If you missed my last California road trip post, I shared the first leg of our unbelievable 1-week road trip up the coast from LA to beautiful San Luis Obispo. I was already so blown away by the amazing beauty of these places that I really wasn’t prepared for what was to come once we got into the Central Coast, especially Big Sur which basically blew my mind and may have resulted in me tearing up a bit at finally getting to tick off this big bucket list item (and it exceeding all my expectations too!). If you want to catch up before we dive into the Carmel to Capitola stretch of this unbelievable road trip, check out my first post here!
But now onto the beautiful Monterey County and beyond, which honestly must be one of my favourite places in the world now. Buckle up, make sure you have your mouse ready to pin the images and get ready to seriously start craving a Cali getaway!
CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA (DAY 3)
I had really pushed for us to stay in Carmel after seeing all these fairytale-like cottages popping up on Pinterest. This is typically how most of Matt and I’s trips shape up: we pretty much agree on most places, but I’ll almost always become really fixated on one place (in Italy, it was Montepulciano, in Spain, it was Frigiliana) and there’s just really no saying no to me at a certain point, as bossy as that makes me seem! I love cities but I’ll inevitably always fall in love from afar before our trip with a quaint little town, and so far my batting average is really high—they always exceed my expectations when I finally get to experience them!
So anyway, after we had lunch and a little hang in San Luis Obispo, we bombed it up to Carmel, getting in mid-afternoon with just enough time to settle into our beautiful VRBO (more on it and all the other places we stayed in a later post!), grab a quick bite and catch sunset at the beautiful beach at the base of the town.
This, my friends, was one of the dreamiest parts of my whole trip. Carmel Beach is one of those amazing big California beaches that stretch for miles where the sand and sky create a beautiful mirror image of one another, punctuated by big wave breaks. It truly was impossible to capture how beautiful the sunset was and it was so cool to see a bunch of tourists or out-of-towners (it was President’s Day, after all) hanging out taking in the sunset along with locals walking their dogs and catching up with one another.
We then had one of the best meals of our trip (again, where to stay and where to eat are both coming up soon!) and darted in and out of the residential streets and main commercial street. Carmel is definitely a very affluent town—we joked that even the firehouse looked like a rustic chic spread from a decor mag. It’s not the most buzzing town but as far as just taking in beautiful sights, this is one of the best places to be. Also, did you know that Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel for a period of time? So needless to say, it’s been a longtime escape for the rich & famous!
Oh, and a note on this unique architecture you keep seeing pop up throughout the town! The story behind these Hansel-and-Gretel-like cottages is that a man named Hugh Comstock built the first of these fairytale cottages around the 1920’s for his wife, who sold rag dolls. When her inventory grew too big, he built her a “showroom” to show off her wares. What’s really interesting is that he wasn’t a trained architect, so the cottage had a kind of very DIY but super imaginative and beautiful quality that locals soon started wanting for themselves! And that’s how these cottages came to be—love that they have such a cool story!
BIG SUR (DAY 4)
Okay so onto the biggest, best day of the whole road trip for me—Big Sur. A little backstory: I first fell in love with Big Sur when I was about 16 or so and found pictures of this magical place in a magazine. It’s been one of my biggest bucket list items of all time and honestly, it blew my mind in person.
Our first stop was beautiful, sprawling Point Lobos National Park. This is where I shed a couple tears because it was my first experience of what I’ve always dreamt of—crashing turquoise waves, sun-bleached sea grass swaying in the wind, little coves tucked among all the trees. It’s funny because I’m from a pretty similar area here in Vancouver, but somehow it was just so different and special to me in person. We saw a couple seals playing right next to these big buffed rocks that we sat on (Matt insisted that they were making love but like he would see the most perverse option, they were pretty innocently playing), condors cutting through the skies and so much more. I love that you could genuinely spend hours here if you’d like and just keep cutting in and out of different coves, explore the tide pools and take in the beauty around you.
Next up was famous Bixby Creek Bridge (Big Little Lies fans will definitely recognize it!). We were worried about snapping pics here but it was honestly super easy—lots of dirt patches on the side of the road that you can just cruise up to! The bridge has a cool history because it was built in the ‘30s to connect Big Sur locals to the rest of the state, since in the winter it was basically impossible to leave. Hard to imagine a time when certain areas would be virtually unconnected, even crazier when you think it’s less than a century ago!
We then finally entered Big Sur and I was pretty much bursting out of my skin I was so excited and insisted on playing “California Stars” by Billy Bragg & Wilco (an old cover of Woody Guthrie’s original lyrics). If this travel story and other travel stories haven’t made it clear enough, I’m definitely someone who never gets jaded or used to new places or loses the excitement of discovering a place—quite the opposite! My friends, fam and Matt make fun of me for my like no-holding-back, crazy-excited reactions (if you ever see my friend Amanda who lives in Ireland, just ask her about my first time driving through the Burren when I literally was leant out the window as she was hauling ass through these tiny ancient Irish lanes). So long story short, I was like so over the moon already and the most unbelievable parts were just coming up!
I’d really recommend making good time getting into Big Sur because the lots for places like Point Lobos and our next stop, Pfeiffer Beach, do close if they’re full and it’s not like there’s a place you can wait to the side while you wait for a space to be made available. Get there early, not only to account for the parking lots, but to make the trips from the main roads to the actual points of interest. For instance, to get down to Pfeiffer Beach, you have to contend with a one-lane, winding and long dirt road to get to the parking lot. But once you’re there, oh my God it is worth it. I, for one, am a big wind person—I love the feeling of it blowing you away! It was beyond windy as you can probably see in these pics and I feel like we got the real Big Sur experience this way. The wind would catch the sea spray and it’d go flying out as the waves would crash in, catching the sunshine in little sparkling moments. Ducking behind some of the big rocks, we caught sight of the famous Sun Portal sea arch, which catches crashing waves and the sunshine beaming through. The one thing we both mentioned in the moment is that it would have been amazing to have seen the Sun Portal closer to sunset since you’d get the sun coming right through the portal, whereas we were there when the sun was still high in the sky. All the more reason to come back, and ideally to camp in the park for a few days so that you can revisit sites!
After lunch (again, more on where to eat soon because this one in particular was definitely one you do not want to miss!) we just took our time wandering to McWay Falls, which we had planned for sunset. There are so many spots to pull over at and catch views from, which we did a ton! It honestly reminded me a lot of Ireland randomly—something about the raw power of the cliffs, the waves and the dramatic views everywhere. If you know me, you know I love Ireland more than anywhere else in the world so it was a really cool experience of familiarity and excitement at catching all these amazing new views.
Finally, we found a perfect little spot to park off the highway (we were both really impressed with how easy it was to find parking off the main drag!) and slowly made our way from the highway to McWay Falls—it’s cool because even from the highway, you get one very cool vantage point, and then by carrying down to the main path below, you get a bunch of different perspectives. Right when we pulled up it started getting a bit overcast but I feel like it actually gave the sunset some moody depth! It was a pretty magical moment just standing there in the brisk, eucalyptus-scented air and watching this view that literally looks like it’s out of a fairytale as the sky glowed pink and the sea refracted the golden light from the sun. Will never forget this moment!
And with that, it started absolutely pissing rain (the only time out of our whole trip!) and we booked it to Monterey for dinner. I loved how close everything was in this area (think Carmel, Monterey, Big Sur, etc) but it’s so dense so there’s so much to do. I’d come back for a solid week or two just to this area, it was just a dream for me.
17 MILE DRIVE (DAY 5)
We got up bright and early to take in 17 Mile Drive, which is basically a loop drive between Carmel and Monterey (we were confused and thought it was a 17 mile drive that took you from Carmel to Monterey—if you want to do the whole thing, you actually have to loop around the way they designed it!). This is an insanely affluent area (in fact, in Pebble Beach you can find good ol’ Clint living out his golden age years) so there’s one “residents” entrance and one “visitors” entrance, where you pay about $10/car to get in. Well worth it though!
From China Rock (named in honour of the Chinese fishermen who settled in the area of this rugged coastline, selling their fish and wares to local tourists) to the famous Lone Cypress, it’s a pretty majestic and beautiful area, even after being exhausted beauty-wise from Big Sur the day before. Best of all—we saw a herd of seals having a little nap up on the sand! It was pretty amazing especially for me because I love seals more than anything.
MONTEREY (DAY 5)
After our epic Big Sur day, I was pretty much happied-out so wasn’t really putting too many expectations on Monterey. But we really loved this beautiful town, and because I’m a big John Steinbeck nerd, it was really special to see how much homage they paid to this amazing man. Without getting too heavy, his book East of Eden pulled me out of a really hard period of my life when I was in high school and in learning more about him over the years (and now, after this trip!) it made me just really love him in general. So if you’re also into Steinbeck, this is your zone! Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts is also a local legend and hero and really championed marine biology study—it’s little surprise that one of the most famous aquariums in the world is here!
Speaking of the Aquarium, it’s definitely worth the visit. Our VRBO actually had passes so that we could just waltz in which was amazing—it’s right next to the main tourist drag so super easy to just pop in quickly and check it out. I personally wouldn’t recommend spending more than 45 minutes to an hour here but it’s definitely worth seeing!
What we loved was just wandering along the waterfront near Cannery Row, which was given its name after Cannery Row, Steinbeck’s novel about the street (his friend Ed Ricketts is the inspiration for Doc, one of the main characters in the novel). Basically, Monterey has a long history of canning—in fact, it’s known as the sardine capital of the world! The canning factories were set up so that the fish prep and canning would happen seaside, then the finished products would get shuttled across these overpasses to the inventory in the main buildings across the street. There’s actually some really interesting immigrant history too—I didn’t realize how pivotal of a role the Chinese and Japanese immigrants played in developing the canning industry here.
Fisherman’s Wharf is pretty touristy but it’s also very beautiful—worth just stopping by at the very least to snap some pics and wander around a bit!
My personal Monterey highlight though? Spending, like, an hour watching an otter play and eat just below our feet at one of the many piers dotting the seaside. I still can’t get over how much wildlife we saw—while here in Vancouver, we see seals, otters, eagles and the like pretty regularly, seeing dolphins and orcas is much rarer. I saw seals, whales, dolphins, otters and so much more like every day. For a nature lover like me (especially one who especially loves marine life), it was literally heaven.
SANTA CRUZ & CAPITOLA (DAY 6)
So while this is technically a 6-day itinerary (because this was the day we flew out!), I was actually in LA for two days prior to the start of my guides albeit on work, so if you were trying to recreate this, I’d plug a couple days in Los Angeles doing more of the sightseeing. I had an amazing work getaway but wasn’t there on a pleasure trip and too eager to see more of the coast, so didn’t actually see as much of LA as I would if I was there just on my own, but I’ll definitely be back and will share what I’d recommend doing down the road! But if you think of this as a day or two in LA and then starting on my last guide, you’re sitting at about 7 days total!
But onto this last day which was magical but also heartbreaking because we had to leave (and returned home to snow, ugh—thank God it’s gone!). We woke up bright and early and headed up to Santa Cruz, which had a pretty delightfully campy quality to it. If we were here overnight we would’ve explored more because from what I’ve seen from some of my Cali babes, there’s so much to see here. But we just checked out the wharf which was where we got to check out some of our sea lion friends having a snooze in their raft, snapped the amusement park right on the beach and hit the road again. One thing I loved about SC though was that if you’re going to go touristy and get a touristy shirt, they have the coolest city logo here!
Then it was onto a literal dream of a town: Capitola. Originally created as a resort (which explains these beautiful vividly-coloured houses), it now has some of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen surrounding the original resort, complete with yet another stunning wharf. It’s definitely worth a quick visit so that you can wander through these dreamy houses, which literally looked like they were part of a movie set. The beach itself is super lovely and there are lots of great little spots to grab a coffee, drink or bite before you carry on.
But as is often the case on our flight home days, Matt was freaking out about us getting to the airport like five million hours early so we booked it to San Jose (also because we’d been told repeatedly about how terrible traffic was in this area, though it was actually a total breeze for us), got one last In-n-Out and then we were literally 4 hours early to the airport. I swear he’s already turning into one of those dads who insists on getting to the airport 9 hours early for a flight and we are still without child.
And there you have it!!! Our complete Cali itinerary—it was all such a dream but if I had to pick three highlights, Pismo Beach, Big Sur and Carmel are all places I would move to, like, right now. They were just so dreamy, but again I tend to err more toward the quieter, smaller places. Matt’s all about the So Cal life but he used to live in the Laguna area too—it’s where I’d love to go to next, especially because he said he’d finally go surfing with me if we went there (he’s scared of sharks).
I can’t stress enough how amazing this trip was and best of all, it felt like I hardly skipped a step—same time zone, same language, and a quick in-and-out approach of just a week that gave us that escape from winter without setting me off too much from my routine. I’ll be sharing my complete where to eat and where to stay guides soon so stay posted for those! In the meantime, you can revisit my first leg of the itinerary here and make sure you pin this pin below to keep this guide bookmarked in your go-to travel board! Happy weekend guys!