Are you planning a California road trip with kids next summer?
We’ve completed three California road trips over the past five years, exploring the coast from Mendocino in the North down to San Diego in the South.
We’ve already shared some top tips on planning your California adventure, but today I wanted to share my 20 favourite things to do and see with kids in California during a road trip with kids. For ease of planning, I’m going to organise the list from North to South because THAT’S the best direction to travel if you’re exploring the coast here 🙂
1 – Mendocino Headlands State Park
The town of Mendocino (pronounced men-doh-chino) is a couple of hours North of San Francisco and it’s a great place to explore the mighty Californian redwoods.
There are loads of family-friendly hiking trails in this state park, and it also offers a combination of woods and beach that make it perfect for a hike with a picnic. Afterwards be sure to stop in the ritzy small town of Mendocino – there’s a fab independent toy store on the main street and a small supermarket that does amazing salads and sandwiches.
2 – Rafting on the Russian River
As you drive down from Mendocino you’ll pass the Russian River. The scenery here is really pretty – a combination of redwoods and vineyards. The best way to see it all is on the river, drifting by by raft. If you’re with kids, you can rent inflatable kayaks or take a tour. The waters are calm, the scenery is lovely and there are loads of spots to jump overboard and sunbathe on small rocky beaches along the river banks.
3 – Have Breakfast at Mamas in San Francisco
I’m sure you don’t need any more recommendations of amazing sights to see in San Francisco, but do make time to have breakfast at Mamas on Washington Square. This place is famous for its buttermilk pancakes. There are no reservations, and it’s cash only. Oh, and it’s popular! My top tip is to visit midweek, and arrive early – by which I mean at least 30 minutes before it opens. After that, the wait for a table can easily be 90 minutes. The French toast is also pretty amazing.
4 – Visit the Exploratorium, San Francisco
A lot of visitors to San Francisco head to Pier 39 which is fun, but a bit crowded and tacky. Just down the waterfront at Pier 15 you’ll find the Exploratorium. This fab, kid-centred museum is all about hands-on science exhibits and is a welcome respite on a rainy morning. Bonus – when the rain clears at lunchtime the outside decks at the Exploratorium offer drop-dead gorgeous views over the bay.
See our post for more tips on things to do in San Francisco with kids.
5 – Ride the Rollercoasters at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Heading South out of San Francisco, it’s a 2.5 hour drive to the city of Santa Cruz. We adore it here – there’s a vintage, 60s vibe about the whole city, and surfers everywhere. At the Beach Boardwalk you can ride the oldest wooden rollercoaster in America and enjoy weird and wonderful foods like funnel cake and chocolate coated, deep fried cheesecake. Flea loves the rides and also the vintage arcade, with classic 1980s video games.
During the summer, check out promotions before you visit – Pepsi offers a promotion on weekends where you can swap a Pepsi bottle top for a half-price wristband to access the boardwalk’s rides.
See our post for top tips on things to do with kids in Santa Cruz.
6 – Catch a Movie on the Beach at Santa Cruz
The Santa Cruz beachfront is full of entertainment – and much of it’s free! On Saturdays, there are live bands, but our favourite thing to do is walk down to the beach on a Wednesday evening. Each week during the summer there’s a massive cinema screen, usually showing an 80s classic. Pick up a flyer or check the website to see the listings before you go, and don’t forget your blanket and popcorn.
7 – Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Heading South through California, the next stop on your road trip may well be Monterey. If you’re in this part of the world with kids, you can’t miss the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. It gets so busy here though that a bit of planning works wonders. Book tickets in advance and plan to be here at the start or end of the day. In the middle of the day, get your hand stamped and leave the chaos for a few hours. You can explore the Old Cannery with its shops and eateries or drive out to the beach at Lovers Point Park.
8- Watch the Sun Set on 17-Mile-Drive
The main highway on the California coast is, of course, Highway One. This amazing coastal road is the #1 reason why many of us dream of taking a California road trip. You can drive most of the historic road easily but a section of the road, around Carmel, is shut to traffic unless you pay. This stretch of coast, known as 17-mile-drive, is easily one of the most beautiful roads in the world, and it’s well worth the $10 to cover this stretch of coastline.
As you drive through the checkpoint, you’ll take twisting roads down the hill until you pop out at Spanish Bay, a pretty beach with picnic tables and a car park. Further along you’ll pass the famous “Lone Cypress” view point and Pebble Beach. The sunsets here are spectacular and it’s beautiful spot to have a barbecue or a picnic, if you time it just right.
9. Take a Leap at Pfeiffer State Park
The highlight of a California Road trip for many families is visiting the amazing Big Sur. Just South of Monterey, the highway dips away from the coast into gorgeous forests with enormous redwoods, steep hills, and amazing coastal views.
Although the area is very rural, there is absolutely loads to see here. Honestly, it’s all beautiful but one of my favourite stops with kids is Pfeiffer State Park. There’s a fab 2-hour round trip hike up to see a waterfall, which is just the right length for families, with clear, wide paths. Just make sure you take plenty of water, because it can get seriously hot (and buggy).
Oh, and there’s a gorgeous river. Walk down through the camping pitches to the Pfeiffer River just below the car park, and you’ll find enormous rocks that are perfect for a spot of mini cliff jumping. We even found some rope swings over the water – we settled in for a picnic and had a brilliant afternoon here.
10 – Have lunch at Nepenthe Restaurant, Big Sur
The views on Highway 1 are truly spectacular, but one of the downsides of being the driver on your California Road Trip is that – actually – you might miss a lot of it. So why not head to a perfect lunch spot to enjoy the views at your leisure? This iconic 60s cafe is perched high above the ocean with amazing views over the coastline. It serves brunch and lunch, and has a distinctly hippy vibe. Do arrive early and you absolutely must wait for a seat at one of the outside benches overlooking the ocean – it is well worth the wait.
11 – Spot Seals at San Simeon
As you continue on your California Road Trip, heading South towards LA, you’ll pass by San Simeon. This is very close to Hearst Castle, but my 11-year-old was WAY more excited by the beach filled with gimormous elephant seals on the beach at San Simeon. The noise and smell have to be experienced first hand to be believed!
12 – Get on the Water in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a gorgeous little town to walk around, and we love the Spanish style architecture and the movie on State St. If you’re taking a California road trip with kids, though, stop here to visit the watersports center on Stearns Wharf where you can go fishing, rent kayaks or take out a jet ski. Riding around the harbour is a LOT of fun, and there’s loads of wildlife to spot, too.
See the Video
Want to see our California Road Trip in action? Here’s a video of our 2015 Summer Trip:
13 – Cycle along Venice Beach Boardwalk
The next major stop on your family California road trip is Los Angeles. If you’re visiting LA, I honestly can’t see any compelling reason to stay in the city with kids. Instead, head out to Santa Monica and the beach front boardwalk with its vintage rollercoasters and solar-powered ferris wheel. Hire a bike and it’s a 20 minute ride down the beach path to Venice Beach. Here, you can see the famous skate park, goggle at street performers and browse through the weird and wonderful stores here. It’s also a beautiful spot to watch the sun set. When you’re ready to go into the city, it’s an easy 20 minute drive on the freeway to downtown. You can even rent a skateboard if you fancy giving it a go.
Check out our post for more ideas of things to do with kids in LA and Santa Monica.
14 – Go Shopping at the Farmers Market
One of the highlights of visiting California with kids is shopping – at least if you have a tween. When we’re in Los Angeles, we always head to Fairfax and 3rd to visit the Farmers Market. Have breakfast at Duponts (the pancakes are amazing) and then you can spend the morning browsing the stands and tiny stalls through the market. At lunchtime you can head to the back of the market where countless little stands sell every sort of food you can imagine, from fresh cooked pizza to Greek salads and Brazilian barbecue.
Don’t miss the ice cream stand, which has been there since the 1960s. After lunch, you can head out into The Grove, a really lovely shopping district with all the stores you could wish for. As the day draws to an end, grab a drink and one of the blankets on the lawn to listen to the bands that play here.
15 – Take a Helicopter Trip over Los Angeles
One of the most memorable things we’ve ever done was a helicopter tour of LA. The city itself is huge and you’ll spend a massive amount of time looking at the freeway as you drive from place to place. So getting up in the air allows you to really see Los Angeles. Our pilot flew us over the most famous buildings, then on a slightly stalkery by-air tour of the homes of the stars (Jennifer Aniston has a lovely pool) before swinging down over Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
Oh, and there’s no better way to see the Hollywood sign that from your own private helicopter. We went with Orbic Air and had a great experience.
15 – Dine at Paradise Cove, Malibu
When you’re in LA, life can feel very hectic, but there are some great beaches out towards Malibu, including Malibu and Zuma beaches, both of which are great for families.
After a beach day, you must go for dinner at Paradise Cove. This is a casual beachfront restaurant in Malibu that is situated right on the beach. You can eat while watching the sun set.
After you’ve finished eating, the restaurant has wooden chairs out on the beach so you can chill out while the kids paddle in the water. Book ahead of time to ensure a table outside with a great view.
16 – Visit Disneyland and California Adventure
It’s a short drive (less than an hour) from Santa Monica to the Happiest Place on Earth and we love it here. It’s definitely easy to do as a day trip from LA, so don’t feel you need to stay close to Anaheim.
Smaller kids will be thrilled by Disneyland itself but if you have older kids, I recommend the Park Hopper tickets and you can easily do half the day at Disneyland and the other half at California Adventure. There’s an entirely different vibe here to other Disney resorts. It’s a bit smaller, a bit more laid back and (for my money) a nicer experience. Don’t miss California Screamin and the various Toy Story rides, the famous Matterhorn and the new Guardians of the Galaxy rides are all my top recommendations. You can see loads more tips in our post about Disney California.
17 – Go to Santa Claus Beach
Our favourite beach in the Santa Barbara area (and not just because of the name) is Santa Claus Beach. It’s wide and flat and several times here we’ve seen schools of dolphins swimming and playing just off the beach.
A couple of surf schools run lessons here, and it’s also great for swimming and paddling. There are no facilities as such, but there’s miles of open beach and it’s never too crowded. There’s a small row of shops including a beach shop and 2 or 3 restaurants on the road immediately behind the beach, and there are a couple of public toilets. If you visit here, be sure to visit the Padaro Beach Grill and enjoy the fab gardens and fish tacos.
18 – Take a Surf Lesson at La Jolla Shores
No California road trip with kids is complete without a surf lesson, am I right?
When you’re travelling in California there are loads of places to learn to surf. Santa Cruz is gorgeous but the water’s cold so make sure you get a decent wetsuit. Huntingdon Beach is cool, but it can be hectic, and it’s not ideal for beginners. Actually, we’ve done a lot of lessons down the coast and my top recommendation for beginners is always La Jolla Shores in San Diego.
La Jolla is maybe a 20-minute drive from downtown and is its own little neighbourhood, with great restaurants, shops and cinemas. It’s a funny mix of upscale boutiques and restaurants in La Jolla Village, and relaxed surfer chic down at La Jolla Shores. There are bathrooms, showers and lifeguards and a parking lot that’s full from about 9.30am (so park on the surrounding streets and walk to the beach).
What makes this an amazing place to learn surfing is the waves – they’re low and regular, and the water is shallow WAY out from shore, making it easy for little ones to find their feet. We’ve had numerous lessons here with Surf Diva on three different trips, and would 100% recommend them. Check out our post for more tips on things to do with kids in San Diego.
19 – Eat Tacos at the Taco Stand
Everywhere you go in Southern California you’ll find tacos on the menu but after extensive testing I can tell you that the BEST tacos are at The Taco Stand in La Jolla. Everything is made from scratch including the tortillas, and it’s fresh and tasty. It also works really well if you’re on a budget as most of the tacos are only between $4 and $8 each. Just be prepared to stand in line for a little while at busy times of day.
20 – Catch a Movie at The LOT
Doing a California road trip often means lots of time being really active – but sometimes it’s nice to relax. Our very favourite movie theater in California is The LOT in La Jolla Village, just behind La Jolla Shores.There’s a restaurant and bar, so you can eat before the movie, and it’s a really pretty setting. But what we loved most is that theater has small screens with HUGE individual reclining leather chairs, and an in-seat dining service. This is what every cinema should be like, and it was the perfect way to round off our California Road Trip.