Welcome to another installment of our “Trail Town” series spotlighting Monterey County. Nestled along the rugged California coast, this one-time center of the sardine-packing industry, offers scenic beauty and recreational opportunities like trail running, surfing, cycling and hiking.
When you think of Monterey County, trail running might not be the first thing that jumps to mind—after all, when you host one of the most popular road races in the world, a lot of other running opportunities can go overlooked. (That’s Big Sur Marathon, in case you were still guessing which race we are referring to!) Even hardcore runners that have lived in Monterey County for years have yet to explore some of the trail opportunities available in the region. Truthfully, Monterey County remains an undiscovered gem in terms of trail running, with several amazing playgrounds and world class trails all within a two-hour driving radius of each other.
History & Culture
Monterey is one of the oldest counties in California. It was settled in the 1830s by Spanish explorers, but it was only sparsely populated until the Gold Rush, which brought an influx of settlers to the area. The town of Big Sur, located in the southern part of the county, was originally inhabited by the Ohlone, Salinan, and Esselen Native American tribes. Later, it became a prime destination for the logging and lumber industries due to its vast expanses of forests and woodlands. Monterey County’s scenic coastline has long inspired famous artists, writers, and musicians over the years, including Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, and even the Beach Boys.
Nearly every town in Monterey County has at least one trail to its name, and there is plenty of variety in terms of difficulty. Wherever you decide to stay within Monterey County might ultimately determine which trails you choose to access, but they are all relatively close to each other in terms of drive time. Our biggest piece of advice is to stay well on the trail at all times, as poison oak runs rampant through most parts of the county. Below we offer some of the more popular trail options. Note that some require a small admission and/or parking fee.
Jack’s Peak Park is the highest point on the Monterey Peninsula and a go-to running spot for locals who want to stay near the coast while avoiding the more heavily-trafficked running routes along the coast. Jack’s Peak has eight miles of trails to choose from with some hills but no overly-technical terrain. The park opens at 8:00 am daily throughout the year, but its evening hours vary based on month.
If you are looking for a spot to run where you can put down ample mileage and elevation, Fort Ord National Monument should absolutely be on your list. Whatever distance you are looking to complete, you can create it with a little bit of time spent planning your route. There are several points of access to Fort Ord, with the most popular being Badger Hills Trailhead off of Route 68 in Salinas, across from Toro Place Café. From the trailhead, a popular 6-mile loop goes to Toro Creek Road, onwards to Oilwell Road and Skyline Road, and finally to Gudiotti Road before looping back to Badger Hills.
Reservation Road in Marina offers another trailhead called Creekside Terrace, which offers a 1,500-foot climb over 4 miles along sand dunes. The route follows Old Reservation Road to Engineer Canyon Road, then proceeds along Jacks Road to Station One Road and Trail One, which returns to Creekside Terrace. Trails at Fort Ord are open and available for use from dawn through dusk. Be sure to check your dates before you visit, as Fort Ord is also home to the four-day Sea Otter Classic biking event—you may or may not wish for your trail use to intersect with this large event.
Nearby Fort Ord is Toro County Park, located six miles outside of downtown Salinas. As of today due to the aftermath of the River Fire, Toro Park is closed and set to reopen April 30, 2021. Toro Park tends to draw visitors from all over the county to hike, bike, and run its hilly trails. It is worth mentioning that runners should remain alert for bikers on multiuse trails and even on trails labeled for hiking only. Be aware that cattle may be grazing in the pastured areas and to never step between a cow and her calf. A trail map can be found on the County Parks website. Note that some of the single track backcountry trails like Black Mountain are technical but also extremely fun.
Garland Ranch Regional Park immediately off of Carmel Valley Road offers another set of beautiful trails, with elevations ranging from 200 to 2,000+. During the wintertime, high water levels prevent access to several miles of trail reachable only by seasonal bridges, so your best bet is to go in the late spring when the wildflowers are popping and the rains have simmered down. Aside from a few flat loops near the parking area, many of the trails are hilly and challenging. Snively’s Ridge is a popular but very steep climb (15% grade) that you can use to round out a solid 3-4 mile run built from the loops closer to the parking lot. Crossing along the Garzas Canyon and East Ridge trails will take you to the southernmost area of the park accessible without a permit. If you obtain an access permit on the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District website, you can pass on the Cougar Ridge trail through Kahn Ranch which will ultimately take you to the beautiful 3-mile Manzanita Loop.
Palo Corona Regional Park offers inspiring views of the surrounding land from Inspiration Point, which has an 850-foot climb in elevation. Access through the main entrance at the Discovery Center off of Carmel Valley Road is free and un-permitted through Inspiration Point until you reach Animas Pond—an out and back route of roughly 4 miles. From the Discovery Center parking area, the trail is wide and begins paved before turning into a dirt access road. Backcountry running past Animas Pond is by permit only and can be obtained on the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District website.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a famous recreational area in Carmel with several miles of well-maintained, flat hard-packed coastal trails that loop back on each other. The exterior loop measures about 6.7 miles and provides spectacular views of the coast, so many that you might find yourself stopping several times to admire the ocean and take photos. Note that Point Lobos is a very popular destination for tourists and that you will want to arrive early to beat the crowds and find parking (either inside the park or on the coast side of Highway 1—do not park on the opposite side of the road).
The Old Coast Road in Big Sur is a 10-mile dirt track from Andrew Molera State Park to Bixby Bridge that quite literally is the old coast road, before Highway 1 was installed. This dirt road boasts over 2,000 feet of elevation gain and offers stunning coastal views, with the northernmost end located at a turnoff at Bixby Bridge and the southernmost end located at Andrew Molera State Park. Unless you are itching for a 20-mile out-and-back run, you will want to plan this particular run with a friend so that one of you can leave a car at either end of the route. Alternatively, you could choose to run part of the northern part of the route and then stop at your desired turnaround point.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park covers 1,000 acres in the heart of Big Sur, with coastal redwoods and ocean views sure to inspire you. As of today due to the aftermath of the Dolan Fire many of the trails are closed for restoration, but the 3-mile moderate Buzzard’s Roost loop trail is still open. The trail is single-track and mostly gravel. The park is open daily from 8:00 am through sunset.
The Ventana Wilderness is a spectacular place to run when trails are open and maintained. As of this writing, most are impassible due to an intense fire season followed by heavy winter storms. When they are open and clear again, running the Carrizo Creek Trail to Cone Peak is a must for anyone seeking a longer, difficult, breathtaking out-and-back in the Big Sur wilderness. The route is about 15.4 miles with a little over 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and the ridge is pretty exposed. The trailhead can be accessed from Milpitas Road along Road 6 just south of the bridge over the San Antonio River.
Transportation and Parking
Monterey County is accessible by car, plane, bus, and train. The Amtrak Coast Starlight train runs from Salinas up north to Seattle, Washington, and south to Los Angeles, California. Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) provides bus service between these two cities as well as to many other areas of the county and to airports. MST also offers a free trolley that runs between downtown Monterey and Cannery Row. A Greyhound bus station is also located in Salinas, with connecting services to Monterey. Buses are also available from Monterey to Fort Ord. Along with public transportation, taxi and rideshare service is also available throughout Monterey County.
Monterey is home to a regional airport (MRY) with direct flights to several well-known locations, including but not limited to Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland (OR), San Francisco, and Seattle. Flights through the San Jose International Airport and the San Francisco International Airport connect the regional airport to the rest of the world.
Those planning to drive to their destinations should note that parking fees apply at state parks, including Andrew Molera and Pfeiffer State Parks, which have a $10 parking fee for daily use. Fees also apply for camping. Parking is available at Point Lobos outside the park along Highway 1, but parking is limited to the coastal side of the road only. Parking is readily available and free at Palo Corona Regional Park, Garland Ranch, and Fort Ord. Jack’s Peak and Toro Park require parking fees if you are not parking farther away and walking (or running) into the park.
Each area within Monterey County has its own vibe, but nearly everyone you might come across living in Monterey County shares a love for the outdoors and outdoor recreation. Hiking is extremely popular given the wealth of natural areas dispersed throughout the county. Tight-knit groups of rock climbers, swimmers, and mountain bikers also play among Monterey County’s landscapes. In terms of the running community more specifically, several formal and informal running groups schedule weekly meet-ups and runs throughout the county, especially on the Peninsula. Most of these are road runs, although the Wednesday Night Laundry Runners have expanded the quantity of organized club runs on trail offered in recent years. Sometimes spontaneous get togethers occur simply because someone saw a run that someone else on Facebook or Strava completed and was inspired to try it out with a small group. Trail runners in Monterey County are generally a good-spirited bunch and range from casual recreational runners to local legends who have held some FKT records on courses out of state.
Just as there is at least one trail for each Monterey County town, there is also at least one great coffee shop to visit. In Monterey, Parker Lusseau is a locals’ favorite for pairing coffee with delicious fresh-baked French pastries. Parker Lusseau, Plumes (the oldest coffee shop in Monterey), and Alta Bakery & Café, (located in the restored Cooper Molera adobe) are all located within a few blocks of each other. Captain + Stoker is the place to go if you want to pair your coffee with some incredible toast. In the adjacent town of Seaside is ACME Coffee Roasting Company, another local favorite.
In Carmel, Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company produces its own line of exceptional coffees and has three bricks and mortar locations in Carmel. Its signature dark roast, the Foglifter, is made with organic beans. The cafe also has an assortment of baked goods, along with oatmeal and healthy options. Farther down Carmel Valley Road nestled at the foot of rolling hills, Earthbound Farm’s roadside farm stand serves coffee, breakfast items, prepared lunches, and a variety of assorted goods and products.
In Big Sur proper, Big Sur Bakery serves coffee, beer, wine, pastries, and a full kitchen menu. The bakery also sells bottles of local wines and assorted goods to go that range from cookies and granola to handmade mugs.
In Salinas, The Beerded Bean on South Main is an eclectic café offering single-origin, certified organic and fair trade, small batch coffees. You can also grab a craft beer here, hence the clever name, and catch live music. Viva Espresso Organics on North Main is another popular coffee shop that also sells delicious oatmeal, granolas, and a small selection of pastries.
You’ll want to stop at La Plaza bakery for provisions if you are heading to the west side of Pinnacles through Soledad, or if you are brave enough to attempt the 12-mile mountainous Marble Peak Trail in Arroyo Seco, Greenfield (a trail in Los Padres National Forest that we did not include above given that much of the trail is overgrown). They have several other locations, including a few in Salinas, one in King City, and one in Gonzales. La Plaza serves coffee, champurrado, aguas frescas, and traditional Mexican pastries and dishes including tacos and burritos of all natures.
Monterey County’s big hometown brewer is Alvarado Street Brewery. With locations in Carmel-By-The-Sea, downtown Monterey, and Salinas, their beer is as easily accessible as it is delicious. They are most well known for their West Coast IPAs but also produce delightful stouts and sour beers, in addition to the occasional lighter style. Their core beers are Monterey Beer (lager) and Mai TaIPA (Tropical West Coast IPA). They also brew dry, sour saison-style beers under their Yeast of Eden label. A taco truck often stations outside the Salinas location, and the Monterey and Carmel locations offer full menus. Classic food favorites include the everything soft pretzels, fried calamari, and Alvarado Burger, but each location’s menu boasts a variety of delicious bistro food to try.
Other local breweries include Carmel Craft Brewing Company in the Carmel Barnyard, Other Brother Beer in Seaside, English Ales Brewery in Marina (near the Creekside Terrace trailhead of Fort Ord), and Monterey Coast Brewing Company in Salinas. Big Sur Taphouse in Big Sur, Post No Bills in Sand City, and Fieldwork and Dust Bowl Brewing Company in Monterey offer additional choice locations to grab a beer.
With a mix of rich culinary traditions and access to fresh produce, seafood, and different wine varietals, diners have many options to choose from in Monterey County. Your options will vary depending on location and how upscale an experience you want.
For food leaning more towards the budget-friendly end of the spectrum, Mi Tierra is a popular restaurant on Main Street in Salinas offering authentic Mexican cuisine such flautas, enchiladas, tortas, molcajete, and menudo, as well as various breakfast items. For a glimpse of local life in downtown Monterey, The Crown and Anchor in Monterey is a dive bar serving English-style food. Hula’s Island Grill is an extremely popular choice a few blocks up from Cannery Row featuring fantastic appetizers and cocktails. Dametra Café in Carmel is a favorite for Mediterranean cuisine, and Café Rustica in Carmel Valley is well-liked for its Tuscan fare and wood-fired pizzas. Red House Café in Pacific Grove offers some of the best breakfast fare in the county and also has a full lunch and dinner menu. First Awakenings is also a popular choice for breakfast, with locations in both Monterey and Salinas and hearty pancakes the size of a dinner plate.
If money is no issue and you are eager for your dining experience to include majestic coastal views, Nepenthe and Deetjen’s in Big Sur are popular, upscale restaurants that showcase glimpses of Big Sur art and culture. In Carmel, Mission Ranch (owned by famed actor Clint Eastwood) offers American cuisine with views of Point Lobos and the Pacific. Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar on Cannery Row serves fresh seafood and meals crafted from locally-sourced ingredients. Inland in Carmel Valley, Lucia at Bernadus Lodge is a fine dining establishment offering upscale California cuisine and distinctive wines in a peaceful and relaxing country setting. In Monterey off of Highway 68 on the way to Salinas, Tarpy’s Roadhouse is probably one of the best steakhouses in the county. On Main Street in Salinas, Patria is an Italian restaurant specializing in handmade pastas that also offers hearty plates featuring chicken, rabbit, salmon, and other meats.
If you’re looking for information about local trails, your best bet is heading straight over to Strava or AllTrails and looking at what others are running in the area. Because the road running scene is so heavy in Monterey County, the trail scene often gets overlooked. That said, if you stop by local running store The Treadmill at the Carmel Crossroads, the owners and a few employees can help provide you with trail-specific recommendations and local knowledge. SeeMonterey.com also offers a variety of useful information for your visit. Several members of the Wednesday Night Laundry Runners are also avid trail runners and can offer advice if you reach out on their Facebook page.
Trail Maintenance & Trail Sharing
Compared to other Trail Towns, Monterey County is somewhat less active in terms of licit trail building and stewardship, which are primarily accomplished by nonprofit and governmental organizations. Some examples are listed here:
The Monterey Off Road Cycling Association advocates for responsible mountain biking and trail maintenance throughout in Monterey County.
The Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District has a dynamic volunteer program with trail maintenance and monitoring at Garland Ranch and Palo Corona Regional Park.
The nonprofit Fort Ord Recreation Trails (FORT) Friends is a local nonprofit in Monterey County that partners with local trails groups and serves as a clearinghouse for information, working to help foster mutual respect among trail users of all non-motorized kinds. They also act as an official partner to the Bureau of Land Management to steward trails at Fort Ord.
In the wild lands of Big Sur, the Ventana Wilderness Alliance manages a trained all-volunteer crew to survey trail conditions and perform routine maintenance, supplementing contracted crews.
The most well-known trail race in Monterey County is organized by Inside Trail Racing at Fort Ord each February. It is divided between the Ordnance 100K and the Fort Ord Trail Run 50K/25K/10K. The 100K consists of a 40 mile and 22 mile loop with 7,200 feet of elevation gain over pretty much about every type of trail you can think of through Fort Ord and Laguna Seca Recreation Area. The 50K distance is essentially a big loop with an extra lollipop attached, boasting 4,200 feet of elevation gain. The 25K is a scaled down loop from the 50K and includes 2,250 feet of elevation gain. The 10K loop has 900 feet of elevation gain.
American Trail Running Association member Big Sur Land Trust typically organizes its annual Race for Open Space trail fundraising event in April each year. Usually these is a 5K/10K trail race at their Marks Ranch property adjacent to Toro Park, but in 2021 they are offering a three-week period for runners to explore unique distances at two of their other properties (Mitteldorf Preserve – 4 miles and 8.5 miles, and Glen Deven Ranch – 2.4 miles). They have also partnered with Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, California State Parks, Santa Lucia Conservancy, and Santa Lucia Preserve to offer time slots on April 17, 18, and 24 to run from Palo Corona Regional Park to Mitteldorf Preserve (21 miles) and from Palo Corona to San Jose Creek Trail (9 miles). A virtual registration option exists to log miles no matter where you live.
Additional races: In June, the Monterey Spartan Trail event offers zero-obstacle 50K, half-marathon, and 10K distances (including a 10K night run) at Toro Park. In August, the Carmel Valley Kiwanis Club traditionally offers their Fiesta Mountain Run at Garland Ranch Regional Park (7.7 mile and 2.25 mile options). In early October, Enviro-Sports organizes the Big Sur Trail Marathon with half-marathon and 5K distances using the Old Coast Road. Towards the middle-end of October, the Big Sur River Run 5K/10K takes place at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to the Big Sur Land Trust for providing the copy and images for this article. You can support the Big Sur Land Trust by donating on their website.