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17 Incredible Things To Do In Big Sur and Monterey Peninsula

17 Incredible Things To Do In Big Sur and Monterey Peninsula


Guest Post By Allie Hoellwarth

Allie is a private tutor, professional writer, and editorial director by day – and a blogger by night. Her motto at Bohemian Nation is eat good food, make pretty things, and practice radical self-love, and her posts reflect those sentiments: whole food recipes, beauty DIYs, crafting projects, meditations, self-care tips, and more. She’s a Michigan-born turned California girl and self-proclaimed hippie, who infuses her writing with honesty and encouragement. She also loves traveling, mountains, Anthropologie, iced chais, yoga, camping, crystals, and gardening.

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I am a California transplant. I grew up in Michigan and spent my winters battling blizzards and icy road conditions.

Whenever I got the chance I escaped to west coast, and I ended up meeting my husband when I took a road trip alone from San Diego to Napa.

Like Yvette here at Wayfaring Kiwi, I am all about solo female travel!

I dated him long-distance for a few years, and then I quit my full-time job teaching high school to pursue my Master’s degree at an art school in the Mission District of San Francisco.

When I finished, we got married and I moved to the Monterey peninsula, which, to me, is one of the most beautiful places in the entire world.

If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, this is only a few hours south, and it’s well worth the trip.

You can take the 1 down for a slower, more scenic drive.

If you find yourself in San José, Sacramento, Fresno, San Luis Obispo, or any city near those, it’s also a completely reasonable weekend trip to get to Big Sur and Monterey. Regardless, this should be on everyone’s bucket list!

I’m going to share with you my top 5 favourite things to do in Big Sur, as well as my 12 favourite things to do in Monterey Peninsula, just in case you’re there for longer than a weekend.

1. Hike Sykes Trail

On one of the things to do in Big Sur- soak in the Sykes Hot Springs

This is a fairly strenuous trail for experienced hikers with proper equipment.

Though the trail is easy to follow, there are constant elevation changes – it’s up and down the entire hike.

There are also many fallen trees and switchbacks, so it would be difficult for someone who isn’t used to hiking while carrying the weight of their pack.

You will need a water filtering system, as well as overnight camping gear.

The end-goal for the hike is to soak in the hot springs in Sykes camp, which is an additional half mile down Big Sur River once you arrive to the campsite.

When we hiked, there was a strict “no campfire” rule, but you could use propane camping stoves with a free permit you can register for online.

A few months after our hike, there was actually a devastating fire that destroyed much of Big Sur because of an illegal, unmonitored campfire – so check online to make sure this trail is open before you go!

Address: Big Sur Station, 47555 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920

Miles: About 22 miles, round-trip, with a 5,502 elevation change

Time: Around 26-30 hours. You can also choose to make this into a two-night trip and utilize some of the other campsites in between Big Sur Station and Sykes.

Cost: $5 for overnight parking.

2. Visit McWay Waterfall

The McWay Waterfall is over 80-foot tall and one of the coolest things to do in Big Sur

This is short, accessible walk to an 80-foot waterfall in Big Sur.

You can pull over on Highway 1 once you arrive and park on the side of the road, then look for a little staircase that takes you down a path to see the waterfall.

It’s only a ten minute walk, and there are benches and beautiful views at the end.

This is usually fairly crowded with tourists and children. This is a much more spectacular view on a sunny day! If you park in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and walk over, bring $10 for parking.

Address: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CA 93920

Cost: Free if you park on Highway 1

3. Glamp at Treebones

Glamping at Treebones is a must do in Big Sur

Glamping, as you probably know, is luxury camping – in this case, in yurts.

Treebones is a very quiet and intimate campsite. Most of the yurts have a two-person maximum, but there are a few family yurts.

There’s an on-site restaurant for lunch and dinner, but you can also pack a cooler, which is what we did.

You probably won’t have cell phone service, but the lodge does provide some board games you can play, and there are some nice hammocks and benches on site.

It’s a little pricey, but we went as our one-year wedding anniversary celebration and we loved it!

Address: 71895 Highway #1, Big Sur, CA 93920

Cost: $280-350 a night

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4. Explore Pfeiffer Beach

Allie and her husband spend the day at Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach is known for its “purple sand,” and for being notoriously hard to find.

My husband and I only found it the first time after we stopped at a little general store and asked a few people for directions.

You’re looking for a yellow “narrow road” sign and Sycamore Canyon Road, a sharp turn-out on the right side of Highway 1.

After turning, you’ll follow that road for a few miles, past houses and pastures with horses, and eventually you’ll end up at the parking lot.

There are gorgeous rock arches, crashing waves, and beautiful waters to explore here! It’s the perfect place for a picnic.

Address: Los Padres National Forest, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Sycamore Canyon Rd, Big Sur, CA 93920

Cost: $5 for parking

Hours: 9 am – sunset

5. Have Brunch at Cafe Kevah

Mimosas for brunch at Cafe Kevah in Big Sur

This was a stop on my Bachelorette party morning in Big Sur, and it was the PERFECT location for brunch with the girls.

The atmosphere is laid back – you order at a bar, then seat yourself on the patio, which has an incredible view of the ocean.

Along with breakfast items like Crab Benedict, Cafe Kevah also offers baked goods, coffees, and mimosas.

Address: 48510 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920

Cost: $12-20 per meal

Hours: 9 am – 4 pm

Top 12 Things to Do in the Monterey Peninsula

Had your fill of Big Sur? There is plenty to do in the Monterey Peninsula!

Here are my favourite things to do in the area.

1. Watch a movie at the Carmel Outdoor Theater

This was my absolute favorite date night activity in the Monterey area.

The best part about this experience is that the theater is completely outdoors, and you can bring your own food and even a bottle of wine.

Stop at the Carmel Cheese Shoppe nearby and grab a bottle and some cheese and crackers – you’ll be all set! They also show movies here.

Address: Mountain View Ave. and Santa Rita St., Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93921

Cost: $15-20 per ticket

2. Go out for drinks at 1833

One of the most unique restaurants in the area, 1833 is fine dining in a historic house in downtown Monterey. Their menu changes constantly, but they’re known for their “Gallantin Favorites,” items like suckling pigs or truffle chickens, which you have to call and order anywhere from 24-hours to seven days ahead of time. Try any of the House Remedies on the Libations menu, which are cocktails with clever names like “Hungry Hungry Hipster” and “Cereal Killer.” Sunday – Thursday from 5pm-7pm is a great time to go for their 2 for $12 drink and appetizer Social Hour.

Address: 500 Hartnell Street, Monterey, CA 93940

Cost: $25-55 per entree, $10-15 for specialty drink

Hours: 5 pm – 10 pm most nights, later for bar

3. Relax at Lover’s Point

This is a great place to relax with a book, play beach volleyball, have a picnic, kayak, swim, and surf.

The water is never too warm in this part of California, so you won’t usually catch locals in the water without a wet or dry suit.

This space is a popular ceremony spot for outdoor weddings, but for the most part, you’ll just see people relaxing and enjoying the beautiful year-round weather here. You can park for free along the street.

Address: Ocean View Blvd & 17th St, Pacific Grove, CA 93950

Cost: Free

Hours: Open 24 hours

4. Rent a bicycle from Bay Bikes Rentals

This is a fantastic place to grab a bike or surrey for an hour or two and head to the beach.

We love renting from the beginning of Cannery Row and biking down to Lover’s Point.

It’s a short ride with plenty of opportunities for photo stops along the way.

The path will be pretty crowded with runners, rollerbladers, and other bikers, but there is usually some fun camaraderie and interaction between other bike rentals, especially if you choose the surrey.

My husband and I did this one day, and so many people stopped us to ask where we were from… and we had to tell them we were locals. Haha!

Address: ATC Antique Mall, 601 Wave St #500, Monterey, CA 93940

Cost: $20-30 per hour

Hours: 9 am – 5 pm

5. Go kayaking with Kayak Connection Moss Landing

If you want a calm, smooth kayaking trip with lots of wildlife, this is your place.

It’s just a thirty minute drive from Monterey, and there’s a large parking lot at this Elkhorn Slough location.

Like most kayak rentals, you’ll be in a larger group and have to endure a safety talk and some “practice,” but then you’re on your own once you hit the water. Bring some snacks and drinks if you’re planning to be out for a while. You can also sign up for guided tours.

Check Groupon – sometimes they have deals! You’ll probably see lots of birds, otters, harbor seals, jellyfish, and more!

Address: 2370 Hwy 1, Moss Landing CA 95039

Cost: $35 single kayak, $55 double

Hours: 9 am – 5 pm

6. Go shopping at Carmel Barnyard

If you’re looking for an interesting shopping experience outside of the typical mall, the Carmel Barnyard is your place. There’s a great mix of restaurants, boutique stores, fine art studios, and salons.

Address: 3652 The Barnyard, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

Cost: Varies

Hours: 10 am – 6 pm

7. Learn about animals and plantlife at Monterey Bay Aquarium

This is one of the most well-known aquariums in the country. It’s expensive, but definitely worth a visit at least once.

There are over 600 species of animals and plantlife, as well as a fun outdoor patio where you can watch people learn to scuba dive.

My favorite exhibits are the jellyfish, the penguins, and the spot where you can stand under a wave and watch it wash over you.

There are many placards to read to learn more about the canning industry and species housed in the aquarium. It’s also in a great tourist location (the end of Cannery Row), so you can do some shopping after you visit.

Address: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940

Cost: Adult: $49.95, Senior or Student/College: $39.95, Child: $29.95, free under 3

Hours: 10 am – 5 pm

8. Hike Jacks Peak

This is a great place for an easy hike or picnic.

There’s a self-guided short trail that has numbered stops where you can learn about the environment and about Monterey.

Jacks Peak is about 1000 feet in elevation and offers great views looking down on the Monterey Bay and Carmel, as well as various other short hiking trails and forests.

There is a parking lot and public restroom available, and it has never been overly crowded when I’ve gone. Bring a buddy – it can feel a little desolate here!

Address: 25020 Jacks Peak Park Rd, Monterey, CA 93940

Cost: $5, but you can park further down the street and walk up a large hill if you don’t want to pay

Hours: 10 am – 7 pm

9. Dine with Kids at Gianni’s

This is a great dine-in pizza option for the whole family.

Their pizzas are delicious, but they also offer calzones, pasta, gelato, and more.

They have AMAZING gluten-free pizza, so there should be something for everyone here.

It’s a very large facility on your way to Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. (I didn’t have a photo of Gianni’s, but this is the wharf, where you can stop after you eat).

Address: 725 Lighthouse Ave, Monterey, CA 93940

Cost: $14-25

Hours: 11 am – 11 pm

10. Sip on Acme Coffee

You won’t believe me when you go looking for this tiny coffee shop. It’s nestled between a few car dealerships on a very unassuming street in Seaside.

Their motto is “Resist Corporate Coffee,” and they make amazing drinks here.

The only downside is the small parking lot and lack of seating, but it’s a perfect place to go if you’re just grabbing a cup to go. There are maybe ten places to sit outside.

This is a true “locals secret,” and if you’re in the area, you have to go! You can also buy bags of coffee beans to take home with you.

Address: B, 485 Palm Ave, Seaside, CA 93955

Cost: $5-7

Hours: 7 am – 3 pm

11. Whale Watch at Fisherman’s Wharf

Although Fisherman’s Wharf is extremely touristy, it’s still a must-see if you’re in Monterey.

You can try all the clam chowder samples you want, shop for souvenirs, watch fishing charters clean their fish, see harbor seals and wildlife, and take a whale-watching trip.

Just walk to the end of the wharf and talk to one of the many stands offering tours and charters. There are some great happy hour deals on drinks, with beautiful views of the ocean (think $3 margaritas).

There are also two over-priced candy shops for the kiddos (or for you).

Address: 1 Old Fishermans Wharf, Monterey, CA 93940

Cost: You can find free parking near Benihana’s and up the street by The Perry House, or you can pay to park in the lots. The wharf itself is free, but whale-watching varies: $35 – $115 for adults (shorter trip vs. 8 hours), around $25 for kids.

Hours: Morning trips leave around 8 am, afternoon trips around 2 pm, evening trips around 5 pm.

12. Visit the Tide Pool at Point Lobos

You need to go here when low tide hits to explore the tide pools – check out Weston Beach for this.

Definitely find China Cove for some amazing photography opportunities of ocean and forest and cliffs.

You could spend an entire day exploring here. Obviously, don’t touch or harm the wildlife you see in the tidepools.

Address: 62 California 1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

Cost: $10 to park

Hours: 8 am – 5 pm

Other things to do in Big Sur and Monterey Bay

This is only a small sampling of what the Monterey Bay and Big Sur have to offer. You could really spend weeks here and not even get to all the amazing things to do and see. Here are some additional last-minute ideas that I didn’t mention:

  • Dennis the Menace Park playground for kids
  • Veteran’s Park for a quiet place to read or meditate
  • Trailside Cafe for breakfast and a view
  • El Torito’s for Mexican food brunch on the ocean
  • Pacific Grove downtown for quaint shopping
  • Any bed and breakfast in Pacific Grove or Carmel
  • Alvarado Street in Monterey for the “bar scene” and Tuesday evening farmers’ market
  • Peter B’s for beer
  • Wine-tasting in Carmel Valley
  • Earthbound Organics farm visits
  • Cafe Damaetra in Carmel for amazing Greek food and a unique dining experience
  • LallaGrill in Del Monte Shopping Center for a nice outdoor patio and good food
  • 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach is a classic for photo opportunities
  • Marina State Beach for a quiet place to see the waves
  • Lou Lou’s Griddle in the Middle for an eccentric breakfast on the wharf
  • London Bridge Pub for English food and trivia

If you’re still hungry for posts on beautiful places in the USA, check out Yvette’s posts on Hawaii. Here are 7 Things You Must Do in Oahu or if you’re into hiking and adventure, try hiking the Stairway to Heaven in Oahu.

Thanks for letting me share my tips with you. When your travels leave you needing some self-care and encouragement, come visit me!

Have you been to Monterey and Big Sur? Please share your favorite locations and tips in the comments!


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