Family Vacations to Monterey Peninsula, California

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California
Monterey Bay Aquarium (courtesy, MBA Foundation-Rob Lewine)

Monterey Peninsula Highlights

  • Get close to green sea turtles, sharks, and stingrays at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
  • Rollerblade, ride, or pedal a four-wheel surrey along the 18-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Trail.
  • Watch sea lions and harbor seals frolic at Point Lobos State Reserve.
  • Take a scenic road trip along 17-Mile Drive and see the Lone Cypress.
  • Visit the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in the West.

The Monterey Peninsula, 125 miles south of San Francisco, is a scenic stretch of coastline and pine forests blessed with crashing Pacific Ocean waves, colonies of sunbathing sea lions, a state park, and beaches that make it easy and affordable for families to enjoy. Golf is revered and there's no shortage of trendy shopping in the upscale boutiques of nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea (not to mention its beautiful beach with stunning sunsets). The region's towns—Monterey, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Carmel Valley—offer a variety of accommodations and interesting things to see and do.

The world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium presents the marine life and habitats of Monterey Bay. Look through the Outer Bay exhibit's 34-foot-tall, one-million-gallon tank and come eyeball-to-eyeball with green sea turtles, toothy barracudas, flat ocean sunfish, blue sharks, and stingrays. Splash Zone, the family gallery, features 60 species with 30 interactive exhibits specially designed for ages nine and younger. Kids can climb inside a giant clam, crawl through a coral tunnel to discover seahorses, and pop up in a bubble window next to black-footed penguins.

Learn about the area's seafaring history at the Maritime Museum of Monterey, which links Monterey's early 16th-century days when Spanish galleons sailed into the bay to its 1920s heyday as a major fishing and canning port. On display is a historic Fresnel lens as well as rare chronometers and sextants salvaged from wrecks. Lighthouses here have an allure all their own, too. Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, the oldest light still in operation on the West Coast, first began guiding ships in 1855.

John Steinbeck is another area icon. The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas introduces kids to the author and the world of his works through a series of stage sets. At a bunkhouse and barn, kids get a feel for the farm work and workers who populate Steinbeck's novels and listen to excerpts from East of Eden and Of Mice and Men.

There are infinite ways to enjoy the region's outdoor jewels. Rollerblade, ride, or pedal a four-wheel surrey along the 18-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. Little kids like the Dennis the Menace Playground, Pearl Street, with its Steam Engine for climbing, a Dennis the Menace sculpture for portrait poses, and a clanking suspension bridge. Point Lobos State Reserve, south of Carmel, offers dramatic rocky shores, easy trails, and frequent sightings of sea lions, otters, and harbor seals. Trails wind by aromatic stands of sagebrush, along paths blooming with apricot-colored monkey flowers, and under canopies of Monterey pines and cypress trees. Families with older kids can also sign up for sea-kayaking tours out of the Monterey Bay marina.

For a scenic road trip, take 17-Mile Drive around the Monterey Peninsula and through the Del Monte Forest. You pass coastal views, manicured golf courses, and grand mansions. Perhaps the most familiar landmark on 17-Mile Drive is the Lone Cypress. This tree, seemingly clinging to bare rock, has come to be the unofficial symbol of the area.

Tip: The Monterey Bay Aquarium has restarted two popular programs. With Underwater Explorers, kids ages eight to 13 use modified scuba gear to snorkel with the critters in the Great Tide Pool. With Science Under Sail, families board a 65-foot research boat and assist naturalists on a bay sail. Reserve ahead for these popular programs.

Side Trip: San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Big Sur's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 9 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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