Santa Cruz to Monterey: Day Trip Guide

Staying in Santa Cruz puts you a stone’s throw away from countless day trips, but if you’re looking for a day filled with gorgeous scenery, coastal town charm, and a touch of history, nothing rivals a day trip to Monterey.

In under an hour, you can explore this picturesque city known for its unique marine ecosystems, breathtaking views, Spanish architecture, and family-friendly activities.

Let us act as your travel guide, offering some of our favorite must-stop destinations and tips for a memorable day exploring Monterey!

Santa Cruz to Monterey: What to Know Before You Go

The length of the drive will depend on traffic, but generally, you should reach Monterey within 45 minutes to one hour. Your road trip will take you along the infamous Highway 1, the same route you would take to Big Sur.

Along your drive, you’ll be inundated with breathtaking views of California’s Central Coast. Don’t forget to stop and take a few pictures along your way!

Must-Visit Stops Along the Way

If time is of the essence, you can head straight to Monterey, but if you can swing it, adding a few strategic stops along the way can add so much to your experience.

The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

Photo Credit: Avleen Vig

Just off the beaten path, The Forest of Nisene Marks is lined with dense redwood forests and steep coastal mountains, making it the perfect retreat from the bustling Santa Cruz beach boardwalk.

When you start your road trip, enjoy a quick picnic lunch near Aptos Creek or embark on a nature hike along the 30 miles of trails in rugged semi-wilderness. Please note that there is an $8 vehicle fee at the time of publication, and dogs are allowed only on select roads.

Elkhorn Slough

Photo Credit: Anne M Vallone

Elkhorn Slough is a 7-mile-long estuary located in Watsonville. It’s one of California’s last remaining coastal wetlands and the USA’s first estuarine sanctuary. Here, you’ll find five miles of trails offering the perfect viewpoint for a glimpse of the estuary’s endangered wildlife and migrating birds. Don’t be surprised if you notice a few sea otters and seals sunbathing nearby!

Moss Landing

Photo Credit: David A Litman

Located at the mouth of the slough, Moss Landing is a historic fishing town known for its antique shops, restaurants, and easy access to native marine life. If you’re so inclined, multiple companies even offer whale watching from Moss Landing State Beach.


Photo Credit: Zack Frank

Known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” Salinas is a welcoming town known for its rich agricultural roots (no pun intended), along with landmarks including the National Steinbeck Center. It’s also home to some of Monterey’s hidden gem wineries, making it the perfect pit stop for a quick wine tasting just off the California coast.


Photo Credit: Zack Frank

Just a few miles before you reach Monterey, you’ll pass by the small town of Marina. Known for its towering sand dunes and wide open beaches, it’s also home to the infamous Fort Ord National Monument.

Exploring Monterey

Once you arrive, there’s no shortage of things to do in Monterey Bay. Whether you’re in the mood to do some shopping, go for a bike ride, visit the aquarium, or beach hop, there’s something for everyone!

Stroll Down Cannery Row

Photo Credit: Lynn Yeh

Named for the 1954 John Steinbeck novel, Cannery Row is considered the main drag of Monterey Bay. It’s where you’ll find a majority of the town’s shops, restaurants, and bars, many of which are housed in converted factories.

Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Photo Credit: AmyWilliamsPhotography

No visit to Monterey would be complete without visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Housed in an old sardine cannery on Cannery Row, it’s one of the USA’s most beloved aquariums.

Here, you’ll find rare sea life, including fish not found elsewhere in the country. There are also large-scale jellyfish exhibits and countless family-friendly activities, including guided tours, shows, and live feedings.

Ticket prices range from $60 for adults to $50 for children and seniors, and tickets must be purchased in advance.

Experience the 17-Mile Drive

Photo Credit: Dogora Sun

Known as the most scenic drive on the Monterey Peninsula, the 17-mile drive guides you from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach, with awe-inspiring views of the California coast through the entirety of the ride. Ticket prices are $12 per vehicle at the time of publication, and it’s reimbursed if you spend at least $35 at all Pebble Beach restaurants.

Explore the City by Bike

Photo Credit: Don Pablo

Monterey is an exceptionally bike-friendly town, as you’ll no doubt notice when you arrive. A majority of the roads have wide bike lanes and numerous trails for riders of all skill levels. Our favorite? Lovers Point Park is home to two biking trails suitable for beginner and intermediate riders.

Taste the Local Seafood

Photo Credit: Atsushi Hirao

Monterey is teeming with great restaurants that cater to a wide variety of palates, whether you’re in the mood for fresh seafood, Hawaiian, or a Japanese steakhouse, you name it! Here are some of our favorite restaurants worth checking out:

Old Fishermen’s Grotto

  • Cuisine: Seafood
  • Address: 39 Fishermans Wharf, Monterey, CA
  • What to get: Clam chowder

Hula’s Island Grill

  • Cuisine: Hawaiian
  • Address: 622 Lighthouse Ave, Monterey, CA
  • What to get: Jerk chicken

Sapporo Sushi & Steakhouse

  • Cuisine: Japanese steakhouse
  • Address: 3 Municipal Wharf 2, Monterey, CA
  • What to get: Spicy BBQ pork

Find the Best Lookouts

Photo Credit: Artyart

When you’re traveling the West Coast, the thing to do is hunt for the best viewpoints, and we’ve got you covered! Point Joe is the 5th point along the 17-mile drive and features a large rocky outcropping perfect for (carefully) snapping the perfect coastline pic.

Another favorite of ours? China Rock, the 6th point on the 17-mile drive. Formerly home to a small Chinese fishing village, China Rock offers the perfect chance to glimpse tide pools and the occasional cluster of sea lions.

Continue on Down to Carmel-by-the-Sea

Photo Credit: Sundry Photography

Carmel-by-the-Sea is an adorable beach town less than 15 minutes from Monterey. It’s known for its enchanting, fairytale-esque downtown and abundance of boutique shops, restaurants, and white sandy beaches.

Tips Before You Go

The good news is that you don’t need much preparation before hopping in the car for your day trip to Monterey. That said, there are a few tips worth keeping in mind before heading out.

Check the Road Conditions

While this section of Highway 1 is not nearly as rugged as Big Sur, it’s worth it to double-check the road conditions to make sure you’re not stuck in traffic.

Take Your Time

At your fastest pace, this road trip could be accomplished in a short afternoon, but that would hardly be a day trip, wouldn’t it? After all, you’re on vacation!

Try Something New

Ever thought of going kayaking? How about a whale watching tour? Now’s not the time to stick to your routine, so pick something new that you and your family can try together. Who knows, maybe you love raw oysters!

Plan Accordingly

Your round trip from Santa Cruz to Monterey will take roughly two hours, so plan accordingly to make sure you’re back to your vacation rental in a timely manner. As for what to bring, California can get quite hot in the summer, so always bring water, sunscreen, and plenty of layers.

Kick Start Your Day Trip from Santa Cruz

With such minimal travel time and the ever-changing views of the gorgeous Pacific Ocean, you have no reason not to pack your bags and embark on a day trip from Santa Cruz to Monterey. When you stay at one of our vacation rentals, it gets that much easier!