We’ve got a BIG travel post for you today, and it’s jam-packed with photos, tips, links, and recommendations, along with our 8 day itinerary of our central California coast vacation!
From whale watching to kayaking in a kelp forest, hiking, horseback riding, and visiting aquariums, central California is hard to beat.
That means it’s a beast, this post. (Pin it!)
What we love so much about these kinds of trips is that it gets us outdoors and immersed in nature, especially on the coast! There’s just something about it that makes you tune in to each and every moment.
And that’s what life is all about, right? So, whether you’re planning your own trip or just taking a mental one, we hope you enjoy joining us on our adventure!
Before we get started with Day 1, here’s a quick-guide to our 8 day itinerary:
Ok, here we go!
Day 1 – Monterey Bay & Cannery Row
It’s travel day! Ahh the excitement, the anticipation, and the bleary eyes from waking up early.
Our early morning flight from the Gulf Coast brought us to San Francisco just in time for lunch. So, we got our rental car to drive to Monterey Bay (about a 2-hour drive), stopping for lunch on the way.
Arriving at the Monterey Plaza Hotel lobby, we stood in awe in the lobby of an epic view out into Monterey Bay. Our room was heavenly, with a view of sea otters and kayakers in the bay!
After the busy day of travel, we were more than happy to spend some down time soaking in the views, relaxing and breathing in the Pacific sea air.
For dinner in Monterey Bay, the short walk to Cannery Row is a popular choice for good reason! Along the way, we loved seeing the bay views bordered by the remnants of the old cannery buildings that used to be the hub of activity.
After a good dinner (and dessert at Ghirardelli’s!) and some exploring along Cannery Row, we headed back to the hotel to ready our gear and camera for whale watching tomorrow morning (so exciting!). Not too long after, we fell asleep to the sounds of the sea below, something we hope to never forget!
Day 2: Monterey Bay: Whale Watching, Fisherman’s Wharf, Kayaking & Cannery Row
We gonna see whales today! (Fingers crossed, positive thoughts.) A short walk from the hotel, we headed to Fisherman’s Wharf in the morning and found beautiful scenery along the way that we would return to several more mornings & evenings.
Good thing we had readied our camera! The Coast Guard Pier on the way to the wharf held all sorts of magical sights — from the sea lions socializing, to the sea stars (starfish) holding tight to the rocks, to the purple striped jellyfish that looked like a royal member of the court among the sea nettle jellyfish. The sailboat heading out to the big blue, with the sun glinting off of its sail, made for a beautiful photo op!
Continuing towards Fisherman’s Wharf, the foggy morning put a little bit of sleepy mystery and magic into the marina that we passed along the way. Seals posed on rocks, otter couples flirted, and herons played hide-and-seek among the boats.
After quite the sight-seeing on the way to the wharf, we checked in to the whale watching tour that we had booked. We’d reserved a 10:00 AM tour, but since we arrived early enough for the 9:00 AM, the staff from Monterey Bay Whale Watch encouraged us to join the earlier trip for calmer seas.
Heading out into the bay aboard the boat, it was foggy at first, but then lifted to blue skies when we moved offshore. Both settings were stunning, and we were able to witness some of the most magnificent creatures on Earth: humpback whales. What a thrill!
Tip: It gets chilly offshore (even in late July when we went!), so be sure to wear layers! A long-sleeved shirt, a vest, a fleece insulator, and a waterproof shell for wind resistance worked beautifully for this Florida girl! (Oh and a hat too!)
We worked up an appetite while out on the water, and found our way to one of the many delightful restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf. We were so happy that many of them served sustainable seafood!
After lunch, we walked back to our hotel, along the way getting to see the marina without the blanket of morning fog:
We also passed by San Carlos Beach, admiring the scuba divers and their gear:
In the afternoon after some downtime (always important), we walked across the street to Adventures by the Sea to rent kayaks. After some education about sea otters (and how important it is to stay 50-100 feet away from them), paddling instructions, and getting into our life vests and dry-suits (that go over your clothes), we were ready to roll!
We paddled alongside the coast, getting a great view of the bay! A cormorant even decided to hang out with us for a minute before diving to hunt.
Sea otters were hanging out in the kelp too!!!
As we neared the aquarium, our kayaking trip got the icing on the cake by a mama otter and her pup — they popped up near our kayaks without even seeming to notice us!
What a trip! Time for a selfie 🙂
Once we were back on dry land, we went for a walk down Cannery Row in search of dinner, taking in the beautiful sights and sounds!
Day 3: Monterey Bay Aquarium & Pebble Beach Golf Links
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is an ocean-lover’s dream– like Christmas morning for us! We walked down to the aquarium from our hotel in the morning to get in by opening time.
Tip: See if your hotel sells aquarium tickets. It’ll save you time standing in line, and they may even give you 2 days’ admission for the price of 1!
What a treat! From the incredible marine life that they host, to the amazing educational and interactive displays, it is truly in a league of its own.
From the incredible kelp exhibit:
To the amazing animals:
And the loads of kid-friendly & interactive exhibits and touch tanks:
There is so much to explore, appreciate with wonder, and interact with at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In the afternoon, we headed over to Pebble Beach for some “bucket list” golf, a course with stunning views at every turn.
Day 4: Big Sur & Pacific Coast Highway
We headed down Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1) for some out-of-this-world scenic views that held us captive for hours!
Tip: We left this day open for exploring, and it was also our backup day for whale watching & golf in case the weather hadn’t cooperated or we didn’t see whales on Day 3.
Along the way, we stopped at Point Lobos for some hiking. We hiked the Granite Point Trail, based on the recommendation of a fantastic Point Lobos naturalist, and were in awe of the views! We were even lucky enough to see whales come in to the bay!
After our hike in Point Lobos, we continued on to Big Sur for even more epic & breathtaking views! We pulled off for lots of photo ops, including Bixby Bridge, wildflowers, and crashing waves. We loved how each stop had such different elements that gave us a rush of exhilaration:
After our many stops along Big Sur, we drove along Pacific Coast Highway to Garrapata State Park bluff trail for a little hike. Fields of succulents, coastal expanses, and a bridge over canyons certainly made for a worthwhile escapade:
After working up quite an appetite exploring, we stopped at Rocky Point Restaurant for some amazing views and delicious eats.
We headed back to our hotel in Monterey Bay for some relaxation, rest, and then another visit to the Coast Guard Pier and Cannery Row!
Day 5: Horseback Riding & Carmel-by-the-Sea
What better way to experience the land and coast than on horseback? There’s just something about being on a horse that brings such awe, presence, and joy!
We arrived at the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center and got paired up with our horse companions for our tour. Our guide took us on beautiful trails through the coastal forest, complete with views of the coast, and even a sighting of a coyote pup:
After our incredible ride, we drove over to Carmel-by-the-Sea for lunch at Porta Bella’s. It satisfied all of our palates, along with a charming and cozy atmosphere too.
With satisfied bellies, we walked down Ocean Avenue and took in the beautiful shops and bustling action:
Taking Ocean Avenue all the way to its end, we walked barefoot in the sand on Carmel Beach:
After our beach walk, we drove to the Carmel Mission, breathing in the history and peace:
Then, we went to see the Lone Cypress on 17-mile drive in Pebble Beach…what a marvel! Just an incredible feat that the tree grows in such terrain…and because of that, it serves as a beacon of inspiration for countless visitors!
On our drive along the coast, we couldn’t believe our eyes as we spotted a magnificent deer – definitely worth pulling over for a photo shoot!
After our deer sighting, we stopped at Pacific Grove Marine Gardens for a little rock walking and beautiful seas and skies:
It was another full day of exploring, our last in Monterey Bay. Tomorrow: we’re on the move!
Day 6: Marine Exploring, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, & San Francisco
After saying goodbye to Monterey Bay, we headed North, stopping first at Seymour Marine Discovery Center for some ocean-themed exploring. What a great learning center for kids (and adults!) to get to know the ocean’s wonders!
All sorts of learning exhibits, sea animals to touch, aquariums, outdoor views, and a gray whale skeleton:
Our next stop: Natural Bridges State Beach! A scenic setting unlike no other, with rock formations with natural bridges cut out, along with a rock shelf and tide pools:
After Natural Bridges, we went to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for some summer play, food, and festivities!
After the fun and with our bellies full, we continued on to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve to see what wonders we might discover! They are known for their tide pools, but since our stop coincided with high tide, the animals like sea stars and anemones were covered up.
So, instead we explored the majestic path under the ancient cypress tree tunnel, arriving just in time for a surprising and epic scene unfolding on the cliffs below. A coyote pup ran down the cliff, scaring all of the seals from the beach into the water!
After the majestic marine reserve, we got back into the car and continued on Highway 1. Along the way, we pulled over with glee near Montara Beach as we saw a most beautiful field of violet hues: huge purple allium flowers! We felt light as air, happily walking through the fields of purple clouds with the coastline in the horizon:
Our fairy tale encounter with the wildflowers was a blissful cap to our afternoon before driving to Tiburon to check into our hotel!
Now, during this trip, we decided to lodge outside of San Francisco, opting to stay out of the hustle and bustle. We stayed at the Lodge at Tiburon, and enjoyed walking to the small, charming downtown area for dinner on the water.
If you’re looking to squeeze San Francisco into your trip, you can instead stay there and do some exploring! In a previous trip, we stayed at the Argonaut Hotel, explored San Francisco, took a tour of Alcatraz, and visited Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.
We really enjoyed both options, but thought we’d give you a heads up on an alternate option (squeeze San Francisco in vs. the less hopping but still animated Tiburon).
On our way to Tiburon, we took advantage of the clear weather and stopped to take some photos of the Golden Gate Bridge! We were glad that we did — the fog rolled in the next morning!
Day 7: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco & Muir Woods
We had planned on enjoying the Golden Gate Bridge some more in the morning, but with the fog having rolled in, we were stunned to see that the bridge had almost disappeared!
So, thankful that we’d gotten to enjoy it some the day before, we drove to Muir Woods for some hiking. Muir Woods is home to giant redwood trees — making for one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and breathtaking hiking experiences. The photos just don’t do justice to the majesty and immensity of these behemoths!
Tip: Make sure you go as early as you can! We thought we were early (8-9-ish) and there was still quite a crowd. By the time we left, it was even more packed!
After getting lunch at the Pelican Inn, we drove to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. After hiking up the hill, we found out that it was closed due to the weather. We enjoyed the brisk, windy walk and the astonishingly foggy views of the Golden Gate Bridge!
A bit stymied by the fog, we headed back to Tiburon to enjoy a quiet afternoon, a nap, and some dinner downtown. Leisure, downtime and some rest is just what we needed for tomorrow’s plans!
If San Francisco is on your agenda, you can visit Alcatraz, explore Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 (see Day 6 above). Be ready for crowds!
Day 8: Point Reyes National Seashore
We headed over to Point Reyes National Seashore for some exploring and our very own wildlife photography safari! We stopped for lunch at the Tomales Bay Resort restaurant before we set off on our afternoon adventure. We had such a fabulous experience, that we wrote a separate blog post about our wildlife photography safari.
What we experienced was a wildlife photography show like you might see on BBC, with elephant seal contests, tule elks colliding antlers, along with glimpses of the elusive bobcat, an owl family, and a fox, among countless others!
It was the perfect way to finish our trip! We stayed another night at the Lodge in Tiburon and headed out the next morning (making for a total of 9 days traveling).
What a time! Memories, photos, and an experience that we will remember with such fondness. No wonder it’s one of our favorite places on Earth!
If you’re planning on traveling soon, may it be in the spirit of being fully in the moment each step of the way…and leaving only your footprints behind!
And if you’re staying wherever home is for you for the time being, take time to explore and be grateful for what’s right in front of you.