Avenue and check out local shops like the wonderful Bookshop Santa Cruz. For dinner, stop at the Abbott Square Market, a food court with options that range from vegetarian to seafood to Neapolitan pizza. Or, head south of downtown to eat sushi amid skateboard-art at Akira.

To hear some live music, make for the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, an intimate venue that hosts jazz and acoustic performances, or The Catalyst, the place for indie, rap, and reggae bands.

Now it’s sleepy time. The Seaway Inn has basic motel rooms in a location that can’t be beat, while the adjacent West Cliff Inn offers an upscale bed-and-breakfast experience in a gleaming white mansion. Across the street, the Santa Cruz Dream Inn reflects the playfulness of the nearby boardwalk and has a view of Cowell’s Beach.

Day 2

To see the big trees, drive eight miles to the Santa Cruz Mountains town of Felton. Experience the impressive coast redwoods by taking a ride on the Roaring Camp Railroads. Hop on the Redwood Forest Steam Train and chug up a small mountain or take the Santa Cruz Beach Train down through the redwood-cloaked San Lorenzo River Canyon to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Stay in Felton for lunch. The Cowboy Bar & Grill serves creative comfort food, while The Cremer House offers sandwiches and salads in the town’s oldest building, decorated with old photos of the area.

Felton is 15 miles from Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which boasts the largest continuous ancient coast redwood forest south of San Francisco. Walk the easy Redwood Loop Trail, and if you are adventurous and want a view, hike four miles round-trip to Eagle Rock for great views of the tree-cloaked mountains.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Return to Santa Cruz for dinner. Enjoy tacos and margaritas at El Palomar or creative sushi at Akira.

Day 3

The coastline just north of Santa Cruz is worth your time if you have an extra day. On the way out of town, stop in for a Brazilian breakfast at Cafe Brasil.


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On Sale
Feb 8, 2022
Page Count
312 pages
Moon Travel

Stuart Thornton

About the Author

Stuart Thornton fell in love with California while working the Big Sur Ranger Station after college. At work, he provided visitors with all sorts of information about the region, from the best places to camp to the best meal in the area. On his days off, he took his own advice and regularly sought out the top spots for hiking, backpacking, surfing, and snorkeling along that striking coastal region.
Stuart later moved to nearby Monterey to become a staff writer for the Monterey County Weekly, where he is still a contributor. He is the proud author of Moon Coastal California, Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast, and Moon California Road Trips. In addition, Stuart has contributed to National Geographic Education, and Relix Magazine.
Stuart spends his time off searching for the next secluded beach, uncrowded wave, or mountaintop vista. Learn more about his adventures and projects by visiting
Kayla Anderson is a freelance writer based in Northern California. She grew up in Redding, received a journalism degree from California State University-Chico, and now lives in North Lake Tahoe. For the last 10 years, she has been writing press kits for ski resorts and golf courses as well as articles about businesses, people, and places in Lake Tahoe and Northern California.
Currently, she contributes to Enjoy Northern California Living magazine, Tahoe Weekly, the Sparks Tribune, and the Nevada Travel Network. She continues to be impressed by what she discovers in Redding, Humboldt County, Yosemite, Sacramento, and the lesser-known places like Weaverville and Mono Lake. You can find her work at

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