To See Redwoods And Whales
Garrapata State Park's 2-mile stretch is a northern Big Sur beach with benefits: coastal hikes, gray whale sightings (December through May), redwoods, and some of the best views in the region. Trails range from 1 to 4 1/2 miles long, and all start on the east side of the highway. The trailheads are tricky to find. Those with the time and energy should hit Rocky Ridge. The roughly 1,800-foot climb is a serious glute and quad pumper, so a belated thanks to the person who arranged for the bench at the top.
To Comb For Gems And Dollars
Search for souvenirs at Big Sur's Sand Dollar Beach. In addition to the abundance of its namesake, there's nephrite jade, too. Yes, the green gemstone washes up here and at Jade Cove, 2 miles south. You may only take it from below the tide line.
To Make A Sea Otter Viral Video
Fort Ord Dunes State Park in Marina is sea otter nirvana. These mammals with dense fur and envious YouTube followings love this slice of Monterey County. You might also see whales, both gray and humpback, dolphins, harbor seals, sea lions, and leatherback sea turtles. Binoculars are nice to have. Fort Ord's beach history can be heard on a cellphone tour (831-998-9458).
To Pop The Question
There's a reason that generations of marriage proposals have been made at Lovers Point in Pacific Grove: The turquoise-colored-water in this cove is beautiful. Yet, crowded. For less of an audience, Zmudowski State Beach in Moss Landing is your spot. The windy 2-mile agricultural road that leads to Zmudowski (pronounced mud-OW-ski) may contribute to a lack of visitors. But the sunsets are stunning.
Central California's largest sand dunes are at Sand City Beach in Sand City. In addition to dunes, seaglass is in abundance (some of it is broken, so wear shoes) as are paragliders (look up). Park for free at Sand City Shopping Center and follow the walking path under Highway 1 to get to the beachfront.
To Please The Pooch
Carmel dogs can freely romp on one of the few "off-leash" beaches in the area - and one of the prettiest whitesand shorelines. Carmel Beach is also a defacto third space for locals. They gather here to surf, to gossip, to drink wine, to play, and to watch the annual sandcastle competition.
Ditch Your Trunks?
So, yeah, you dig the idea of no tan lines? Head to COB (clothing optional beach). North of Sand City Beach is "The Crater" surrounded on all sides by massive dunes for a bit of privacy that is nature-made.
Our Beach-O-Meter Points You To An Ideal Shore
EASY - Access For The Whole Family
Sunset Beach is both well-equipped and lightly used. Drive right up and park at the water's edge. You'll find picnic tables and real bathrooms. On weekdays, it'll be just you and the waves. Watsonville
MEDIUM - The Locals Know But You Might Not
Del Monte Beach is a mostly locals-only spot. Follow Casa Verde Way uphill till you hit the parking lot, where you'll find a free place to leave your car and trails that lead straight down to the beach. Monterey
DIFFICULT - Worth The Effort
The Giberson Road exit for Zmudowski State Beach is marked on Highway 1. From the north, if you reach the bridge over Elkhorn Slough you've gone too far. Don't let the miles of fields fool you: your ending point is a largely empty, very memorable day at the beach. Moss Landing
The Four Seasons
What will it be like when I visit beaches in ...
• Wildlife - Gray whale watching. Migration numbers peak in January.
• Best For - Bonfires. At least at beaches Carmel and Del Monte. Check the regulations before you go.
• Bring - Blankets, wraps, wool sweaters. Moody winter is a great setting for poems, but chilly.
• Wildlife - Cuteness of unbelievable proportions. Hello, you, young sea lions. See them at Elkhorn Slough Reserve in Moss Landing.
• Best For - Hiking. Temperatures hover in the 60s. Wildflowers are an explosion of colors. You kind of can't believe nature is so Technicolor.
• Bring - Your camera. Yes, that SLR you never use. Fog and gray light on the water make for ethereal images. This is the vacation shot you'll keep for a lifetime.
• Wildlife - Rare species such as fin whales and minkes hit peak numbers.
• Best For - Kayaking. Calm surf, especially in the morning, and longer days make for longer excursions and more exploration.
• Bring - Sunglasses. Also, a light, waterproof windbreaker for morning paddles (expect fog then, too).
• Wildlife - Kelp forest denizens, such as the bat star starfish, sardines, kelp bass, and sea hares.
• Best For - Scuba diving the bay's kelp beds with Bamboo Reef Diving Centers.
• Bring - Your scuba certification card.