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California road trip with kids – a 10-day Pacific Coast Highway itinerary

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 for a California road trip with kids.

Taking our rental car out onto the Pacific Coast Highway in California - and tips in my pacific coast road trip itinerary, how to do a California road trip with kids
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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 for our whole California family road trip. 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 itinerary for a California road trip with kids along the Pacific Coast.

For more tips on packing for a road trip with kids, check out my essential list

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.

My daughter on a sandy cove by the sea - my Pacific Coast Highway pictures and reasons to visit California

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 you need to allow in your California family holiday itinerary to see some highlights.

There are dozens of things you could do in San Francisco with kids – as you can see from my list of the top 63. 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 Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco in the mist - how to do a California road trip with kids

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.

Lighthouse tower at Alcatraz during our visit to San Francisco - reasons to visit California and California road trip in photos

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.

For a few more shots inside the notorious island jail, as well as some more family California road trip highlights, check out this photo post.

San Francisco itinerary with kids: Want some more?

Even keeping those three days in San Francisco with kids pretty full of attractions, 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. 

Check out my top 63 things to do in San Francisco with kids as well as some great days out from San Francisco with kids

Looking back along the coast to the hills past yellow flowers - my Pacific Coast Highway pictures and reasons to visit California

Day  5: Drive to Monterey

One thing I learned from our drive along the coast is always always to leave plenty of time.

For more advice on planning a road trip with kids, check out my top tips

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. The same goes if you’re taking a toddler on a California road trip, with baby needing an equally flexible Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary.

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.

For more ideas of great road trips snacks for kids, check out my top tips

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.

California family holiday itinerary: Want some more?

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 during a West Coast road trip with kids.

Street art on a wall at the beach by Cannery Row in Monterey, California - how to do a California road trip with kids

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 – check out my full review of this fantastic Pacific Coast kids attraction.

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.

For 55 of the best road trip activities for kids to keep everyone entertained, check out my top picks

Day 8: Big Sur

There’s something incredibly evocative about the words ‘Big Sur’ and this coastline definitely doesn’t disappoint – when you’re planning a family road trip, California comes up precisely because of this amazing and dramatic stretch of highway.

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.

View of the coast one one stop-off on our road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway in California - how to do a California road trip with kids

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.

Pacific Coast Highway with kids: Want some more?

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 so check before you add it to your California road trip with family!

Pismo Beach pier with the sun reflected on the waves in California on the last stop of our Pacific Coast Highway itinerary - how to do a California road trip with kids

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, exploring the Pacific Coast Highway with kids, 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.

If you do keep going south as far as Los Angeles, check out these 100 ideas for things to do in LA

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 California road trip with kids 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! There’s just so much to do on California road trips for families that 10 days really only scratched the surface.

But this was a great introduction to the amazing scenery and the number of attractions here, while still keeping a California family road trip relaxed enough for the attention span of a three-year-old. If you’re wondering whether you really can make a California road trip kid-friendly, here’s the proof!

For ideas of the best things to do in Northern California with kids, check out my pick to extend your road trip north of San Francisco

*First published in 2016, last updated 2020*

PIN FOR LATER: CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP WITH KIDS

How to do a California road trip with kids. A 10 day itinerary for a Pacific Coast road trip with kids - heading down Highway 1 in California from San Francisco to Pismo Beach with a few great places to stop along the way #roadtrip #highwayone #pacificcoast #california

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64 Comments

  1. So glad you got to explore my home state! I hope you loved it! This post really makes me miss home! I still need to take my fiance to San Diego where I grew up! #CityTripping

    1. I really did – we had such a great trip. I was dying to go to San Diego as well, I keep reading great things about it, but there was just too much geography in the way to fit it in this time. Next time perhaps!

    1. Thanks – I think it’s one you could revisit and revisit with or without kids, such a great area to explore (maybe a convertible and those vineyards in 15 years for me!)

  2. Wow beautiful photographs and they really paint a lovely picture of the area. There seems to be loads to do for kids – my three would love a vintage fire truck tour. I have a feeling you may be returning to the Pacific coast sooner rather than later…….

  3. What an amazing road trip ! I really want to explore California after cancelling our previous trip. Reading this, it felt like it whizzed by and suddenly you were back in the UK…hope it didn’t feel like that when you were there. You certainly packed a fair bit in (considering you were with a 3 year old)! I love your pictures! #citytripping

    1. We did pack quite a bit in in the end – it oddly felt like the whole trip flew pasts but also that we were out there for much longer. Usually the sign of a good holiday!

    1. I’m so glad we picked this for our first family road trip – definitely a classic for a good reason! And I agree about San Francisco, really enjoyed it there too.

    1. Thank you – I was a bit disappointed that the famous fog seemed to be out every time we went near the bridge, but actually love the atmospheric misty views.

  4. I’d LOVE to do this road trip, being an obsessive planner I have actually planned it out a few times, you’ve given me some great ideas #citytripping

    1. Half the fun is the planning – all those potential routes and itineraries and things to do. I hope you get to visit in reality too.

    1. Thanks! It would be lovely to have longer and be even more spontaneous but I think we got a nice balance of planning and stopping along the way.

  5. Wow! Great itinerary! And busy schedule! But such beautiful views! I’ve heard that the west coast of the US is prettier than the east, but I think this post proves it. I’d love to take a drive down the California coast. Maybe one day I’ll actually get to use your itinerary rather than just reading it! 🙂

    1. Thanks! It is such a stunning place – and we did seem to pack a lot in, although it didn’t seem too busy at the time.

  6. What a great trip Cathy. I did it with my family as a teenager and sulked in the back of the car. Such an ungrateful terror and I am sure sadly for me I missed a lot of the wonderful views you have shown. Just goes to show timing is everything with family travel! Looking forward to returning to California soon with your tips and better attitude in hand!

    1. Oh hindsight is wonderful! I’d have thought it would be a great trip for teens too – still, that’s a good motivator to go back again.

    1. It’s got us thinking about doing another family road trip next year – maybe Canada this time… I admit, I got my husband to do the driving (he actively enjoys it) but the roads are good: the coast is relatively quiet (or was in June) so the only drawback is not being able to see as much as the passengers.

  7. Wow! What a beautiful part of the world! A few years ago I did a camping road trip along the Washington & Oregon coast and was absolutely blown away. I stopped compulsively to photograph every view, frolick on every beach and hike every trail – or at least that’s what it felt like! I only made it as far south as the very northern tip of California but I’ve wanted to go back and keep going south ever since. Don’t you just love it when a trip is so lovely there is always reason to go back? I’m so happy you guys had a lovely time!

    1. Yes – exactly that! I did see part of the Washington coast a few years back and it was stunning too – so wild and unspoiled, I can imagine it would have been wonderful to keep going into Oregon.

  8. How fun! I love that area! Hearst Castle is amazing if you ever get a chance to check it out. I’m headed to San Francisco in September for the first time and I can’t wait! We already have our tickets for Alcatraz!

    1. Hearst Castle did sound fascinating but a few people who’d been with kids gave it mixed reports – I think it sounds better with older children, so I have a good excuse to go back in a few years. Enjoy Alcatraz, it was fascinating.

    1. I’d have loved to get down to Santa Barbara – I think that was originally my southernmost point until I realised we’d have to skip through a few places too quickly unfortunately. Next time!

    1. I haven’t read much Steinbeck – should have taken the opportunity while we were there, but I love the idea of a trip to tie in with the books.

    1. Thanks! I hope it’s useful and plenty of inspiration too – I have so many posts to get started on…

    1. It’s a fascinating spot, isn’t it – I’m not quite sure what I’d expected but in some ways it was quite different.

  9. Oh my! Road Trips are really nice. The closest to home for me is a Malaysian Road Trip and but it doesn’t sport such beautiful coastal scenery! We have never been to the Americas and I wonder when we will make its there. It is really a long long flight away from Singapore. Travelling to Europe is still a lot more feasible! #citytripping

    1. There are some great road trips in Europe too – the Italian coast or some of the mountains would be amazing. But this is fabulous if you ever try the long flight.

  10. I have never done this stretch of road – a reminder that I definitely need to! We were on PCH a little lower this summer between Santa Monica and Malibu and Santa Barbara. Such a beautiful road if you have the time! Thanks for sharing and the Lost Boys reference! Yes! #CityTripping

    1. I’d love to keep travelling further south as well, it would be great to explore a bit more – so much to see! And I do love a good 80s film reference 🙂

  11. Awesome itinerary – how old was your little one if you don’t mind me asking? Thinking this would be something we could do in the future with kids for sure 🙂 #citytripping

    1. Thanks! And she was three, almost four (it was about a month before her birthday) and that worked pretty well – she couldn’t see much from her car seat unfortunately, but was able to amuse herself by this age and join in exploring the coves when we stopped.

  12. I love this trip and did it with my husband, before we had kids, when we lived in California. I would love to do it again with the boys when we are back in The States. It looks like you had a lovely time visiting a beautiful part of the country.

    1. We had a wonderful trip – it is such a gorgeous area, isn’t it, I’d love to go back again as I don’t think I could get tired of exploring and this coast.

  13. Loving this! And reading it with a bit of envy, as this is something far up on the list to show my girls. I lived in SF in my 20’s and had friends and relatives in L.A., and this is one of the most spectacular road trips in the U.S., if not the most. The scenery is sublime, as your photos so well show. I love reading others’ perspectives from a family point of view..definately taking notes for when we do it some day soon. Sounds like you hit up all the right places! #citytripping

    1. Thanks! It really is an incredible stretch of coast, isn’t it – and definitely doable with kids. How fun to relive it with your family one day.

  14. I did a very similar drive many years back before I had kids. I loved San Francisco and Hearst Castle. I would love to bring my boys back here and visit Monterey Bay Aquarium. #CityTripping

    1. Monterey Aquarium is just amazing with kids, would definitely recommend a stop there. I would have loved to stop at Hearst Castle (and some of the vineyards!) but there wasn’t time for it all, so the less child-friendly bits got dropped sadly… Another time.

  15. What a useful itinerary Cathy. I went to San Francisco in my teens and absolutely loved it. I’d love to go back to the US one day…

    1. Thanks! I would love to go back to San Francisco and spend more time there too – a few days only scratches the surface.

  16. Never been to the US, but a road trip on the Pacific Coast is high on my wishlist. Will definitely copy your itinerary when I do, sounds like you had a great time. 😀

    1. It was great, especially for a first proper road trip with my daughter – a coast-to-coast one would be amazing, but definitely add this on as well.

  17. Wow this sounds spectacular! I would love to do a road trip. Hubby has never been to San Fran so we will be definately going there at some point. I think I may suggest a road trip too! Thanks for hosting – just catching up on comments after the Summer sorry! Xx #citytripping

    1. It was such an amazing stretch of coast – if you’re going to San Francisco, I can highly recommend a bit of a drive along the road, even if you just went as far as Monterey. Thanks again for linking.

    1. It was such a fantastic way to explore – definitely made me want to do even more family road trips.

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