5 Great Coastal Hikes in Northern California

One of the best parts about living in California is the number of ways you can enjoy the Pacific Ocean. You can get up close with a salty hike on the beach, walk serrated bluffs to the rhythmic crashing of waves, climb summits to see a panorama from above, or combine a coastal hike with a visit to a charming seaside town. The world really is your oyster.

Below are some of my favorite Northern California coastal hikes. Each one gave me an appreciation for some new aspect of the coast, whether it was seeing elephant seals for the first time or marveling at the confluence of Santa Lucia Mountains, succulent-studded bluffs, and sparkling ocean.

wooden walkway through coastal grassland under a blue sky
Año Nuevo State Park. Photo © Melissa Ozbek.

Año Nuevo State Park

It’s all about the elephant seals and their adorably curved, elongated snouts at Año Nuevo State Park. December through March, female seals come to shore to give birth to their pups. The park is closed to the public during those months, but you can get in on a 4-mile roundtrip docent-led hike (fee applies) to see them and get a history lesson too. It’s a slow, 2.5-hour walking tour, so if you want to hoof it without a guide, go when the park is open to public from April–November. Reserve a spot on the docent-led hike via Reserve California.

Carmel Beach

A mile-long stretch of wide, peaceful beach—what more could you ask for? After descending a dune to the soft sand, enjoy sandpipers tiptoeing near the waves, Monterey cypress bowing on the bluffs, and golfers perfecting their swing on Pebble Beach above. The beach is open to unleashed dogs, so bring along your best bud. There is free two-hour parking near the beach’s entrance, but I like to park at the intersection of Carpenter and Ocean Avenue to avoid the melee and window-shop in Carmel-by-the-Sea’s whimsical downtown on the way to the beach.

deep blue ocean water against a rocky coast
Garrapata State Park. Photo © Melissa Ozbek.

Garrapata State Park

Despite its unpalatable name—Garrapata means tick in Spanish—this 2,939-acre state park just south of Carmel is a spectacular introduction to the Big Sur Coast. It’s a tricky one too: Scarce signs make it a treasure hunt of sorts to find the trailheads. Park in a small turnout opposite the Rocky Ridge Trail, about 5.3 miles south of Monastery Beach, and pick up the 2 mile-long trail system around Soberanes Point. It’s wide, family-friendly, and flanked with sweet alyssum. Below, crashing waves swirl against sea cliffs, and a backdrop of the Santa Lucia Mountains almost makes it feel like you’re hiking in Hawaii. Head south and loop up to Whale Peak for an even more impressive view.

winding dirt trail up a hill on the coast of California
Montara Mountain Trail with view of Montara Beach below. Photo © Melissa Ozbek.

Montara Mountain Trail

The Montara Mountain Trail is a two-for-one: You can easily combine it with a visit to beautiful Montara Beach, less than half a mile away. Although the Montara Mountain Trail is a wide fire road, you start off with the feeling of walking along a bluff, looking down at the ocean and Montara Beach. That’s followed by a steady, exposed, 2,200-foot climb over 3.7 miles to the summit, with grand views of the surrounding NorCal coastline and Mount Tamalpais.

Monterey Bay Coastal Trail

This seaside, urban trail has views of Monterey Bay, the occasional seal, lots of sailboats, and specialty shops in Cannery Row. My husband and I pick up the trail from downtown Monterey and head northwest to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (2 miles one-way). From there, we catch the trolley (free on weekends) back to town, relaxing into the quaint experience. Stop by the Monterey Visitors Center for more details and a free map.

Melissa Ozbek

About the Author

Originally from North Salem, New York, Melissa Ozbek fell in love with hiking in Washington State when she hiked to the summit of Mount St. Helens for the first time. Since then she has hiked hundreds of miles throughout the state, from beachside strolls to alpine lakes to spectacular mountain summits.

In 2015, she became a hiking guide correspondent and contributor to the Washington Trails Association, writing and researching trail descriptions on wta.org. In addition to writing, Melissa loves photographing trailscapes and is always looking to capture a hike’s distinctive personality. In her free time she enjoys finding NPR podcasts and audiobooks to listen to on her drives to hikes, cooking and baking, paddle boarding, playing piano, and going for walks along Lake Washington with her husband, Onur. Check out her work at melissaozbek.com.

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