Top California Road Trips: Monterey Bay

Just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, the scenic vistas and picturesque bluffs of Monterey Bay provide a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. It is the perfect setting for a weekend road trip!

Top California Road Trips: Monterey Bay

Just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, the scenic vistas and picturesque bluffs of Monterey Bay provide a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. Monterey Bay is the perfect setting for a weekend California road trip!

Start by taking Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is the main road to get from the Bay Area to the coast. Winding your way through the mountains, you will find rolling hills and luscious forests combining to form a beautiful view. However, Highway 17 is notorious for car accidents and fender benders, so keep your eyes on the road!

One interesting attraction on Highway 17 is Roaring Camp Railroads. Situated in Felton near Bear Mountain, this tourist railroad provides a remarkable trip through the redwood forest. The steam engines date from the 1890s and are considered the oldest, regularly-used narrow gauge engines in the United States. There are two different trips you can take: the Redwood Forest Steam Train or the Santa Cruz Beach Train. The former travels over wooden trestles and through dense redwood forests to the top of Bear Mountain, while the latter cruises across a steel truss bridge and through a tunnel before ending at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. So whether you are a railroad enthusiast or a family looking for a fun time, Roaring Camp has something for everybody.

Exploring Santa Cruz

Your first destination is the beach town of Santa Cruz, California. The city’s roots can be traced to the establishment of a Spanish settlement in 1791. Now it is known for its beautiful landscapes, liberal politics, and surf city culture.

For Beach Bums and Water Lovers

Santa Cruz’s nickname is Surf City due to its worldwide fame as one of the best spots for surfing. In addition to surfing, Santa Cruz is well-known for its other water sports, including sailing, diving, swimming, and paddleboarding. There are a lot of nearby beaches and coves to visit as well. Natural Bridges State Beach is particularly picturesque, with tide pools to the right, the famous sandstone arch just offshore, and the tall bluffs behind you. Lighthouse Field State Beach, Twin Lakes State Beach, and New Brighton State Beach are also noteworthy beaches.

For people who enjoy the water but don’t want to get wet, you can head over to the Santa Cruz Harbor and rent a boat or take a yacht trip. O’Neill Yacht Charters has a spectacular catamaran that allows you to take in the sites of Monterey Bay. The Marine Discovery Center is also another option to discover the wonders of the ocean.

For Nature Lovers

There are numerous hiking trails and scenic paths that are easily accessible from Santa Cruz. Pogonip is great for a short walk or an easy hike. Wilder Ranch State Park has 34 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian hiking trails meandering through the surrounding area. Lastly, West Cliff Drive takes you along the cliffs and vistas above the Pacific Ocean.

For those who seek an adrenaline rush, the best activity for you is the Redwood Canopy Tour at Mount Hermon. A two hour guided zip-line tour high above the ground and deep in the heart of the redwood groves, this attraction is great for people who want to experience something unique and exhilarating.

For Foodies and Wine Connoisseurs

Santa Cruz is home to many fine dining establishments and restaurants. Check out these top-rated places in Santa Cruz.

Lillian’s Italian Kitchen

The recipient of 4.5 stars on Yelp, Lillian’s Italian Kitchen is often reviewed as some of the best Italian food in Northern California. With pastas, sandwiches, and a range of house specialities, Lillian’s has something for everybody.

The Seabright Brewery

This brewery puts a Californian spin on traditional pub food. The menu includes gourmet burgers, sandwiches, and pub favorites, as well as award-winning beer.

The Harbor Cafe

An excellent place for breakfast and lunch, the Harbor Cafe has served Santa Cruz locals for the past 40 years. The breakfast menu consists of breakfast burritos, omelets, pancakes, waffles, french toast, etc., while lunch is a choice between a variety of sandwiches, burgers, and house specialties.

Vino Prima Wine Bar

Situated on the wharf with views overlooking the Boardwalk and Monterey Bay, Vino Prima Wine Bar is an excellent place for wine tasting. Knowledgable staff and over 150 California boutique wines combine for the perfect evening.

If you are open to exploring, take a stroll down Pacific Avenue, as there are lots of great food and dining options available there.

The yacht, Chardonnay II, also has a number of food and wine charters available for a Monterey Bay cruise. These include the Taste of Santa Cruz, Afternoon Pizza, Champagne Brunch, and the Winemaker Charter.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

California’s oldest remaining amusement park, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk runs from the San Lorenzo River to the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. As an oceanfront amusement park, it has numerous arcade games, carnival activities, and rides. Located right next to the beach, this is the perfect combination of sand, sun, and fun!

Santa Cruz Mystery Spot

Discovered in 1939, this tourist attraction is located just north of Santa Cruz and is described as a “gravitational anomaly”. The owners of the site claim a number of strange phenomena have occurred at the house, including water appearing to flow upwards, people standing at angles, etc. Whatever you may believe, this optical illusion is fun and zany.

On the Road to Monterey

The area between Santa Cruz and Monterey is known for its agriculture and produce. Many roadside stands sell artichokes, strawberries, avocados, etc. Two of the larger locations offering fresh produce are Pezzini Farms, just north of Monterey, and Watsonville Farmer’s Market.

At Pezzini Farms, feel free to check out the famous Sunshine’s Catering Truck. While the food truck craze has swept the nation, Sunshine’s is able to distinguish itself from the others by taking full advantage of its location in the Artichoke Capital of the World. Guy Fieri even did a segment for the Food Network here!

Moss Landing is the midway point between Santa Cruz and Monterey. While you may be interested in just a brief pit stop, Moss Landing does have a lot to do. It is the home of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Center and Phil’s Fish Market. Nature lovers will also enjoy the Elkhorn Slough Safari. The 27-foot pontoon boat takes you on a tour through the wetlands of Elkhorn Slough, where you will view harbor seals, sea otters, and other wildlife.

Exploring Monterey

Located on the southern edge of its namesake bay, Monterey is a quiet, scenic seaside town. Similar to Santa Cruz, many of the attractions around here involve nature and the ocean.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The crowning jewel of Monterey, this aquarium is known nationwide for its beautiful exhibits and was named the top aquarium in the world by TripAdvisor. With a variety of animals, including penguins, octopus, turtles, fish, and the famous sea otters, the Aquarium is a delight for both young and old. They try and vary the special exhibits in order to provide an educational and first-rate experience.

Nature Hikes and Scenic Walks

California’s Central Coast has some of the most beautiful trails nationwide. Because they are so numerous, it is easy to find world-class hiking in any coastal town. Monterey is no different. The Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail was given a 5-star rating on Yelp and is absolutely stunning. Running for 18 miles, it starts in Castroville, passes through Monterey, and finishes in Pacifica. This trail illustrates the beauty of California’s coast.

For those not up to an 18-mile hike, take a stroll along the waterfront on the beach. Seals are often visible, while dolphins and whales can be seen off the coast depending on the season. It is also easy to rent a kayak, boat, or paddleboard and explore the bay from the water.

Restaurants in Monterey

Monterey has a good amount of restaurants clustered around Cannery Row. Appropriately named after the sardine canning factories that used to conduct business here, the cannery was also the setting of John Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Now dominated by restaurants and hotels, it is a nice place to stroll along of an evening. The aquarium is located at one end while Fisherman’s Wharf is at the other.

Old Fisherman’s Grotto, Sandbar & Grill, and Grotto Fish Market are three of the best rated restaurants on Monterey’s Fisherman Wharf. Many of the restaurants have an employee outside giving out free samples of clam chowder. Whether you want a full meal overlooking the harbor or just a few samples while strolling the boardwalk, the Wharf is definitely a good place to check out!

Exploring Carmel, California

Just four miles south of Monterey lies the sleepy, charming town of Carmel. Often a popular romantic destination, the downtown area is great for shopping and there are numerous inns and B&Bs to stay the night.

Beaches and Trails

Like its neighbors to the north, Carmel has a variety of options for hikers and nature enthusiasts. The Scenic Road Walkway and Carmel City Beach are nice for strolls along the water. Point Lobos State Reserve is the top-rated attraction in Carmel. While technically just south of Carmel, this wildlife reserve is phenomenal and a must-see. Whether watching the sea animals from Whalers’ Cove or having a picnic on the bluffs, Point Lobos is well worth it.

Pebble Beach

The area’s other well-known attraction is the golf course, Pebble Beach Golf Links. Nestled among the larger Pebble Beach Resorts, this world-famous golf course hosts both PGA Tour and Champions Tour annual events. Hugging the coastline and overlooking the waters of Carmel Bay, Pebble Beach is a necessary stop for any golf enthusiast or serious golfer.

Don't Miss the 17-Mile Drive

If you don’t have time to stop in every place, the scenic 17-mile drive starts in Pacific Grove, winds through Pebble Beach, and ends in Carmel. This drive passes by the famous golf courses, the Lone Cypress, Spyglass Hill, and Bird Rock. It’s a great way to see a bit of the Californian coast without having to drive all of Highway 1!

Driving Back to the Bay Area

Depending on the amount of time allocated for your road trip, you can either head straight back to the Bay Area (or wherever home is), or stop at some of the farming towns on your way past. The easiest road to take is U.S. Route 101, as it is the only road you need to take for the majority of the drive.

Gilroy is the main city in this area. While known as the “Garlic Capital of the Nation and World”, it also produces mushrooms, wine, and strawberries. For those who haven’t had their fill of fresh fruit and produce, Gilroy is a great pit stop on the way back home.

Road Trip Roundup

Overall, the Monterey Bay area is an excellent weekend road trip for Bay Area residents. With striking scenery, great food, and fun activities, this road trip definitely represents the best California has to offer.

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