Last month I wrote a short travel memories overview about our road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I find myself continuing to think about that trip, and what it meant for our family. There were a lot of firsts for us on that trip. It was our first family road trip. It was our son’s first real experience hiking. It was also his first time to ride an amusement park ride. These firsts continue on as common themes for our family bonding time even now. For our first adventure back in the US, this was the perfect route to explore.
Knowing we would never have the luxury of time again, we wanted to slowly work our way down Highway 1 breathing in the beauty of California’s most well known stretch of road. But we were also doing it with a toddler, which meant going slow was not much of a choice! To ensure everyone had the best time possible, we planned our route with a maximum of 2-3 hours of driving per day mixed in with plenty of family friendly activities along the way.
Travel Tip: If you are visiting from outside California, plan to spend a few days in San Francisco, soaking up the sights, foggy cool air and beautiful vistas.
Day 1 & 2: San Francisco to Santa Cruz
Leaving the gorgeousness of San Francisco behind, we made our way through Pacifica and Half Moon Bay heading down Highway 1. We were lucky to have clear blue skies on this portion of the road, especially for the summer. It was beautiful looking out in half-second glances. But being the driver I felt a bit jealous of my son and husband’s ability to stare out uninterrupted over the mesmerizing blue ocean. But that was part of the point, I wanted them to fall in love with California’s beauty just as I had more than 20 years before.
Several stops and almost 2 hours later, we pulled into Santa Cruz. We were happy to see our hotel choice was perfect – directly across the street from the boardwalk! What’s not to love in Santa Cruz? The beach, the boardwalk and the laid back beach town vibe are the perfect ingredients for family fun. My son loved gaining his first bit of independence by going on amusement park rides on his own. My husband even took the challenge himself by riding his first roller coaster ever!
But as with every adventure, something manages to go wrong. On day 2, we were forced to scrap our plans when I, the sole driver in the family, ended up getting a fever and sleeping all day long. While I slept away my illness, my husband and son enjoyed another fun day exploring the boardwalk and beach. There is so much more to see in Santa Cruz, but being sidelined for a day meant we missed out. Looks like we will be back again!
Day 3: Monterey
With less than an hour drive to reach our next destination, we didn’t have to get moving too early. However, as it is with kids, we were up early anyway, packed and at the Monterey Bay Aquarium at opening.
Travel Tip: Buy your tickets in advance to avoid waiting in line. Go early before the crowds and return later in the afternoon (with a hand stamp) if you haven’t seen everything you planned.
There is so much to see and do at the aquarium that it’s difficult to do it all in one visit. Our advice is to see as much as you can before the littles get ancy. Once they get wiggly, head to the children’s exploration area for play time and hands-on exhibits. Don’t miss the kelp forest and open sea exhibits, which are even better during feeding times. When the wiggles won’t stop, get your hand stamped and head outside for some fresh air, lunch at Cannery Row and a walk around the wharf area. Once our son fell asleep in his stroller after lunch, we headed back in to the aquarium to see exhibits we had missed in the morning and for another look at the stunningly gorgeous jellies!
Finishing up for the day, we headed over to the spectacular Dennis the Menace playground for some late afternoon fun. My son loved the massive red rolling slide, watching skaters at the adjacent skate park, the snow cones and of course the statue of Dennis the Menace! This park is a must visit if you have kids who need some kid time.
Day 4: Carmel
One of my first memories of California was visiting my aunt and cousins when I was 10. They brought me to Carmel for a day and I was mesmerized. The weird shaped trees, the cold foggy air and the fancy feel (and name) of Carmel-by-the-Sea. I hadn’t been back since then, so I was curious to see how it compared to my childhood memories. It was similar, except the ‘famous’ tree in my mind had died and been removed. But the fog was still there, rolling in right on schedule.
It was early, but the beach was already beginning to get crowded with people setting up for the day. The sun warmed us on our right while the cool misty fog rolled in on our left. My son was too busy playing with the sand and seaweed that he didn’t even notice the cold air or the thick fog blanketing the area.
Travel Tip: Before heading out of Carmel, grab a sandwich to go or supplies for a picnic to enjoy along the 17 mile drive route
Following our beach time, we spent some time pottering around this quaint town checking out it’s boutique shops, cafes and great toy stores! We picked up lunch and headed out for the 17 mile drive. While our son napped, we quietly enjoyed the first half of the drive, slowly meandering along soaking up the drastic scenery between sections of thick fog. This scenic route is self-directed with with frequent turnouts in many locations along the way. Some of the more familiar stops on this popular drive are the Lone Cypress tree (first photo on this post), Bird Rock and the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course.
Worried this might be boring for a toddler, we were surprised how much he enjoyed the frequent stops, getting out to explore the different views, plants and animals at each stop. His favorite was Pebble Beach Golf Course where he was able to walk down next to the course and even play a few holes on the kid course in the courtyard.
Finishing up our drive, we headed back to Monterey in search of Mexican food and a mellow night.
Day 5: Monterey/Carmel to Big Sur
Picking up where we left off the day before, we headed past the 17 mile drive to Point Lobos State Natural Preserve for a hike in the Allen Grove Memorial. Our arrival coincided with a guided walk by a volunteer docent who took us through the woods and on cliffs with deer eating below on the short .8 mile Cypress Grove Trail. The ocean vistas were breath taking. This is a perfect trail for a toddler’s first hike, with most of the trail flat and easy for little feet to maneuver.
Dirty, dusty and exhilarated from our hike along the cliffs, we ate our picnic lunch at the park before heading back on the road, ready to spot the famous Bixby Bridge.
I don’t remember what the allure of the bridge was for me (maybe the Death Cab for Cutie song?) or how I got it in my mind that we needed to detour off of Highway 1 on the Old Coast Road to see the bridge. Our little detour took us on an hour long off roading adventure (scare!) through beautiful woods and along streams criss-crossing over our tiny one lane dirt road. At one point I almost flipped the car trying to get up a sandy hill. EEK. Luckily our little one slept the entire way!
And there it was, the Bixby Bridge…on the road that we were on originally. And the bridge we had already passed. Oops. But hey, at least it was an adventure!
Exhausted after our day of off roading, we stopped in Big Sur to rest our bones. In hindsight I wish we had planned more time here. Due to our detour, we only had time to drive through Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park rather than explore the Partington Cove and McWay Falls hikes we had planned. Just another reason to return for us, but don’t miss these as you venture along Highway 1!
Day 6: Big Sur to San Luis Obispo
After a beautiful night’s sleep at a picturesque roadside lodge, and a slow morning observing the view, we headed further south to the elephant seal rookery – our big plan of the day. Thankfully our son is easily impressed by nature otherwise this could have been a long day!
Elephant Seal Rookery is a fun place to stop off. You will see the crowds, so don’t worry about missing it! This beach is popular with seals for mating, molting and resting. During our visit, several volunteers from Friends of the Elephant Seal were on hand to answer questions and provide background information on these amazing creatures. They are noisy, fight and smelly, just like most of our kids! Bundle up, it can get chilly here even in the middle of the summer.
For many, the next stop would be to Hearst Castle. After reading reviews, we decided it would be too difficult to keep a toddler entertained during the tours, so we gave it a pass. If you have grade school kids (or none!), this would be a perfect stop off point. Reservations are required so plan in advance.
Instead, we headed further south to Moonstone Beach near Cambria for our mid-day break. Many visitors head straight to the wooden boardwalk with stunning views and restaurants nearby. For more kid focused fun, head down the coast a bit to the neighborhood gem Shamel Park & Playground adjacent to Moonstone Beach. Prepare to spend much longer here than you originally planned. Searching through the rocks for moonstone is addicting! The littles will leave with their pockets full!
Getting our fill, literally, we hopped back in the car for a jaunt off the Pacific Coast Highway towards our hotel for the night, the famously quirky Madonna Inn. Being so close, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay there.
Day 7: San Luis Obispo to Solvang
After a week of staying in roadside motels and lodges, we were spoiled with our massive digs at the Madonna Inn. We scrapped our plans to explore San Luis Obispo on arrival to instead soak up some sun at the pool. Even if you don’t have time to stay here, the food is fabulous and is available for all visitors.
Morning arrived too soon. Not ready to say goodbye to the awesomely crazy Madonna Inn, we spent a leisurely morning around the grounds checking out the various buildings. Coincidentally, we stayed in the Solvang room, the next stop on our road trip!
Finally forced to move on by check-out times, we quickly headed to the main drag of SLO (what the locals call San Luis Obispo). The only must see on my agenda was bubble gum alley! What a silly concept, but for some reason I wanted to see it. Keeping little hands off the gum, was an exercise in patience however! We added our contribution, coincidentally found my initials, and headed out.
From SLO we continued our detour off the Pacific Coast Highway onto the 101 to the unique little town of Solvang. I couldn’t wait to set eyes on this slice of Denmark in the middle of the San Ynez Valley. This area of the valley is known for it’s wineries and Danish goodies! It was such a stark contrast of scenery to what we had been used to for the previous 6 days. The land was either barren or covered in grape farms. We began to miss the beauty and the cool coastal breezes we had become accustomed to.
That said, Solvang was right up my alley. European shoe stores, laffy taffy shops and everyone in bed by 9pm! It is a cute town with a unique feel. Having spent a good deal of time in Europe, it didn’t feel particularly European, but we could feel the pull that draws tourists here again and again.
Day 8: Solvang to Santa Barbara
From Solvang, the 101 takes you back to the ocean merging with Highway 1 for a while. We were happy to see the cliffs, beaches and beautiful blue ocean return to our view. I had been to Santa Barbara once before to visit my cousin, but I hadn’t ventured far from her college town area. I was pleasantly surprised as we headed into town down the main strip to see that it was bigger than I thought, cuter and so beautifully manicured! With our short drive from Solvang, we had an entire day to hang out at the beach and visit the adorably cute Santa Barbara Zoo where my son was ecstatic to be licked by a giraffe while feeding him!
Santa Barbara was technically the last stop of our road trip as tourists – however our final stop was Los Angeles, our new home. After a week exploring the beautifully rugged coastline, it was an abrupt awakening to find ourselves in the middle of LA! If you are ending your trip in LA, there is still more beauty to be found along the coast and Highway 1. Leo Carrillo State Park in Malibu, the boardwalk and pier in Santa Monica, shopping on Abbot Kinney in Venice and head on even further to Laguna Beach and Dana Point for more hiking, tide pools and beautiful scenery.
This post is part of #WeekendWanderlust.