Monterey County is world-renowned for the beauty of its coastal areas. But not a lot of people know that its inland areas can be just as varied and intriguing, hidden gems that are worth that extra day off work during your next weekend visit to the Central Coast.
Largely centered around the Salinas River Valley, inland Monterey County offers a mosaic of forests and farms, charming towns and an uncrowded backcountry. But you'll also come across fine wine and wildlife, starry nights and sun-splashed days.
Twenty miles from the coast via State Route 68, Salinas is the gateway to the county's inland empire. California bard John Steinbeck was born there in 1902, and many of his most celebrated works (like "East of Eden") are set in and around the historic town. The Noble Prize winner's life and times are explored at the National Steinbeck Center, with its multilingual exhibits and guest lectures. When you're done perusing, make sure to grab lunch a few blocks west at the Steinbeck House, the Victorian home-turned-restaurant where the writer spent his boyhood.
Running south from the National Steinbeck Center, Main Street is the heart of Oldtown Salinas, a restored downtown area spangled with historic buildings and modern restaurants, shops and entertainment outlets like the Ariel Theatrical, Fox Theater and Maya Cinemas. Every Saturday, Gabilan Street hosts the Oldtown Marketplace, which features super-fresh fruits, veggies and other edible delights from the Salinas Valley.
The Salinas Valley, often called "the salad bowl of the world" thanks to its ideal climate and healthy production of various fruits and veggies, also offers plenty of outdoor adventure. Held every July since 1911, the California Rodeo Salinas is one of the state's premier showcases for everything Western, from bull riding and bronco busting to barbecue and cowboy poetry. South of town, the River Road Wine Trail meanders past more than 20 vineyards and a dozen tasting rooms.
Also south of town, don't miss what's soon to become the Monterey Zoo — the Wild Things sanctuary, which is currently home to a menagerie of retired exotic movie animals. It remains open for public tours everyday at 1 p.m. while it undergoes extensive construction on its way to becoming an impressive $6 million modern nonprofit zoo. After you take in the lions and tigers (from a safe distance), you can retire to a safari-style bungalow at the on-site bed-and-breakfast Vision Quest Ranch, where the far-off roars of big cats will lull you to sleep.
At the opposite end of the Monterey County urban spectrum is the pastoral, wine-rich Carmel Valley, and it's a destination that no wine connoisseur should miss.
Within a stretch of just a few miles, you'll find no less than 20 tasting rooms. Most of them are located within a walkable distance from one another along the main drag, West Carmel Valley Road — convenient for casually strolling and imbibing without having to worry about getting in the car.
Once you've had your fill of vino, head to tiny Tassajara Springs, less than an hour and a half south of Carmel Valley. The secluded burg offers trailheads into Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness. White Oaks and several other campgrounds cater to the hiking crowd.
Most of the folks who cruise Highway 101 between the Southland and Bay Area know Soledad as a place for a quick fill-up and maybe some fast food. But it's also one of the county's oldest and most interesting spots. The town takes its name from La Mision de Maria Santisima, Nuestra Senora de la Soledad — normally just called Mission Soledad — founded in 1791 by Franciscan friars. Much later, Soledad was the fictional setting for Steinbeck classic "Of Mice and Men."
A long-time way station for the Bixby Overland Stage, the town's Los Coches Adobe is reputedly haunted. Among the wineries scattered around Soledad are Estancia Estates, Wrath Winery, Hahn Estates and Carmel Road.
Pinnacles National Park
From downtown Soledad it's no more than a half-hour drive (via Highway 146) to the west entrance of Pinnacles National Park and its spectacular topography. Multiple volcanic eruptions around 23 million years ago created a 30-mile-wide lava flow that eroded into the strange rock formations that give the park its name. Recognizing its odd beauty, Teddy Roosevelt declared it a national monument in 1908. But it didn't rise to full national park status until 2013, making it one of the nation's newest national parks.
Pinnacles is one of only four sites where captive-bred California condors have been released to live in the wild. Townsend big-eared bats, bobcats, coyotes, black-tailed deer, mountain lions, golden eagles and peregrine falcons count among the park's other denizens. Thirty-two miles of trail lead to caves, slot canyons and those namesake pinnacles. Chaparral Trailhead near the west entrance offers the shortest hike to the park's namesake pinnacles, but the only campgrounds are accessed via the east entrance.
—Joe Yogerst, Tribune Content Solutions