Are you ready to explore the best things to do in central coast California? You’re in the right place! The central coast is characterized by a beautiful rocky coastline, amazing scuba diving, and sea life viewing, fantastic hiking trails, fun cities, and more. For travelers planning a trip to the central coast, it can be tricky to know what exactly to include in your travels.
Whether you’re looking for a foodie paradise, a camping retreat, a relaxing coastal getaway, or anything in between, you are sure to find it on the central coast. From San Francisco to Morro Bay, let’s explore what the central coast has to offer!
15 Wonderful Things To Do In Central Coast California
Monterey Bay Aquarium
When talking about the best things to do in central coast California, it would be a shame to not talk about the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This aquarium is known for its outstanding efforts in the area of conservation. They do great work making sure the public is educated on sustainable seafood, climate change, and how each individual affects the fate of the ocean. In fact, Betty White requested donations to the Monterey Bay Aquarium instead of flowers or other gifts upon her death.
The aquarium is located on Cannery Row, the most popular street in Monterey. Outside of the aquarium, you will find historic buildings, some of the best Monterey restaurants, sweet shops, and more. In the aquarium, you will be greeted by some of the most stunning exhibits that you have ever seen. Giant grouper, sea otters, starfish, octopus, and other marine life now call the Monterey Bay Aquarium home. The Nature Center, touch pools, and Wharf exhibits are particularly popular!
Elephant Seal Vista Point
You will find the Elephant Seal Vista Point in San Luis Obispo County in San Simeon, California. If you are taking a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, the Elephant Seal Vista Point makes a great addition to your itinerary. Here at the vista point, you can see sea lions lounging about, making friends, and picking fights. The sea lions are seen mainly during birthing and breeding seasons. However, you can usually see seals at any time of year.
January: females will arrive as they are ready to give birth and the peak pupping season occurs at the end of the month.
February: the pups are being weaned while mating and fighting peaks around the middle of the month.
March: it is mainly babies left on the beach.
April: young seals and females arrive to molt and the youngest seals leave the beach around this time.
May: the seals finish their molting season and return to the ocean during this month.
June: young males arrive to molt.
July: young males and older males molting on the beach.
August: the month with the fewest seals at the vista point as molting is finished for all the seals.
September: a young generation of seals arrive at the beach.
October: population of seals on the beach is at an all-time high.
November: more mature bull will come to the beach towards the end of the month.
December: as bulls continue to arrive, competition arises over breeding and birthing areas, and the first pup is usually born sometime in the middle of the month.
Visit The Carmel Mission Basilica
For history-driven travelers, visiting the Carmel Mission Basilica is one of the best things to do in Central Coast California. It was constructed in 1797 in Carmel-By-The-Sea and is an incredible, authentically restored Roman Catholic mission. This historical landmark in Carmel stands out as one of the most beautiful buildings in the area.
The grounds are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but on the other days of the week, you are free to explore the beauty that the mission holds. There is a small admission cost to enter the mission grounds and children aged six and younger get in for free. During your visit, you can enjoy the gardens, beautiful courtyard, museum, and gift shop, as well as learn about the history and significance of the mission and the man who founded the mission.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Santa Cruz has a simply amazing boardwalk. It has rides, games, food stands, shops, music, and occasionally, events. The boardwalk is among the best things to do in Santa Cruz as it’s the only remaining major seaside amusement park on the west coast, making it a must for your list of things to do in central coast California. It holds more than forty rides and attractions, more than twenty-five games, two large video game arcades, an indoor mini-golf course, more than thirty restaurants, a bowling center, a laser tag arena, and of course, specialty shops as well.
Walking around the boardwalk and enjoying the area is completely free. If you wish to ride the rides and play games, you can purchase tickets for each individual ride or you can buy passes for the day or seasons. The rides are open from Memorial Day through Labor Day and on weekends and holidays in spring and fall. However, if you are visiting during a time when the rides aren’t operating, you can still enjoy the arcades and the bowling alley as they are open every day, year-round.
See The Iconic Golden Gate Bridge
Ask anyone what’s one of the most iconic things to do in central coast California, and nine times out of ten, they will say to visit the Gold Gate Bridge. Simply, take a drive or walk across the bridge, or you can view it from many locations in the San Francisco Bay area. While you are in the area, you will also be able to get views of Alcatraz Island as well.
Some of The Best Bridge Viewpoints:
Golden Gate Overlook: the overlook is above historic batteries in the area, this is a great place for bikers and runners to stop and view the bridge.
The Battery East Vista: one of the closest views of the bridge, short of actually being on it.
Fort Baker: this view is particularly stunning and is great for families as it is near The Bay Area Discovery Museum
Fort Point National Historic Site: this site gives you views of the bridge from down below, next to a Civil-War era brick fortress.
Baker Beach: arguably the prettiest and most iconic view of the bridge.
Battery Rathbone: this is one of the most underrated viewpoints of the bridge, you also get a view of the Point Bonitas Lighthouse, and an expansive view of the bay.
Eat at Lalla Grille
Lalla Grille is one of the best restaurants in Monterey! It’s located on Cannery Row and is famous for its mouthwatering loaded lobster nachos. Well, the lobster nachos and the most outrageous ocean views in the city. The large window let light and salty ocean breezes roll into the dining room, adding to your experience at Lalla. You will find more fresh seafood dishes, great drinks, and yummy desserts on their menu as well.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
The Big Basin Redwoods State Park was established in 1902 and is the oldest of the California state parks. It’s located in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains and is home to the famous California redwoods. Some of these trees are more than fifty feet around! Many of them predate the Roman Empire and match the Statue of Liberty in height, making a visit to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to see them for yourselves one of the best things to do in central coast California.
Hiking, biking, and camping are among the best things to do in the park. There are four standard campgrounds in the park with more than 140 campsites to choose from in these campgrounds, or you can camp at one f the backcountry trail camps. Hikers will love this state park as they have incredible trails with great views, waterfalls, and of course opportunities to get close to the giant redwoods. You can find trails at every difficulty level and length so you can be sure that you will find a trail that fits your needs.
MESSAGE: The Big Basin Redwoods State Park was recently affected by a wildfire. The park is slowly opening back up to the public; you will want to be sure to check closures before visiting.
Hike Soberanes Canyon
The Soberanes Canyon Trail is a 2.8 mile out and back trail along the Pacific Coast Highway, near Carmel, California. The trail gains around 500 feet of elevation and is rated as hard in difficulty. You will start your hike on a narrow sandy path and then you will continue your ascent, noticing a shift from a desert-like environment to a forest-like environment.
You will cross primitive wooden bridges, climb stairs, meander by the creek, see mushrooms, wildflowers, and redwoods, and at the end, you will be greeted with amazing views of Monterey Bay! This trail isn’t actually that difficult, it’s the elevation gain that adds to the difficulty level. If you are in fairly decent shape, you can hike the uphill portions slowly, and make it to the top easy peasy. For those who aren’t afraid of a little adventure, you will want to be sure to do add this to your list of things to do in central coast California.
McWay Falls is at the top of the list of amazing waterfalls in California. (And definitely one of the most incredible things to do in central coast California!) McWay Falls is a must-stop for anyone traveling on the Pacific Coast Highway as it is one of only two waterfalls that fall directly to the ocean in the United States. You can see this lovely waterfall by visiting Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or from Highway One directly. If you visit the falls vis the state park, you will need to pay an admission fee; if you’re visiting from Highway One, you can access the falls overlook for free.
The trail is ranked as easy in difficulty and is only 1.2 miles. The trail is a loop and it’s very popular, so prepare for others to be on the trail while you’re there. A short trail like this is a great way to not only see the waterfall but to stop and stretch your legs on a road trip. On the trail, you will pass through a tunnel, climb stairs, see the beautiful blue water of the cove, and of course, see the beautiful McWay Falls.
Find the Salinas Shipwreck
Without a doubt, the Salinas shipwreck is one of the most off-the-beaten-path things to do in California. If you’re looking for unique things to do in central coast California, you will want to check this out! The shipwreck is located in the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge. Once you arrive at the refuge, you will see a metal gate to go through. After you go through the gate, you will turn left and begin walking.
You’ll walk on a gravel and grass path for less than a mile, and then you will reach a sandy path that runs alongside a salt marsh and wetland sanctuary, and leads to the beach. As you make your way out onto the beach, you will immediately notice the wide and wild nature of the beach. This isn’t a tourist destination and the beach is mostly unaltered. The strong sea breeze and secluded nature of the beach make for a unique CA experience. Once you reach the beach, you will need to walk approximately 0.65 miles before you reach the shipwreck.
Visit the Walton Lighthouse
The Walton Lighthouse is one of the prettiest lighthouses in California. Located in Santa Cruz, this small breakwater lighthouse stands at just forty-two feet tall in the Small Craft Harbor. The original lightbox in this area was nicknamed the water heater and was used throughout the late nineties. The new harbor lighthouse was built in the old lightboxes’ place and it was dedicated in 2002. The lighthouse that stands today weighs more than 35,000 pounds and was designed to withstand a quarter-million pounds of wave energy!
Point Lobos State Natural Preserve
Point Lobos State Natural Preserve is well known for being among the best things to do in central coast California. The hiking and coastal views in the park are out of this world! When visiting the park, you will want to be sure to visit during the week if you have the chance as it is extremely popular. No matter what day of the week you visit, be sure to arrive early. It is often that the parking lot will reach capacity before ten in the morning. If the parking lot is full when you arrive, you can park alongside the road outside of the park, but be prepared for a possibly long walk into the park.
Some of the best easy trails in Point Lobos include the 1.6 mile South Plateau Trail and the 0.8 mile Cypress Grove Trail. If you simply wish to enjoy the views and maybe have a picnic overlooking the water, you will want to head to Whalers Cove. This area is stunning and also has access to another short and easy trail. Most of the trail in the park is fairly easy to hike, but for something a bit more challenging, you can hike the 6.7 Point Lobos Loop Trail.
Drive the Pacific Coast Highway
It’s no secret that the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the best road trips in the United States. If you get the opportunity to drive along this picturesque highway while you are in California, don’t let the opportunity pass! The highway was created with the goal of connecting Canada to Mexico. It was a small-scale endeavor at local levels, then when all combined, it became one of the most gorgeous drives in the country.
There are many stops to add to your Pacific Coast Highway itinerary to make your trip a success. However, the most iconic is the Bixby Creek Bridge. This recognizable bridge has stood on the central coast since August of 1931 and has become a symbol of California. You can see photos of this famous bridge in hotels, museums, and other public spaces all across the country.
Whale watching in Monterey Bay is incredible. The gray whales are in the bay from December to May, with the peak time for spotting them is in January through March. Whales migrate to California during winter to give birth. With that being said, humpback whales are spotted in the bay year-round. Seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, making it a great addition to your list of things to do in central coast California.
You can find companies offering whale watching tours all around the bay. On the north end of the bay, you can take a whale watching tour out of Santa Cruz. In the middle of the bay, in Moss Landing, you have multiple companies to choose from. Then, on the southern end of the bay in Monterey, you will have several companies to choose from there as well. Whale-watching tours usually last for a couple of hours as they take you deep into Monterey Bay.
This unique rock feature in Davenport, California is something you must see for yourself. The beaches in Davenport draw in photographers from all around the world, as well as visitors looking to enjoy the rock formations, green hills, blooming wildflowers, and overall natural beauty of the area. One of the coolest features in the area is the Davenport Crack. This is a cool place for taking pictures, walking around, and enjoying nature.
You won’t be at a loss for things to do in central coast California. From nature excursions and wildlife to city life and amazing food, you are sure to fall in love with this little section of California!
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