There is so much to do in Monterey County, and it is one of our family’s favorite places to vacation. And now is the time to visit, as things begin to relax and travel starts returning to normal. We have been to Monterey County several times recently and the whole family had a blast exploring this widely diverse area of California. From the blue, blue ocean to the postcard-perfect mountains, sugary sand dunes to towering redwood trees, a road trip to Monterey County is just the ticket for family escape.
Why Road Trip to Monterey County?
The biggest reason why we suggest a road trip to Monterey County is the best bet is because the area is so diverse. You and your family can enjoy many vacation experiences all wrapped into one destination. Plus when you have your own car to explore the area, your family can take your time and enjoy the journey. Plus, all the little stops along the way can bring some of the best new discoveries!
We drove up to Monterey County from San Diego and it was a smooth and easy ride. (We did stop in San Luis Obispo along the way so we could break up the driving.) Our ride for this trip was a gorgeous 2021 Mazda CX-5 loaner, and it made the whole experience more comfortable, safe and fun.
Even if you don’t live close enough to drive, you can fly directly into Monterey County Airport from a number of destinations. Then just rent a car, and you and the fam are off and running.
Plan Your Road Trip to Monterey County
As you plan your road trip to Monterey County, do you like to book hotels first and then decide on sightseeing? Or do you prefer to lock in your top sights, and then find hotels nearby? Whichever you prefer, before you book please have a look at our list of our favorite hotels in Monterey County.
We’ve got recommendations for many different tastes and budgets, and we’ve stayed in a LOT of places here so rest assured we did our homework!
Top Sights in Monterey County for Families
We’ve put together a hits list of all our family’s top favorites to help guide your itinerary. By no means is this exhaustive, but we did try to take into account a variety of interests for the entire family. Let the road trip to Monterey County begin!
Shop and Dine in Cannery Row
Made famous the world over by John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, Cannery Row has historic roots. What began as fishing docks and sardine canneries in the early years of the 1900s is now a bustling visitor destination. The history lends charm to the waterfront buildings, many of which date back to those early canning roots. Now the area is occupied by seafood restaurants, colorful shops, art galleries and all kinds of fun places to duck into.
Our family had a blast spending an entire day exploring all the fun nooks and crannies in Cannery Row, and you will too. Bring your appetites and your dollars, because you will be drawn to the cuisine and also may want to bring home a souvenir or two.
For more information, check out Cannery Row online here.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
At the foot of Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium sits oceanfront and ready to welcome guests to its underwater magic. This is literally one of the best aquariums in the world. It features so many different displays of sea life, you will be overwhelmed with its beauty and grandeur.
We stood for what seemed like an hour just watching the pulsating jellyfish make their way through their tank waters. The dozens and dozens of tanks filled with colorful fish are so beautifully displayed. The enormous 3-story kelp bed tank is mesmerizing. Kelp fronds sway slowly in the waves and fish lazily swim through the branches.
The Aquarium is one of those highlights you simply cannot miss on your road trip to Monterey County. For tickets and information, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.
Kayak with Sea Otters on Monterey Bay
If you’d like to get up close and personal with some of the sea life, grab a kayak and paddle through Monterey Bay. Our experience was even better than we imagined, and the whole family had a blast. We paddled out from the harbor among the moored boats and along the wharf out to the breakfront. Along the way, we saw starfish and sea anemones latched onto piers and rocks on the shoreline. As we passed a group of anchored boats, a mother sea otter and her baby floated on their backs nearby. We had to pause for many “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the kids, along with several requests to bring them home with us. (The girls settled for a stuffy version, which made them just as happy).
Out farther along the breakfront rocks, we witnessed hundreds of sea lions perched in the sun. Their bellows were sooooo loud we could not believe it! What an amazing experience – we highly recommend doing this. Check out the guided kayak tours at Adventures by the Sea.
Hike Among the Redwoods in Big Sur
If land is more your speed, no road trip to Monterey County is complete without a drive down Highway 1 to Big Sur. These are the views that people stop to take mental pictures of. The views that have been painted and photographed so many times by some of the world’s top artists. The views that will take your breath away and bring tears to your eyes. It really is that gorgeous.
The best part is that Big Sur is less than an hour drive away from downtown Monterey. A short (and winding) drive down the road and you are in the middle of towering redwoods and thickets of ferns and wildflowers. Check out a list of hiking trails in Big Sur here.
Take in the Beauty at Point Lobos State Nature Preserve
Situated right between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur sits Point Lobos State Nature Preserve. Nestled along the coastline, Point Lobos is a gorgeous natural habitat filled with flora and fauna. The walking trails are easy for even the smallest kids, and there is plenty to see and do. If the beach is your thing, there are several ways to walk down to the sand and oceanfront. If you like watching sea mammals, numerous clifftop spots are sprinkled throughout the 1,300-acres for watching sea lions, otters and sometimes whales.
We brought sandwiches and found a nice spot to relax near the ocean. Afterwards we poked around the rocks and peered into tide pools teeming with marine life. (Look but don’t touch!) At one point, we stumbled upon a pair of geese that seemed very territorial. Not wanting to upset them, we continued on our way. The sea breeze and salty air made us all feel so outdoorsy!
Find out more about Point Lobos State Nature Preserve here.
Eat, Eat, Eat to Your Heart’s Content
Monterey County is also known as a culinary destination – particularly for seafood. Maybe it began with Cannery Row in the area’s original life as a fishing center. Now there are so many wonderful places to eat here – seafood or not! Here’s a short list of our recent memorable dining experiences.
This institution is truly a bastion of old-school fine dining, and is absolutely a must on your foodie list. There is something so comforting about having a meal in an established and historic restaurant that serves delicious food. Vast and showy, the Sardine Factory is a Monterey institution. The wine vault contains more than 20,000 bottles of wine, some costing as much as $1,500! Don’t worry though, the rest of the menu is quite reasonable.
Alta Bakery & Cafe
Located inside an historic adobe in downtown Monterey, Alta Bakery & Cafe is one of those gathering spots where visitors mix with locals. Everyone seems to love this spot, and what’s not to love? We took an early morning walk from our suite at the Monterey Marriott Hotel to sample the pastries. The coffee drinks are fantastic, and the baked goods even better. We made complete pigs of ourselves because we could not decide on savory or sweet. So we each got both! Get here early, because when your favorite pastry is gone for the day, it’s gone.
Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill
Monterey County is the largest producer of chardonnay in the US and largest producer of Pinot Noir in the State of California, and the area turns out some amazing vintages. Locals are also becoming well known for their brewing prowess, and we sampled the local specialties at Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill. I’m not a huge IPA fan (audible gasp!) and there were plenty of options for me to choose from. The food here is also top-notch, and I loved my crispy chicken sandwich with sweet cole slaw and fries dipped in ranch dressing. This is our kind of place. Check out their menu and list of brews here.
Perched out on the edge of a cliff in Big Sur, Nepenthe Restaurant has some of the best views in the entire County. This bohemian-style restaurant is a gathering spot for socialites, aging hippies, nature lovers and families. Everyone co-mingles beautifully here, enjoying the scene and waiting for a table to eat or have a glass of wine. Seating lines the outside edge of the restaurant building, and you can practically dangle your legs over the cliff’s edge. At night, fires glow inside the restaurant as they serve up delicious plates of comforting food. Plan to wait a bit for your table at Nepenthe, but it’s worth it. Believe us, the experience is worth the wait.
More Stuff Than I Can Fit Here
Here are a few other things to do on your road trip to Monterey County that I don’t have room to write about.
Golf – Come on. Pebble Beach is here – need we say more?
Mission – The Carmel Mission Basilica is one of the prettiest we’ve visited.
Monarch Butterflies – Pacific Grove is winter home to migrating Monarchs who fly up from Mexico to hang in the trees (October – February).