By Jill K. Robinson

South of the San Francisco Bay Area, the coastal region from Santa Cruz through Big Sur has views that rival the rest of the state. Within earshot of the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, this is where many Californians vacation, so it’s the ideal place to slow down and adopt a California-style appreciation of the great outdoors and a laid-back lifestyle.

The Big Sur coastline inspired artist Francis McComas to claim that the area was the “greatest meeting of land and sea,” and the wild coast has lured artists and fans of the great outdoors to enjoy its remoteness as well as its rich restaurant choices—from Nepenthe to the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. On the other side of the Santa Lucia Range lie the otherworldly spires and crags of Pinnacles National Park, an extinct volcano on a long voyage north at the edge of the San Andreas Fault. Both regions lure hikers, bikers, climbers, campers and birdwatchers.

The two biggest population centers of the region are Santa Cruz and the Monterey Peninsula. In historic Monterey, small-town Pacific Grove and fashionable artist retreat Carmel-by-the-Sea, there are beautiful beaches, performing and fine arts venues, outdoor pursuits, stylish shops, epicurean delights and an inland region known for wine and agriculture. Much of the same can be said of funky Santa Cruz, but away from the redwoods, the university town resembles a beachside playground, with its historic boardwalk and many surf spots.

Wine lovers won’t have much chance to miss Napa and Sonoma, with a wealth of quality vineyards in this region. From Carmel Valley to the Monterey River Road, there are more than enough award-winning wines to quench an oenophile’s thirst.

With its rich and varied geography, it’s a good thing that the wonders of Monterey Bay and Big Sur are laid wide open for people to appreciate them. Whether your preference is a charming urban escape, camping under the stars, fresh regional cuisine, world-famous wines, getting active outdoors or a leisurely beachcombing stroll—all can be found here, and nobody’s rushing you, so you can discover it all in your own time.


Downtown Santa Cruz lies between the city’s vibrant beach attractions and the redwood-rich mountains, where the University of California at Santa Cruz is perched among groves of the huge trees. Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey is steps from the city’s historic buildings that date from the 18th and 19th centuries—before California was part of the United States. The new Dalí17 museum showcases the second-largest collection of works by Salvador Dalí in the United States. Once a resident of Monterey, Dalí contributed greatly to the region’s talented artist community. Made famous by John Steinbeck’s eponymous novel, Cannery Row has morphed from a fishing center to a bustling street with shops and ocean-view restaurants. Steinbeck’s hometown, Salinas, is a working-class agricultural city, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Carmel, a freethinker’s retreat born as an artist village, is home to stylish shops, exquisite dining and top-notch art.


While well-known urban areas dot this region, there’s more than enough wide-open space for fans of the outdoors. Take a whale watching boat tour in Monterey Bay, where you can spot migrating gray, humpback and blue whales. Seventeen-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach winds through forest and along the Pacific coastline as it skirts exclusive golf courses and resorts. South of Carmel, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has long been considered the “crown jewel” of the California State Park system.

The eerie-looking monoliths of Pinnacles National Park beckon to rock climbers and hikers interested in the added benefits of the explosion of colorful spring wildflowers and soaring California condors in the park.

In Big Sur, where rocky cliffs drop into the Pacific Ocean and cypress trees twist in the coastal wind, nature lovers can walk along the beach or hike deep into redwood forests, both places where waterfalls spring to life.


Agriculture dominates the inland region—from the Salinas salad bowl to Carmel Valley wines. The region’s coast is home to fishermen, artists, surfers and a booming tourism industry. Whether it’s a chef from Carmel, an artist from Santa Cruz or a farmer from Soledad—all take time to enjoy the beauty of Monterey Bay and Big Sur.


The Monterey Peninsula is a wonderland for families, with historic sites, accessible beaches, Dennis the Menace Park and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. South through Big Sur, the variety of hiking paths can lead you to a pink-sand beach or a seaside waterfall. No matter your age, you can’t go wrong at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with rides and entertainment for everyone. Inland, get a look at California’s pre-statehood past and follow the California Missions Trail along Highway 101—always a good lesson for grade-schoolers and adults alike.


California Condors
Get a close-up view of soaring California condors from the High Peaks trail of Pinnacles National Park.

Monterey’s Historic District
Find Old Monterey’s adobes and gardens from the Spanish and Mexican eras, including the site of California’s first Constitutional Convention, scattered near Fisherman’s Wharf.

Dead Central
Get a colorful look at exhibits from the Grateful Dead Archive, on display at the University of California Santa Cruz McHenry Library.

Wild Coast
Cruise Highway 1 along the majestic Big Sur coast, where the sky touches the sea.

Historic Fun
Ride two National Historic Landmarks, the Giant Dipper and the Looff Carousel, at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Del Norte
Pismo Beach
Discover Siskiyou
Visit Mammoth