Yes, the water is cold. Yes fog sometimes obscures the gorgeous vistas, especially in summer. Yes, some places feature dangerous rig currents and unpredictable wave action.
But so what? The beaches of the Monerey Peninsula are among the finest in the world and offer recreational activities at every level, from a simple shell-collecting stroll to extreme sports such as hang gliding and parasailing. Her is a sampling of just a few.
Big Sur Beaches
Big Sur is blessed with bone-white beaches that adorn its coastline like pearls at the throat of a goddess. Some are closely guarded secrets, some are easily accessible, some less so and some are entirely off-limits to the public. Because of its ruggedness and lack of development, Big Sur is also hands-down the best local place to observe wildlife such as sea otters, seals and sea lions. The cliffs offer spectacular views of migrating whales in season as well.
Jade Cove—just as its name implies, rock hunters flock here, searching for the abundant nephrite jade found here. It’s also a popular spot for hang gliders and parasailing.
Pfeiffer Beach—located at the end of Sycamore Canyon, this beach is famous for its “keyhole rock,” a huge rock formation featuring a tunnel through which ocean waves surge.
Andrew Molera State Park—a leisurely hike from Highway 1, the beach at the mouth of the Big Sur River, this beach is a great place to satisfy the dream of riding a horse on the beach, ala Charleton Heston in “Planet of the Apes.”
Garrapata State Park—with two miles of beachfront, this park offers lovely views of the coast, all the way south to Point Sur. Whales and wildflowers abound in season.
Point Lobos—Whaler’s Cove is one of the most sublime scuba diving sites on the West Coast. Access is through the State Park, and is limited to 15 teams of two divers per day. Kayaking is permitted but access is also limited.
Monastery Beach/Ribera Road/Carmel River State Beach
Access: Parking along Highway 1; limited parking on Ribera Road; parking lot on Scenic Road
Named for the Carmelite Monastery just across the highway, Monastery Beach is a favorite of scuba divers—but only the highly skilled should attempt this treacherous spot.
For the less adventurous, these three beaches offer fantastic hiking, and the backdrop view of Point Lobos can’t be beat. Bird lovers will find plenty to see among the still waters and reeds of the lagoon formed by the end of the Carmel River. During the rainy season, the river breaks through the beach to run to the ocean, a process sometimes aided by bulldozers to facilitate spawning steelhead to access the upper reaches of the river.
Access: Multiple entries from the foot of Ocean Avenue, south to Santa Lucia Avenue along Scenic Road
Generations of Carmelites and visitors alike have treasured the dog-friendly, sugar-white sands at the foot of Ocean Avenue. It’s a place to see and be seen: a length of coastline that features a breathtaking panorama that encompasses the wildness of Point Lobos to the south and the manicured fairways of Pebble Beach to the north, with white water in between.
This beach was made for walkin’, and that’s just what people and their four-legged friends do here, whatever the weather. An afternoon spent here will most likely be rewarded with a glimpse of an example of just about every existing domestic canine breed. After dark, this spot is the site of joyous gatherings around bonfires celebrating life’s milestones…or just celebrating being on this spectacular beach.
Access: various points
The surfing community is a close-knit and tight-lipped bunch. That’s why the notorious Ghost Tree surf break in Pebble Beach is pretty much a mystery. The monstrous waves that make this place legendary (and in at least one case, fatal) only materialize when conditions are just right, and surfing it is highly dangerous in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that if a surfer wipes out, they’re on the rocks. Literally.
More accessible is Stillwater Cove, adjacent to the Pebble Beach and Tennis Club. This bucolic bay is a favorite spot for kayaking and diving, both by appointment only. A bonus for divers is that the seabed is littered with errant golf balls from the nearby Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Access: All along Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove
The word Asilomar means “refuge by the sea.” Because it encompasses its own Marine Reserve and Natural Dunes Preserve, it is among the most pristine stretches of shoreline in the region. Surfers flock to the waves at the southern end of this beach and the adjacent Spanish Bay while kids fly kites and play on the sand. A well-maintained boardwalk meanders through native dune plantings, leading to tide pools full of interesting creatures. This is probably one of the best places on the Peninsula to enjoy a sunset and hundreds of people flock here to catch a glimpse of the elusive “green flash” that signifies the end of the day.
Access: Parking at the foot of Pacific Grove’s 17th Street
Lovers of Jesus Point, now shortened to just Lovers Point, boasts a sublime crescent of sandy beach that attracts surfers, kayakers, scuba divers, snorkelers, swimmers, picnickers, sunbathers and volleyball enthusiasts. The inviting grassy lea above is a popular spot for casual weddings, family reunions and impromptu Frisbee tosses.
This has been a favorite destination for Peninsulans since the late 1800s, when Pacific Grove was the site of Methodist Church summer retreats. For many decades, glass bottom boats offered visitors breathtaking views of the colorful creatures that inhabit the seafloor amid the kelp beds of the cove just east of the beach.
After a few years of lying fallow, new tenants have opened a restaurant, The Beach House in the landmark building overlooking the waters of Lovers Point.
McAbee Beach/San Carlos Beach
Access: at Cannery Row and the Coast Guard Pier, Monterey
Those who’ve earned an open water diver certification in the chilly, turbulent and turbid waters surrounding the Monterey Peninsula find the calm conditions at tame tropical dive destinations such as Cozumel and the Caribbean to be a piece of cake. And chances are, if those divers are from Northern California, they experienced their first dives in the ocean—as versus a swimming pool—at San Carlos Beach.
Access is easy: the huge parking lot and expansive grass lawn are perfect places to suit up before and relax after dives. The beach itself is flat and mostly rock-free and the sandy sea bottom gently slopes to deeper waters. Its location in the Monterey Bay means the waters are generally calm, making it easier for novice divers to concentrate on their skills.
McAbee Beach offers a more interesting landscape, due to its location amid the ruined buildings of the sardine cannery industry. Old concrete foundations flank the water’s entrance and the seafloor is crisscrossed with the pipes once used to offload fish from boats to the canneries.
Del Monte Beach
Access: Wharf #2, Park Avenue and Tide Avenue, Monterey
This stretch of coastline from Monterey’s Wharf #2 to the Monterey Beach Hotel offers miles of uninterrupted, sand-between-the toes walking. Dolphins can often be seen frolicking in the waves, along with the occasional paddle boarder and scores of skim-boarding children. Scuba divers find fun here: there are a couple of underwater wrecks close to the Wharf, including one of an Army half-track that foundered while refloating fishing boats grounded by an epic storm. A jaw-dropping vista of the Monterey Peninsula stretching to Pacific Grove’s Point Pinos serves as backdrop to all activities.
Del Monte Beach is a great place to find sand dollars, those fragile, five-pointed-star adorned sea urchin exoskeletons that adorn many shell collections. Boardwalk paths have been erected through the dunes, offering a glimpse into the varied shore side ecosystems of Monterey Bay.
Fort Ord Beach
Access: Fremont Boulevard at Highway 1, Seaside
Beneath the dangling toes of the paragliders hanging above the dunes that separate the beach from the rifle ranges of the former Fort Ord lie some of the hidden gems of the California coast. Literally.
Decades ago, getting rid of society’s trash was strictly an “out of sight, out of mind” affair. Hence, trucks simply backed up to the cliffs and dropped the detritus into the ocean. Among that garbage was glass in the form of jars, bottles and other items. When that glass broke into pieces and was partially dissolved by seawater, it takes on a silky, matte texture and appearance. It’s then called “sea glass” (more poetically, “mermaid’s tears”) and this stretch of beach is among the best places to find it on the West Coast.
Among the most sought after are cobalt blue pieces from Milk of Magnesia or Vick’s VapoRub bottles. The most prized are the red “rubies of the sea” from automobile taillights or perfume bottles.