Uncovering the Best Secrets of Monterey Bay with Kids

—why go

Have you ever been somewhere that’s semi-local and you forget about it’s incredible beauty? But the moment you return, it strikes you…and you wonder why you don’t visit more? Monterey is that place.

Exploring Monterey Bay with kids is the perfect excuse to take in the stunning ocean scenery and still have it pass as a legitimate science field trip. There’s plenty to do for both kids and parents. It’s rare to strike that balance of kid friendly, educational, and equally enjoyable for parents.

Best time to visit: Apr – May since it has lower crowds and warmer temps.

Also consider: Oct – Feb for the Butterfly migration, however you’ll have to plan around the rain.

Timeframe: Monterey is worth a day trip or an overnight if you have more to pack in.

Lay of the Land:

Situated just over 2 hours south from San Francisco, it’s very accessible from in the Bay Area. Monterey Bay is split by old and new. Old Monterey is where the Farmers Market is and also the quirky Dennis the Menace playground. New Monterey is located around the harbor and includes the touristy Cannery Row and the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.

But to stop there would be missing out on the area’s main feature…the great sea. You can drive or bike from Cannery Row all along the shoreline on Ocean View Dr. There are great little pull outs along the way where you can crawl out on the rocks and beach and take in the power of the sea. Wrapping around, it turns into Sunset Dr. then it turns inland until you reach 17 Mile Drive. This is a world renowned, scenic coastline where you’ll see a couple golf courses, including the infamous Pebble Beach Golf course. They charge around $10 per car to drive into 17 Mile Drive, but if you’re riding bikes, it’s free.

Further south, you’ll find Carmel-By-The-Sea, which is a classic sleepy beach town, full of fairytale houses and quaint shops to stroll around. There’s also a nice beach to hang out at. If you continue south along down HWY 1, you’ll run into Point Lobos, which has a lot of great short hikes and plenty of coastline and wildlife to explore. Overall, you’ll have your choice of fun window shopping, quaint restaurants, and playgrounds or you could choose more of the natural side of Monterey and explore the powerful coastline and diverse wildlife. 

Monterey Bay ocean coastline
Monterey Bay with kids
Pebble Beach Golf Course sunset
Monterey Bay bird

Dennis the Menace Playground

Farmers Market

Monterey County Youth Museum

Cannery Row

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

The Inn at Spanish Bay

Tuck Box cafe

Weston Beach Point Lobos
Cannery Row Monterey
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay ocean coastline
Monterey on bike with kids
toddler at Spanish Bay
Spanish bay statues

As a quick drive from the Bay Area, exploring Monterey Bay with kids is the perfect day trip. There’s plenty to do and explore. I’ll break it out between town experiences and nature experiences

Around Town: You have to check out the Dennis the Menace playground, since it’s quirky and has a full size train engine. While you’re there, check out the surrounding El Estero lake where you can paddle boat around. The obnoxious swan boats are $40 per half hour, otherwise it’s $23 for the regular paddle boat. Save your money. They have kids life jackets too. If you’re in Monterey on a Tuesday, be sure to stroll the farmers market in Old Monterey. It’s on Alvarado St between Del Monte and Pearl. All the produce is local, since there is a lot of agriculture within a close proximity.

If you’re into experiential museums, the Monterey County Youth Museum is specifically designed for kids 10 and under. It has a lot of fun interactive exhibits. Entry is $8 for anyone ages 2 and up.

In New Monterey, Cannery Row used to be home of several sardine canning factories. Now it has turned into an array of great shopping, restaurants and wine bars. It’s a bit touristy, but worth strolling around.

At the North end of Cannery Row is Monterey’s biggest attraction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Despite it being $50 per adult, TripAdvisor ranked it the #1 public aquarium in the world in 2014. It’s a must visit…and kids under 3 are free. It is known for its regional focus on the habitats of Monterey Bay, featuring a living kelp forest, and the aquarium has done a lot to advocate for ocean sustainability and the environment.

Just a few minutes South of Montrey lies the sleepy little town of Carmel-By-the-Sea. This is a small, cute little town that is perfect for a liesurely stroll and window shopping. If your kids are old enough, they will appreciate the several fairy-tale houses and shops around the downtown. There are about 11 of these cottage style houses in town, all built by Hugh Comstock back in the 1920s.

In Nature: You can stroll along the coastline, just past Cannery Row and you’ll run into some nice pockets of sand and beaches. Either walking or riding bikes along the coast line is the best way to do it. This way you’ll really get to take in the smells, sounds and pace of life here. There are nice walking paths throughout as well as bike lanes on the road. There are some turn outs here and there along the coastline road…be sure to stop at one or two and explore. You’re likely to find some hermit crabs crawling around in the rocks. You will probably find some starfish in the tide pools. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll catch some sea lions barking.

If you are there between October and February, check out the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. You’ll be able to see hundreds of clusters of butterflies hanging on to the branches of pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees.

If you continue along the route, you’ll hit 17 Mile Drive, which is just breathtaking. Don’t be surprised if you run into any deer along the way or see some other wildlife. This route passes through three different golf courses, right on the coast.

One of the most fun, and lesser-known experiences is going to the Inn at Spanish Bay before dusk. If you walk through the hotel lobby and out to their back patio, there are a half a dozen firepits with an incredible ocean view. There’s a great grassy area for kids to run around with while you sip on some wine. Often times you’ll find wild bunnies rummaging through the grass as well. Then every evening, between 4:30 and sunset, you’ll see a bagpiper emerge from beyond the firepits and begin to play. This is the perfect night-cap to a wonderful day.

Further South past Carmel is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This is yet another great place to explore nature. There are dozens of short hiking trails that lead to the ocean. You’re bound to see fields full of wildflowers, likely some birds, and maybe you’ll catch some sea otters playing in the Bay. Also check out the restored Whalers Cabin, built in the 1850s to house Japanese and Chinese fishermen. It’s now a small museum.

Cutlure: The culture in this town comes in from the sea. This is a hub of marine biologists, SCUBA divers, sailors, and salty seamen. You’ll find clam chowder on the menus and saltwater taffy in the candy stores. It’s home to laid back Californians who love taking in the sea breese. So go on a jog along the shore, sip some wine while overlooking the sunset, or just admire all the unique shops the area has to offer.

—final thoughts

Boy’s take: The amount of exploration and unique experiences you can pack in make this trip well worth it. He got to touch sea anemones, look at hermit crabs crawl around the rocks, count starfish, and see the powerful waves of the ocean crash in. The ocean here is so up close and accessible that it really brings some of his books to life. With all the diverse wildlife that abounds in this area, there’s plenty of new animals to see. All these experiences are incredibly tangible and formative. Exploring Monterey Bay with kids has boundless potential.

Exploring Monterey's ocean
Spanish Bay with toddler

Mom’s take: Monterey is equally as fun for kids as it is for adults. Not just for the striking beauty of the area, but also it it’s things to do. For as much as your kids can tolerate window shopping, Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea has dozens of great little shops. The Inn at Spanish Bay strikes the perfect balance of letting you sit down near the grassy are to enjoy a glass of wine and some bagpipe music while your little one runs around on the grass and chases bunnies. Really…where else can you do that??

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