California Pacific Coast road trip itinerary with kids
I’ve wanted to do a road trip along California’s Pacific Coast Highway – aka Highway 1 – for years. And once my daughter was old enough for it to be a pleasure rather than a punishment (for us), I started planning our route.
And that’s where it got tricky. I could have spent a month or more exploring here, and we had around 10 days including two transatlantic flights. I also didn’t want to be rushing from place to place without time to stop and admire the views or discover little coves – and a tired cross preschooler was not on the list.
So regretfully, Los Angeles and San Diego were both out (for now) as was any thought of detouring far inland. But for a taste of the incredible scenery and some of the city and towns along the coast, here’s my 10-day California Pacific Coast road trip itinerary with kids.
Day 1: UK to San Francisco
Allow most of the first day for the 11-hour flight from the UK to San Francisco, picking up your hire car and checking in to your accommodation. We stayed in AirBNB all the way (unsurprisingly San Francisco has a lot of choice!) picking Noe Valley as a quiet residential area near a few parks and with good transport links to get around the city.
There’s no reason you can’t look at hotels or motels as well, but it worked out cheaper for us and meant we had a base to relax in the evenings when my daughter was asleep.
Days 2-4: San Francisco
It goes without saying that you could spend far longer in the city by the bay without getting bored, but I think this is the minimum to see some highlights. I’ll be writing more about what we got up to and my list of the dozens of things you could do in San Francisco with kids. There are a few not to miss though.
We spent our first full day getting a first (misty) sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, heading over to the viewpoints at Crissy Field and out to the Wave Organ, taking a drive around some of the city’s main districts and the ultra-twisty Lombard street before lunch at the Ferry Building and a quieter afternoon in one of the parks (and a few shops!).
The second full day was another fairly low-key one, heading to Ocean Beach and then into Golden Gate Park (which could eat a day on its own) to spot the windmills, explore the play area, see the buffalo and have lunch at the De Young museum. Our afternoon fitted in a brief visit to the more touristy Fisherman’s Wharf before taking a vintage fire truck tour of the city.
This was hugely fun, and you get to go over the Golden Gate Bridge as well as stopping at a few viewpoints. Ideally, I’d have liked to do that earlier in the trip, as I think it would make a good starting point to see the city but it was booked up.
Our final full day was spent mostly on Alcatraz, with a wander around Pier 39 before and after to spot sea lions and guzzle seafood in one of the many restaurants. Alcatraz itself is fantastic and definitely worth booking in advance, with a great short boat ride over from a neighbouring pier, then the chance to wander around the famous prison – more to come on this as well.
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Even with those three fairly full days, we didn’t have time to do everything we would have liked to – Sausalito would have been great to visit, and while we did ride on one or two of the trolley cars, we didn’t have chance to go in a cable car.
The city has plenty of museums, lots more parks and some great walking tours to explore the historic areas too. The vineyards of Sonoma and Napa Valley (among others) are also close enough for a day trip.
Day 5: Drive to Monterey
One thing I learned from our drive along the coast is always always to leave plenty of time – there are too many stopping points to skip them all, the winding roads mean you won’t be speeding from A to B anyway, and if you have a three-year-old, they will want to get out at every stopping place along the way.
And while guide books are great for suggesting specific spots, there’s no real need to tie yourself to that – simply cruise along and pull over whenever the fancy or the views take you.
After a brief stop in San Francisco to see the mosaic tiled steps on 16th Avenue, we headed straight out of the city passing through Half Moon Bay and regretfully missing some of the elephant seal sites, such as Ano Nuevo Park in order to get to Santa Cruz for lunch.
The boardwalk is famous (especially if you’re a fan of The Lost Boys) and the bright colours are fantastic against the blue sky, not to mention more great fish and seafood to eat before finishing the drive to Monterey.
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While California’s biggest and most impressive redwoods are north of San Francisco, there are several state parks along here with more of the huge trees. Big Basin is one option but we went to Henry Cowell Redwoods state park, not far from Santa Cruz which has a great short trail through one of the groves that’s the perfect length for younger kids.
For various complicated practical reasons to do with friends staying nearby, we actually drove back up from Monterey later in the trip but you could squeeze in a short visit on the route south.
Days 6-7: Monterey
Monterey’s biggest claim to fame for literature fans is its links to John Steinbeck – but if you’re travelling with a child, it’s all about the aquarium.
Monterey Aquarium is just huge, so allow a whole day to explore and see all the sea creatures and hear some of the talks – another post coming on this too.
You can get a stamp on your hand which allows you to pop out for lunch as well, and take a wander along Cannery Row for something to eat, drink and a quick stop on the beach.
On your second day, follow the scenic 17-mile drive (or part of it) through Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach along to Carmel. You’ll crawl through the fancy residential streets and want to stop over and over again at the scenic coast, so this isn’t one to rush.
Then see how the other half live in chi chi Carmel before hitting the powdery white sand beach here with a gigantic and fabulous ice cream.
Day 8: Big Sur
There’s something incredibly evocative about the words ‘Big Sur’ and this coastline definitely doesn’t disappoint. We had had plans to reach Pismo Beach by lunchtime… our detours and stops meant we had to abandon that for a late lunch in Cambria along the way.
Our first unscheduled stop was to Pfeiffer Beach, intrigued as to where all these cars were detouring too – down a narrow wooded approach, you find the famous purple sands created by minerals in the hills above and some crashing waves among the rock formations.
Then after refuelling in laid-back Cambria we reached the pier and sands of Pismo Beach by late afternoon in time for the sunset.
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The drive also passes Hearst Castle, just off the highway near San Simeon (better with older kids or a more relaxed itinerary), Morro Bay with the famous Morro Rock formation and the ‘happiest town in America’ of San Luis Obispo. You can also stop to see sea lions at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve or head in to the wineries at Edna Valley.
If you visit at the right time of year, from October to February, don’t miss the Monarch butterfly grove near Pismo Beach with around 25,000 butterflies clustering in the trees. Outside that time, it’s distinctly less spectacular!
Day 9: Pismo Beach
The last morning of the trip demanded a classic American breakfast – we found a slightly random little place which was perfect, with pancakes, eggs and bottomless coffee.
Then a last look round Pismo Beach itself with its classic American Main Street and colourful buildings before heading back to San Francisco.
Although it took around a week to amble gently south along the coast, you can head back to the Interstate towards the airport which speeds you north in around four hours, depending on traffic, in time for an overnight flight back to the UK.
Day 10: Arrive UK
Touch down – depending which flight you pick home, you’ll be back some time after lunch… at which point, you’ll probably start plotting the next road trip to fit in all the things you didn’t have chance to do the first time round.
People can and do write entire guidebooks solely about California’s coast and the many things there are to do – I’m pretty sure we could go back for the same length of time, retrace the same route and not have to repeat anything from trip 1!
But this was a great introduction to the amazing scenery and the number of attractions here, while still keeping it relaxed enough for the attention span of a three-year-old.
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