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Forested hills fall dramatically to the Pacific Ocean, ancient redwoods rise like skyscrapers, and sheltered bays provide habitat for a multitude of wildlife species… it’s no wonder Monterey County is one of the best places in California for immersing yourself in nature.

This year, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve — one of the county’s most important protected areas for animal and plant life — celebrates its 90th anniversary, while the adjoining Point Lobos State Marine Reserve heralds its 50th year as a designated Ecological Reserve. To mark the occasion, we’ve shared five of the best experiences that help you get close to nature in Monterey County.

Explore Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Brown pelican, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Brown pelican, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

With more than 300 plant species and 250 animal species, it’s no wonder Point Lobos State Natural Reserve qualified to join the California State Parks system 90 years ago. Located along the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1), between Carmel-by-the-Sea and the Big Sur coast, it’s an easily accessible natural paradise laced with hiking trails.

Whether you’re on a short but scenic stroll or a lengthy trek, you have the chance to spot harbor and elephant seals (including seal pups in Whalers Cove between March and April), sea lions, sea otters, and — occasionally — migratory gray whales in the distance. On land, monarch butterflies flit between wildflowers, and you might encounter bobcats, deer, and weasels. It’s also a good place to have a pair of binoculars to hand for spying birds big and small, from hummingbirds and chickadees to red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and brown pelicans.

The reserve’s location across clifftops and coastal hills means there are plenty of lookout points where you can pause to gaze over the ocean, as well as peaceful picnic spots for lunch with a view.

Join a whale-watching trip in Monterey Bay

Orca, Monterey Bay
Orca, Monterey Bay

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects and provides a habitat for a wide range of marine life and birds, including several whale species, as well as dolphins, leatherback turtles, and sea otters. For the best chance of encountering them, join a three-hour boat trip from Monterey’s harbor with experienced skippers who know the waters well.

Your trip is fully narrated by the crew, who are all passionate about sharing their knowledge of the wildlife and the wider ecosystem. They’ll often be able to identify individual whales based on their flukes and markings. Look out for gray, fin, blue, and minke whales, as well as pods of orca spouting water and diving down for food. Seals and sea lions loll on the rocks, while dolphins and porpoises thread the water in your wake.

You’ll have plenty of opportunity to ask questions about the area’s wildlife, and the boat will pause at each sighting so you can take photos without intruding on the animals.

Pedal an e-bike around Carmel’s 17-Mile Drive

Lone Cypress Tree on 17-Mile Drive, Carmel Bay
Lone Cypress Tree on 17-Mile Drive, Carmel Bay

The coastal village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, just south of Monterey town, may be small, but it’s renowned for its art galleries, food and wine, and white-sand beach. You might also have heard of its scenic road, 17-Mile Drive, which squiggles around the Monterey Peninsula, hugging the coastline and passing world-class golf courses, lavish mansions, and cypress forest.

Following it gives you a real insight into life along this part of the Pacific Coast, including the natural beauty that surrounds it. Instead of driving the route, though, we suggest hiring an e-bike for a few hours. It’s a chance to stretch your legs before, after, or during a Pacific Coast road trip, breathe in the sea air, look out for wildlife, and take in views over the coast.

We recommend starting along Scenic Drive, which takes you past Carmel Beach, before entering the affluent Pebble Beach area and joining 17-Mile Drive. You’ll have time to pause to enjoy the views and take photos of key landmarks like the Lone Cypress Tree, which stands sentry on top of a granite headland high above Carmel Bay, and Ghost Tree, a wizened dead cypress tree bleached white by the Californian sun.

From Cypress Point Lookout you might spot seals and otters in the water or drying off on the rocks below you, and from Point Joe, you can watch as waves crash over ancient granite boulders and sea stacks. Finally, you’ll have time to enjoy Spanish Bay’s wide, white-sand beach, backed by dunes.

Hike in Big Sur with a private guide

Redwoods, Big Sur
Redwoods, Big Sur

Winding roads, steep-sloped cliffs, and wild, rugged scenery define the Big Sur section of California’s coast. To fully appreciate the area’s beauty, we suggest getting out of your car, lacing up your boots, and setting off on a hike led by a private local guide who can tailor the route to your interests, ability, and time frame.

You might walk among dizzyingly tall redwoods, where the needle-covered ground is spongey beneath your feet and the only sounds are of animal and bird calls. You could focus on the coast, strolling along some of the beaches and pausing for a picnic of locally sourced snacks and produce. Or, for something more strenuous, you could hike up to the top of hills and headlands to soak in views over the meandering coastline.

As you walk, your guide can tell you more about the area’s ecosystem and history, sharing anecdotes about what it’s like to live in this part of the world.

Glide through Elkhorn Slough in an electric catamaran

Sea otter, Elkhorn Slough
Sea otter, Elkhorn Slough

The largest tidal waterway in California, Elkhorn Slough meanders inland from the coast for 11 km (7 miles). Its rich tidal saltmarsh is a revered haven for rare plants and animals, including 340 resident and migratory bird species.

The best way to take it all in is aboard an electric catamaran, the El Cat, whose silent engine and light, nimble design makes it easy to glide through the waterway with minimal disturbance to the creatures that thrive here. The eco-friendly vessel also helps keep the environment pristine — in fact, the wetland acts as a natural water filter, so the water here is clean and clear.

You’ll board at Moss Landing, a short drive north of Monterey town, and explore for an hour. Throughout your cruise, your naturalist guide will tell you more about the ecosystem and the wildlife that they’ll help you spot, and answer any questions you have.

This is one of the best places to see sea otters in the state, with around 125 individuals floating, twirling, preening, and playing on the water’s surface. You’re also likely to encounter harbor seals and California sea lions bobbing in the water or basking on the rocks, while your binoculars will find a bird at every turn, from herons and egrets to pelicans and plovers.

Read more about trips to California

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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