Top Scenic Drives
Monterey County's scenic drives range from the legendary to the little-known. Here are six top favorites, including several best-kept secrets. Read on for descriptions, as well as several interactive Google Maps to help you plan your trip.
1. Highway One
Highway One is the best-known scenic drive in Monterey County, and one of the top scenic drives in the world. It's a National Scenic Byways Program All-American Road and a State Scenic Highway. It's been named one of the best scenic drives in the U.S. by (among others) Forbes, ShermansTravel, Falcon Guides, SmarterTravel, GORP, and Lonely Planet, one of the world's best drives by London's Sunday Times, and a "Drive of a Lifetime" by National Geographic Traveler.
Highway One through Monterey County shows off a wide range of local geography. At Monterey County's northern border, you'll see the flat wetlands of Elkhorn Slough and the working fishing port of Moss Landing. As you head south, you'll pass artichoke fields and rolling sand dunes on your way to Monterey. Head south of Monterey, and you'll see cypress forests followed by the breathtaking craggy coastline of Carmel Highlands. Drive even further south and you'll see the towering cliffs, beautiful redwoods and stunning bridges of Big Sur.
The best news? Using the Monterey Peninsula as your home base, it's only a half-hour north on Highway One to Moss Landing, 45 minutes to the village of Big Sur, and about 90 minutes to the southernmost part of the Big Sur region.
This drive is also a piece of one of America's epic road trips - Highway One from San Francisco to Los Angeles. See our Road Trip Itinerary for details on what to see and where to go as you head through Monterey County on Highway One.
2. 17-Mile Drive
Even before the first commercial automobiles were made, 17-Mile Drive was one of Monterey County's top scenic drives. It began as a carriage road for guests at Monterey's Hotel del Monte in the early 1880s, and since then has been lauded for its magnificent scenery. You'll see beautiful beaches, wildlife such as seals and sea lions, the famed Lone Cypress, astounding mansions, several championship golf courses and of course the legendary Lodge at Pebble Beach.
See the interactive map on the Pebble Beach Resorts website for a full list of points of interest. The interactive Google map below outlines the route. Click on any blue map point to bring up an interactive window; then click on "Directions" to get directions to that point from your location.
View 17-Mile Drive in a larger map
3. A Scenic Drive Through Carmel
This drive gives a full tour of the scenery of Carmel-by-the-Sea, which has an astounding number of vistas packed into its one square mile. From Highway One, turn down Ocean Avenue. You'll soon see a view of the deep blue Pacific Ocean, Carmel's much-photographed fairytale cottages and its much-lauded shopping district. At the end of Ocean Avenue, turn left onto Scenic Road, which will take you first past Carmel Beach and then past the Walker Residence, built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1948.
Scenic Road turns south, providing beautiful ocean views and glimpses of Point Lobos. You'll drive past the back of Tor House and Hawk Tower, built by poet Robinson Jeffers for his wife. Just a little further along, where Scenic Road meets Carmelo Street, you'll see Carmel River State Beach; park at the lot to enjoy the views of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Shortly after you turn right onto 15th Avenue, you'll see Mission Ranch, owned by Clint Eastwood (and you might even see Clint himself). Finally, as you reach Rio Road, you'll go past the historic Carmel Mission. Turn right on Rio Road to return to Highway One - or you can continue on Highway One to see two of Carmel's popular shopping centers, The Crossroads and The Barnyard.
View Carmel Scenic Drive in a larger map
4. Carmel Valley Scenic Drive
Though Monterey County's coastal views may be its most famous, its inland vistas are also stunning. This windy excursion, with many twists and turns, will take you through the up-and-coming Carmel Valley wine region and past cattle ranches. You'll get breathtaking views of valleys and the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Start at Highway One and Carmel Valley Road, also known as County Road G16. You'll pass Earthbound Farm, Garland Ranch Regional Park and several exceptional wineries as you begin your journey. Many wine tasting rooms are clustered in Carmel Valley Village, which also has the last gas station you'll see for about 40 miles. (For more information about wine tasting in Carmel Valley, see our Carmel Valley Wineries page.)
Shortly after you pass Carmel Valley Village, the road changes dramatically as you enter Klondike Canyon. The road narrows, shaded by overhanging oaks. (It also changes names several times; make sure to stay on County Road G16.) Soon, you'll begin climbing into the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains; you'll see cattle grazing on rolling hills as you ascend to 2000 feet. Come over the top, and you'll be rewarded with sweeping views of the Salinas Valley. County Road G16 will lead you to Highway 101, from which you can return to where you began.
View Carmel Valley Scenic Drive in a larger map
5. River Road Scenic Drive
The River Road Wine Trail has become a bona-fide wine lovers' destination as well as a great scenic drive. If you plan to taste as you go, make sure to leave plenty of extra time, and see our Salinas Valley Wineries page for more information.
Begin by taking Highway 68 to River Road. You'll first see views of Spreckels, once a company town that supported the Spreckels Sugar Plant. Soon you'll see fewer homes and more farms of all stripes, with white wooden signs pointing you toward the various wineries of the River Road Wine Trail. To the west you'll see the Santa Lucia Mountains; to the east, the Gabilan Mountains. In the distance, across acres of vegetable farms, you'll see Highway 101 winding its way toward Los Angeles.
Follow River Road south until it becomes Fort Romie Road and then Arroyo Seco Road. Turn right on Elm Avenue to return to Highway 101. For a full day of scenic vistas, continue on Arroyo Seco Road to Carmel Valley Road to do the Carmel Valley Scenic Drive in reverse.
View River Road Scenic Drive in a larger map
A beautiful added side trip for both the River Road Scenic Drive and the Carmel Valley Scenic Drive is a quick excursion into the Pinnacles National Park. As you take Highway 101 north from Greenfield, exit in Soledad at Route 146. The drive to the Pinnacles is only 12 miles and the terrain provides fascinating views of the rocky landscape left behind by an ancient volcano.
View Pinnacles side trip in a larger map
6. Old Coast Road
Before Highway One, the Old Coast Road was the only land route into Big Sur. This ten-mile single-lane dirt road is like taking a time machine into Big Sur's past, with a mix of coastal views and redwood-lined paths. Four-wheel drive vehicles are strongly recommended; keep an eye out for hikers and mountain bikers.
The Old Coast Road turns inland right at the north side of Bixby Bridge. You'll drive along a canyon wall above Bixby Creek, eventually crossing it on a low bridge. The Old Coast Road then wanders upward through redwoods and between Sierra Hill and Bixby Mountain. At this point, you are in the middle of a working ranch - watch out for cattle!
As the Old Coast Road heads downhill for a twisty-turny two miles, you'll have great valley views and occasional glimpses of the ocean. You'll cross the Little Sur River and its South Fork, after which you'll see views of Pico Blanco, a white peak made of marble and limestone. Then you'll head up another ridge; as you approach the top you'll see epic views of Point Sur. Finally, you'll drop back down to Highway One at the north end of Andrew Molera State Park.
View Big Sur's Old Coast Road in a larger map
California Central Coast Road Trips