California is an amazing place in which to live and visit. I don’t know of any other state that offers such a diversity of landscapes, experiences, and activities. And despite the heat, summer is one of the best times to explore everything California has to offer. From the miles upon miles of public and state beaches to the dozens of amusement parks big and small to wineries and microbreweries to State and National Parks to all the local festivities and county fairs. With so much to do and see, there really is no place like home … when your home is California.
However, California is a HUGE state. It is impossible to see and do everything in one go, or really even in one lifetime. Yes there really is that much to do here. But don’t get discouraged, I’m going to share with you a few of my family’s absolute favorite summer activities in the Monterey Bay Area of California’s Central Coast. The best part is, whether you are planning one big road trip or a bunch of small day trips, you are going to have a blast this summer visiting our stomping grounds!
So pack your backs and come along with me for a wild ride around my “backyard” and check out 10+ things to do in the greater Monterey Bay area.
Our family is a BIG supporter of County Fairs. You might think, “Seen one, seen them all,” but we have NOT found that to be the case. Sure, some attractions like the Alaskan Pig Racing or the Petting Zoo is a traveling act that we see in almost every county, but otherwise, we LOVE the diversity each fair has to offer. Whether you are in it for the food, shopping, or supporting local, there is always something fun going on at the County Fairs along the Central Coast.
Within a 2-hour drive of our home there is a County, State, or Mid-State fair happening almost every weekend between the end of May and start of September. Sure, this takes us a bit further afield than strictly the “Monterey Bay Area” but we have found it all to be well worth the drive. Our family has created fantastic memories and great traditions visiting these fairs year after year.
At some point in the last 6 years, Fat Papa and I have taken Itsy Bitsy to nearly every fair within a reasonable driving distance. Some are incredibly unique like the Calaveras Jumping Frog Fair, which you guessed it, features a frog jumping competition, or the Sonoma County Fair with its wine and beer “gardens” and AMAZING flower hall with the most mind-blowing floral displays (think Pasadena Rose Parade but without the moving floats). Then there are your typical fairs like the Alameda, Santa Cruz, and San Mateo County Fairs that focus on showing off local 4H clubs, artists, gardeners, bakers, and other talented folks in their various display halls and barns.
Regardless of the type of County Fair you attend, you are sure to have a great time … especially if you like to EAT! My favorite part of the County Fairs is all the fun food. From incredible BBQ to deep fried everything to mounds of curly fries as big as your head and of course every sweet treat you can imagine. Fair food is fun food. While the food rarely changes from fair to fair, each one has at least a handful of local vendors that make each event special. But whether you go for the local favorites or the typical fair fare, you won’t be disappointed.
Lastly, our family LOVES to play the stupidly overpriced and nearly impossible to win carnival games. Every County Fair has a Midway with classic carnival rides and games that we just can’t resist. Ever since she was an infant, Itsy Bitsy has loved playing the brightly colored games and quickly becomes overly attached to the cheap but fun prizes. Trying our luck at ring toss, dart throw, and other games has become a family tradition and bonding moment that I look forward to every summer. Itsy Bitsy looks forward to it so much that it is the first and last thing she wants to do at every fair visit.
State and National Parks
Our family feels very privileged to live in an area with perhaps the densest collection of State and National Parks in the country. Boasting the most State (270) and National (9) Parks of any state in the Union, California is a natural wonder that must be experienced. Within just 15 minutes of our home, we could be lost in the foggy redwoods, walking up a sparkling creek, roaming through a sunny meadow, or strolling along a chilly beach; the Monterey Bay Area of California’s Central Coast is just that biodiverse. So, if you are looking to be outside and active this summer, there is no better place to be than California. Especially if you are traveling with kids!
With most of the COVID restrictions lifted, reservations to enter the parks for day use are no longer required (always check the NPS.gov and Parks.CA.gov websites for the latest information). Of course, summer, being a high tourist season, means that the Parks will be more crowded than usual but there are always ways to avoid the crowds. Here are a few tips to enjoy all the outdoor splendor that California has to offer while staying away from hordes of people.
Choose less popular or more out of the way parks. Rather than visiting the most popular National and State Parks like Big Sur or Pinnacles, consider going off the beaten path. Check out some of the amazing coastal towns that California has to offer that also happen to be surrounded by State and County Parks. I highly recommend the northern stretches of the Central Coast along HWY 1. The State Parks between Davenport and Half Moon Bay offer unique hiking opportunities along the coast and inland. I recommend checking out Harley Farms in Pescadero. While technically just too far north to be considered part of the “Central Coast” it’s an awesome little goat dairy well worth the drive.
Book a tour whenever possible. Many State and National Parks offer guided tours or allow outside companies to provide tour services. These tours will always know the best places to visit, the ideal viewing times, and most direct routes. While you might not avoid crowds completely, a tour will make sure that you get to see the most important and impressive sites. Even if all a Park offers is a shuttle, this is still a great option because the shuttle will take visitors to the most popular attractions in the Park.
If you can’t avoid crowds, then plan to spend a few days exploring your chosen Park. Be sure to research the different attractions and features of the Park in advance so that you can choose the most important and prioritize seeing those in case the crowds make it too difficult to get to everything. You can also work to maximize your time in the Park by arriving early, staying late, and making lodging accommodations inside or near the Park.
If you plan to visit multiple State and National Parks or Beaches during your time in California, then I highly recommend purchasing a Park Pass. While the State and National Parks are on two separate systems, meaning you will need two separate passes, both will give you unlimited access to their designated Parks. Thanks to these passes, Fat Papa and I regularly plan road trips that drive though the Parks just because. We like the freedom to explore that our State and National Park passes give us. Plus, as an added bonus, the revenue raised from selling annual passes to State and National Parks helps maintain the Park facilities.
Looking for tips and tricks to help you plan your next vacation? Check out my blog post: Fat Mama’s Top 5 Trip Planning Websites.
Wet n’ Wild
Stretching from Santa Cruz to Pacific Grove, the Monterey Bay is an amazingly beautiful natural bay teaming with unique wildlife along an incredibly diverse coastal landscape. From beaches to tidepools to cliffs to marshy wetlands, Monterey Bay is an ideal location for a day trip, quick getaway, or week-long vacations of exploring. While there is plenty to do all over Monterey Bay year-round, summer is a fantastic time to enjoy the water. But a word to the wise, the weather might be hot, but the water will be cold. The warmest the water gets is in August when it reaches a chilly 58°F average.
So, what do we like to do on the water? As Itsy Bitsy likes to put it, “Everything, we do EVERYTHING!” Some of our family favorite water activities along the bay include catamaran sailing tours in Santa Cruz, kayaking in Monterey or up Elkhorn Slough, and whale watching out of Moss Landing along with countless days spent at the beach. Additionally, there are plenty of places you can stop and fish from shore or piers, and every local harbor seems to have at least one company offering guided fishing tours.
If you are looking to actually get in the water, then the north and south parts of Monterey Bay will be your best bets. Santa Cruz boasts some of the best surfing California has to offer with miles of rocky beaches and bluffs that welcome surfers of all skill levels year-round. Join a surfing camp or paddle out on your own longboard and hang-ten in this iconic Hollywood backdrop. If diving deep is more your scene, then head down south to Monterey where San Carlos Beach Park acts as the staging area for many local divers. Unlike tropical dive sites, the Monterey Bay offers a unique dive experience through a dense kelp forest home to not only an array of fish but octopus, seals, otters, dolphins, whales, and more.
Take Shelter from the Elements
The Monterey Bay Area of California’s Central Coast can’t quite make up its mind when it comes to weather. While the weather doesn’t fluctuate as drastically as it does in the Midwest over the summer, both the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas are known for their microclimates. Which means, you could be wishing for a sweatshirt in the low 50°F of the coastal fog in Carmel then drive over to Gilroy where you will be dreaming of ice cream and swimming pools in the 110°F or more heat.
Luckily, when the weather’s got you down, the Central Coast has got you covered. Literally. With plenty of indoor activities and attractions, you will have a blast no matter the weather. From educational to pure fun, whatever your family is into, there is something for everyone.
If you love marine life but don’t feel up to going out on the water, that’s okay, Monterey has a world class aquarium. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, located right at the end of the historic Cannery Row, is not only a leader in marine research and conservation, but they are also a leader in educational entertainment. Featuring exhibits of both native and non-native species, this aquarium is an amazing experience for visitors of all ages. To be honest, our family feels spoiled by this fun, interactive, and beautiful facility to the point that other aquariums across the country just feel lacking.
San Jose boasts a variety of museums and attractions that are great for beating the summer heat. Perhaps the best for families are the Children’s Discovery Museum and the Tech Museum. Both are located in Downtown San Jose and are walking distance from one another, or a short light rail ride away if you prefer. The museums are designed with young learners in mind but have exhibits that will be entertaining for kids of all ages. However, the best part is that since these museums are designed for families, nearly every exhibit is a hands-on experience. At the Children’s Discovery Museum, kids will get to build, make, and learn how the world works while the Tech Museum focuses on interactive demonstrations of past, current, and future technology, and STEM concepts.
Neptune’s Kingdom at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is pure fun for families. Located adjacent to the Boardwalk amusement park, this fantastic family fun zone provides an indoor respite from the surf and sun. Here you will find a large arcade, indoor mini-golf, laser tag, and more. While you may not have pictured spending your beach day in a noisy, neon lite arcade with screaming kids, I will say that our family loves this place. First, it makes a great bribe for getting kids to take a break from the sun. Second, we can have fun as a family without getting sunburned (do you see a pattern here). Third, it’s a fun indulgent activity that allows us to feel like we are on vacation, even for just a day.
Plus, you’re in the heart of Santa Cruz. Ride some rides at the Boardwalk. Stroll through Neptune’s Kingdom, play a few games, then go grab a bite to eat on the Wharf. It makes the perfect afternoon. So perfect, that it’s how Itsy Bitsy chose to spend her sixth birthday!
California as a state has some of the richest history in the country. History that dates back far further than the founding of our nation. From historic Indigenous sites to the famous (dare I say infamous) Spanish missions, to the more recent history recorded by writers like John Steinbeck. If you have a history buff in your family (and let’s face it, we all do), then the Monterey Bay Area of California’s Central Coast is going to be a treasure trove of discovery for your family.
If you are interested in learning how the land and people of California have evolved over time, then look no further than the Santa Lucia Preserve. A private nature preserve managed by the Santa Lucia Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit land trust, dedicated to the conservation and ecological protection of Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel, California. Their environmental education programs include topics in natural and social history that discuss the lives and practices of the first inhabitants of this area, the Rumsen (Ohlone) people as well as more recent history. The Preserve is also home to a variety of hiking trails with accompanying Field Guides published by the Conservancy. But remember, this is private land, a reservation is required. Click here for more information and reservations.
For a truly unique experience, try driving the length of El Camino Real in California. It is 600 miles long and connects all 21 Spanish missions. Of course, if you want to stick to the Monterey Bay Area then pick up the trail at the Mission San Antonio de Padua and follow it north to San Jose. You can actually make a loop by driving HYW 101 north and then HYW 1 South. Doing this will allow you to visit all 7 missions in the area. Each one is a rich historic site that provides a unique glimpse into the history of California’s past. I will leave it to you to decide if it is a glorious or gruesome legacy. For more information about the California missions, click here.
Looking for something in more recent history that the kiddos might recognize? If you are traveling with teenagers, or a really well read little one, then your family is going to love exploring Cannery Row in Monterey and West Cliff in Santa Cruz. Both locations have been the backdrop for countless books, poems, paintings, photos, and movies. Cannery Row, romanticized by John Steinbeck and other authors, is now a fun seaside tourist area with a great mix of museums, shops, and outdoor activities. Santa Cruz, on the other hand, has been a pop culture staple for decades. Just check out all the IMDb listings. From historic surfing locations to iconic movie backdrops, walking along West Cliff between Natural Bridges and the Boardwalk is a great relaxing family activity.
Fat Mama Tip: West Cliff in Santa Cruz is also a great place for star gazing if you are not able to get out of the city and fully away from light pollution. With a clear view of the stars and moon over the dark ocean, you can hardly ask for a better view. It is my family’s favorite place to go for watching a lunar eclipse.
Wow. I feel like I’ve just jumped all over the map of Monterey Bay Area on California’s Central Coast!
The crazy part is, for as many awesomely amazing activities as I’ve discussed here, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Summer along California’s Central Coast has a TON to offer both residents and visitors. There really is never a dull day. The only people who get bored in the Monterey Bay Area are those who don’t know how to enjoy what this incredible area has to offer.
Now it’s up to you to get out there and explore all there is to see, do, and experience in my backyard.
Stay Calm and Quack On!