Help me plan a day trip from San Francisco to the Monterey Bay Area.
August 9, 2014 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Where should my boyfriend and I go and what should we do on a day trip to the Monterey Bay area?

One of my very best friends is getting married in San Francisco later this month, and my boyfriend and I will be be in town for about 5 days. Growing up, my family would vacation in Monterey. I haven't been back to the aquarium - probably my favorite place on earth as a child - since I was about 12, so I'm hoping to drive down for one of our days, go to the aquarium, and generally bum around. I also have fond memories of beautiful stretches of coastal highway and beaches around Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur. But I don't remember specifically what or where they were. We're open to driving around; we love all kinds of food (equally at home with road food as we are with more rarified fare), art, Americana, the natural world - especially wildlife. What route should we take to get there? What should we do, aside from the aquarium? Where should we eat? We're open to leaving early, and would like to be back in San Francisco by 10, and certainly by midnight. Generally, we'd prefer free or affordable activities over expensive ones, but we might make an exception for something truly special. If it helps, we're both 20-something literary types; I lean artsy, he leans nerdy. Thank you!
posted by moxie_milquetoast to Travel & Transportation around Monterey, CA (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Your route should be 101, 85, 17, 1. It's really pretty, plus you can stop in Santa Cruz and check out the Boardwalk. It's free to walk along it, and you can get taffy and fried artichokes.

Go do what you do in Monterrey, then take 1 up to Pescadero and have dinner at Duarte's. They're famous for their artichoke soup, cioppino and O'lallieberry Pie.

Then Skyline back to the city.

Should be a glorious day!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:14 AM on August 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh! There may be a Mission in all of that. I'd check that out.

If you go back through San Jose, you can do the Rosicrucian Museum.

But that's quite a lot for one day.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:16 AM on August 9, 2014

If you like wildlife, I highly recommend Elkhorn Slough - it's a lovely nature preserve between Santa Cruz and Monterey. There are otters, lots of birds and more. You could hit it up between checking out the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz and going to Monterey for the aquarium.
posted by deeparch at 8:19 AM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I recommend taking 280 instead of 101, because 101 is basically surrounded by strip malls, whereas 280 goes through lovely rolling hills (you can also take Hwy 1 down from SF, though it takes longer and I think a piece of road is actually closed now). Good idea to quickly check traffic (call 511) before heading down. Highway 17 in particular can have major issues.

Santa Cruz is great (I like Natural Bridges State Park), but if you're looking for wilderness, I might recommend going all the way down to Monterey, stopping at the aquarium, then going a bit further down 1 into Big Sur. The drive is breathtaking the entire time in Big Sur. You can spend a few hours along the coast, and then head back into Carmel, Pacific Grove, or Monterey for dinner. If you go straight to Monterey, you can also avoid 17 if traffic is bad, and switch from 280 to 101, then cut over on 152, a short stretch of 2-lane road.
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:32 AM on August 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

P.S. What day of the week do you plan to go down? If it's Saturday or Sunday, it will be really helpful to leave as early as possible. But on a weekday, morning rush hour is ridiculous, and starts early. You might want to leave around 10:30am or even later.
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:36 AM on August 9, 2014

Sorry for so many posts--just wanted to correct something. I didn't mean 152, but 129 above. (You can also cut over on a bigger road, like 152 or 156, but I think the rural road is a fun change of pace, personally). I was just on it a few weekends ago. Okay, that's it for me. :)
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:49 AM on August 9, 2014

Because of a massive influx of anchovies, the whales are going nuts and are coming very close to the shore, so a whale-watching trip might be in order.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 9:24 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Museum of Monterey is great fun especially if you are at all an Age of Sail fan.

Food: if you can get into the Monterey Fish House it's great. You should get reservations, because otherwise it's a long wait and you may not be able to get in.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:27 AM on August 9, 2014

I went on a whale watching trip out of Moss Landing a few weekends ago and it was spectacular. I used this company, they have 2 & 4 hour tours that leave at 7:30 am and 10 am, respectively. I'm super-prone to motion sickness but their boat was the largest of the tour boats out there and it wasn't as bad as I feared it would be. Buy your tickets in advance, their cruises have been selling out due to local coverage.

In addition to humpbacks (so many! So close by!) we saw sea otters, jellyfish, huge schools of anchovies, harbor seals and sealions and a huge variety of seabirds.

If boats are not for you, the whales are feeding about 500 yards offshore and are easily visible from the Moss Landing beach. Bring a pair of binoculars for closer viewing. We ate at this beach-side restaurant, they have tables inside and out, the ones furthest out also have a view of the whales cavorting offshore (check out their webcam, look, whales!). For all of the above, park at the ML harbor, $6 all day and everything mentioned above is within a 3 block stroll.

There's also kayak rentals at Moss Landing and in Monterey. I like these guys for Elkhorn. Again, reserve in advance.

I feel like I could easily spend a few days exploring Moss Landing, which surprised me because despite living in the Bay Area for decades, it was always "that place with the giant power plant that I sped past on the way to Monterey" but it's definitely worth a drop in on your way down to the aquarium.
posted by jamaro at 9:56 AM on August 9, 2014

This bakery. Seriously.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:12 AM on August 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you are going on a weekend, avoid HWY 17 like the plague. On a nice weekend 17 is a parking lot. HWY 152 West farther south down 101 will drop you off in Watsonville and is generally much less crowded.
If you are going a week day, I would consider taking 92 west from San Mateo to Half Moon Bay and going south from there. The coast between HMB and Santa Cruz is 50 miles of uninterrupted highway that runs right next to the ocean, a gorgeous drive.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:17 AM on August 9, 2014

Second Phil's Fish Market at Moss Landing. Halibut fish and chips are a wonderful thing.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:19 AM on August 9, 2014

Also, route south: I recommend 280 because you'll be able to see the San Andreas fault, a portion of the very long structure housing SLAC, Stanford's big Dish and most importantly, avoid potential 49er traffic from the stupid new stadium they built near 101.

From 280, you could cross over the S.Cruz mountains to the ocean at 92 (which will take you to Half Moon Bay), 17 (Santa Cruz), or go way south to 280-101-152 (SF/San Jose/Watsonville). Each route has its advantages/disadvantages. 92 is the shortest but is often backed up to a crawl by 11am on weekends (you miss SLAC and the Dish too). 17 is fast, unless there's an accident or rush hour then all bets are off. 152 is through low rolling hillsides with the least twisty turns, however, its primary points of interest of vast fields of agriculture (you'll see plenty of that off 1 as is) and you'll have to battle the south bay's very wide brackets of rush hour.

On preview: yes, 280-92-1 would be my top choice, just get on 92 before mid morning.
posted by jamaro at 10:20 AM on August 9, 2014

Check the tide table before you go and see if you can visit the Great Tidepool in Pacific Grove. It's a ~10 minute drive south of Monterey proper.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:33 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not far from there to Point Lobos State Park, one of the most beautiful places in the world.
posted by w0mbat at 1:03 PM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

My partner and I just did a few days in Monterey and it was amazing. We had a great breakfast at First Awakenings in the Cannery Row outlets, and a great lunch at Compagno's Deli in Pacific Grove (seriously amazing sandwiches and desserts but expect a line at lunch time), and a great dinner at Il Vecchio.

We stayed at Asilomar and just spent a lot of time sitting in the lodge and beach boardwalk area. It's one of the most peaceful and beautiful places in California. I know your plan is to just drive down and back in a day, but you should consider staying the night if you really want to see anything. That's a LONG day of driving, especially (as others have correctly noted) it's on a weekend. The traffic going into Monterey when we left (on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago) was backed up for at least 20 miles. It was crazy.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:19 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Monterey Bay Aquarium is my favorite place in the world, too. I'm very jealous.

I have one idea to add to people's suggestions -- if you're driving through Pescadero, you might think about stopping for lunch at this goat cheese farm. So pretty, and you can buy a delicious picnic, and it won't add much time to your day.

(And I have to disagree with the boardwalk, that's like 300th on my list of things I'd recommend seeing between SF and Monterey.)
posted by gerstle at 2:36 PM on August 10, 2014

I think the drive along the coast from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz is too beautiful to miss. Go that way down Hwy 1 on your trip south, instead of 101 or 280. If you're going back to SF in the dark then go up 280.

Absolutely avoid Hwy 17 if it's the weekend, or if you're nervous on a fast twisty mountain freeway; the median barrier on 17 has been much improved recently, so it can be fun if you're an OK driver and are not in weekend stop-and-go traffic.

It's a bit off the coast track, but the mission complex at San Juan Bautista takes you right back into the mission period. It's on the edge of the small town, and unspoilt by modernity.
posted by anadem at 8:51 AM on August 11, 2014

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