Monterey beaches
(Photo: @Walker.Pixels via Twenty20)

The Ultimate Guide to Monterey Beaches

Monterey, California, is a bucket-list destination that draws visitors from around the world with the promise of beautiful beaches and wild coastline. But to make the most of a trip to the Monterey Peninsula, you need to know what you’re in for. First-time visitors to this stretch of the California Coast are sometimes surprised by Monterey’s unique beach offerings. Here’s what you’ll need to know about Monterey beaches, plus a beach-by-beach guide to some of the region’s most beloved beaches.

4 Key Things to Know About Monterey Beaches

  • Monterey is both a city and a county: When you’re thinking about the best beaches in Monterey, you can either focus on beaches in the city of Monterey or expand your scope to include beaches in the cities and towns of Monterey County, including Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove, Moss Landing, and Big Sur.
  • The weather is often chilly: Even in summer, fog and wind can be common. That said, Monterey County averages nearly 270 sunny days per year, and the temperature ranges from the high 50s to the low 70s year-round.
  • The water is cold and often dangerous: If you’re hoping for a sunbathing-and-swimming kind of Pacific Ocean beach trip, look farther south along the Central Coast, to San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara, or farther south, to a Southern California destination like Los Angeles or San Diego. Swimming is possible at some Monterey beaches, but it’s vital to pay attention to signage and take warnings about safety seriously. Monterey’s incredible offshore submarine canyon supports an amazing diversity of marine life, but the underwater topography also means that many Monterey beaches have serious rip tides and undertow.
  • There’s still plenty to do: Beaches in Monterey promise some of the continent’s most beautiful stretches of coast. And wildlife—from sea life to onshore animals and local and migratory birds—thrives here, so there are constant opportunities to see animals in their natural environment. Kayaking, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, and scuba diving are all popular pursuits, and local outfitters can both rent you gear and take you out. There are plenty of coastal paths, which makes walking along and between beaches simple and easy.

Monterey’s Best Beaches

Whether you’re looking to hit the beach in the city of Monterey or want to explore farther afield in Monterey County, you’re sure to find some of the nation’s most scenic sand in this Central California coastal wonderland. Here are some of the best beaches in Monterey.

Del Monte Beach, Monterey

Best for: A local vibe.

Slightly off the beaten path, Del Monte Beach is a locals’ favorite spot for surfing, picnicking, walking, on-leash dog walking, and beachcombing. The beach has a well-maintained boardwalk trail through its dunes and also offers benches and picnic tables. People who love this beach note that its location means that it’s a bit more protected from the wind than some of the other local beaches. Parking can be a challenge, so give yourself some extra time (and patience) if you’re driving here.

Stay Nearby: The Hotel Pacific is a centrally located boutique hotel in Monterey. The all-suites offerings include fireplaces, free Wi-Fi, patios and balconies, and complimentary continental breakfast.

Lovers Point Beach, Pacific Grove

Best for: A unique sunrise and artistic inspiration.

The coolest thing about Lovers Point Beach is that its east-facing location makes it one of the only places on the West Coast where you can watch the sun rise over the water—a great reason to visit early in the morning. This Pacific Grove beach inspires creativity: It’s a popular spot for plein-air painting and nature photography. Surfers, kayakers, swimmers, and scuba divers flock here as well. The beach shares waterfront views with Lovers Point Park, and visitors enjoy picnicking, strolling, and just admiring the view. The park also has a beach volleyball court, children’s swimming pool, and a snack bar.

Stay Nearby: Perched on the water’s edge between Del Monte Beach and Lovers Point Beach, the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is TripAdvisor’s top-rated hotel in Monterey. It earns great marks for its exceptional views, central location, and rooftop hot tubs.

Spanish Bay Beach, Pacific Grove (Pebble Beach)

Best for: A 17-mile drive pause to stack rocks and wander dunes.

Tucked into the private community of Pebble Beach (best known for its world-class golf course) is Spanish Bay Beach. This public beach sits between Moss Beach to the south and Asilomar State Beach to the north along the 17-Mile Drive, and has a wooden boardwalk that meanders through the dunes. Spanish Bay Beach isn’t safe for swimming, though it is popular among surfers. For the last decade or so, visitors to the beach have left cairns, or small stacks of rock; keep an eye out for them or add your own.

Stay Nearby: For the full Pebble Beach experience, stay at the Inn at Spanish Bay. Guests praise the spacious rooms, great views, and proximity to world-class golf.

Monterey Municipal Beach, Monterey

Best for: A swim and restaurant lunch.

Monterey Municipal Beach, also known as Monterey City Beach and Monterey Municipal Beach at the Wharf, is the city-owned beach near Wharf 2 Pier. This beach marks one end of the Monterey State Beach chain of beaches in Monterey. Its north-facing location makes it safer for swimming than other Monterey beaches, and that, along with its central location, means it’s often relatively crowded. This dog-friendly Monterey beach also has restaurants along its pier, as well as kayak rental shops. Parking is available in a paid lot, though you may also be able to find street parking nearby.

Stay Nearby: Though it’s not on the beach, the family-friendly Merritt House Inn does offer a central location plus amenities like free Wi-Fi, free breakfast, and a homey vibe.

Asilomar State Beach, Pacific Grove

Best for: A beach-adjacent overnight.

There’s a lot going on at Asilomar. That’s because Asilomar State Beach is also home to a twentieth-century Julia-Morgan-designed summer-camp-turned conference center that also hosts overnight leisure guests. The state beach and conference center also includes Asilomar Dunes Natural Preserve. The beach itself is home to a one-mile Asilomar Coast trail, which leads visitors along the flat sandy stretches of beach, around rocky coves, and past tidepools. Asilomar’s park staff offer cultural and natural history walks, and you can also take a self-guided tour. No collecting or fishing is allowed on this beach, as it’s part of a marine protected area.

Stay Nearby: Historic lodgings and a peaceful location are on offer at Asilomar Hotel & Conference Grounds.

McAbee Beach, Monterey

Best for: A low-effort beach stop when you’re sightseeing in Monterey.

McAbee Beach is just a short walk from the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, and unsurprisingly, this very small beach is usually crowded with visitors looking to take a break from wandering Cannery Row. Tides matter quite a bit here: At high tide, it’s just a small sliver of sand; at low tide, there’s a little more room to roam. It’s also a launching spot for kayaks setting out to explore the wildlife-rich Monterey Bay. If you’re looking for a quick beach break while sightseeing, McAbee Beach fits the bill. But if you’re hoping to soak in some Pacific coastal splendor and have room to stretch out, you’re better off looking elsewhere. Find it at the base of Hoffman Avenue along the south side of Cannery Row.

Stay Nearby: The Holiday Inn Express-Cannery Row offers a central location near Monterey’s most popular sights, plus free parking, breakfast, and Wi-Fi.

Salinas River State Beach, Moss Landing

Best for: Bird watching at the beach.

Bird lovers rejoice: Salinas River State Beach is a popular place to spot American kestrels, western snowy plovers, red-tailed hawks, California brown pelicans, white-crowned sparrows, and many other birds. The state beach includes the Salinas River Mouth Natural Preserve and Salinas River Dunes National Preserve. A dune trail links the parking lots to the coastal access points. Salinas River State Beach is also a popular fishing spot. And though you might see some surfers out in the water, note that it’s not a swimming beach: rip-current and offshore drop-offs make this stretch of coast particularly hazardous.

Stay Nearby: The Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing offers peaceful surroundings and plenty of nature, and is best for couples or families with older kids. For families with younger kids, Springhill Suites in nearby Marina offers comfortable guest suites.

Monterey State Beach, Monterey

Best for: Swimming with kids

Monterey’s largest beach, Monterey State Beach, shares waterfront with Monterey Bay Waterfront Park and the Monterey Bay Recreational Trail. The beach, park, and trail combine to offer plenty of wide-open sand, sand volleyball courts, picnic tables, barbecue pits, and running and walking paths. Monterey State Beach, made up of three separate beaches about a mile apart, offers tide pools and kid-friendly wading thanks to the sand shelf that gently slopes into the Monterey Bay. In fact, it’s one of the only Monterey Beaches that has been deemed safe for water recreation (swimming). Dogs are allowed on the beach south of the Roberts parking, but are not allowed north of the Seaside parking lot. Near the beach, you can find spots to rent kayaks, canoes, and bikes.

Stay Nearby: The family friendly Hampton Inn Monterey offers a central location, free Wi-Fi and breakfast, and a fitness center.

San Carlos Beach, Monterey

Best for: An easy beach stop.

Walk to the western end of Cannery Row and you’ll find Monterey’s San Carlos Beach. Relax on the sandy beach, the lawn, or a bench, or grab a picnic table. This beach is popular among families who come for the wading, and with scuba divers that use the beach as an entry point to underwater remains of the cannery industry that once thrived in Monterey. While San Carlos isn’t the region’s most beautiful beach, it’s easy to access from Monterey’s tourist center and it affords great views of the bay.

Stay Nearby: The recently renovated boutique Wave Street Inn offers unpretentious comfort and style that’s welcoming to families, couples, and anyone else looking for a cool coastal vibe in their hotel.

Carmel River State Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea

Best for: Beach picnics and dog walks.

The sandy, wide Carmel River State Beach is the perfect picnic spot for visitors to Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s also a stop on the Central Coast Birding Trail, and includes the Carmel River Lagoon and Wetlands Natural Preserve. In addition to egrets and terns, visitors can also spot Great Blue Herons, Virginia Rails, and other coastal and migratory birds. The Monastery Beach area of Carmel River State Beach is popular among divers, as it sits next to marine-life rich kelp forests (note, though, that the beach can have severe riptides). Kayakers use this Carmel beach as a launch spot, since it offers convenient access to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This dog-friendly Monterey beach is also a popular spot among the canine set.

Stay Nearby: Carmel offers a charming array of small hotels, B&Bs, and inns near Carmel River State Beach. Among the more affordable options is the charming Carmel Bay View Inn.

Garrapata State Beach, Carmel

Best for: A hidden wonderland you can have to yourself.

Garrapata State Beach, part of Garrapata State Park, occupies a gorgeous stretch of coastline south of Carmel at the northern end of Big Sur. You have to know where to look to find this hidden gem: There are no signs to mark the location other than three numbered turnouts along the highway. The hike to this beach is lined with spring and summer wildflowers, and once you’re on the beach, you’ll discover delights including little caves, small waterfalls, and creeks that flow right onto the beach. Dangerous surf makes this a non-swimming beach, but you won’t miss it.

Stay Nearby: A few minutes up the road from Garrapata State Beach, the well-reviewed Carmel Mission Inn offers a boutique hotel setting and a heated pool.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel

Best for: A full day out of coastal exploration.

Point Lobos has beaches, yes, but it’s also so much more. Rare plants, archeological sites, one of California’s richest marine habitats, unique geology, and abundant wildlife characterize the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos is a few miles south of Carmel at the northern edge of Big Sur. The reserve has been called the “crown jewel of the State Park System.” It’s one of the few places where the region’s famed Monterey Cypresses grow natively, and a place where it’s possible to whale watch from shore during certain times of year. The reserve has eight distinct beaches, including Gibson Beach, Headland Cove, Hidden Beach, Moss Cove, Sea Lion Cove, Weston Beach, Whalers Cove, and, most famously, the mesmerizing emerald-green China Cove.

Stay Nearby: The closest hotel to Point Lobos is the much-loved-but-pricey Tickled Pink Inn. If you’re willing to backtrack to Carmel, you’ll find many options, including the family-friendly Best Western Carmel’s Town House Lodge.

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Christine Sarkis
Christine Sarkis is a traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor. The former executive editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine SmarterTravel.com, Sarkis has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir. Email Christine at familyvacationist@gmail.com