Looking to get away from it all, without having to travel very far? Sun, sand, surf and more are available just down the coast in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties.
Head down Highway 1 for a famously scenic drive. Those with less patience or unable at handle the notorious curves can take Highway 101 south before veering west to the coast.
In northernmost Monterey County, start out at Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough to kayak and canoe among otters, seals seabirds and more. Those who want to see the wildlife without personally paddling should check out Elkhorn Slough Safari (elkhornslough.com), which takes passengers out on a 27-foot pontoon boat. Make reservations in advance.
For more close-up animal encounters, travel a bit farther south to Monterey to visit the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org). Plan on spending at least several hours with denizens that range from jellyfish to penguins to the Giant Pacific Octopus. Enjoy touristy pleasures such as candy shops and seafood meals along the adjacent Cannery Row (canneryrow.com). Another popular spot for families is the Dennis the Menace Playground in El Estero Park, where you can also fish, rent a paddleboat shaped like a swan or duck, or visit the dog and skate parks.
Pacific Grove gets its nickname – Butterfly Town, U.S.A. – from the thousands of monarch butterflies that migrate to and spend the winter in its butterfly sanctuary. While the monarchs are generally present from November through early March, summer is still a great time to visit Pacific Grove (pacificgrove.org) for its beaches and scenic beauty. Kids love to climb the rocks at Lovers Point, and you can rent bikes or a surrey and pedal along the seaside recreation trail.
The famous 17-Mile Drive connects Pacific Grove and Carmel, meandering through coastal cliffs, beaches and Pebble Beach’s world-famous golf courses. But consider whether the scenery will hold your kids’ interest before paying the $10.50 per vehicle admission fee.
Charming Carmel has an abundance of galleries, shops and restaurants, as well as the white-sand Carmel Beach at the foot of Ocean Avenue, an extremely popular spot for canine family members.
You can brave Highway 1 south through Big Sur or head over to 101 to reach San Luis Obispo County and San Simeon (visitsansimeonca.com), best known as the home of Heart Castle, the Julia Morgan-designed former mansion of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. You can tour this National Historic Landmark or opt instead to visit, for free, the nearby Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery to see the behemoths. While the rookery is open and seals haul out onto the beaches year-round, the peak times are January, April and October.
Staying along the coast brings you to the charming seaside towns of Cambria, Harmony and Cayucos. Check out galleries and restaurants in Cambria or comb Moonstone Beach, enjoy the laidback surfer vibe in Cayucos or stop by tiny Harmony, population 18, to see local glassblowing or pottery.
Morro Bay, with its towering rock and protected estuary, is a great place for beginner kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders to polish their skills while spotting otters, seals and more. There are great views of the water and Morro Rock from restaurants’ outdoor patios along the shop-filled Embarcadero.
While heading farther south, don’t miss San Luis Obispo, a hip college town with great restaurants, shopping, a historic mission, a Thursday night farmers’ market and the quirky (if gross) Bubblegum Alley, where you can add your own ABC gum. Outside of downtown, the kitschy Madonna Inn, with its themed rooms and over-the-top décor, is worth a stop for a meal or visit, especially for pink-obsessed kids.
The small town of Avila Beach is a great spot for a family vacation with the warmest weather on the Central Coast, a long sandy beach and an oceanfront stretch of shops and restaurants. The town has a newer feel than its neighbors, in large part because much of it was rebuilt following the discovery of a massive oil leak beneath the town in 1989. Several blocks of Front Street were razed in the late 1990s and new business and resurrected ones didn’t reopen until the mid-2000s.
You can bike or walk along the Bob Jones Trail to the Avila Valley Barn (a great stop for ice cream), visit the small Avila Beach Central Coast Aquarium or wine taste at several small tasting rooms throughout town. The oceanfront Avila Beach Lighthouse Suites can’t be beat for its location, with a heated pool overlooking the beach, and family-friendly amenities including two-room suites and free breakfast.
If Avila Beach seems too sleepy, Pismo Beach is larger and has a bowling alley, outlet mall and Dinosaur Caves Park, an 11-acre bluff-top park with sculptures of sea creatures, dinosaurs and eggs. Pismo Beach is also home to a seasonal Monarch Butterfly Grove in late October through February. A free trolley runs between Avila Beach and Pismo Beach daily during summer months and on the weekends in spring and fall.
Adventurous families may want to consider horseback or ATV riding in the nearby Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area, the only California state park where vehicles can be driven on the beach. Several area businesses rent ATVs, with some allowing drivers as young as 8 and passengers as young as 4. Check for safety and training requirements before renting.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.