Monterey County, the jewel of California's Central Coast, provides a veritable feast for any outdoor adventure enthusiast. From mountain biking, to whale watching, trail running, to staggering sunsets, this beautiful place has it all; not to mention some of the best food and wine selection anywhere in the world.
Pebble Beach, Monterey Bay, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are some of the first things that come to mind when Monterey County is mentioned, but those who truly know it, understand Monterey is home to a massive and ever-growing collection of public land and outdoor adventure assets. From Pinnacles National Park to Fort Ord Dunes and Garrapata State Park, there is no lack of nature in this adventurous part of California.
To describe it vividly, there are places of sweeping vistas and solitude, where eyes go wide and hearts are filled with the jaw-dropping natural beauty of a place that has enchanted and inspired many to call it home.
We were fortunate to be given the opportunity to explore these places over several days this January. During the winter months, California rain brings bright green mountains and many can agree that the golden glow sunsets are incomparable over the Pacific.
Here is where our journey to Monterey County took us.
Day 1 - Wine Tasting at Wrath Wines
What makes Monterey's viticultural area so unique, is the consistent movement inland of the marine layer. This process, coupled with cooler sea breezes, stresses the grapes to the point of making beautiful, complex wines.
After tasting a few wines paired with a charcuterie board of local meats and cheeses, we grabbed our glasses and wandered through the vineyards admiring the vines while simultaneously enjoying the sunset.
Pro tip: One of the benefits of stopping here on your way into the area, is that you can pick up some of their canned wine. Wrath Wines loves the outdoors and understands the benefit and joy of a summit and/or post-run wine, so they created an adventure-friendly canned wine option.
For dinner, we went to Gusto Handcrafted Pasta & Pizza in Seaside because we figured carb-loading was necessary for the next few days activities. The pizza at Gusto’s is handcrafted and the ravioli are both delightful and filling.
Further, the hospitality of the staff is authentically Italian: they would not let us leave until we were absolutely stuffed.
Day 2 - Whale Watching on Monterey Bay
After roaming through the vineyards and fulfilling our taste buds to the extreme, we wanted to get some sea time in. We spent our first morning in Monterey searching for the great beast of the deep: whales.
We took to the seas with Fast Raft Ocean Safaris in the aquatic wonderland of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Kate, the owner of Fast Raft, specializes in an intimate educational experience on a unique, high-speed boat that only seats six people.
Not only did we see several whales, we also received lessons on the differences between the seals and sea lions we saw, watched baby otters play around in the water, and caught air over swells in one the coolest boats I have ever been on.
Fast Raft’s home base is in Moss Landing, (though they do operate out of Monterey a couple months of the year) which is home to the awesome Haute Enchilada. This fantastic lunch spot specializes in a menu filled with sustainable seafood and local produce. While you wait for your food, be sure to peruse the restaurant and it’s beautiful art gallery for even more local flavor.
To work off that second order of chips and salsa, we explored the beaches along Moss Landing and then Marina State Beach, which is about halfway back down to Monterey. This unique and rugged section of coast is perfect for running, surfing (when conditions are right), wildlife viewing, or simply soaking in the sunset.
The Embassy Suites was a great place to stay for our adventurous trip. It's centrally located and minutes from downtown. You can easily get into the hustle and bustle of downtown, but you're removed from traffic, making it easy to get out and go on adventures around the area. Their breakfast is healthy and has something for everyone, the gym and pool are clean and bright, the WiFi is fast, and the rooms are modern, quiet, and spacious.
After making a quick stop at the hotel to refresh, we headed to downtown Monterey to explore the famous Cannery Row.
For dinner we visited the Big Fish Grill, which is well-known for its menu of fresh fish, wine list, and beautiful views of Monterey Bay. Often times you can see sea lions playing right off shore, while kayakers pass by to explore the kelp forest.
Day 3 - Hiking and Mountain Biking in Salinas, CA
After a fantastic couple of days on the coast, it was time to get into the valley and surrounding hills, which are near and dear to my heart. We set our sights on Salinas, CA to explore Toro Park and its 20+ miles of hiking trails.
With Seattle as my home base, I am used to the evergreens and ferns of "The Emerald City," but I was floored at how California, especially Monterey, truly reminds me of Ireland. Toro Park’s trail system roams across verdant green ridges and canyons with epic views of the mountains and sea.
If I lived in Monterey, this is absolutely where I would come trail running every morning, but I prefer mountain biking. Luckily, our next destination was just a few minutes up the road at the Fort Ord National Monument, which offers ample trails for such activities.
In Salinas, the Boardwalk Sub Shop is a perfect place to reward yourself with a big post-ride meal. The classic East Coast-style joint offers big sandwiches, thick milkshakes, fast service, and fun owners. There is also a second location in Monterey if you are craving a sub and your adventures take you out of Salinas.
After returning our bikes, we continued south along the classic Highway 1, passing the crowds at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and down to Garrapata State Beach. There are a couple parking areas along the road with trails weaving their way along the cliffs above the beach. Make your way down either a staircase or a creek drainage to get to the sandy beach, where you can climb sea stacks or lay out a towel and relax.
The entire place is absolutely stunning during any time of the day, but with it being located on the Pacific Ocean, this locale really shines the brightest as the sun is disappearing into the horizon.
After scrambling back up to the car in twilight, we headed to the idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea for dinner at the Rio Grill. Meat lovers get excited because the brisket empanadas and candied pork belly are fantastic, and the duck breast and risotto are revelations on a plate.
The owners of Rio Grill also have another well-known restaurant in downtown Monterey, which is where we headed to next. Montrio Bistro was the perfect ending to an epic meal with delicious desserts and drinks.
Day 4 - Morning surf at Marina State Beach and exploring the Fort Ord Dunes
No visit to the California coast is complete without a sunrise surf session at Marina State Beach. With decent swells, a consistent breach break, and an almost empty shoreline, it was a refreshing and peaceful way to start the day.
From there we explored the Fort Ord Dunes (yes, same Fort Ord, but where the old base meets the ocean) where you will find even more solitude amongst the larger dunes. This was a great spot to reflect on the trip because there was hardly anyone at this undiscovered gem and the mighty dunes and waves block out any signs of the world around you.
To cap off the trip, we popped in for some local beer at English Ales Brewery, a great neighborhood pub we had heard about.
Decades ago, the owner of a local bar missed the classic beers of his homeland. He hired a local brewer to reproduce some original recipes that didn’t require the pasteurization that disturbed, in his words, "the flavor of the imports." If you are lucky enough to run into Peter at the bar, he will tell you about how that idea got out of control and now he runs an entire brewery with dozens of esoteric styles.
We learned firsthand that while you may think you know a place, odds are, you have only scratched the surface.
I last visited ten years ago, and something tells me it will not be another ten years before I come back.
This article was originally featured on TheOutbound.com.