Sure, you know and love the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row and Carmel-by-the-Sea — all must-visit destinations on any trip to Monterey County. But did you know there's also a world of hidden treasures, from unspoiled coastline to lions, tigers and California condors (oh, my!) and award-winning wines and literary enlightenment in the region?
To get you started, here are five fantastic off-the-beaten path experiences.
Pinnacles National Park
America's newest national park, designated in 2013, is a paradise of otherworldly rock formations, spires and caves — all remnants of an ancient volcanic explosion. Thirty-two miles of trails beckon hikers and rock climbers. As if the eerie beauty weren't enough, there's the chance of spotting a rare California condor. The park is a release location for rehabilitated birds and more than 60 may be in and around the park at any one time. Hike the Condor Gulch Trail for the best chances to see the rare bird. With a nearly 10-foot wingspan, they are sometimes mistaken for small planes. www.nps.gov/pinn
Monterey Zoo and Vision Safari Bed & Breakfast
The nonprofit Monterey Zoo is a wildlife park and haven for retired showbiz beasts — lions, tigers, bears, elephants, bobcats and other animals that performed on camera, in circuses and elsewhere. Combining that with eight luxury safari tent bungalows and breakfast delivered by an elephant? It's an animal lover's dream come true. Daily guided tours and special programs demonstrating feeding or bedtime rituals offer endearing educational fun. The dazzling new Bengal tiger exhibit includes a huge tiger enclosure with a three-story play structure, a 25-foot swimming pool and a waterfall. And if you're in the mood for a safari, you can meet and interact with whatever animals you like on the Walk with the Animals program. The tour includes breakfast, lunch and evening wine and cheese. www.visionquestranch.com
The Salinas Valley
Stretching for 90 miles, the Salinas Valley is prime growing land for award-winning wineries and a large amount of the world's fruits and veggies. The majority of the leafy greens the country consumes are grown right here, giving the region the nickname "America's Salad Bowl." Experience the proud farming tradition — and sample the wines — with an Ag Venture Tours farm-wine-tasting guided tour. You'll visit a working farm and sample vintages from some of the 29 wineries along the River Road Wine Trail on the slopes of the Santa Lucia Highlands. If you're in the mood to be shown around, try Monterey Guided Wine Tours or the Monterey Bay Experience. Want to explore solo? Download the River Road Wine Trail self-driving wine map. www.seemonterey.com/regions/salinas-valley
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve at Moss Landing
Experience outdoor adventure, wildlife sightings and artsy fun beginning in Elkhorn Slough, one of California's largest tracts of tidal saltmarsh wetlands. Take a guided pontoon boat cruise with Elkhorn Slough Safari Nature Tours or rent a kayak or canoe to explore on your own. Be on the lookout for sea otters, sea lions, seals and hundreds of bird species. Then enjoy the laidback artists' studios, antique shops and cafes of Moss Landing, a quirky waterfront village on Monterey Bay. An insider tip: The cioppino at Phil's Fish Market & Eatery beat out celeb chef Bobby Flay's in a Food Network throwdown. www.elkhornslough.com
Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck was born and raised in Salinas. Follow his illustrious footsteps with the self-guided Steinbeck Itinerary. Enjoy a few highlights or take the entire three-day trip to see his old haunts and the locations depicted in his books. Must-see locations include the National Steinbeck Center, which features the green camper he drove through 34 states before writing "Travels with Charlie," lunch in his Salinas childhood home (the front rooms are now a folksy restaurant), the adobe house in downtown Monterey where he lived the year "Cannery Row" was published, and the Pacific Grove home where he lived in 1930. For the complete experience, visit Corral de Tierra to see the landscapes described in "Pastures of Heaven" and Fremont Park, where his final visit to Monterey County ended in "Travels." www.seemonterey.com/things-to-do/itineraries/steinbeck