It’s just a few weeks until the summer hols, and I’m in the middle of planning our fourth California road trip.
I love the thrill of a new destination, but I am also the BIGGEST fan of summer in California. A California road trip has everything we want for a summer holiday: great weather, loads of outdoor activities, great shopping and restaurants, and gorgeous scenery.
What’s not to love?
California Road Trip Itinerary
Lots of friends ask us for recommendations of the best things to do in California with Kids, so today I’m sharing my ultimate California road trip itinerary.
If you’ve got recommendations, or questions, then I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
San Francisco (Suggested : 2 Days)
The key attraction in California is the coastline along Highway One. For the best views, you should aim to travel North to South – so consider flying in to San Francisco.
Our California road trip itinerary kicks off in this fabulous city. On your first day, we definitely recommend checking out the Pier, and seeing the famous seals on the waterfront. A short walk from Pier 39 is Pier 15 and the Exploratorium, a fantastic hands-on science museum for kids.
Consider breakfast at Mama’s in Washington Square. It’ll give you the fuel you need to stomp up the city’s hills while you’re exploring and walking up the famous Lombard St.
Don’t miss Golden Gate Park – but here’s a tip. Go in the afternoon. In the mornings, the bay can be really misty. So you might actually not be able to see the famous bridge through the cloud!
Check out our post for more recommendations of things to do in San Francisco.
Mendocino (Suggested: 3 Days)
Depending on how long your road trip is, you might want to explore Northern California.
We drove three hours North to Mendocino, a coastal town that’s surrounded by state parks that have awesome coastal hiking paths and redwood forests.
Mendocino is an upscale little town with a thriving theatre community, and independent stores. We recommend spending the morning rafting on one of the local rivers, picking up a picnic in town and heading into the state park.
Check out this post for more ideas of what to do in Mendocino.
Yosemite (Suggested: 3 Days)
Another option in the Northern half of California is checking out Yosemite National Park.
We’re currently planning a trip for this summer. One of my favourite options is the camping packages you can buy online. For around £50 a night, you can hire all the kid you need to camp at Yosemite. That includes all the permits, which will be sent to you ahead of your trip.
When you arrive, go to a pre-agreed location to collect your packs, tents, stoves and maps. The camping company will provide you with personalised maps and itinerary. All you need to do is set off!
If you want to stay at one of Yosemite’s campsites, you’ll need to plan ahead – bookings open up online for specific dates around 8 months in advance. They typically sell out within minutes, so you’ll need to be fast on the button.
We booked last-minute so we’ve reserved an Air BnB around 30 minutes from Yosemite, and have made reservations on the YART. This is a bus service that shuttles tourists into Yosemite from the surrounding towns.
Santa Cruz (Suggested: 3 days)
Santa Cruz is one of my favourite California cities. It’s got a quirky, retro charm with a fabulous beach boardwalk, open air movies and great surf.
Most of the entertainment in Santa Cruz centres on the boardwalk. There are old-fashioned roller coasters and ridiculous food stalls (deep-fried cheesecake? Ugh). We also love the open-air movies that run on the beach each week during the summer.
During the day, Santa Cruz main beach can be a bit hectic. We suggest walking for 10 minutes over the headland, to Seabright State Beach (above). This is quieter, and beautiful.
There are barbecue pits and amazing waves for body boarding. We’ve also seen whales and dolphins swimming just off this beach.
Check out this post for loads more ideas of things to do in Santa Cruz.
Carmel and Monterey (Suggested: 2 Days)
Carmel is another upscale Californian town, and it can be expensive. For my money, the best thing to do in Carmel is 17-mile-drive. This is a scenic part of the coastal drive that’s closed to regular traffic.
For $10, you can drive along the route, enjoying the views. Don’t miss the chance to watch the sunset at Pebble Beach – it’s nothing short of spectacular. And if you book accommodation on 17-mile-drive, you get to drive the route for free!
Carmel is just a short drive from Monterey – and you’ll cross the famous Bixby Bridge (above). Our favourite things to do here are visit the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the gorgeous beach at Lovers Point Park. Check out this post for more ideas of things to do with kids in this area.
Big Sur and Highway One (Suggested: 3 Days)
Big Sur is a place that forces you to slow down – the winding roads take you along steep coastal cliffs and through redwood forests and several state parks and national forests. It’s truly an epic landscape.
We recommend stopping off here for a few nights. There are plenty of cabins to rent, giving you the chance to experience the ancient redwoods.
The obvious thing to do is explore the state parks here. Pfeiffer Beach is stunning, but don’t miss Pfeiffer State Park. There’s a family-friendly hike up to the waterfalls, and afterwards, you can settle by the river for a picnic and some swimming.
I’d also suggest stopping for lunch at Nepenthe, a famous restaurant perched on the cliff-top with stunning views.
For more ideas of things to do in Big Sur, don’t miss this post!
Santa Barbara (Suggested: 2 Days)
From Big Sur, it’s nice to have a stopping point before you get to the full-on Los Angeles area, and we love Santa Barbara.
It’s a slightly old-fashioned Spanish town, with pretty courtyards and one of America’s oldest piers, which is packed with tiny stores and restaurants. Don’t miss the cinema on Main Street, which is a beautiful old building.
Our favourite things to do in Santa Barbara revolve around the water. It’s a great spot to jet ski, and you can also hire kayaks and paddle boards on the waterfront. It’s never too busy here, so it’s a lovely place for kids to learn.
In terms of beaches, our favourites are Santa Claus beach (above) and Summerland, which is a great spot for picnics and swimming. There are showers and free parking, and you can head into dinner afterwards in Summerland town.
Here’s a post on things to do in Santa Barbara with Kids.
Santa Monica/Los Angeles (Suggested: 5 Days)
If I can give you one piece of advice about visiting LA during your California road trip, it’s this. Don’t stay in LA.
Stay in Santa Monica instead. It’s a short 20 minute drive from downtown and is just the most perfect base for exploring the city.
There’s a fabulous beach. You can hire a bike and ride down to Venice Beach. You can spend a fun afternoon playing vintage arcade games and riding rollercoasters on the Santa Monica Pier.
Oh, and there’s amazing shopping on the Third Street promenade.
You’re only a short hop from LA proper. Drive into town and you can explore all the sights. Our recommendations are shopping at the Farmers Market and The Grove, taking a helicopter tour over the city, and hiking up to the Griffiths Observatory for amazing views over the city.
There’s so much to do in the area that you’ll need a day just to explore Malibu. We fell in love with Paradise Cove, a picture perfect beach. You can spend the day at Zuna Beach and then drive to Paradise Cove to watch the sun set. There’s a fabulous restaurant here and a beach club. You can reserve private sun loungers here including your own private mini beach club with double loungers and fridges. Plan ahead though, as they’re booked out months ahead.
We recommend spending a couple of days here to get your theme park fix. We’ve tried both Universal Studios Hollywood, and Disneyland California and they’re both great. If I had to pick, then I think Disney has the edge!
Check out this post for our recommendations for trips to Santa Monica and LA.
San Diego (3 Days)
Heading South from LA on a California road trip, it’s a couple of hours drive to get to San Diego.
At first glance, San Diego can seem a bit like any other American city. But head to La Jolla, for a fabulous beach experience.
La Jolla has a series of beaches. At La Jolla Cove, there are rock pools galore for little ones to explore. Meanwhile La Jolla Shores (above) is perfect for novice surfers, and there are a couple of great surf schools you can try here.
You’ll find amazing tacos and tex-mex food in this part of town, and you can hire paddle boards and kayaks to explore the sea caves just off the beach.
Check out this post for all our top recommendations.
Bonus Trip – Grand Canyon (2 Days)
Okay, it’s not strictly part of a California road trip. But if your West Coast adventure is a once in a lifetime thing, then this is your best chance to go and see a true natural wonder.
It’s around a nine hour drive from LA to Grand Canyon. Google will tell you less, but Google is overly kind about LA traffic.
We stopped off overnight en route in Palm Springs, which made it a bit more manageable. It’s a long drive and exceptionally boring – long, straight desert roads with hours between seeing any other human.
The best accommodation at Grand Canyon is inside the National Park. It’s not luxurious, but it’s very close to the scenery. I felt like it was worth a couple of nights without AC and WiFi for a room that’s 30 feet from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Besides, you’ll need that cash to pay for your helicopter ride over the canyon.
You can read more about what we got up to at Grand Canyon here.
I hope you found our California road trip itinerary useful. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions about the sort of things you’d recommend doing in California, then let me know in the comments.