10 day California Road Trip
April 20, 2022 12:02 PM   Subscribe

My kids want to go on the ultimate California road trip. They are 11 and 13. They are down to do whatever. Both are curious and adventurous. I can allocate 10 days to this trip ( It can be less ) and will fly from Austin to wherever to start. What is our itinerary?

My first thought was to fly into San Fran and hit Tahoe and Yosemite. My second thought was to go from LA to San Fran or vice versa and hit Santa Cruz, Carmel, Big Sur, etc. I am completely open to other options. I don't mind spending money on nice lodging and food. I'd simply like to hit the road with my kids, have an amazing time, and keep driving and car fatigue to a minimum. What's the ultimate stress free road trip in California?
posted by jasondigitized to Travel & Transportation around California (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We had half as long to do our California trip, and ended up with San Francisco as the last leg. We flew into Santa Barbara, and did Solvang > Pismo Beach > Garden Grove/Monterey > San Jose > San Francisco, driving along the PCH for as long as we could. I booked Airbnb stays in a tiny home in someone's back yard in San Jose, and a basement apartment in San Francisco, but the rest of our accommodations were little roadside/beachside motels. If we had it do over again, I'd skip San Jose (we did a mini Silicon Valley tour, including a stop at the Apple Park visitor's center for an afternoon coffee) and do the Monterey aquarium.
posted by emelenjr at 12:27 PM on April 20

My vote is you gotta go up the coast first. You will see a lot more variety; Santa Cruz is so fun - give that 2 days. Then go east next time.
posted by bleep at 12:27 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]

When are you thinking of going? August through October are pretty fire-heavy these last few years. Try going early in the summer.

I'm partial to the Bay Area so don't know a lot about SoCal, but my sister and her partner love Ojai, so maybe check that out if you go South to North?

Check whether Hwy 1 is open through Big Sur.

If you stay in the North, you could drive all the way up to the Northern redwood parks which are so primal and amazing. As I always do, I'm going to recommend the Requa Inn in Klamath as a great place to stay while you're up there.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 12:36 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]

Seconding the idea of going as early in the summer as possible (though unfortunately big wildfires are a year-round problem now...there was one this January in Big Sur even after we'd had record-breaking rain). Maybe have a backup plan in case of fires or terrible smoke that makes it hard to go outside. :(

I think I would fly into SF and spend a day or two there- it's fun to take the ferry to Sausalito or Angel Island or ride bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge. At Golden Gate Park you could ride paddle boats at the lake, see the bison, maybe visit the Academy of Sciences or the Japanese garden, and walk or take the train over to the beach and check out the old camera obscura. If you wanted, you could completely avoid renting a car while there- it's very easy to take the train from the airport into the city. I'd recommend staying at an Airbnb near Duboce Park/Cole Valley/Inner Sunset/Inner Richmond, personally. Totally possible to avoid the cable cars and other touristy things.

Then I might go down Highway 1 and stop at Big Basin (redwoods), then go farther and stay in Santa Cruz or Monterey for the night. The Monterey Aquarium is worth visiting though probably very crowded in the summer. Farther down, Pfeiffer Big Sur is a nice place to camp. I love the drive all the way down the coast to LA (or the Amtrak ride!), though it takes a LONG time. I have also driven from the Central Coast over to the Sierras (also takes a long time). I have to go to a meeting so can't finish typing out an itinerary, but maybe that's a possible start.
posted by pinochiette at 1:15 PM on April 20

My vote is buy a huge paper map. (I then make a copy and mark up the copy) Have them research (and you too!) things you'd love to see. Planning the trip really makes it extra memorable.

Then figure out how much you want to drive and base your trip on that what the kids would like to see and do most.
posted by ReluctantViking at 2:00 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]

Have them research (and you too!) things you'd love to see. Planning the trip really makes it extra memorable.
Ooh yeah, my family taught me how to navigate with paper maps on road trips and that training remains invaluable even now. It's a great opportunity.
posted by bleep at 2:47 PM on April 20

Here are some things to consider:

If you are going in June-July, be aware that the marine layer often hugs the coast during these times and Highway One will be shrouded in fog for much of the day.

Lake Tahoe is really, really beautiful in the summer, the water is ice ice cold, and not easy to swim for long time periods. The drive from the Bay Area of San Francisco to Lake Tahoe is grueling and boring.

Yosemite is really beautiful, but the main area of the park is a traffic jam and very developed. The smart thing to do is stay close by, take the tram into the park, and try some of the less travelled areas like Tuolumne Meadows. Booking will be difficult during summer.

Carmel is overdeveloped kitschy and expensive. Monterey has the great aquarium there, and they just opened Into the Deep, with some special species for that ocean zone. I would love to see the show.

For your age group of children, I think Santa Cruz is a very good choice. There's hiking at the ocean or in the redwoods, most of it very well maintained. A nice amusement park right on the ocean. Good skateboarding spots. A university. A marine lab with interesting interactive exhibits. You can drive north for some wilder trips to beaches, and Big Basin is just north with some great hiking in the redwoods. Good farmer's markets.

As mentioned above, San Jose/Silicon Valley isn't really that interesting. The drive over Highway seventeen from Santa Cruz to San Jose is jammed for most of the day with commuters and log trucks.

If you choose a desert like Anza-Borrego, be sure to do a lot of prep for an environment like that.
If you drive Highway One from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you're looking at about a ten to twelve hour drive.

Anyway, I hope some of this general advice is helpful.
posted by effluvia at 3:24 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Instead of Tahoe you could go to Truckee and rent jet skis on Donner Lake. Your kids might have a blast!

Is Disneyland on the table? My favorite things in California are the drive down or up Highway 1 and Disneyland.
posted by Threeve at 6:19 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz!
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:35 PM on April 20

Are you very interested in SoCal? San Diego is great for kids—the zoo is world class, the Safari park is great (and if you wanted to splurge you could stay the night which I HIGHLY recommend), and then there’s legoland.

If you go to LA, take your skids to the skate park in Venice Beach. You’ll see some amazing talent and it feels very California.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 8:57 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Maybe The Winchester House in San Jose?
posted by Paul Slade at 3:17 AM on April 21

Such a fun question - sorry in advance for the long answer, I miss California and got carried away!

-San Diego (Balboa Park & its museums, the zoo, walking around Old Town, spending an afternoon in Coronado, maybe Legoland). You could easily do a couple days here. IMO it's much less stressful than LA or SF while still being interesting and exciting.
-Beaches! I'm partial to those in Ventura County, northern LA County, and San Diego. Big Sur and the Santa Cruz boardwalk are nice, too.
-For when you just want to drive and look at interesting stuff: the section of PCH that goes through Malibu is busy but cool.
-Stopping to get out at Griffith Observatory (I haven't been inside in ages, so I don't know if I'd recommend actually going in or not, but the views are great)
-LA museums: LACMA (the main art museum), the science center (loved this as a kid/preteen), the Getty
-I'm a big amusement park person, so that'd personally be a must-do for me (at least in the pre-covid era). My recommendation would be Knott's Berry Farm - cheaper and less stressful than Disney, more accessible rides than Magic Mountain, more to do than Universal, and IMO just overall really good for preteens.
-Fun for an afternoon: Golf N' Stuff in Ventura (mini golf, arcade games, go karts)
-Santa Barbara (zoo here is great too). You can rent one of those family bikes and just go up or down the coast looking out at the horizon. If you're into camping, there are good spots around here and Carpinteria.
-In N Out at least once (not automatically out if you're vegetarian; I am and it's still my favorite California restaurant)
-San Luis Obispo was always a stop on my own family road trips, but it's been ages and I don't remember what we used to do there...
-Hearst Castle? Another one I don't remember much about but liked as a kid
-Santa Cruz, driving through the redwoods, Mystery Spot.
-SF: Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Lombard Street are touristy but still fun. The Exploratorium is so cool and I wish I'd been able to go as a kid. However, like LA, SF can be pretty stressful to drive around. I think it's alright if you park somewhere and spend the day walking around.
-Another low-stress-but-still-neat city is Sacramento. It's walkable and you can check out the capitol building.

The note about fog on the 1 in late spring/early summer is really important as it seriously affects visibility - scariest driving experience of my life.
posted by chaiyai at 2:21 PM on April 21

Just an FYI - Big Basin and Little Basin burned down during the CZU lightning fire in 2020. If you want to see redwoods I would highly suggest Henry Cowell state park which happens to be pretty close to Santa Cruz! Or if you go all the way up north to Eureka/Arcata, the redwoods up there are just magical.
posted by ruhroh at 3:20 PM on April 21

So many good answers here, reminds me why I love CA so much! I love the idea of having the kids do lots of the planning! Have them research and pick top priorities. Some things will require advanced planning so it’s good to identify them ahead of time. It’s a big state with lots of wonder so you will have to pick and choose.
I’ve lived mostly in the Silicon Valley area (and agree, unless they are real techies and want to see the Apple and Google campuses, pretty boring), and now in San Diego for five years.

If they are really outdoor adventurers there is countless areas as many have mentioned. The State and National Parks alone could keep you busy! Some may require a reservation. Yosemite speaks for itself but I think Death Valley might be good for their age too. Again, too many to count!

For water sports, personally I’d stick to San Diego (still cold but less so than the rest of the coast, still would need wet suit in June) there’s surfing, jet skiing, wind surfing, paddle boarding, kayaking, etc. Plus, the zoo is really great (it’s in Balboa Park).
I’m not very familiar with the LA area but I think it’s popularity speaks for itself (even if I don’t get it). The traffic in LA can really dampen your spirit so keep that in mind. True in SD and the Bay Area too but I find LA to be particularly stressful. LA is a huge area, so much to do and explore, maybe pick a few spots.
If you go to San Luis Obispo, bring the kids to Bubblegum Alley, Firestone Grill for a Tri tip sandwich, and Splash Cafe (Pismo Beach or SLO) for clam chowder bread bowls.
The drive up the coast is incredible but as many mention there is the June gloom to contend with. When my kids were similar in age they loved Alcatraz in SF (need tickets way ahead of time!). SF is unique and fun - the cable cars, Ghirardelli Square, the crazy acts on Fisherman’s wharf. Santa Cruz is fun too, lots of good hiking and the Boardwalk is fun for the kids (there is a fun Boardwalk in Santa Monica too). The Mystery Spot is fun if you’ve never done one of those.
Have the kids check out Atlas Obscura as they make their lists, sometimes it has hidden treasures you might otherwise miss. (Just make sure all are operational before you set out - with covid and time you never know what’s still open).
Happy travels, you sound like a fun parent!
posted by kathrock at 1:10 PM on April 22

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