Home to both the coast and the rolling mountains, Monterey County is the ultimate California destination to spend 72 hours. From time along the breathtaking coastline of Big Sur to retreating in the resort town of Carmel Valley, you have everything you need for a well-rounded trip.
It’s an area of California that I’ve grown fond of over the years. We grew up visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea as kids. As an adult, I’ve come to explore more of Monterey County. Every time I return, I discover something new — an intimate hotel, a scenic hike, and delicious cuisine I can’t stop talking about.
Monterey County is destined for slow travel. My advice? Book the extra night. Stay longer. Travel slower. You’ll be so glad you did. Big Sur will invite you to get in touch with nature. Carmel Valley will remind you to embrace California’s relaxed pace and enjoy the bounty our state produces.
So when it comes to planning time to Monterey County, this is the ultimate 72-hour itinerary. One that will bring you on a journey to experience the best of this coastal destination.
(This blog post is in collaboration with Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau. As always, all opinions are my own.)
The Ultimate 72 Hour Itinerary in Monterey County
What to Know Before Planning
Where to Start
This itinerary can be done in any order whether you’re traveling from the south or north. My recommendation is to do the further point first as I find I prefer to make the furthest drive at the beginning. For this trip, you’ll definitely need a car as it is a road trip format. I’d recommend Hertz as a reputable car rental company.
Amount of Time Needed
Monterey County can be experienced in 3-4 nights or you can stay for a week. There is a lot to do. My recommendation is to give yourself ample time to enjoy the trip and not be rushed when possible. For the two destinations covered below, I am recommending 1-2 nights at either.
Weather and Time of Year
The central coast of California historically has temperate weather. You can almost visit year-round, as areas like Carmel Valley have 300+ days of sunshine. You will need to pack layers as the coast often gets chilly at night and has a morning fog that will burn off mid-day. When the sun is shining, you can fully take advantage of a beach day from spring to fall.
Responsible and Safe Travel
Stick to the designated hiking trails and leave no trace when exploring. Always have a mask on you and wear it when it is needed. Monterey County ordinance requires a mask when you cannot socially distance. So even on hikes, you must carry a mask with you. For more responsible and safe travel trips in California, read this blog post here.
To find more things to do in Monterey County, head to See Monterey.
72 Hour Itinerary in Monterey County
Stop 1: Big Sur, California
Recommended time: 2 nights
If there is one recommendation for Big Sur, it’s to travel slower and stay overnight. It is one of the most iconic destinations on California’s central coast and often people buzz right through it. I’d recommend staying for two nights to experience the beauty of the coastal redwoods and proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
A few of the highlights of Big Sur certainly include experiencing the diverse choices of state parks. Whether it be hiking through the redwoods of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or the bluffs at Andrew Molera State Park, you have quick access to getting outside. There is even a beach with purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach here.
Big Sur is home to incredible restaurants, you will not run out of places to eat. Their locations often have ocean views, making it a scenic place to enjoy either lunch or dinner. A few recommendations include a sunset dinner at Nepenthe and lunch at COAST Big Sur. Nepenthe’s location is hard to beat and their menu features a wide range of choices, definitely try the Ambrosiaburger. At COAST, you’ll find the menu spearheaded by former Bar Tartine, Chef Nick Balla. It’s quintessential coastal ingredients paired with a dedication to sourcing locally.
When it comes to hanging your hat for the night, the resorts and hotels range in Big Sur from luxe to cozy inns. I recommend Ventana for those looking for an elevated experience that is all-inclusive. Their resort is perched above the ocean and offers a wide range of amenities like a pool, gym, and guest-only restaurants.
Stop in at Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant for their unique “picnic” style lunch that is brought to you in a cooler. Take it down to the river and enjoy it in one of their cozy Adirondack chairs.
Stop 2: Carmel Valley
Recommended time: 1-2 nights. Though this itinerary is set for 72 hours, you can easily spend two nights in the Carmel Valley.
When it comes to finishing out your time in Monterey County, look no further than the resort town of Carmel Valley. Set amongst the Santa Lucia Mountains, this valley is home to spa resorts, world-class wineries, and memorable restaurants. The beauty of staying here is that you have many choices for how you spend your time.
A highlight in Carmel Valley includes a morning at Refuge, a spa that has several baths to soak in. It is set back in the valley under towering oak trees and their thermal cycle that is outdoors can be enjoyed year-round. Another experience you can’t miss in Carmel Valley is wine tasting. Whether it’s at the cluster of tasting rooms in the village or out at the enchanting chateau winery, Folktale. Wine tasting is a quintessential part of being in this area.
For food, there is a range of restaurants in the area like Corkscrew Cafe that serves wood-fired pizza in their expansive patio. Be sure to book one dinner at Lucia Restaurant & Bar as well, it’s one of the mainstays for Carmel Valley done by Chef Cal Stamenov. With their own garden, a lot of the California-inspired dishes include ingredients sourced right there.
Part of the resort experience in Carmel Valley is booking a night or two at one of the lodges or resorts. Bernardus Lodge & Spa is a great choice for those looking for the best of both worlds. The intimate lodge has a pool and spa amenities on the property and has stunning grounds that are like a scene out of Tuscany. No better place to spend a few relaxing hours during your stay.
Book a dinner at ROUX, the cash-only (Venmo accepted) restaurant that is rooted in Spanish and French cuisine. It was a highlight of our time, some of the best duck confit I’ve ever had.
The Ultimate Central Coast Resort Town: Carmel Valley
Where to Stay
Bernardus Lodge & Spa