They bark, they laze and bathe and they’re fun to watch – sea lions are the stars in this state park some 4 miles south of Carmel, along with the dramatically rocky coastline and its excellent tide-pooling. Even a short hike through this spectacular scenery is rewarding. Note that parking inside the reserve is limited to 150 cars, and spaces fill quickly in summer. Arrive before 9:30am or after 3pm to avoid the crowds. Alternatively, park on Hwy 1 and walk in.
The reserve is laced with hiking trails, including several skirting the ocean's edge where you might spot sea lions and sea otters between the crashing waves. A nice short loop is the 0.8-mile Cypress Grove Trail. In the south, Bird Island has impressive views as well, but, frankly, there's not a bad spot anywhere in the reserve. The kelp forest at Whalers Cove is popular with snorkelers and scuba divers.
If you park on the highway, don't skip paying the entry fee – California's state parks are chronically underfunded and need your help.