Blog Post California Coast Family Road Trip

In the summer of 2013, we took one of the best family trips ever. We explored many areas of the USA, starting from Colorado and ending in California (and going to many places in between). We spent 3 weeks traveling by plane, train, and then car. The final leg of our journey took place in California. We spent two days driving this route. There is so much to see and do, we could have spent a lot more time if we had been able to. This was not our first time visiting these areas, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.​

The California Coast part of our 3 week trip – this was two days of our total trip

After a drive through the Mojave Desert, we made our way to Joshua Tree National Park for a visit that was quicker that we had hoped. We had been coming from Grand Canyon National Park, so it was a loooonnnggg day of driving. By the time we got there, it was getting late and the kids really wanted to just get to the hotel (you can read my review of the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells here). After spending two nights there, we made our way to the coast.​


Solvang is an interesting little town in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley. It was founded by people from Denmark, and it retains its Danish culture, architecture and terrible food. Funny story – we were trying to figure out where we should eat lunch, and my husband decides to check Yelp on his phone. He finds it to be very convenient that “the #1 restaurant on Yelp happens to be right in front of us” so decides that is where we should eat (only afterwards did I realize that is why he chose that particular restaurant). It was the WORST meal any of us have ever had in our lives. Disgusting, and I am usually easy enough to please. None of us ate any of our food. After we left, my husband finally realized that Yelp was sorted by distance not by rating. So yeah, we just happened to be standing in front of the closest restaurant (which also had terrible reviews).We ended up walking across the street to the candy store and filling up on chocolate and ice cream, which is probably a better choice anyway.​

The town is very cute and charming, and it’s worth a stop. The first time we visited (without the kids), we were touring wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. There are wine shops in Solvang that have tastings. There are also tons of shops to browse (or shop) in, if that’s your thing.​


The next stop along our route was Pismo Beach. We only spent a little bit of time here, enough to get out of the car and walk along the beach for a little while. It was a very pretty time of day for a beach visit. It was empty and there were some nice views.​


We stayed for the night in San Luis Obispo, in a nondescript Holiday Inn (using points). I really wanted to stay at the Madonna Inn, because it looks so funky and weird (in a good way), but on a three week trip we need to conserve the dollars. So a free night it was. A family member who goes to college in SLO told us about Bubblegum Alley, and we knew that the kids would love it. It’s so nasty that it has to be fun, right? Tons of ABC gum stuck all over the walls in an alley. What could be more appealing? The kids did love it. We have since contributed to yet another gum wall (in Seattle), so it’s kind of our thing now.​


Coastal California really just has one beautiful setting after another. And it seems to just keep getting better and better as you drive North. The weather was foggy when we visited Morro Bay, but it made for some very eerily pretty vantage points as we checked out the bay and the beach. There were tons of birds, which seemed to be a big attraction for some bird watchers. This is where we started our drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the most gorgeous drives in the world. There are lots of places to stop and get out along the way.​


I really like this National Geographic article about the stops along the way, starting in Monterey and ending in Morro Bay (we did the opposite). TIP: If you are visiting this area and using a GPS….check your route. My in-laws intended to do this drive, but ended up taking the inland route because that’s what their GPS told them to do. Don’t make that mistake! Below are some highlights of our PCH drive.​


This is one of my favorite stops along the Pacific Coast Highway. The little town of Cambria has some great restaurants, bakeries and small inns (we stayed at the J. Patrick House on a previous visit). There is a walkway along the beach and Moonstone Beach is excellent for beachcombing.​

Moonstone Beach, Cambria, CA

About 10 miles up the road from Cambria, you can find the fabulous elephant seal colony hanging out on the beach. The times we have been there, there have been tons of them. They are very interesting to watch, and there are naturalists standing by to answer questions. Hearst Castle is also nearby, and you can purchase tickets for a tour (we thought it was kind of expensive).​


This is where it starts to get really good! Along the stretch of coast between San Simeon and Carmel are the views you came for. There are places to stop to take photos and to get out and hike. We hiked to Jade Beach (and actually ended up getting lost & doing a much harder and longer hike than we were anticipating!). There are different parks, like Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.​


We ended our day in Carmel, where we spent the night at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands hotel (review to come). Both Carmel and Monterey have a lot to offer with attractions, cute towns, and gorgeous scenery. On a previous trip we had more time to spend in both places. We did the 17 mile drive (wow!) at Pebble Beach. This time we didn’t have as much time. The following morning we left the hotel and headed to San Francisco, which was our final stop on our 3 week trip.​

You can read here about things to do in San Francisco with kids.​

The post California Coast Family Road Trip appeared first on The American Travel Project.

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Level 2 Member
We did a similar road trip with our 4 kids (then aged 10-18) in the summer of 2014. For older kids future anyone going on this trip should consider extreme humveeing on Pismo beach (like a roller coaster on sand) and segwaying in Santa Cruz. These were definitely the family favorites!


Level 2 Member
Awe! I got married at the Ragged Point Inn, which is about 30 min north of Cambria, right at the road starts to get really windy. I'm dying to take my own kids back. If you ever revisit I highly recommend doing an overnight in Big Sur it a really wonderful area to explore. There are some pretty reasonable cabins in the woods right on the river.


Level 2 Member
For older kids future anyone going on this trip should consider extreme humveeing on Pismo beach (like a roller coaster on sand) and segwaying in Santa Cruz.
For big kids, ATVing is way more fun ;) You can drive your car on the beach in Pismo Beach (the only state park here that lets you do that) and go wild with surprisingly little training. We paid $70 pp with BJ's ATV Rentals.


Lisa Smith

New Member
I don't know about all the places you mentioned here but I can say the Monterey is good place to visit and also good for road trip. I have been there twice so I know that there are lot of things to do and lot of places to visit.


Level 2 Member
We drove up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco last summer (WAY too much to see in a week, and a ton of driving!) The elephant seals were definitely a highlight. But what Husband probably was most intrigued with was the large contingent of retiree aged men kite surfing at various beaches.

It's fascinating to watch, and gives him something to think about for the future!