Scenic Monterey & Big Sur

By Kate Riley July 30, 2013

Every few years Matt and I road trip up and down the California coast, stopping in to visit our favorite cities that welcome visitors with amazing views and great cafes. We’ve toured all over inland California from Lake Tahoe to Palm Springs but there’s something really special about taking a week to drive the highway that runs along the Pacific coast to stop and stay in some beautiful oceanfront towns.

Last week we spent time in Monterey and Big Sur with charming Carmel-by-the-Sea nestled in between. The three are worth a weekend visit to any traveler visiting California (see scenes from Carmel here). Spanish inspired architecture covered with bougainvillea, fuchsia, and coastal botanicals thrive in the sunshine and sea air and there is always plenty to see, eat, and do.

iron grill

flowering fuschia


When in Monterey, the Fisherman’s Wharf is worthy stop where you can walk the pier and look out over the white sandy beach and boats in the harbor. Locals know to grab seafood here that is fresh off the boats. The Wharf is also where local restaurants compete for the “best clam chowder” award and little shops sell beach trinkets and scrimshaw.

boats in harbor

ships in a bottle

monterey fishermans wharf

dungeness crab

old fishermans grotto

clam chowder in bread bowl


Catch the free trolley to Cannery Row for tons of shopping, restaurant, and a visit to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium before you leave – we spent two hours there before heading south.

Big Sur is a long stretch of coastline along Highway 1 that weaves back and forth along the cliffs and drops down to little beaches too and fab views around every bend. Stop in to any of the roadside restaurants for a bite, or stay and camp at some of the local spots along the route. Don’t miss Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park where you can park and hike five minutes to a spectacular waterfall that spills into the Pacific Ocean.

big sur river inn

seals on beach

julia pfeiffer state park

julia pfiffer state park waterfall

We’re headed home tonight after a week of vacationing up and down the coast of our state. We came up with a new family motto this week: “full belly, full heart” which describes how we feel after our relaxing vacation.  Happy & blessed.



  1. Heading that way in a few weeks. Have you ever visited the Moro Bay area?

  2. I always love your travel photos! That’s such a beautiful area – I haven’t been to Monterrey in at least 10 years but want to take my kids to the Monterrey Aquarium when we’re out in CA for Thanksgiving. One of my favorite memories from my last trip there was seeing the adorable otters playing in the water near the aquarium – too cute!

  3. Wow!

    My lifelong friend and I are planning a trip to CA for our 50th birthdays next year! We started by saying we wanted to see the Redwood Forest and some coast line but in perusing Fodor’s and The Lonely Planet’s guidebooks (and websites) we think we have to see the Big Sur area. When I read about being able to see seals I thought to myself “yeah, right” but your amazing picture proves it!

    We’re thinking to fly into San Francisco & drive from there. Any tips you can give Midwesterner’s (especially about where to stay) (and where to have our “spa day”)?

  4. Beautiful pics! I grew up in Salinas, CA just 20 min from Monterey Bay and a bread bowl full of clam chowder from the Fisherman’s Grotto is always on my list of must have’s when I come home to visit. Looks like you had a fantastic week!

  5. I LOVE Monterey!! My best friend and I took a trip there for my birthday a few years ago and I loved it so much! So incredibly beautiful!!! Those vacation pictures are still my favorite. One of my favorite spots was the Carmel Mission. So lovely! And I still dream about the fantastic clam chowder at the Wharf. :)

  6. I am glad you enjoyed your visit to my little piece of heaven. I love living here. I moved away for 7 years and missed it so bad that I had to move back. It is truly beautiful.

  7. The best calamari we’ve ever eaten was the freshly-caught-that-day calamari served in a restaurant on the wharf at Monterey.

  8. Kate, you are really giving me nostalgia for the Central Coast here! Pre-baby my husband and I used to live just 2 miles from Pismo Beach. We loved to take weekend trips up the coast to Monterey and Big Sur. I still think seeing the sea otters all floating in Monterey Bay is one of the highlights of my travels! We live in Orange County now which is great for kids and so diverse — we love it but we’ll always have a soft spot for the Central Coast!

  9. As a local, I gotta tell you: the wharf is *not* where to get the best clam chowder! There is a little place on Lighthouse Ave in New Monterey called Vivolo’s that has the very best chowder in town. You have to try it next time you’re here!

  10. Oh my gosh we’re doing that drive in August, so this post couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks for the hints about where to go! Ahh, I can’t wait!

  11. Oh, this makes me miss Monterey! We were stationed there for 18 months and we loved every minute of it! We’re hoping for another assignment there before my husband leaves the Navy. Next time you are there, you need to try the Red House Cafe in Pacific Grove, just down from Lover’s Point in Monterey. They have the BEST food!

  12. I live in SoCal and have been wanting to drive up to Carmel for a while now. This is inspiring me to just make it happen soon! Love the family motto! reminds me so mush of a saying in Spanish “Barriga llena, corazon contento” which translates to “Full belly, happy heart”…close enough, right?

  13. Beautiful pics, Kate! It’s been way too long since I’ve traveled the coast. So spoiled living in Northern California with the mountains and lakes, I often forget about the ocean! Thanks for the lovely reminders ;)

  14. Ahhhhh, we lived in Carmel so this post is so nostalgic for me. Many a lazy Sunday afternoon was spent in those chairs in the river behing the Big Sur River Inn. Great photos, as always. :)

  15. Carmel, Monterey, Big Sur, etc., etc. – all too gorgeous! We ‘road trip’ that stretch every time we hit Cali as DH wants to retire in that area one day. The lovely weather is so predictable – no ice, no heat waves. We love the outdoors, the various activities, the people – so kind & helpful, the food. Don’t get me started on the food! That sea breeze…the clean fresh fragrance of the ocean mixed with the intoxicating flowers and plants…I can smell it and feel it now. Thank you Kate, for that brief ‘getaway’ today.
    Your photos, so inspiring, capturing true ‘tastes’ of locations so well!

  16. Ahh…this was a lovely reminder of a wonderful holiday from uk to the west coast of america, fish and chips in cannery row and a souvenir tiffany key ring bought in carmel…good memories x

  17. My parents own a cottage in Carmel as a second home and I absolutely love traveling there! We often do the tourist thing in Monterey and get the bowl of clam chowder (it’s like a tradition!) and see the aquarium. On the way to Big Sur there is an “old school” (for lack of a better word, but you can get a raw veggie platter with blue cheese dip) bar right on the cliff called Rocky Point. Check it out on one of your trips down! :)

  18. If you ever have time, would you share the editing process you used on just one of your gorgeous vacation photos? They are stunning!

    • Hello Kaye, I use Photoshop Elements. Sometimes I shoot in Raw but mostly in plain ol JPEG and tweak it a bit to brighten or enhance contrast but not very much! My camera does most of the work – it’s a Nikon D90 and I mention the lenses I use in my About page!

  19. Beautiful pictures! Hope you can post more so I can live vicariously through your visit. :) My husband and I met in Monterey so it’s a special place for us, but we haven’t been there in many years.

  20. Oh, you are talking about my favorite places! My daughter is in the Air Force, and has been stationed in Monterey several times, and has done most of her training there at the Defense Language Institute (she’s a Korean linguist). She happens to be there now, and we are flying out to visit next week! I love Carmel, especially the shopping, the beach with all the dogs, and the storybook cottages. I always take one day to drive Big Sur, and stop at the Spirit Garden and all the art galleries along the drive. Such a vast difference from the Deep South where I live!

  21. I so enjoyed your posts about Monterey, Carmel & Big Sur. I visited there in March when I visited my son at DLI in Monterey. Such a beautiful area and I absolutely loved the weather. In just 4 days we visited the whole area including the beautiful Pebble Beach Area. I was amazed by the Big Sur drive & enjoyed taking lots of photos, strolled downtown Carmel & it’s shops & courtyards. We then also made it North along US 1 to San Fransisco. Great scenery too! Unique photo spots are the places we went to in San Fran that I googled ahead of time. & had GPS addresses

  22. Love your beautiful photos, I live in NY and have travel to Europe and other States in the US but your photos make me want to ride the coast of California… Love your blog, please continue to share your travels with us.

  23. I love Big Sur! While driving up US 1 my boyfriend at the time and I stopped into the most beautiful restaurant with a huge stone fireplace and grand windows overlooking the gorgeous view! I’ll never ever forget it!

  24. Wow! Its always nice te see my hometown through others eyes. I live here and have for over thirty years…my husband was born in Carmel! We love the area and feel extremely lucky to live and work here. Thank you for your great pictures.

  25. So glad you enjoyed your visit to my hometown. Next time you pop down to the peninsula be sure to spend some time in Pacific Grove, where I grew up and graduated from high school. It really is a quaint little spot where you can see the house used in the movie “A summer place” and of course the butterfly trees. Makes me long for a trip home!

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