Welcome to our best ever California Road Trip itinerary for families with kids!
If you’re planning a trip to California with kids, then we are here for you. As of this summer, we’ll be taking our fifth California road trip as a family. If you want to know the best places to visit, what to eat, where the great beaches are..? Read on!
I love the thrill of a new destination but for me, a California road trip is the perfect holiday. There’s something about ending each day slightly frazzled by sunshine, with sand between your toes. Not to mention spending long evenings with vintage fairground rides, drive in movies and amazing food.
A California road trip with kids is also just really easy – a massive consideration for me, as a single parent. There’s no language barrier and it’s so easy to find affordable places to stay, eat and play. The scenery is fantastic and there are so many outdoor activities, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Here are some highlights from our most recent trip to California
California Road Trip Highlights and Top Tips
Ready? Let’s crack on with our 100% tried and tested route for the best ever California road trip with kids!
The Best Ever California Road Trip Itinerary!
This itinerary is based on a trip of four weeks based on flying into San Francisco and out of LAX. However, it’s completely doable from either airport. This itinerary covers 1,300 miles so is around 24 hours of driving. If you want to include Grand Canyon, it’s another 400 miles and 7 hours drive from Los Angeles.
Best Itinerary for a Four Week California Road Trip Itinerary:
- San Francisco: 2 days
- Mendocino: 2 days
- Yosemite: 3 days
- Santa Cruz: 3 days
- Carmel: 2 days
- Big Sur: 3 days
- Santa Barbara: 3 days
- LA: 5 days
- San Diego: 3 days
- Grand Canyon: 2 days
Best Itinerary for a Two Week California Road Trip Itinerary:
San Francisco: 2 days
Santa Cruz: 3 days
Carmel: 2 days
Big Sur: 2 days
LA: 3 days
San Diego/Grand Canyon: 3 days
If you only have two weeks then I would suggest dropping destinations from the list, rather than reducing the time spent in each place. If you want to see Grand Canyon then allow a day for travel each way, and a full day on site. Alternatively, I’d end up in San Diego, which is only a 2-3 hour drive back to LAX.
When you’re on a road trip with kids, it’s nice NOT to have to pack up and move every other day. I like to feel that I have quality time in each place we visit, and I’m not spending half the trip in the car.
Driving Highway One
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. This isn’t essential but means it’s really easy to pull into the many view spots on the waterside. It’s a little trickier if you’re on the other side of the road.
If you can’t arrive/depart from different airports, then I would recommend flying into San Francisco OR if you fly to LAX, immediately drive North to start your journey from the top end of Highway One. It will take about 5 hours to drive the highway route from LAX to San Francisco, but it’s definitely worth it to get the most out of the experience. If you’re tired, you can break the journey from LA to San Francisco in Fresno or Modesto.
Read on to find out more about the destinations on our itinerary and our recommendations for each of the stops!
San Francisco (Suggested : 2 Days)
Our California road trip itinerary kicks off in the fabulous city of San Francisco. I recommend allowing a couple of days in the city to adjust to the time zone. Don’t pick up your hire car until you leave San Francisco. Traffic in the city is chaotic, and it’s much easier to walk around or use the famous street cars.
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: 2 Days)
If you have time, then we recommend adding a drive to Northern California to your road trip. Further North, you’ll see enormous redwood forests, lakes and rugged coastline, with traditional small towns dotting the highway. 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)
While you’re in the Northern half of California, one of the best things to do with kids is visit the world-famous 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 and is a must-see on any California road trip itinerary. 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). Kids will 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 stretch of beach is quieter, and beautiful.
There are barbecue pits provided by the local state, 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)
As your California road trip takes you down the coast from Santa Cruz towards LA, you’ll hit the towns of Carmel and Monterey. These two towns sit at the top of a stretch of less developed coastline that’s packed with forests and huge, sweeping views around the continually curving coastal road.
Of the two destinations, Carmel is smaller and more upscale. This means – naturally – it can be expensive. But if you want great restaurants, swanky shops and some of the world’s prettiest beaches then Carmel is for you.
For my money, the best thing to do in Carmel is 17-mile-drive. This is a scenic part of Highway One that’s closed to regular traffic. The only way to go down 17-mile drive is to pay. This is the government’s attempt to limit traffic, and it mostly works.
For $10, you can drive along the coastal road, enjoying the views. Don’t miss the chance to watch the sunset at Pebble Beach – it’s nothing short of spectacular. Top tip – if you book accommodation on 17-mile-drive, you will get to drive the route for free! (Just swing into the “residents” lane when you approach the entrance gate.
Carmel is a short drive from Monterey – and you’ll cross the famous Bixby Bridge (above), as seen in Pretty Little Lies. 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)
No California Road Trip itinerary with kids is complete without Big Sur. South of Carmel is a 90-minute stretch of coastal California that will take your breath away. Big Sur is a place that forces you to slow down. The winding roads take you along steep coastal cliffs, 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 if your itinerary allows. There are plenty of cabins to rent, giving you the chance to experience the ancient redwoods. If you want to camp in Big Sur, be ready early – camping slots open 9 months in advance and tend to sell out in days.
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. On the day we visited, we found a rope swing and have the sort of day memories are made of.
I’d also suggest stopping for lunch at Nepenthe, a famous restaurant perched on the cliff-top with stunning views. It’s just off Highway One to the Southern end of Big Sur. 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. To the southern end of Santa Barbara is the adjoining town of Carpinteria, where you’ll find great surfing beaches, loads of indie cafes and an amazing campsite with horses and old Airstream caravans.
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 with kids, it’s this. Don’t stay in LA.
Seriously. Do not stay in Los Angeles. You’ll hate the traffic, it takes forever to get anywhere and the smog is horrible.
Stay in the beachfront town of Santa Monica instead. It’s a short 20 minute drive from downtown LA and is just the most perfect base for exploring the city. Rather than being stuck in a skyscraper hotel or anonymous midtown hotel, here you’re right on the beach. In Santa Monica, 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. There’s swimming, surfing and loads of restaurants.
Oh, and there’s amazing shopping on the Third Street promenade.
After spending a day in Santa Monica, give yourself time to head into LA. Drive or Uber 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 wider LA area that you’ll need another day just to explore Malibu. We fell in love with Paradise Cove, a picture perfect beach. You can spend the day at Zuma 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.
On day four of your itinerary, try spending a day (or two) getting 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! If you have time, the Warner Bros Studio Tour is amazing, and you’re also close to Knott’s Berry Farm.
If you’re more of a beach family, then you can also take day trips just South of LA to Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. If you do visit, then don’t miss Balboa Island, which is a fabulous spot for kids.
Check out this post for our recommendations for trips to Santa Monica and LA.
San Diego (3 Days)
The final stop on our California road trip itinerary is San Diego in Southern California.
Heading South from LA on a California road trip, it’s a couple of hours drive to get to San Diego. From here you can do a day trip to Mexico, or drive up towards Laguna for more surfing.
At first glance, San Diego can seem a bit like any other American city. But head to the La Jolla neighbourhood for some quality beach time.
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 in San Diego.
California Road Trip Itinerary Bonus Edition: Grand Canyon (2 Days)
Okay, it’s not strictly part of a California road trip with kids. 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 7-9 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. Think endless hours of dead straight desert roads with hours between seeing any other human. Getting out of the car’s AC can feel like a trial in itself! But it will all be worth it when you get there, I promise!
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. As with other popular sites, book WAY earlier for your accommodation than you think you’ll need.
You can read more about what we got up to at Grand Canyon here.
I hope you found our California road trip itinerary for families useful. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions about the sort of things you’d recommend doing in California with kids, then let me know in the comments.