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.
Guide to a Grand California Family Road Trip
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.
Adventure Behind the Wheel: Guide to Nine 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. 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.
Ciao Bambino can help you plan a dreamy California Road Trip
Our Family Vacation Consulting Team will work with you to book accommodations, recommend activities and more, all with one-on-one support. Click here to send us a request >
San Francisco: Two 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, 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 Carrousel you can’t go wrong.
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 & do:
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- 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 Carrousel
- Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop
Get more kid-friendly tips and information about San Francisco with kids on Trekaroo.
Monterey Peninsula: One 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 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!
Must see & do:
- Monterey Bay Aquarium
- Dennis the Menace Park
- Earthbound Farm
Gems to add:
- Lovers Point Park and Beach
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Monterey with kids on Trekaroo.
Where to stay in/around Monterey with kids:
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.
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.
Santa Barbara: Two Nights
On paper, you’re 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 for a bargain 50 cents. 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.
Must see & do:
- State Street
- Stearns Wharf
Gems to add:
- Santa Barbara’s Downtown Shuttle
- Ty Warner Sea Center
- Kayaking Santa Barbara Harbor
Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Santa Barbara with kids on Trekaroo.
Los Angeles Area: Two Nights
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.
Must see & do:
- Disneyland & California Adventure
- Santa Monica Beach & Pier
- Hollywood Sign & Hollywood Boulevard
Gems to add:
- Amusement rides on Santa Monica Pier
- Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center
Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Los Angeles with kids on Trekaroo.
Where to stay in/around Los Angeles with kids:
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
San Diego: Two Nights
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.
Must see & do:
- San Diego Zoo
- Balboa Park
- Coronado Island
Gems to add:
- Rent Bikes
- Seaport Village
- Kids’ surf lessons at Menehune Surf School
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.
Ready for more California family road trip ideas?
We've put together a second itinerary that takes you north from San Francisco, including vineyards, redwood groves, charming small towns and more. Click to get the details! >
Budget-Friendly and Easy Road Trip Camping: Introducing Jucy Rentals
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.