Carmel Valley, CA is a remote town surrounded by rolling green hills, located about 17 miles inland from Monterey, CA. Visitors come to Carmel Valley to get out of the city and enjoy a slower pace of life in this small town with a downtown area that you can drive through in only a few minutes. As a part of one of California’s many wine regions, Carmel Valley is home to over 20 tasting rooms that are scattered throughout the town. In addition to wine tasting, there are many things to do in Carmel Valley like hiking at Garland Ranch Regional Park, camping in a yurt, and eating delicious local food. After 36 hours of research, including a visit to Carmel Valley, CA, we found that the following are the best places to eat, play, and stay.
Wild Goose Cafe is coffee and breakfast spot located on Carmel Valley Road, which is the street that runs directly through the town. This cafe has a homey vibe, and can work as your quick stop for coffee or for a full sit-down breakfast. The pastries here are made fresh every day, and you can also have more substantial breakfast options like breakfast sandwiches and burritos.
Carmel Valley is fairly small, so if you are looking for a coffee shop or breakfast cafe in town, we found that Wild Good Cafe is one of the few options. We chose Wild Goose Cafe because of its focus on coffee and fresh pasties, which we did not find elsewhere in Carmel Valley.
From the moment we walked in to Wild Goose Cafe, it was evident that this is where the Carmel Valley locals come for coffee. Most of the guests and employees seemed to know each other by name which was very endearing. We ordered a plain latte, almond croissant, and a breakfast sandwich, which were all pretty good.
There is currently no competition for Wild Goose Cafe, since it is the only breakfast cafe that we could find in Carmel Valley proper.
Located in a large, rustic style home, Cafe Rustica is a restaurant that focuses on a variety of different foods, including comfort food, French food, pizzas, American food, Italian food, and even more. In addition to the house, Cafe Rustica has a large patio where guests can also enjoy their meals outside. Cafe Rustica provides a fine dining experience and quality dishes with moderate prices.
Not only was Cafe Rustica was the highest mentioned restaurant in articles written about Carmel Valley, but it was also recommended to us by several locals. In addition to its high online reviews, Cafe Rustica also had the highest number of reviews compared to other restaurants with the same rating.
We made our reservation for Cafe Rustica’s outdoor patio. Cafe Rustica was very busy, and the tables were packed in pretty tight. We followed a local’s recommendation to order whatever is on the special list which that night was the duck special. While we agreed the duck dish would not usually be something we would order off the menu, it showcased the style and quality that Cafe Rustica is known for. The duck was cooked to perfection and was laid on a bed to mashed potatoes and vegetables. We had the lemon cake for dessert which was fresh and packed with flavor. Due to the busyness of the restaurant, our service was quick and to the point, though we were never left without anything we needed.
No matter what day or time you plan to visit Cafe Rustica, we would always recommend making a reservation, especially if you have a seating preference. We were able to get a same day reservation when we called in the afternoon, but we had to take a later reservation than we would normally make since we wanted a patio seat and were making a same-day reservation.
The main competition for Cafe Rustica is Corkscrew Cafe, where we had a great experience after finding them to have high mentions and reviews as well. After visiting both restaurants, we determined that they tie for best Carmel Valley restaurant.
Corkscrew Cafe is a Carmel Valley lunch and dinner restaurant that is known for their wood-fired pizzas and use of seasonal ingredients. They have their own organic garden which grows the seasonal vegetables that are used in many of their dishes. Their interior design is inspired by Mission-style architecture, and they have a beautiful outdoor patio with draping trees and vibrant flowers.
While there are a lot of dining options in Carmel Valley, Corkscrew Cafe was mentioned the most in articles about Carmel Valley next to Cafe Rustica. Our analysis of online reviews along with our personal experience confirmed Corkscrew Cafe as a top restaurant in Carmel Valley.
It was a beautiful day in Carmel Valley when we visited Corkscrew Cafe, so we opted to sit in the outdoor patio. Since Corkscrew Cafe is known for their wood-fired pizzas, we ordered the Mushroom pizza which was topped with truffle oil, parmesan, shallots, thyme, tomato sauce, and mozzarella. Our pizza was perfectly cooked and the combination of flavors were unique and inviting. Everyone who served us was incredibly friendly and made our experience even more memorable.
If you are visiting on the weekend, you’ll definitely want to make a reservation. Their parking lot can reach capacity quickly, but there is plenty of adjacent street parking on Pilot Road. Beware—they are closed Tuesday and Wednesday!
We found that the main competition for Corkscrew Cafe was Cafe Rustica, which we found to be just as good! We’d recommend visiting both if you can.
Garland Ranch Regional Park is a large, dog and horse friendly park located just outside of downtown Carmel Valley. With elevation ranging from 200 to 2,000 feet and many different trails, Garland Ranch Regional Park has a variety of different hikes that are suitable for different needs. You can purchase a new trail map near the visitor center or you can borrow one of their used maps.
Garland Ranch Regional Park was one of the top mentioned activities in articles about Carmel Valley and it’s online reviews were promising as well. During our visit, we noticed a variety of different types of people—from families with young children, to serious hikers, to elderly strollers—which made it evident that that this park can be enjoyed by many.
We visited Garland Ranch Regional Park in the morning and made our way across the beautiful Carmel River to the volunteer run visitor center before starting our hike. Since the visitor center was still closed, we opted to borrow a free map and started on the Waterfall Trail, which is around 2 miles round trip. This trail was mostly flat and uncovered until we got closer to the falls where the trail became steep with gorgeous tree cover. The waterfall was not running when we visited and a local hiker informed us that in a typical year it only runs for a few weeks after significant rainfall. Even without the waterfall, our hike was still breathtaking, especially once we started going uphill.
If you want to see the waterfall, you’ll want to visit in the spring after it has rained. Even if you miss the waterfall, that area is still beautiful and absolutely worth the hike. If you are visiting during the Summer like we did, we recommend starting your hike earlier in the day, especially since not all of the trails have tree coverage.
There are only a few other trails in Carmel Valley that are located outside of Garland Ranch Regional Park, including Vasquez Knob Trail and Khan Ranch Loop. However, both trails are located up in the hills of Carmel Valley, which means the trailheads are more difficult to access. We determined that the location and variety of trails offered at Garland Ranch Regional Park made it the best option for most Carmel Valley visitors looking for a trail.
Earthbound Farm Stand is a 2.5 acre farm that is open to the public, and also has a small store and cafe. The farm itself is an experience, offering tours, a pick-your-own herb garden, a labyrinth, and the opportunity to walk through a good portion of the farm to see what’s growing. You can also purchase organic food, drinks, and produce at their cafe, and enjoy it outside while you play corn-hole.
Earthbound Farm Stand was just as highly mentioned as Garland Ranch Regional Park, and seemed like an interesting a unique place to visit. However, Earthbound Farm Stand is technically a 5 minute drive past the border of Carmel Valley, so we were conflicted to whether or not we should even consider it for the guide. Since it was so highly mentioned and reviewed, and embodied the rustic, farm-to-table identity of Carmel Valley, we felt that it was important to include.
While we did not know exactly what to expect when we put Earthbound Farm Stand on our agenda, as soon as we arrived we could tell that it was a must-visit location for Carmel Valley visitors. After browsing the cafe, we started our exploration of the grounds by sitting in their oversized lawn chairs and playing corn-hole, both which were located directly next to the cafe. We then ventured back to the gardens, where we walked through the labyrinth, enjoyed the smells in the herb garden, and marveled at the “Three Sisters Garden”—a setup where corn, squash, and beans grown in harmony—just to name a few. After walking around in the sun, we went back to the cafe and enjoyed some home grown plums and apricots.
We recommend visiting Earthbound Farm Stand’s website to check their calendar, which includes a variety of free and paid tours and events.
Carmel Valley used to have its own Farmer’s Market, but our research suggested that it is no longer open. Also, the Carmel Valley Farmer’s Market did not have great reviews and was only open for 4 hours every Sunday, which does not compare to the 9-10 hours that Earthbound Farm Stand is open every day.
Joullian Vineyards is a Monterey County winery with a tasting room located in the heart of Carmel Valley. While Joullian Vineyards is inspired by Bordeaux-style wines, their wines are well rounded, offering a wide variety of white and red wines. The tasting room is in a quaint but elegant cobblestone building that instantly catches your eye as you drive by.
With over 20 tasting rooms in Carmel Valley, we compared the option based on articles mentions, reviews, tasting prices, quality for the price, and our personal experience. Since it is fairly new, Joullian Vineyard Tasting Room did not have as many mentions as some other tasting rooms but had very high reviews and fair tasting prices which made it a contender for one of the top tasting rooms. The individual attention we received here, along with the quality of the wines, made Joullian Vineyards our clear choice for best tasting room in Carmel Valley.
The beautiful cobblestoned tasting room for Joullian Vineyard was enticing even from the outside. When we sat down, our server explained that there are three tiers of tasting that were based on their different levels of wines, and we opted for the middle tear which cost $15*. Our server was a former winemaker himself, so as he poured us each tasting, he explained of how and where the grapes for that particular wine were grown. We enjoyed the individual attention we received at the Joullian Vineyards tasting room and felt that we actually learned about the wines we tasted.
Boekenoogen Winery tasting room was also great and was recommended to us by several locals. While we enjoyed our overall experience at Joullian Vineyard more, Boekenoogen Winery is definitely worth adding to your list if you are looking to visit multiple tasting rooms in Carmel Valley. Parsonage Winery was recommended by our servers at both Joullian and Boekenoogen, and while the wines were excellent, our overall experience here was pretty average. However, they only produce red wines which may be an attractive characteristic to some visitors. We also enjoyed Georgis Winery’s wines and garden seating, but the overall experience is more disconnected than the other wineries. Once you order, the server pours all of your wines and brings them out to your table so you don’t get to learn about each wine individually.
*Price at time of publication.
Peaceful Mountain Hideaway is a charming tiny house located in the hills of Carmel Valley with an incredible view. This tiny house is equipped with a kitchen and living area on the first floor, a bed on lofted area, and a porch where you can enjoy the view of the rolling hills. The Peaceful Mountain Hideaway is located on Living Circle Farm, where hosts Jen and Rob live with their farm animals and 2 giant dogs. This tiny house rents for $175 per night with a $50 cleaning fee per stay and has a two night minimum*.
After our thorough research of lodging options in Carmel Valley, we did not feel like any of the hotels were worth recommending. Lodging in Carmel Valley is all pricey overall, but the hotels that were less expensive relative to the area did not appear to be worth the money. There were a few luxury lodging options in Carmel Valley, but the price, in our opinion, did not seem worth it. We are reluctant to recommend AirBnbs since they are less regulated and typically book up more quickly, but due to the lack of recommendation-worthy hotels and our confidence in this AirBnb, we feel confident including it in our guide. When researching airbnbs, we considered quality, value for money, and location.
The drive to this AirBnB is breathtaking, as the road takes you through the bright green hills of Carmel Valley. When we arrived to the tiny house, we were even more amazed when we saw the view we had from our porch. The tiny house was beautifully decorated, and everything felt new and clean. The kitchen was equipped with everything we needed to make our dinner and even had different cereal and oatmeal options available for breakfast in the morning. Jen and Rob were great hosts, and even gave us a tour of their farm and let us feed their animals!
Peaceful Mountain Getaway has a two-night minimum, so if you are just passing through for the day, this lodging option won’t work for you. The weekends here book up a few months in advance, so make sure to book ahead of time if you can.
Again, the main competition to the Peaceful Mountain Hideaway are the hotels in downtown Carmel Valley. However, many of the hotels are similarly prices to Peaceful Mountain Getaway but are not nearly as high quality as this tiny house. In order to get a nice hotel in Carmel Valley, you will have to pay quite a bit which starts to become inaccessible to many visitors.
*Price at time of publication.
Saddle Mountain Ranch is a camping and glamping location with options ranging all across the camping spectrum. In addition to tent and RV sites, Saddle Mountain Ranch has small cabins, large cabins, and glamping tents available for visitors to rent. On site at Saddle Mountain Ranch, guests enjoy an array of amenities like the pool (available June through October)*, wifi deck, free showers, horseshoes, ping pong, badminton, and a hiking trail that is accessible exclusively through the Saddle Mountains grounds. Saddle Mountain Ranch is situated on a hill, so there are great views at the top of the property. Campsites start at $60, luxury tents at $90, cabins at $175, and the pool house at $595*. Prices fluctuate during the season and on weekends.
We looked at all of the campgrounds in Carmel Valley, and there were only a few that we could find in the vicinity. While Saddle Mountain Ranch is about a 10 minute drive from Carmel Valley, we decided to include it in this guide due to its high overall quality and because of the scarcity of surrounding campgrounds.
Saddle Mountain Ranch was very lively when we visited, and it was evident that there was enough to do here to stay on site during your whole visit. The pool area appeared to be the central hub of Saddle Mountain Ranch as it is one their top amenities and is surrounded by the RV sites, tent sites, small cabins, and glamping tents. We walked past the wifi deck which was next to the pool, and then further up the hill to check out the horseshoes and tents camping. The farther we went up the hill, the better view we got! We had the opportunity to check out one of the glamping tents which was very exciting. Outside on the deck, the glamping tent had a propane fire pit and two chairs, and inside the tent itself was like a clean, small hotel room (minus bathrooms). The staff at Saddle Mountain Ranch were very helpful in answering our questions about their property.
Since this is such a popular destination for family trips, many families book for the same time next year right before they leave. Since Saddle Mountain Ranch has so many loyal visitors, we recommend booking as far out ahead as you can to ensure securing the time and spot that you want. However, Summer is the busiest time at Saddle Mountain Ranch so you may not need to book far in advance for other times of the year.
The only other place we found to camp in Carmel Valley is The Camp, but they appear to operate an a conference center rather than renting to individual campers. While the cabins at The Camp are beautiful with amenities to give Saddle Mountain Ranch some strong competition, this campground and cabin rentals are not accessible to the individual traveler which is why we had to exclude it from our list. Other than The Camp, there were no other campgrounds that we found in Carmel Valley, CA.
*Prices at time of publication.