Monterey County’s stunning coastline and majestic redwoods add up to an eyeful of postcard-worthy scenery. As beautiful as it all is, though, my kids are tough customers who aren’t satisfied with Mother Nature’s spectacle alone. They like active options, especially since they’ve been cooped up indoors for the last few months due to the pandemic. Fortunately, Monterey County has a wealth of family-friendly, fresh-air pursuits, plus several kid-friendly attractions including a world-class aquarium.
Best Things to Do in Monterey with Kids
Located in Central California, Monterey County is a great family road trip idea and an easy drive from both Southern California and the San Francisco area. The county’s 21 beaches and 99 miles of Pacific coastline are straight out of a Beach Boys song. From surfing waters to dramatic rocky shorelines, the Monterey beaches present the possibility to splash, dive, surf, sail, kayak and watch wildlife.
With plenty of wide-open spaces, salty sea air and outdoor activities, it’s easy to practice social distancing during your visit, too. And while some attractions are closed due to COVID-19, many are open and welcoming visitors. Here are 10 great things to do with kids in Monterey County, California.
1. Paddle Away
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary offers numerous open-water activities. Adventures by the Sea‘s two-hour kayaking tour departing from Breakwater Cove is a winner for families. This small-group tour is led by an expert guide who will teach the fundamentals of paddling and introduce you to some of the best spots to view sea otters and harbor seals. They have implemented stringent social distancing measures and have enhanced cleaning protocols in place.
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2. Take a Hike
Monterey County’s hundreds of hiking trails guarantee something for everyone. Limekiln State Park is located in the steepest coastal canyon in the continental United States with some of the area’s oldest towering redwood groves. In the 1870s and 1880s, workers quarried limestone here and smelted it in the wood-fired kilns, giving the park its name. Families should enjoy the one-mile Limekiln Trail, with breathtaking scenery and an up-close view of the historic kilns.
3. Commune with Nature at California’s Newest National Park
Pinnacles National Park is the newest national park in California with outdoor activities ranging from hiking to birdwatching to rock climbing. It is also a perfect outdoor classroom for lessons in geology, botany and biology. It teems with wildlife, including the endangered California Condor.
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4. Get Friendly with the Butterflies
Each year, thousands of monarch or milkweed butterflies pass through Monterey on their annual migration. The Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove is one of the largest monarch overwintering sites in America. The monarchs arrive in October after a 2,000-mile migration and overwinter until February. They cluster in a group of pine, cypress and eucalyptus trees in town, which has given Pacific Grove the well-deserved moniker, “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.”
5. Stroll Around Carmel-By-The-Sea
Carmel is a fairytale-pretty, one-square-mile village perfect for strolling. With over 100 art galleries, this compact town is a visual treat. Kids should get a kick out of some of the town’s quirky laws prohibiting street addresses, chain restaurants, neon lights and even wearing high heels without a permit. Don’t miss visiting dog-friendly Carmel Beach. Spend the night in Carmel and you’ll enjoy a free morning meal as every lodging property includes breakfast with a room booking.
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6. Visit the Carmel Mission
Considered the most authentically restored Franciscan mission, the Carmel Mission was founded in 1770 and moved to its current site a year later. The beautiful grounds include gardens and a serene courtyard. The galleries give insight into the history of the Monterey Peninsula and all of California’s 21 Missions.
7. Take an Unforgettable Road Trip
Road trips are an excellent way to socially distance from the comfort of your own car. Big Sur, an unincorporated area of approximately 70 miles of rugged coastline along Highway 1, is one of America’s most iconic road trips; and COAST Big Sur is an eye-catching place for a pit stop. Recently revamped, the exterior features three enormous water tanks fashioned with 2,000-year-old redwood slabs, while the interior space is now home to a boutique with a unique selection of artisanal crafts and a world-class gallery space. Bring your appetite as COAST Big Sur features an elevated casual café with a stunning view of the California coastline from an expansive rooftop terrace.
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8. Go Whale Watching
Chartered whale watching tours are available from Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey and Moss Landing. You may sight gray whales, humpbacks, blue whales, minke whales, fin whales, orcas, dolphins and more. While you probably won’t see all of these glorious creatures, sea lions, the most common marine mammal in Monterey County, are frequently seen sunbathing.
9. Explore Sea Creatures
The Monterey Bay Aquarium attracts nearly two million visitors annually, who come to view the 300,000 marine plants and animals that live in this world-class aquarium. It’s dedicated to marine research and a bona fide conservation message permeates all aspects of the aquarium. Kids may explore coral reefs, observe tropical sharks and marvel over black-footed penguins.
The Outer Bay Wing has a million-gallon tank that depicts the open ocean and a three-story kelp forest. There are plenty of hands-on opportunities, including trying on marine animal costumes and creating your own tidepools. Note: The aquarium remains closed until further notice.
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10. Dig into Natural History
Explore the county’s diverse plant life, animal species and geology at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. There are many interactive opportunities, including digging in the garden’s fossil pit and learning to weave baskets. Note: The museum is currently closed to visitors.