A Grand California Family Road Trip

The Santa Monica Pier. Photo by Visit California
The Santa Monica Pier. Photo by Visit California

California offers a nearly infinite variety of fun for 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 that covers the highlights from San Francisco to San Diego. If you’re short on time, condense your trip to focus on Los Angeles and San Francisco only. Whatever you manage to see and do, one thing is certain: California with kids is sure to please!

Guide to a Grand California Family Road Trip

The phrase “family road trip” evokes a variety of reactions, ranging from freewheeling 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, 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. Truth be told, family togetherness bliss only lasts so long. So when its time to plan a trip to California, be sure to do your research.

A successful road trip is a road trip that’s fun! The memories make you smile when it comes up in conversation, and the trip you’d do all over again if you could. But the best thing is that 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.

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California Road Trip with Kids
McWay Falls in Big Sur is an iconic stop as you make your way down the coast. Photo by Visit California

Adventure Behind the Wheel: Guide to 9 Nights on the Road

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. We’ve put together the Grand California Family 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 destination.

Our itinerary plans for nine nights on the road. You could just print it out and go, but the best part about this road trip is the flexibility it offers for families to make it their own. It doesn’t matter whether you head up or down the coast, you won’t miss a memory. Family trips in California are flexible because there are so many options depending on ages and interests.

In each of these destinations, we’ve highlighted must-see and do activities, plus tried and tested gems with kids that are more off-path.

California Road Trip with Kids
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Visit California

San Francisco: 2 Nights

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, you can also cross off many of the city’s other must-dos, like Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge along with a cable car ride. 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.

California Road Trip with Kids
Beautiful Lake Tahoe pairs well with time in San Francisco. Photo by Amie O’Shaughnessy

If you have the luxury of a few extra days in your road trip itinerary, San Francisco is a great launching point for exploring Yosemite or Lake Tahoe.

Must See and Do

  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Alcatraz
  • Golden Gate Park
  • Cable Car Ride

Gems to Add

  • California Academy of Sciences
  • de Young Museum
  • Conservatory of Flowers
  • Koret Children’s Quarter and Golden Gate Park Carousel
  • Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop
California Road Trip with Kids
Beach playtime on the Monterey Peninsula. Photo by Katy Hanagan

Monterey Peninsula: 1 Night

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 look but not touch, the Monterey Peninsula offers 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 nearby may be one of the best state parks you’ll ever visit. There are numerous trails offering views of the coast; the stroller-friendly Carmelo Meadow Trail can be done in less than 10 minutes.

With a walking labyrinth, an 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!

Must See and Do

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • Dennis the Menace Park
  • Earthbound Farm

Gems to Add

  • Lovers Point Park and Beach
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
California Road Trip with Kids
Santa Barbara at sunset. Photo by Amie O’Shaughnessy

Santa Barbara: 2 Nights

As you travel from Monterey to Santa Barbara, consider quick stops at Big Sur, Hearst Castle or San Luis Obispo. Although you could easily fill an entire trip along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, press on toward Santa Barbara this time around.

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. 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 vehicle 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-age kids and up.

Must See and Do

  • State Street
  • Stearns Wharf

Gems to Add

  • Santa Barbara’s Downtown Shuttle
  • Ty Warner Sea Center
  • Kayaking Santa Barbara Harbor
California Road Trip with Kids
The Santa Monica Pier. Photo by Visit California

Los Angeles Area: 2 Nights

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 your stay in town to just that. It takes time to do Disneyland right. Even if you sneak in and out of town without meeting the mouse known ’round 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 on the drive to Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a touristy spot, and different than most first-timers expect, but it’s 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 a must-visit at the California Science Center.

Must See and Do

  • Disneyland & California Adventure
  • Santa Monica Beach and Pier
  • Hollywood Sign and Hollywood Boulevard

Gems to Add

  • Amusement rides on Santa Monica Pier
  • Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center
California Road Trip with Kids
The famous Hotel Del Coronado has a wonderful beach to stroll and play on. Photo by Nicole Schick

San Diego: 2 Nights

After traveling down the California coast, San Diego is your last stop, and relaxing on the shore may be just what your family needs. The beach at Coronado Island offers a great tidepool and there are lifeguards on duty. Take time to recharge, 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 gifts to take home for family and friends, Seaport Village is a fun place to do some shopping and is a safe spot to give teens freedom to wander a bit.

TIP: 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.

Must See and Do

  • San Diego Zoo
  • Balboa Park
  • Coronado Island

Gems to Add

  • Rent bikes
  • Seaport Village
  • Kids’ surf lessons at Menehune Surf School

Relevant Links:

Browse our best vacation ideas and accommodations for California with kids

5 best museums in San Francisco for kids

How to make the most of a San Francisco CityPASS with kids

72 hours in Los Angeles with kids

10 fun things to do in San Diego with kids

A perfect Northern California road trip itinerary

Best kid-friendly wineries in Northern California Wine Country

Start a Discussion

  • Could this trip work backwards? If you started in San Diego and ended in San Francisco? Also, we are thinking of adding San Luis Obispo so would that go before or after Santa Barbara?

    • Hi Munira, you absolutely can do the reverse! San Luis Obispo is north of Santa Barbara, so you could stop en route to San Francisco as you drive north. Happy travels!

  • Hi I am planning a trip for my daughter and I, she will be 15. I grew up in northern California and have some spots I know I want to show her and do with her. I love the suggestions in this article, they are a great jumping off point. I want to make sure our trip has several great hikes, maybe surfing lessons, bike rides, and possibly kayaking. I’d like to start in the redwoods and end in SoCal

    • Hi April, we’d be happy to help with your trip plans! One of our expert Family Travel Advisors will reach out in email. Happy travels!

  • Hi Kristi
    We are are a family of four including two kids, 8 and 5. We travel in mid July from out of the US and want to spend 8 days in California including Disneyland San Francisco , Grand Canyon, San Diego, others? We can arrive in San Francisco airport and leave from Lax . Would you be able to provide recommendations as far as a road trip that includes a good mix of activities . One concern I have is whether we could rent a car in one city and return it on another ?
    Thank you!

    • Hi Harvey, Thank you for using Ciao Bambino! One of our Family Vacation Advisors specializing in California will reach out to you on email to see if we can help with your road trip. Thanks! -Amie

  • Hello,
    Our family of four are planning to travel California in the beginning of April. I am desperate to find some help with planning. Would you please help me out?
    Thank you!!

  • We are planning a trip in May for our family. Two adults and 3 boys ages 11,10 and 6 would love someone to contact me Thanks!

    • Hi Jill, thanks for using Ciao Bambino! One of our Family Travel Advisors who specializes in California will reach out in email to tell you about our service and how we can help. Happy planning.

  • This is an awesome comprehensive list of California destinations…great roundup! I would emphasize Yosemite National Park. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

  • We’re a family of 5, 2 adults and children aged 13, 11 and 1. We’re planning a road trip from San Fran to San Diego in early July over 18-19 days. This route looks perfect but we’d like to take a more leisurely pace. Can you please help?

    • Hi Siobhan, absolutely, we can custom-design an itinerary for your family’s preferences. One of our Family Travel Advisors specializing in California will reach out in email. Happy travels!

  • Hi There,
    We are a family of 5 with three kids planning a trip to LA in Mar (23rd) next year. Kids ages are Boy 12, girl 7 and boy 2. We would like to cover the theme parks, san fran, grand canyon, Yosemite and any beaches. Can you please advice where to stay if we are on a budget and a plan. Leaving on the 16th Apr

  • HI! we are a family of 4 , (kids aged 11 and 9) , travelling from Italy, we are planning a trip to Califormia this summer 3 -4 weeks in august starting from LA , we would then like to do the national parks, San Francisco and the Grand Canyon. Can you suggest an itinerary?

    • Hi Francesca, thanks for using Ciao Bambino! A Family Vacation Advisor specializing in California will reach out in email to talk about how we can help. Happy travels!

    • Hi Bruno! All the stops along the way are very different, but the Central Coast near Cambria is a wonderful part of the state for families who want to settle into one spot for a week. If you’d like help planning your full road trip, let us know and one of our Family Travel Advisors will reach out in email. Thanks!

  • Hello! I am trying to plan this for my Moms 60th birthday. I am a family of 2 adults and 3 children (3,6,12) from NJ and my brother, his wife and three kids, (7,8,2) from Hawaii are looking to meet my Mom and sister (22) could you have Kristi contact me please Id love to see if something like this could work for all of us. Thank you!

    • Hi Aimee – Thanks for using Ciao Bambino! We’ll have one of our Family Travel Advisors specializing in California reach out in email. Happy planning!

  • Hi there. We are a family of 4 (1 tween girl and one teen girl? We are looking to come to CA the first week of July for 9 nights and 8 days. We have to stay in Hollywood or Santa Monica for at least 3 nights as my brother lives there. We would like to see beaches, surfers, maybe whales, and other tourist places. What would you suggest. We are coming from Atlanta and have not booked flights yet so we can fly into one area and sly out of another. We want some beach time but not everyday. I would love to go to a winery but the kids would hate it. Would love to hear your suggestions,

  • A great place to stay for the weekend in Newport is the Newport Dunes. There is RV slots if you are traveling with one or beach cottages to rent if not. So much fun there, we go multiple times a year.

  • Planning a California trip in June. Can a travel agent reach out to me. Unsure of things to do. We are coming for a graduation but plan on staying extra days to see California

  • We’re a family of four (14 yr.girl & 9 yr.boy). We booked a 10 days California trip March 5 to 15 from Toronto to LA. Booked hotel in Fairmont Santa Monica for our first night, the rest still on planning stage were to stay. The kids looking forward to have fun at Universal Studio and Disneyland. My husband and I, bucket list is to see San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge(booked Fairmont San Francisco, check in March 8 and check out March 10) and if possible if we still have time to go a Tour bus trip to Las Vegas and Grand Canyon/Hoover Dam. We’re planning to ride the sightseeing tour bus in Hollywood and San Francisco. Checking on taking bus from LA to San Francisco or driving (insurance/cost). Any suggestions and advise would be greatly appreciated. Thanks,

    • Hi Lisa, It sounds like you have a great start planned. I’ll have one of our Family Vacation Advisors specializing in California to reach out to you in email to set up time to chat about how we can help with the itinerary. Happy Planning! Best, -Amie

  • Interested in a trip similar to this in mid June. 2 adults and one child age 17. We have 5-6 nights. Any suggestions would be great

    • Hi Kate,
      Thank you for using Ciao Bambino! One of our Family Vacation Advisors specializing in California will follow up in email regarding next steps to use our service. Happy Planning!

  • Hi, we are a family of five planning to do a CA roadtrip in April 8-18 with our kids who are 7, 6 and 18 months. How is the weather then?
    What would you suggest? We’d like to do some of Highway 1. and then up from San Fran to Portland.
    Please advise.

  • We are a family of five coming to California in April for 8-10 days, kids 8-12. I would like to do San Fran to Carlsbad, but my husband thinks it’s too much time into the car. Suggestions?

  • Hi, Thinking about planning a summer trip to Cali with 2 adults/2 kids(7,12). We live in FL so the beaches, and Disney are nice, but we do have them here. We love San Fran area so we can start there. What is North of San Fran,anything to see? or should we head south instead?? How far is Yosemite/Lake Tahoe? What is there for kids in Carmel and Santa Barbara? Thanks

    • Hi Jennifer! Please excuse the delay – your comment didn’t show up in our feed immediately. Our California expert will reach out to you about your trip plans. Thank you!

  • Hello, we are planning a trip to California probably sometime in May. I could use some help with this process. Any additional information or suggestions are welcome! Thank you!

  • Hi! We are planning a California trip in march. Just me hubs and our lil man age 2. Could you please email me an itinerary please. Thanks!

    • Hi Liyana – Everything we do is customized per family taking into the consideration of the ages of the kids. I’ll have one of our Family Travel Advisors who specializes in California reach out to you in email. Thanks! -Amie

  • Hi,
    We are a family of 6, we have 4 children aged 10-5 and would love to do a 10/14 day trip in California in May/June 2017. Could give us some ideas on price and anything you would recommend?

  • Im planning the ultimate 50th birthday trip for myself and my BFF. She’s from England and Im a Texan but California Coast is my destination choice! Now to find the things both of us will enjoy- that sand castle school is on the list for sure! Im excited!

  • Hi! We are planning a road tripping Southern California in August. I know it’s hot but we only have this window of time. We either will fly into San Diego airport or John Waybe and drive towards the other. Will 4-5nights be enough time? We’d love at least 2 nights in San Diego and may see the Zoo, balboa park and lots of resting and relaxing. Also legoland, San Clemente, Laguna beach and Newport Beach. We love beaches, good food, coffees, parks etc! Two kids 8 and 6. Any advice of timing and what to definitely see?? Thanks so much!!

    • Hi Jane – In addition to the articles on the website, we run a full family-focused vacation planning service. I’ll have our Advisor specializing in California reach out to you in email. Thanks! -Amie

  • Hi,
    We’re planning an 8 day trip San Francisco-LA. We’ll be travelling two adults and two kids (ages 7 and 12). However, we want to spend at least 2 nights in Napa Valley. How would you modify your proposed itinerary?

    • Hi Aida – We provide a service where we do custom itineraries for families traveling through California. I’ll have our Family Travel Advisor specializing in this itinerary reach out to you! -Amie

  • Hi Jo- I’ve just sent you an email. The whale watching is fantastic around Monterey with blue whales and humpbacks common during summer. Not to mention the otters and sea lions – you’ve chosen a fun trip. Thanks, -kristi

  • Hi.
    Great info!
    We are a family of 2 adults, 4 children aged 5-11 from Denmark. We are doing the Cali road trip in July, but would like to add a whale watching trip around Monterey Bay, among other things. Any suggestions, or would you put me in touch with one of your experts. Also, we are having trouble picking hotels/resorts…. Thanks.

  • Hi this is a fantastic read as we are doing this trip in Aug/Sep- we want to stop for 5 nights in SoCal, do you think that’s too long in Santa Barbara? We want beach, kids stuff, relax, restaurants, coffee! Also do you think Yosemite in August is worth 2 nights in an RV or will we roast?! Do you guys have advice on RV parks for that stretch of coast, if so it would be great to speak to someone? Kiri

    • Hi Kiri-
      I’m Ciao Bambino’s California road trip expert. 5 nights in Santa Barbara is not too long as there are fun day trips nearby. Yosemite is always worth a stop! It’s hot during the day and cool at night. I’m not an expert on RV Parks but if you need assistance with routing and activities that is something I can help you with. Feel free to reach out at kristi@ciaobambino.com Thanks, -kristi

  • Could you please put me in touch with an advisor to assist with planning a California coast trip for our family?

      • Hi, Could you please have Kristi contact me regarding a CA coast trip? I spoke with her last year, and we had to postpone our trip, but would like to go ahead and plan now.

  • Hello, I am in the UK and looking to book a holiday in January. Our girls are 3 and 4. What would you recommend for a road trip given the weather?

  • We are a family of 6. Kids age 12-19 and 2 adults. We want to go to Cali and west coast in August. We have 8 days. What do suggest??

      • Hi, we are planning a trip to California with a 19 month old in September, planning to fly into either LA or San Diego( 6 hours) then either work our way north or south along big sur but also depending on where we fly into. Any recommendations on that and where we should go?

        • Hi Cara – Our in house travel agency specializing in crafting a California Road Trip for families. I’ll have one of our Advisor reach out in email. Happy Planning! Best, -Amie

    • We are planning a similar trip for August with kids in the same range. Would love to hear any suggestions as well.

      • Hi Amy – Thanks for reaching out to us! I’ll have a Family Travel Advisor specializing in California get in touch via email to talk about how we can help with your plans.

  • Hi we’re planning on a California trip in May this year. We have a 3 and a 1 year old.
    We want to see the obvious sights in California. Disney, Hollywood Blvd etc. and spend abit of time on a nice beach somewhere. Can anyone recommend family places to stay and where to start. Planning on spending a week to 10 days
    Thank you

  • This itinerary looks great. Would it be appropriate for a family trip in early-mid November?

    • Hi Janine. California is a year round destination for travel. In November, the locals won’t be sunbathing at the beaches but they will be surfing and boogie boarding with wet suits so there is still beach activity. I specialize in California road trip planning and will reach out in case you need additional help planning your family vacation. Thanks! -kristi

  • Hi –
    That’s a great start to your road trip, especially the Monterey Peninsula which offers beautiful drives , beaches and wildlife viewing opportunities hiking, kayaking or even on a pontoon boat. Depending on your interests and the ages of the kids there are other less touristy areas along the coast that you might like as well. I specialize in California road trip planning for Ciao Bambino and will reach out in case you would like help planning your trip. Thanks, Kristi Marcelle

  • We are a family of 8 (6 adults and two small children) and are planning a road trip during the Christmas week (Dec 19-27). We will be starting from San Francisco. Can you give us some ideas of places to visit during that time? We are thinking of Monterey, Carlsbad/San Diego and Santa Barbara.
    Any other spots that will be good during that time especially with Christmas?
    Any places to avoid?
    We don’t need to see San Francisco and Los Angeles, Disney, Universal Studios.

  • Hi Anne, the weather is usually fine in March, always a bit chillier in Northern California than Southern California which hovers in the 70s midday. In SoCal, it’s flip flop weather all year round though in March the locals aren’t sunbathing and swimming in the ocean though they are surfing and boogie boarding with wetsuits. If you’d like any help planning your trip, we offer full itinerary planning with hotel booking and activities recommendations. California is my specialty so let us know if we can help. -kristi

    • Thanks for the great article.
      I am from deep south, so like warm weather, so I am planning a September trip (also like less crowds).
      San Francisco (2 nights) to Monterrey (1 night) to Santa Barbara (1 night) to San Diego (2 nights) is our plan. We can’t decide whether to skip LA or do 1 night.
      We won’t have kids with us but our real question is whether September would change anything in your recommendations or thoughts?

  • I wanted to see if the weather over early March is good for this trip with kids along the coastline of California or if it is cold still

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