Big Sur enjoys several outstanding wild beaches, but visitors should expect to hike to reach most of them.
The 4800 acres of Andrew Molera State Park are laced with hiking and biking trails, and the Big Sur River. Bobcat Trail is an easy 3-mile hike that passes the Cooper Cabin, Big Sur's oldest structure, and ends at a pleasant, sandy beach. State park admission fees include parking; there are no facilities at the beach, but restrooms are available at the parking lot.
Pfeiffer Beach is one of Monterey County’s handsomest beaches, located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. After almost a year of renovations, visitors can now enjoy a wide array of improvements, including handicapped access to the beach, increased parking, and new restrooms.
Garrapata State Park is located seven miles south of Carmel. Within its 2879 acres of Big Sur beauty are trails leading through piney forests to great beaches. Beach accesses are clearly marked with signs at the turnouts. Soberanes Point is a favorite because of its panoramic views. Rock climbers can enjoy the rocks at the south end of the beach. As with all beaches, be cautious; the surf can be dangerous.
If lavish sands are your beach requirement, don’t bother with Point Lobos State Reserve, three miles south of Carmel. That said, it is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world, beloved by divers as much as photographers, painters and nature lovers. The Reserve takes in 750 acres of underwater wonders; whales and dolphins can be seen in the distance, seals bark on the rocks, and a variety of birds soar over-head. Once you’ve paid the gate fee, you’ll find parking, picnic tables and restrooms.
Carmel is blessed with several pleasant stretches of sands. To the south of town, Carmel River State Beach at Carmelo Road, is also known as Carmel River Lagoon and Wetlands Natural Preserve. By whatever name, it's a wonderful place to watch birds and other wildlife while the children play in the shallow lagoon (but be very cautious of walking on the ocean side, due to dangerous surf). A small overland trail leads to Monastery Beach. A modern cross marks the spot where Gaspar de Portola erected a cross in 1769.
In Carmel-by-the-Sea itself, right at the foot of Ocean Avenue, is Carmel Town Beach, locally renowned for good surf and excellent dog-walking conditions. An annual sandcastle contest is testimony to the quality of the silvery sands, punctuated by outcroppings of rock. The beach is level with the modest parking lot on Ocean Avenue; steep staircases lead to the beach from the limited, free, on-street parking on Camino Real or Sunset Drive. No public facilities, but restrooms, restaurants and shops are available up the (steep) hill in town.
Asilomar State Park and Beach in Pacific Grove is strung out along Sunset Drive, its tidepools giving way to a sweeping stretch of pale sand at Spanish Bay. Minute coves, linked by paths and boardwalks, offer sheltered spots for tide-pooling and wildlife-spotting; the beach itself is suitable for swimming, surfing, and kite-flying (be careful, as large waves are not uncommon). A longer boardwalk links Asilomar and 17-Mile Drive, winding between Spanish Bay Golf Course and the sands. There’s limited free parking (including several Disabled Driver spaces) along Sunset Drive.
Monterey’s tiniest beach must be MacAbee Beach, located in the midst of Cannery Row. Kayakers launch from it, scuba divers occasionally wade ashore at it, and children (and their parents) dabble barefoot in the waves there. Ample parking at lots a few blocks inland, plus food, drink and shops galore.
San Carlos Beach marks the end of Cannery Row, right beside the Coast Guard Pier. The large parking areas (pay-and-display) make it a popular ‘jumping-off point’ for groups of scuba divers, heading for the remains of cannery gear just off shore. A relatively shallow grade makes these sands a good choice for families looking for a place to cool their toes after Cannery Row.
The recently created Window on the Bay Park frames Monterey’s largest beach, Monterey State Beach, stretching from Wharf #2 virtually to Seaside. The soft sand shelves gently into the bay, making this one of the safest beaches for paddling with small children. The beach is open dawn to sunset; there is level access to the sands. Public amenities include beach volleyball courts, kayak and canoe rentals, restrooms, snack bars and restaurants, and ample parking (most of it between Wharf 2 and Fisherman’s Wharf in a pay lot or meters, plus some free parking off Del Monte Avenue). It’s possible to walk to Seaside on the beach or on the adjoining Recreation Trail.
Highway One may be humming just a few hundred feet behind you, and The Beach Resort hotel stands high above you, but the dune-backed beach at Seaside is a fantasy land of kites, kite-drawn sand buggies, and excited kids playing in the surf. The soft, white, sands shelve gently at first, but do drop off suddenly, so watch small children carefully. It’s possible to walk several miles on the beach, southwest towards Monterey or northeast towards Sand City. The Canyon del Rey exit from Highway One deposits you at a modest-sized, free parking lot (some street parking available). If you need refreshments or beach-going gear like towels, there’s a shopping plaza just the other side of Highway One.
Marina State Beach off Highway One has 170 acres of protected dunes and sandy beaches. It's very popular with locals for kite-flying, hang-gliding, and surf-casting. Although surfing is allowed, the shoreline waters are dangerous for wading or swimming. A boardwalk leads across the dunes (be sure to keep your dog leashed until you reach the beach); there's a cafe and observation deck, and ample public parking in several lots.
Moss Landing State Beach, off Highway One, offers a range of activities including surfing and wind-surfing, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, horseback riding and surf fishing. Birdwatchers will have plenty to see. Boaters may use the pier and jetty; there are restrooms, ample parking, and overnight camping is permitted.
Salinas River State Beach is colorful with blooming wildflowers in the spring. Hiking and equestrian trails are available as well as fishing. Fires are permitted at the north end only. South of the beach, the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge is home to brown pelicans, least terns and snowy plovers.
Zmudowski State Beach is north of Moss Landing, where the Pajaro River empties into the Pacific. It has 175 acres of parkland, great for picnicking and long walks; the beach is available for fishing, surfing and swimming.
If you don’t require Pacific surf, consider a summer-time splash in Lake San Antonio , down in South County. The lake offers fishing, wildlife tours, and swimming.