Essential Two-Day Itinerary for the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County
Travelers to Monterey joyfully reminisce about their experience of playful sea otters, graceful sharks, and colossal bluefin tuna while visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, as well as of the luxurious Pebble Beach and the breathtaking vistas along Pacific Coast Highway from Carmel-by-the-Sea, to Big Sur. Yet for the Winetraveler, just east of these idyllic destinations is a world-class wine-growing region that’s worth a detour: The Salinas Valley’s Santa Lucia Highlands.
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Suggested 2 Day Santa Lucia Highlands Itinerary
Similar to the unique geographical orientation of the Cru vineyards of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, the SLHs’ drape the terraced bench of the Santa Lucia mountain range. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote about this slice of California as if it were part of his family:
“You want to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother.”
It doesn’t take long to realize that family is vital here, with a small group of farming families, pioneering the region’s wine-growing potential in the 1970s. Over the next 20 years, vintners from other regions joined local ranching and farming families to develop vineyards and wineries, producing stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Roussanne, Syrah, and Viognier.
Where To Begin
I prefer to start slightly east of the Salinas Valley, with a hike in the Pinnacles National Park and then take a dip in the saltwater pool at the Inn at the Pinnacles, followed by a peaceful night’s stay. From the Pinnacles, you head west to the SLHs River Road Wine Trail. Along the trail, you’ll find a handful of wineries with tasting rooms inside the highly coveted vineyards, in which winemakers compete to buy grapes.
Wineries To Visit Along The Santa Lucia Highlands River Road Wine Trail
Wineries to stop at along the trail are:
At this point, you will have noticed that a trip to the Santa Lucia Highlands is unlike visiting other California wine regions.
Many wineries operate their tasting rooms in the more tourist-visited areas of Carmel Valley and Carmel-by-the-Sea. To avoid the crowds, you want to head to Carmel Valley with a stop at The Farm. The is not your average farm but an agricultural education center and bakery where you can buy fruits and vegetables that are grown alongside the vineyard of the SLHs. You’ll learn first-hand why this part of California is nicknamed “The World’s Salad Bowl.”
Just a few twists and turns from The Farm, is Carmel Valley. This once local’s secret is now home to at least 15 tasting rooms where even more Sta Lucia Highlands wines’ can be tasted. Plus, almost everything you want to do and see is along Carmel Valley Road. One of my favorite places to stop for a proper vineyard lunch, akin to the ones described in Richard Olney book Ten Vineyard Lunches, is Lucia Restaurant and Bar located at the Bernardus Lodge and Spa. Not only can you taste the wines Bernardus makes from the SLHs, but you will also experience how the entire region’s bounty comes together at the hand of Chef Cal Stamenov. This is a not-to-be-missed destination for me.
Next stops are Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach, and Monterey. But first, rejuvenate yourself from all the stress of hiking and wine tasting by eating at The Refuge. Just like its name implies The Refuge provides a Thermal Cycle of saunas, cold plunges, and hot pools. It’s the perfect place to unwind and recount your visit through the hidden appellation that is the Santa Lucia Highlands, before heading west to California’s Central Coast.
How to Get to the Santa Lucia Highlands
Depending on where you are coming from, there are two distinct routes to enjoy the SLHs. The closest airports are Monterey Regional Airport (MRY), which is about a 45-minute drive and San Jose International Airport (SJC) about a 1.5-hour drive. Take a look at flight deals as they arise here, and browse rental car rates with Expedia.
Take Highway 68 east from Monterey towards Salinas and River Road. At Spreckels, once a company town and Sugar Plant, turn onto River Road, soon you’ll see fewer homes and more farms of all types with white wooden signs pointing you toward the wineries of the River Road Wine Trail.
From San Jose:
Take 101 south towards Los Angeles for 75 miles and exit Gonzales River Road (exit 313) west to G17 River Road. The SLHs stretch 17 miles along the Salinas River.
Where to Stay to Enjoy the Sta Lucia Highlands
Starting from San Jose the towns of Gonzales, Soledad and Greenfield feature the usual roadside amenities — motels, fast food, and a few Mexican restaurants. This is why I like to start at the Pinnacles National Park and drive east to the SLHs and save my appetite for the restaurants in Carmel Valley.
Starting from Monterey, you have every imaginable amenity and luxury from The Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach to L’Auberge Carmel, and everything in between. You can check out a complete list of hotel options in and around Monterey County for all budgets here.
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