Tweens from LA to San Fran
June 15, 2022 5:11 AM   Subscribe

My kids want to go on a road trip from LA to San Fran towards the end of July. Yes, this isn't much time to plan. They are 11 and 13. They are down to do whatever. Both are curious and adventurous. We have 10 days. ( It can be less ). Happy to mix time in the city with time in small towns and in nature. What is our itinerary?

My first thought was to spend a few days in LA, hit Santa Cruz, Carmel, Big Sur and a few days in the San Fran area ( We will skip San Fran proper ) 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 and crowd fatigue to a minimum. Not averse to heading east toward Joshua Tree or Yosemite, etc. but also want to avoid the masses if possible. What's the ultimate stress free road trip in California? Does that exist?
posted by jasondigitized to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, CA (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz. I haven't been there yet, but it's highly recommended.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:33 AM on June 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

If they're readers, Bart's Books in Ojai. World's largest (they say) outdoor used bookstore. We stopped there with our kids on a similar trip and everyone got a bunch of books for the car.
posted by true at 5:39 AM on June 15, 2022 [4 favorites]

I took this trip a couple of years ago and I’d highly recommend Deetjen’s in Big Sur. No wifi in the rooms, but super picturesque log cabins/treehouse feel, great breakfasts, easy access to hiking trails, a lending library/ game room, journals in each room so you can read the previous occupants suggestions and stories- just so so lovely! I stayed in the Chalet room, which is actually perfect for a faintly of four, but looks like that particular suite is under construction, I still cannot recommend it enough.
posted by Champagne Supernova at 6:12 AM on June 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

It's a shame you are skipping San Francisco proper, I would have recommended the Exploratorium.

What about Yosemite ?
posted by TimHare at 7:18 AM on June 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

What a fun trip!

This trip can be really as short or as long as you want -- the drive can technically be done in a single day, so even a 3-night trip would be pretty leisurely.

Depending on your tolerance for winding roads, Highway 1 along the coast is absolutely gorgeous, and the views make it an attraction in itself. You can mix and match bits of driving along Highway 1 with other highways as needed.

Once you get closer to the bay area, Highway 280 is a beautiful drive, which you can take all the way through SF proper and onto the Golden Gate Bridge.

Some places to hit along the way:

- San Luis Obispo is a very cute little coastal town closer to LA

- Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur is the most magical place I've ever been... incredible views of Big Sur and the coast, in a secluded little spot close to High

- Pescadero and Half Moon Bay are cute towns closer to SF with great beaches and hiking nearby (in town, my food recs are Duarte's Tavern and the artichoke bread from Arcangeli Bakery)

- If your kids like theme parks, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is really fun!

- All along the coast there are lighthouses which have been turned into youth hostels that are really cool family-friendly places to stay -- although these are very popular and may be already booked for the summer.

- Marin Headlands just north of SF has beautiful nature and great hiking and exploring
posted by mekily at 7:30 AM on June 15, 2022 [6 favorites]

If you think your kids can handle it, I'd do the PCH (highway 1) from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco. You'd hit Hearst Castle, Big Sur, McWay Falls, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and ultimately, San Francisco, along the way.

It's a long and winding drive (about 4 hours between SLO and Santa Cruz, depending), but there's plenty of stops along the way for breaks on the coast, and the drive is very beautiful and relaxing. McWay Falls is fun for a quick short hike, as well as Big Sur for the sights. There's even some small redwoods-style trees near Big Sur, which I'd bet have good hiking spots as well. I'd pack a picnic lunch and stop about halfway up on a desolated beach, if I were you.

If you think your kids would be into it, by all means, do it. I'm restless and easily bored, and I wasn't even close to both during my own jaunts up that section of PCH. I've gone more than once, and I'd chomp at the bit to go again.
posted by dubious_dude at 7:34 AM on June 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

Santa Cruz is great for young folks. Easy to walk around and be entertained. Other ideas: Stay at the Madonna Inn. Rent kayaks at Elkhorn Slough (the otters and other wildlife are off the chain). I've always wanted to check out Solvang.
posted by latkes at 7:57 AM on June 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Some years ago, we did this at the end of a longer trip. Our schedule was:

LA (Disney for a day, Santa Monica Pier)
across the San Joaquin Valley to the Sequoia National Park and Moro Rock
back across to Cambria and San Simeon (Hearst Castle), then north
Monterey area - Santa Cruz - Half Moon Bay
I think we spent three days in SF.
posted by yclipse at 8:35 AM on June 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Channel Islands would be an amazing day trip (or overnight camping trip). You can go kayaking, snorkeling, or hiking. If they've read Island of the Blue Dolphins in school, it's set on one of those islands.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is also a fun stop for kids of all ages.
posted by mogget at 8:53 AM on June 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

I would not miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium on that trip. Also, seconding Nepenthe. Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough (north of Moneterey) amongst the many sea otters is really fun. I believe Hearst Castle is still closed, and the kids might be a bit young to really enjoy it. Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a classic.
posted by jcworth at 9:36 AM on June 15, 2022 [7 favorites]

This sounds like a great trip. Know that if you are looking to avoid stress and crowds, Yosemite in the summertime may not be your destination. During non-Covid years it’s packed to the gills and this year may be even more crowded as people catch up on two years of not traveling. If you do decide to go, try to find some kind of option for getting in and out of the park via shuttle where you can leave the car outside the park altogether. Driving in Yosemite is terrifying. Everyone is on unfamiliar mountain roads, distracted by the natural beauty, stressed out from being on vacation, and now deer and people are darting into the road unexpectedly. It’s incredibly beautiful, don’t get me wrong. But it isn’t a relaxing experience if you have to deal with a car.

But if you are looking to avoid crowds, college towns like San Luis Obispo, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz will probably be a little quieter in the summer when many students have cleared out. Monterey is one of my favorite places, specifically the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but Cannery Row, where the aquarium is located, is very crowded in the summer, so if you go, try to go as early in the day as you can.
posted by corey flood at 9:43 AM on June 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

A few gems that haven’t been mentioned yet:

-Stop in Solvang, a few hours north of LA, a sort of mini Denmark. There is an Ostrich Farm right off the highway that the kids will love.

-Double check that it’s the right time of year, but there is a Monarch Butterfly preserve in Pismo Beach that is well worth a visit. They have rangers who give tours and lessons on the butterflies, but you can also just show up whenever and stroll through, and the trails will take you down to the beach where, if you time it right, you can watch sunset.
posted by nancynickerson at 10:04 AM on June 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I have mixed feelings about the Mystery Spot... it's a fun tourist trap and optical illusion, but the way the guides try to pass it off as "there's some unexplained gravitational anomaly at this spot" gets under my skin.

As an adult it's easy to see through that stuff, but when I visited as a kid about the same age as yours, I 100% believed it and I'm still a little ticked off that we went there on a school trip. If you do go, maybe prep your kids with something like "this is just a fun pretend game". Or maybe your kids are the kind who will naturally point out holes in the guides' story. ;)
posted by mekily at 12:41 PM on June 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

There are sea otters in Morro Bay and it's a neat little town. The elephant seals in San Simeon are fantastic. I really liked Monterey and would heartily recommend a whale watching tour there. I loved the mystery spot in Santa Cruz but I am easily amused and completely gullible. Tidepooling outside Carmel is also really great. It's just a wonderful trip, you can't really go wrong.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:48 PM on June 15, 2022

I forgot to mention that I would also very very much recommend the Monterey Bay aquarium.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:50 PM on June 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

If you're up for it, there are a couple of great lighthouses along the way. I can certainly recommend Pigeon Point State Park, in Pescadero. The First Order Fresnel lens is on display in one of the buildings, and there are great views of the ocean and the lighthouse.

Also Pescadero has great food, and a lovely goat farm where you can buy excellent cheese.

Southeast of Half Moon Bay is Purisima Redwoods State Preserve, where you can find enormous coast redwoods without having to go to Muir Woods. Highly recommended.
posted by suelac at 1:42 PM on June 15, 2022 [4 favorites]

If Hearst Castle is open, your kids are absolutely old enough to enjoy it! And yes if you can swing a stay at the Madonna Inn I was soooo obsessed with that place as a kid. Never got to stay there and still feel a bit salty about it.
posted by potrzebie at 4:10 PM on June 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Elephant Seals. I think July is molting season.
posted by kensington314 at 4:49 PM on June 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Speaking of those redwoods or at least somewhere near there...I was mountain biking with a friend there 20+ years ago and it truly felt like I was living the inspiration for the speeder bike scenes on Endor in the Return of the Jedi.
posted by mmascolino at 5:22 PM on June 15, 2022

Lots of ideas above, my comments as a Santa Cruzan:

> The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz
Nope, skip it. The mystery is why do people go? My daughter was a guide and honestly it's dumb. But if you want to go you must book in advance.

> the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is really fun
Yes, and the Giant Dipper is a great ride.

> Rent kayaks at Elkhorn Slough
A nice way to spend half a day but CHECK THE TIDES for your proposed day. You really don't want to be fighting against an incoming tide as you're ending your paddle. There's a great fish restaurant nearby: Phil's has great cioppino.

> Monterey Bay aquarium
It's wonderful! As you probably know, Monterey was the original capital of California and there are some neat old buildings (and a marked walk to take them in).

> Redwoods
Yes please spend a bit of time in a redwood forest; get off the populated trail if you can as the redwoods are so peaceful. Big Basin is closed from last year's fire but other parks are open

> Pigeon Point State Park
The lighthouse is very cool, but not always open. There's a youth hostel there too, if that's of interest, with hot tub by the ocean. Pescadero is tiny but worth a meal-stop.

Happy travels!
posted by anadem at 8:10 PM on June 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

My brother and I went on this same trip at about the same age with our parents. I think our favorite place we stayed between LA and SF was Cambria, walking along the beach with all the weird twisted driftwood.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:00 AM on June 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Elephant seals at big sur were a highlight for me when I did this trip a few months ago.
La Brea tar pits in LA.
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 6:18 AM on June 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

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