Monterey County contains a sizable part of the Central Coast of California and the southern half of Monterey Bay. The area is known for its wildlife and rugged coastline, much of it protected in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest US national marine sanctuary and home to a fantastic number of mammals, seabirds, fishes, invertebrates and plants.
- 1 Carmel - Carmel is a beautiful oceanside town that is home to the historic Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, several large beaches, excellent restaurants and an abundance of upscale lodging. It borders the iconic Pebble Beach golf course and is the entry point to the 17-Mile Drive and its dramatic ocean views.
- 2 Carmel Valley - Less famous than its seaside namesake to the west, this tiny village is home to quaint inns and upscale resorts, but is best known for the wineries that fill the valley. The area is also excellent for hiking, biking and horseback riding, with miles of trails through the mountains and along the Carmel river.
- 3 King City - King City might just be a place to spend the night while driving along Highway 101 for most travelers, but those who visit in early May can attend the Salinas Valley Fair, an event which offers a rodeo, livestock competitions, and a chance to experience the agricultural character of the area. The town is also home to the Monterey County Agricultural & Rural Life Museum, which offers a history of the area's agricultural development and the opportunity to tour a historic school house and rail depot.
- 4 Marina - Marina is a small city that offers a handful of hotels and restaurants, but may be more interesting to travelers for the nature opportunities around the town. The Marina Dunes Natural Preserve protects the largest sand dunes on the Central Coast, while the Fort Ord National Monument offers 15,000 acres of countryside and 86 miles of hiking trails on a former army base that was declared a national monument in 2012.
- 5 Monterey - Founded in 1770, Monterey served as the capital of Alta California under both Spain and Mexico, was a bustling fishing port until the 1950s, and is now a major tourist destination. Attractions include a pier filled with seafood restaurants, a world-class aquarium, a harbor that is home to an enormous number of seabirds, sea lions, sea otters, seals, and other marine life, the historic Cannery Row, and opportunities for whale watching, kayaking, or other excursions into Monterey Bay.
- 6 Moss Landing - Located halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey, this tiny town is often overlooked but offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities at Elkhorn Slough, one of the largest saltwater estuaries in California and a great place to spot sea otters. The harbor is also the departure point for several whale watching companies. Amenities for travelers are limited, although there are several restaurants in the harbor area.
- 7 Pacific Grove - Located adjacent to the city of Monterey, Pacific Grove is a beautiful town that is home to the oldest continually operated lighthouse on the West Coast, and more Victorian homes per capita than anywhere else in America. It is also the northern gateway of the scenic 17-Mile Drive. The town's rocky coastline is filled with tide pools that are easy to explore, seals, sea otters and sea lions are commonly seen in the waters, and adding to its bounty of natural riches, in the winter thousands of monarch butterflies gather in a grove at the town's center.
- 8 Salinas - Fans of Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck will want to visit the National Steinbeck Center and soak in the sights that were the inspiration for much of the author's work. The historic downtown dates back to the town's founding in the mid-1800s, while the surrounding countryside is filled with vineyards and both floral and vegetable cultivation. Events include the California Rodeo, which is held during the third week of July.
- 9 Seaside - Seaside is most often visited by those looking for lodging or restaurants close to the town of Monterey. However, the town does have a few attractions of its own, including the Bayonet & Black Horse Golf Courses, part of the former Fort Ord military base, which hosted the 2012 PGA Professional National Championship. The town is also home to Sand City, an artist community located within the city limits that hosts an arts festival each August.
- 10 Soledad - Located inland along Highway 101, Soledad is the western gateway to Pinnacles National Park and also home to Mission Soledad, one of 21 historic Spanish missions in California. The town is also home to several wineries, with tasting rooms that offer magnificent views over the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Salinas Valley.
- 1 Big Sur - The Big Sur region can be loosely defined as the stretch of coastline between Carmel and San Simeon, and the steep cliffs, rocky coast, churning waves, abundant wildlife, redwoods, and remoteness make it one of the most beautiful drives in the world. It is served by Highway 1.
- 2 Fremont Peak State Park (Off of Highway 156, 11-miles south of San Juan Bautista on San Juan Canyon Road.), ☏ . State park that encompasses the summit of 3,169-foot (966 m) Fremont Peak. Offers expansive views of Monterey Bay, as well as the Salinas Valley and Santa Lucia Mountain. The Fremont Peak Observatory is located inside the park. On clear nights, this is a popular spot for amateur astronomers, and, so long as you observe basic courtesy (tape a piece of red cellophane over your flashlight, so as to preserve night vision, closely supervise children, don't touch anything without permission, etc.) many of them are more than willing to let you take a peek through their eyepiece at whatever they happen to be looking at.
- 3 Mission San Antonio de Padua, P.O. Box 803 (End of Mission Road) Jolon, CA 93928 (6.3 miles on Mission Road, off County Road G14 from Jolon), ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. The third mission established by Father Serra, established in 1771 but mainly constructed in the early 1800s. Site of the first Catholic marriage in California; and the first use of red-tile roofs. Due to its isolated location (it is one of the few missions without a nearby city), it was never secularized. $5 for adults and $3 for children 12 and under.
While best known for the wild coastline of Big Sur and the historic Monterey Bay, Monterey County includes the rugged Coastal Range and the inland corridor of U.S. Highway 101. Wine tourism is popular in the Salinas Valley around Salinas and in the Carmel Valley area.
The Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) is the main coastal route through the region, offering scenic views out onto the ocean. Highway 101 also traverses the region, traveling north-to-south further inland, east of the mountains. Travelers looking for the most scenic route will want to use Highway 1, while those in a hurry should choose Highway 101.
El Camino Real (The Royal Road), a historic route connecting all of California's 21 Spanish missions, passes through the county, roughly following Highway 1 in the north and Highway 101 further south.
- 1 Santa Cruz County - Located north of Monterey County, the second-smallest county in the state is home to the quirky town of Santa Cruz and a rugged coast that is equally popular with surfers and elephant seals. The Santa Cruz mountains are the abode of redwoods and bright yellow banana slugs, both of which can be easily seen on the many hiking trails. Other portions of the county are known for agriculture, with farm stands dotting the roads.
- 2 San Benito County - East of Monterey County, San Benito County is an inland county dominated by the Coast Mountain Range. It is relatively sparsely populated, with only about 55,000 inhabitants. Pinnacles National Park and its dramatic rock formations lies in this county, as well as the town of San Juan Bautista and its historic mission.
- 3 Fresno County - Monterey County's neighbor to the east, sprawling Fresno County is home to Fresno, California's fifth-largest city, and vast agricultural areas. The eastern side of the county is mountainous, featuring the remote wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park, which attracts visitors to its giant sequoias and unspoiled meadows that lie at the crest of the Sierra Nevada range.
- 4 Kings County - Located southeast of Monterey County, rural Kings County is responsible for billions of dollars of annual agricultural production, much of it from the dairy industry. Travelers passing through on Interstate 5 may find the area lacking in attractions, although there are a few hotels and other amenities in the county's small towns.
- 5 Kern County - Bordering Monterey County to the southeast, Kern County extends across a number of geographic regions: the western portion is in the San Joaquin Valley, the northeastern portion is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the southeastern part is in the Desert. Visitors to the county are most likely to be heading to Bakersfield, one of California's largest cities, or traveling along Interstate 5 past oil fields and agricultural areas.
- 6 San Luis Obispo County - San Luis Obispo County is located to the south of Monterey County, and it marks a noticeable shift in landscape from areas to the south, with a dramatic and remote coastline that draws nature lovers. Hearst Castle is located here, the massive and historic former home of the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. The town of San Luis Obispo is a college town that is the last large city for over 100 miles for those traveling north along the coast.