The best things to do in Carmel, California, just off the Pacific Coast Highway, include visiting Carmel Mission, enjoying the beaches, seeing Point Lobos State Reserve, making the 17-Mile Drive, surfing, and visiting Tor House, which was built by the poet Robinson Jeffers.
The 17-Mile Drive is a circular route that links Carmel with neighboring Pacific Grove and Monterey. Strictly speaking it only goes to Pacific Grove, along winding roads and past some lovely coastal scenery, but from Carmel it brings you out almost at the Monterey Aquarium. It’s a far nicer way to get to Monterey, but there is a toll for using what is a private road. Cyclists go for free, but motorcycles are not allowed. See our separate page on the 17-Mile Drive.
This is Carmel's understandably popular main beach is a short walk from downtown and is always busy. You'll need to get there early, or be lucky, to have any hope of finding a parking spot in the small car park. Families love the silver sands, surfers like the waves, and everyone likes the views and the sunsets.
This beautiful white-sand beach backed by dunes is to the south of the Carmel Beach City Park. It tends to be slightly less crowded, and has the added attraction of a bird sanctuary next to it where pelicans, cormorants, kingfishers, hawks, and lots of shoreline waders can be seen.
Mike and Donna and the Lone Cypress
on Carmel's 17-Mile Drive
The Carmel Mission is one of the biggest in California, and has the name to go with it: the Mission San Carlos Boromeo del Rio Carmelo. It was founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra, who is buried here. It was the second of the 21 California missions he built and became Father Serra's headquarters. The Mission is also the last resting place of over 3000 Native Americans, and their graves are decorated with seashells, a moving sight. There are guided tours of the Mission or you can just wander round by yourself and look at the 1793 stone church, California's first college library, Father Serra's simple bedroom, the historic kitchen, and the beautiful flower gardens.
A few miles south of Carmel on Highway 1 is this 350-acre reserve, reminding us that most of the Pacific Coast belongs not to celebrities and tourists but to the wildlife that lives there. But being so close to Carmel this beautiful place also gets busy, so plan to get there early in the day, or leave it till later when some of the crowds have gone home. It stays open till a half-hour after sunset, and late on a hot day is also a good time to see the wildlife getting active again.
There are various trails through the reserve, including the Sea Lion Point Trail – guess what you might see there. There are also seals, sea otters, deer, wild flowers, dramatic cliffs, abundant bird life, and it's also a good place for whale watching at the right time of year. You'll also want to allow time to take the Cypress Grove Trail and see the impressive Monterey Cypress forest.
Qualified scuba divers should know that there is also a 750-acre underwater marine park for them to explore. Hey, there's a lot to see – be there at 9am when they open and if you're a real nature-lover you may still be there to watch the sunset.
See our separate page about our own visit to the Point Lobos State Reserve.
Tor House is one of the most interesting of Carmel's historic homes, and was built in 1918-19 by the poet Robinson Jeffers. It's certainly in an inspiring spot, with lovely gardens and overlooking the sea. You don't need to know anything about Robinson Jeffers to appreciate a visit, though you'll know all about him by the end of it. He built the 40-foot Hawk Tower, whose walls are set with stones from the Carmel coastline and from around the world. The docents will point out the stone from the Great Wall of China. If you want to see the house check the website and make a booking, as it's by guided tour only, with only six people at a time, and only once an hour on Fridays and Saturdays.
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Pacific Coast Highway Travel's website recommendations on Where to Stay in Carmel include reviews of the Mission Ranch, Sea View Inn, The Cypress Inn, Lamp Lighter Inn and Vagabond's House Inn.
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This Carmel dog-friendly hotel, the historic Cypress Inn, is co-owned by movie legend Doris Day and offers luxury lodgings for pet-loving travelers (cats welcome too) in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
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To help you in choosing your Pacific Coast Highway hotel, guesthouse, inn, bed-and-breakfast, resort, motel or other accommodations, we've prepared our Pacific Coast Highway Hotels Guide. In it we do mini-reviews of accommodations along the Highway, from Seattle to San Diego, through Washington, Oregon, and California.
In all there are over 200 hotels listed, complete with 8 pages of color maps showing the towns where our recommended hotels can be found. There are both alphabetical and geographical indexes, helping you plan your journey.
We also include color photos of all the hotels that are our Personal Favorites. Here's the link to read more about our ebook guide to Pacific Coast Highway hotels.
The 2016 edition of our Hotels Guide is available with maps and color photos (if you have a color reader) in the US Kindle Store for only $4.99 and in the UK Kindle Store and other Kindle stores worldwide at prices based on the US price.
If you want a paperback edition of the 2016 guide with only black and white photos and black-and-white maps, it costs $6.99 at the US Amazon Book Store and £4.99 in the UK Amazon Store.