California offers many things to traveling families, from beaches and mountains, to amusements parks and national parks. It’s the picking and choosing what to do and what not to do that gets hard. If you’re looking for your family’s best shot at doing it all, buckle up and think about hitting the highway for a Grand California Family Road Trip. We’ve outlined a family friendly route from San Francisco to San Diego, if you’re short for time, condense your trip to focus on Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The phrase family road trip evokes a variety of reactions, ranging from free-wheeling fun to outright fear. Loading the kids in the car and taking off is certainly easier and cheaper than schlepping from one airport to the next in the wee hours of the morning while all the while hoping the flight remains on-time. But loading the kids in the car also means, well the kids are in the car, and truth be told family togetherness bliss only lasts so long.
A successful road trip is a road trip that’s fun! It’s the vacation that makes you smile when it comes up in conversation, and the trip you’d do all over again if you could. But the best thing, it’s really easily done. Good destinations are the foundation of the trip, with a balance of set activities and free time to do whatever you may or may not stumble upon along the way. Get one successful family road trip under your belt and more will follow, it doesn’t matter if the kids are five or 15.
If you’ve never planned a family road trip, pulling together your first adventure behind the wheel can feel a little overwhelming; this is especially true in California with kids, where there’s often a good reason to stop the car every few miles and take in the view from the side of the road. So along with the family travel pros from Trekaroo, we’ve put together the Grand California Road Trip. Short enough to fit into the school calendar’s definition of spring break, yet long enough to see what makes California such a great family vacation spot.
Our Grand California Road Trip plans for nine nights on the road. You could just print it out and go, but the best part about our family road trip is the flexibility it offers to let families make it their own. It doesn’t matter whether you head up or down the coast, you won’t miss a memory.
In each of these destinations, we’ve highlighted must-see and do activities, plus tried and tested gems with kids that are more off-beaten-path.
What to do: You could spend two months in San Francisco with kids and do something new every day, but since you only have two nights to call it home you need to use your time wisely. There is no denying Fisherman’s Wharf is touristy, but it’s something almost all first time visitors to San Francisco want to see. Using it as a starting location, families can also cross off many of the City’s other must-dos like seeing Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge along with riding a Cable Car. Celebrate a perfect road trip day with ice cream at the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop.
Golden Gate Park sees 13 million visitors each year. It’s the third most visited park in the United States, and it’s easy to understand why. With options like the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Koret Children’s Quarter and Golden Gate Park Carousel you can’t go wrong.
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Get more kid-friendly tips and information about San Francisco with kids on Trekaroo.
California’s Highway 1 offers some of the most stunning stretches of coastline you’ll ever see. While there are a number of vistas where you can see but not touch, along the Monterey Peninsula, there are plenty of beaches where families can get out of the car and play in the sand. Lovers Point Park and Beach is only about a mile from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
If your kids are wiggly and just need to be outside, the Dennis the Menace Playground may be a good fit. Created in 1956 with the help of the comic strip creator Hank Ketcham, it has slides, climbing walls, tunnels, and even a real locomotive for kids to climb on. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve could be one of the best state parks you’ll ever visit.
There are numerous trails offering views of the coast; the Carmelo Meadow Trail can be done in less than ten minutes and is stroller-friendly. With a Walking Labyrinth, Alphabet Garden and a Cut-Your-Own Herb Garden, organic grower Earthbound Farm runs a one of a kind farm stand in Carmel Valley. The organic frozen yogurt is pretty darn tasty too!
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Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Monterey with kids on Trekaroo.
Play is universal, but it’s certainly not one-size-fits-all. That’s why Carmel Valley Ranch is located on 500 of the most beautiful acres you’ll find. It’s enough room to let everyone rediscover, get to know and indulge their inner child—from world-class golf and great hiking trails to facilities just for kids.
Our family-friendly resort is the perfect family getaway and allows for both “Children at Heart” and “Children at Play” to coexist like at no other resort. And, we always welcome the most playful family members of all, our four-legged friends. It’s a fitting place to spend the night on this most epic of road trips.
Ciao Bambino is part of Virtuoso and we have amazing perks to pass clients who book stays at Carmel Valley Ranch through out Family Vacation Advisor team.
Carmel Valley Ranch is A Grand California Road Trip paid sponsor. Photo by Carmel Valley Ranch.
As you travel from Monterey to Santa Barbara, consider quick stops at Big Sur, Hearst Castle, or San Luis Obispo. You could easily fill an entire trip along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, but press on toward Santa Barbara.
On paper, your time in Santa Barbara with kids looks deceptively long, but chances are you’ll arrive later in the evening and pull out of town in the morning, so you’ve really only got one full day to play here. Don’t underestimate the power of State Street. Some shopping (especially if you’ve got tween and/or teenage girls) and tasty extras like ice cream take time.
Speed up your trip to California’s oldest working wharf by jumping on Santa Barbara’s Downtown Shuttle. The open-air trolley-like electric shuttle runs every 15 to 30 minutes and drops you directly in front of Stearns Wharf. Walk the Wharf and maybe check out the Ty Warner Sea Center or hit the beach and the water. A kayaking trip out of Santa Barbara Harbor to what’s affectionately known as sea lion buoy is a great activity for school aged kids and up.
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Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Santa Barbara with kids on Trekaroo.
Time for a celebration! You’ve made it from San Francisco to Los Angeles!
If seeing Disney tops your list during your visit to the Los Angeles area with kids, dedicate all the time you’re in town to just that – Disney. It takes time to do the theme park right. If you can sneak in and out of town without meeting the mouse known around the world, you can still get your amusement ride fix and snap photos of some California icons.
Get your feet sandy on Santa Monica Beach and walk to the food and ride loaded Santa Monica Pier. There are plenty of places to catch sight of the Hollywood Sign, including during the drive to Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a touristy spot, and often different than first timers expect, but one of those locations that is hard for folks to go home without seeing. But the newest star to call Hollywood home can claim real stars as former neighbors. Space Shuttle Endeavour is someone your entire family will want to see at the California Science Center.
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Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Los Angeles with kids on Trekaroo.
Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa offers unparalleled activities and amenities in an elegant oceanfront setting with direct beach access, revitalizing spa treatments and luxurious guest rooms. Perfect for families, offering a shuttle to Disneyland (30 minutes), a retail plaza with a coffee bar and grocery, fine and casual dining options, family buffets and a pizzeria. Our activities include Camp Hyatt for kids, surf lessons, biking, paddle boarding, beach amenities, poolside cabanas, entertainment and movie nights.
The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa is A Grand California Road Trip paid sponsor. Photo by Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach
If you’ve traveled down the California coast, San Diego is your last stop and just relaxing on the beach may be just what your family needs. The beach on Coronado Island offers a great tide pool and there are lifeguards on duty. Take time to re-charge, then head to Balboa Park. Along with being home to a whopping 15 museums, the nation’s largest urban cultural park is also home to the city’s wilder side, the San Diego Zoo. If you are in need of some gifts to take home for family and friends, Seaport Village is a fun place to do some shopping and is a safe spot to let teens have some freedom to wander a bit.
If you have less than a week, consider combining the Los Angeles and San Diego portion of this itinerary and focus your time on southern California.
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If you made the trip in your own car, cleaning it may take a little time, but as soon as you’ve finished you’ll be planning the next adventure. If you were in a rental car, the reservations desk is often just steps away from the return area.
Get more kid-friendly tips and information about San Diego with kids on Trekaroo.
For budget-friendly and easy road-trip camping, pick up a Jucy Rentals camper in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Las Vegas. The compact Jucy camper comes with everything you need to spend your nights in any of California’s beautiful campgrounds with minimal setup and tear down.
The Jucy Rentals is a Grand California Road Trip paid sponsor. Photo by LiLing Pang of Trekaroo.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Dana Rebmann except where noted.
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