It’s no secret why legions flock to California’s famed Monterey County year after year: It’s jam-packed with popular things to see and do. Take Monterey Bay’s stunning blue waters, for instance, where visitors revel in spotting migrating whales and those adorable southern sea otters. Or Cannery Row, long celebrated by poets and writers, where tourists can explore the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, enjoy world-class dining or embark on a scuba-diving adventure.
But there’s another side to Monterey County that many people never see. In fact, they may not even know that it exists. Did you know that Monterey County is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, containing habitats ranging from desert-like areas and scrublands to rivers and streams?
At The Nature Conservancy, we’ve been working throughout the county since the 1960s, protecting these vital places. And while we were at it, we discovered a bevy of amazing spots that are ripe for exploring.
So if you’re looking for an autumn outdoor adventure that’s off-the-beaten-track, check out some of these hidden gems—and uncover the “other” wonders of Monterey County.
Monterey's Top Five Hidden Gems
1. Fall for a Hidden Cascade
Nestled within Big Sur’s Santa Lucia mountain range, Limekiln State Park is a true jewel frequently overlooked by visitors. It is quite easy to drive past this park without realizing it, as there is only one nondescript sign from the road indicating its location.
Those with keen eyes who do find their way here will encounter an incredible natural wonder: the park’s stunning 100-foot waterfall. From the entrance, day-trippers can follow a path that will lead them to the towering cascade in about 30 minutes.
Camping here is amazing—the sites are spacious and quiet, and they are located near a day-use-only beach with prime sunset viewing spots.
2. Rock Out
The volcanic breccia rock formations scattered throughout Pinnacles National Monument are the stuff climbers dream about. With hundreds of vertical routes to choose from, beginners and advanced climbers alike can easily find a path that’s perfectly suited for them.
Climbers should be on the lookout for condors, prairie falcons and the other 164 bird species that inhabit the park. Pinnacles is one of Monterey County’s premier birding spots—and protecting land for condors is one reason The Nature Conservancy recently helped expand the size of the monument.
Some areas are seasonally closed to protect nesting raptors’ habitats, but most are open in the autumn months.
3. Soak It Up
For adventurous souls, the journey to Sykes Hot Springs is a must. To reach these out-of-the-way pools, explorers embark from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s Pine Ridge trailhead, ascending and descending through groves of redwoods, pine and oak for 10 miles. Views from the trail are breathtaking—the forest often opens up to reveal the Pacific Ocean on the horizon.
Hikers who endure this trek will be rewarded with the ultimate treat: a campsite alongside Big Sur River, a short stroll away from one of three small thermal hot springs. The cool, crisp fall season is the perfect time to visit these soaking spots; and it isn’t uncommon for midweek campers to have Sykes Hot Springs to themselves.
4. Get All A-Flutter with Monarchs
Autumn at Andrew Molera State Park means butterflies. Lots of butterflies. Migrating from Mexico to Andrew Molera each year, vibrantly colored monarch butterflies make the park their winter home, offering visitors one of nature’s most incredible spectacles. You’ll never forget the first time you see huge clusters of these bright orange-and-black-winged creatures carpeting the trunk of a single tree. Magnificent.
Monarchs typically roost in the Eucalyptus trees in Cooper Grove along the Big Sur River, but we recommend that visitors ask a park ranger if there have been any additional sightings in other locations.
5. Take in the Gorge-ous View
Deep in the Ventana Wilderness, the Arroyo Seco River has carved out a deep, narrow gorge filled with sparkling, emerald pools perfect for swimming.
To experience the gorge, visitors leave on foot from the Arroyo Seco Campground for a four-to-five-mile hike to a beautiful waterfall and swimming spot. The trek to this watery playground couldn’t be more picturesque—getting there is half the fun. Along the way explorers will have an upstream adventure that includes wading, rock-hopping and swimming.
Located in a sheltered canyon, the gorge experiences fall temperatures that are often much warmer than those along the coast, making it a great place for an autumn escape.