After a weekend in the dry desert of Joshua Tree, my water-sign-laden astrology chart was craving the ocean again. So, I was bound for the Central Coast, the stretch of land by the Pacific between LA and San Francisco. I had basically been looking to stay anywhere near Big Sur and after searching in a few towns, my budget led me to a week in Monterey, California. It was one of the more affordable towns, compared to Carmel or Santa Barbara. Plus, it was reachable by public transport so I wouldn’t need to hire a car again. I was also looking forward to a smaller, more laidback location in between the big, busy cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. I spent most of the week working, but had my evenings and a full day to explore.
Taking the Train up the Central Coast
After a few days of driving in Joshua Tree, I was glad to be able to unwind for my journey again. Especially since it was a long one, taking about 8 hours to travel by train from Los Angeles to Salinas, the closest station. I had spent the night before in a hostel, and basically went straight to Union Station when I woke up, to catch the 9am train. Amtrak trains definitely don’t move very quickly compared to trains I’ve been on elsewhere. But, they do make up for it in comfort, with super spacious seats that allowed me to stretch my legs out fully. Plus, the seat next to me was vacant the whole time. There are sockets for charging, but bizarrely considering it’s 2023, no Wifi. Seats are allocated as well, and the conductor was nice enough to give me an oceanside window seat.
Because the views were by far the best part of this journey. After escaping the vast urban sprawl of LA, the first half of the trip hugged the coastline, tracing its beaches and cliffs. It was pretty grey and misty, but brightened up as the day continued, offering beautiful ocean views. Later through the journey, the tracks move further inland and you roll through lush, verdant green hills. A dramatic change after Joshua Tree! There’s a lot of agriculture here, and some wine country too. Upon arriving in Salinas I transferred onto the Amtrak connecting bus for the short ride west to Monterey, arriving at about 7pm. I only caught a glimpse of the town, but could already feel the laidback vibes. I checked into my hotel, the Arbor Inn, I went out again to pick up food nearby and then crashed for the night.
Fisherman’s Wharf & Coast Guard Pier
After the first day of my week working in Monterey – mostly from my big, squishy bed – I was ready to explore. My hotel was about a 10-minute walk to downtown, which cemented the small-town vibes I had been feeling so far. You can see the Spanish influence in the area, with sandy, yellow buildings with wooden trims and finishings. A lot of the buildings have kept their historic style, while now housing many independent shops – or even larger chain fast food restaurants!
Just beyond, I came to Fisherman’s Wharf. This is one of the tourist hotspots in Monterey, lined with seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s pedestrianised too, which was nice, but still quite loud and busy. A lot of the restaurants have those staff outside whose job is to convince you to come in. At the end of the wharf, you can go up to a raised walkway looking out to Monterey Bay, and the many fishing boats moored there.
Returning from the wharf, I followed the walking and cycling trail around the coastline. April was definitely a great time to go, as the flowers were blooming, so there were splashes of colour everywhere. I soon came to Coast Guard Pier, where a sound immediately caught my attention. Loud barking? I wandered along the pier, when something suddenly caught my eye to my left. The large, brown rocks next to the pier were moving! Because they were actually hidden beneath dozens of California sea lions, all flopped on to each other and noisily barking! They were so close too and I took my time taking photos. Then I saw another movement in the water and there was a sea otter swimming past on its back, food clutched in its paws! Day made, Monterey was the best.
Continuing to follow the coastline west, I soon came to Cannery Row. I had seen this was a notable street in Monterey, but hadn’t thought much about its name beyond that. Turns out, ‘cannery’ refers to the multiple sardine canning companies that were once based here! They’re not closed, but the former buildings have been converted into shops and restaurants. Many of them are linked by footbridges crossing the main road as well.
Cannery Row is also the name of a John Steinbeck novel, which tells the story of fictional residents of the very same street during the Great Depression. Now, I was an English lit student, so I know about Steinbeck and his significance, but I’ve only read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. So, the significance of Cannery Row escaped me at first. It hasn’t escaped Monterey though, as there’s a large fountain with statues of Steinbeck’s characters in the centre of the street!
I wandered to the end of the street, where the Monterey Aquarium can be found. It’s supposed to be very good, but was closed by that time of day. Plus, as good as I’m sure it is, I find aquariums to be similar wherever you go, and I prefer to look for things more unique to each location. Once I made it that far along the street, I turned to retrace my steps again. After all, it was a good 45 minutes back to my hotel from here, and I still had the rest of my week in Monterey to save my energy for!
The next day, I wanted to continue exploring the coast and making the most of being near the ocean. Unfortunately, while spring in California is gorgeous with the flowers, it’s not yet summer beach weather. So, rather than sunbathing on the sand, I was off on a coastal walk instead. I took one of the local buses through the centre of Monterey and to the neighbouring town of Pacific Grove. The border between them pretty much blends them together, but technically, it’s still another town!
I hopped off the bus on Lighthouse Avenue, not far from the Pacific Grove Golf Links. Then it was just a couple of minutes walk down to the ocean and the start of the Asilomar Trail. And oh wow, was it windy! Beautiful, but windy! My ears are pretty sensitive to cold winds (after countless infections as a child) but I recently invested in some Loop earplugs for sound-sensitivity (after living in central Vancouver). They turned out to be fairly effective at blocking my ears from the wind too! Fortunately, I had enough layers to keep me warm in the wind as well.
They had closed parts of the trail due to storm damage, so my road south along the coast required some walking on the actual road. Which felt a bit risky, but I didn’t have any other choice really. That said, it was a beautiful walk! As mentioned, I love being beside the coast and the wind was stirring up huge waves, crashing into the rocks. I’m definitely a bit of a nature nerd and watching how powerful the ocean is had me pretty awestruck. The walk itself was pretty easy, along the clifftops and through the coastal strand foliage.
Asilomar State Beach
There were a few beaches and coves along the main part of the trail, accessible by rocky stairs. However, storms had closed off some, and others, even if open, I was a bit nervous about getting down to. Nature is awesome, yes, but I didn’t really want to get too close to waves that big, with wind that strong buffeting against me! After about half an hour of walking though, I reached Asilomar beach, a wide expanse of open sand.
There were a few other people out walking or jogging, many with dogs, but otherwise, it was pretty quiet. The only other company were the many sandpiper birds picking their way along the shore, which were funny to watch. There was a little stream running across the middle of the beach that I had to hop over using some logs to avoid soaking my feet! Towards the end of the beach, it turned rocky as it followed the next curve of the coast. Things got a bit tricky to navigate so I decided it was time to double back.
I tried to return via the wooden boardwalk behind the beach, next to (another) golf course. However, storms had battered it too. I only managed partway before giving up and hopping back down to the sand. Then, whipping out the trusty Google Maps again, I navigated away from the beach and through the streets of Pacific Grove, back to a bus stop to return me to Monterey.
Day Four – Resting Up
Honestly, I was tired, ok? My original plan was actually to go to Point Lobos today and then whale-watching tomorrow. But I got an email saying they had to cancel the whale-watching due to weather conditions, so I rescheduled it for the day after. Which meant I had an extra evening free. And after almost two weeks in California, out doing something every day so far, I was tired! Battling between wanting to do as much as possible and not getting burned out is a continual balancing act! But Monterey was a strategic choice, to stay somewhere quieter and more relaxed. So, I leaned into that and had a very quiet, chilled evening, staying in.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Now, back to our regularly scheduled itinerary. Visiting the Central Coast was initially inspired by photos I’d seen of the incredible Big Sur coastline. It’s not far from Monterey, but it would have required hiring a car again. Instead, I looked for nearby hikes that were more accessible and would give me a taste of those landscapes. I settled on Point Lobos, a 15-minute, fairly inexpensive Lyft ride south of Monterey. One thing to note for anyone else doing the same; drivers can only drop you off at the park entrance. To drive and park further inside, you have to pay, whereas pedestrians can walk in by donation only.
I explored the centre of the peninsula first, following a path through the thick, green forest. There were a couple of wet, muddy patches to hop over but otherwise, it was a pretty easy walk. I emerged at the furthest tip of the peninsula, the trees giving way to open, coastal moorland which dropped into the blue Pacific Ocean. Like the Asilomar Trail, the waves were in full force, crashing hard and loud into the rocks. Keeping to the left, I turned to follow the coast along the southern edge of the peninsula, views of the whole thing stretching out in front of me, with hills in the distance.
Much of the trail has a sandy dirt track along the clifftops. There was one part that was closed due to storm damage, and I had to walk along the side of the road for a bit. Fortunately, there weren’t too many cars, and they all slowed down when passing. Then, I picked the trail back up over the rocks again, weaving up and down the cliffs. Near the end of the route, the water turned brilliantly turquoise, inside a calmer inlet, where there was a seal birthing beach! The trail is high enough above that humans don’t really disturb them, but you still have to be quiet while watching from afar. After that, the trail led me inland and back to the park entrance.
I hopped in another Lyft, not to return to Monterey just yet, but to explore Carmel-by-the-Sea instead. It’s another town whose border blurs with Monterey and is famous for its picturesque buildings. I started off on the beach, though, getting the driver to drop me off nearby. April was still a little too cold and breezy to lie out on the beach, but I took a leisurely stroll along it. There were plenty of kids and people walking dogs, but it still wasn’t super busy. Being late in the day on the West Coast too, the sun was starting t sin towards the Pacific waves. I sat down for a while, to just soak it in, before it got too cold and I scrambled up the sandy banks to reach the town.
Again, since it was late in the day, many of the shops in Carmel were already closed, but I was still able to wander around and get a general feel for the town. This was another moment when I was glad to be visiting in spring, as there were flowers in bloom everywhere, their scents wafting around the town. The buildings are probably the epitome of cottage-core, looking like they belong in a European fairy-tale village rather than on the Californian coast. I went window-shopping around a few of the shops and took plenty of photos down all the cute side-streets. Definitely one of the most picturesque towns I’ve seen in America so far! After wandering plenty, and keeping an eye on the time, I hopped on a bus for the short ride back to Monterey.
Kayaking Harbour Tour
Today was my full, free day in Monterey, without having to work. And it was all about the water and the wildlife! I started off bright and early walking down to the beach and the Monterey Bay Kayaks shop. They do kayak rentals, but since I haven’t been sea kayaking in a while (I think Dubrovnik was the last time), I had opted for a guided tour. I was super glad I did too, as our small group of five were accompanied by a passionate wildlife guide. I’d signed up more because I enjoy kayaking, not realising just how much wildlife thrives in Monterey Bay. A very happy surprise though! And as the only solo participant, I also shared a double kayak with the guide. Which meant I was closer to the wildlife than anyone else!
We started by paddling alongside the pier, where dozens of California sea lions had hauled themselves out of the water to hide in the shade beneath it. These ones were quieter than those I’d seen earlier in the week, so I nearly didn’t see them at first! Then, as we picked our way through the fishing boats, we saw pair after pair of sea otters, all mothers with their pups. I’ve been trying to spot wild otters back in Scotland for years, so seeing at least a dozen in just a couple of hours was amazing! We rounded Coast Guard Pier next, passing by the next gathering of sea lions; these were the noisy ones! There are lots of birds nearby too, including huge pelicans, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in real life before.
Our guide took us over to a kelp forest, explaining how fast it grows, why it’s so important and all the creatures that live in or under it. We backtracked from there, heading back around Coast Guard Pier and closer to the shore. there was a small tidal pool area, where you sometimes find rays but we didn’t spot any. We did, however, see hundreds of tiny crabs scuttling around the rocks. Then, we were suddenly joined by a couple of harbour seals! We paddled along the shore, where more seals were lying out in the sun. We even caught what looked like a mum and pup swimming lesson! From there, we started to head back to our starting under the dock this time. The wet, salty wood is encrusted with barnacles and starfish, to round out our wildlife adventure!
Whale Watching in Monterey Bay
After the kayaking, I returned to the hotel to shower and change. I had a couple of hours spare, which I used just to chill out. Then, it was time to head back to Fisherman’s Wharf. There, I boarded one of the Princess Monterey whale-watching boats for a 3-hour evening sailing. I’ve been planning to go whale-watching in British Columbia since I arrived in Canada. However, going out to sea in winter didn’t sound super fun, so I was waiting until spring. But when I found out just how much marine wildlife Monterey Bay hosts, I decided I could go twice. It turns out the bay is the feeding grounds of a humpback group who return every summer, starting from April!
The sailing was a choppy one – this is why it had gotten cancelled the day before. I don’t struggle too much with seasickness (a few other people on board definitely did). However, I did have to keep my eyes fixed on the horizon for much of the trip, to be on the safe side. The first hour or so was pretty quiet (and honestly did get a little dull). Until at last we sighted a blow! The spout of water vapour on the surface as the whales surface to breathe is the giveaway that one is close. Sure enough, we found our first humpback!
There was a naturalist onboard who was telling everyone all about the species over the tannoy system. As well as keeping us right for where to be looking, and which side of the boat the whale was on. We ended up following the same whale for quite a while. It would surface for a few seconds, first the blowhole, then the distinctive hump. This happened a few times in a row then stopped for 5-10 minutes while it did a ‘sounding’ (deeper) dive. Later on, we found a couple more whales, slightly further away. One’s tail did pop up for a few seconds, a definite highlight of the day, but I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo. It was pretty incredible, knowing these huge, serene, gentle giants were calmly swimming by us.
Eventually, we left our friend, to start returning to shore and also look out for any other species. We didn’t see anymore sadly, but that’s always the challenge and risk when looking for wild animals. I did get a bit bored again on the way back, but I was still glad I went. We docked again in the early evening, so I was ready to turn in for the night.
A Week in Monterey, California
The next morning, it was time to pack up my things once more and embark on the next leg of my journey. I was heading north again, this time to San Francisco. My week in Monterey was a wonderful one overall. I was glad to be staying somewhere smaller and quieter, in between the larger cities on my itinerary. And while beach time and coastal hiking were always part of the plan, the amount of marine wildlife was a welcome bonus! Sometimes it pays not to research your destination I guess, and be surprised! I had wondered if there would be enough in this small town to fill a week, even while working. I needn’t have worried though, as there was plenty to discover. Monterey ended up being one of my favourite places on my whole California trip!