PCH road trip

The Ultimate Coastal California Road Trip Itinerary

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Are you looking for the best Pacific Coast highway road trip itinerary with kids? Well look no further! The Pacific Coast Highway may just be the prettiest stretch of highway in the United States! Living in California, we have done this trip multiple times with our daughter, always starting in San Francisco and driving down to our house in Orange County but you can keep on going all the way down to San Diego and we suggest you do! This trip begins in San Francisco and heads South. There are lots of spots near SF and north of SF but that’s a whole other blog post!

From San Francisco to San Diego, it takes approximately 9 hours to drive the 500 miles. We highly suggest taking your time and making some stops along the beautiful California coast along the way! Here are the best stops along the California coast and Pacific Coast Highway with kids. Of course, there are many other great spots to stop besides the ones mentioned but for the purpose of this post, these are the easiest and best for first time coast travelers!


Stop 1-San Francisco

It’s not a trip to California without visiting San Francisco! A very family friendly city, you will not run out of things to do with kids in San Francisco. We recommend spending at least 2 days exploring all that San Francisco has to offer before renting your car and heading on down the coast. Go eat some yummy crab, see the Golden Gate Bridge and visit Dolores Park, where your kids will have a blast sliding down the massive slides before heading to your next destination. If you’re looking for a family friendly hotel in San Francisco, we highly recommend the Hilton in the Financial District! A very short walk to Chinatown (one block away!) and less than 15 minutes to the Ferry Building Marketplace, this is an awesome family hotel in a great location.

Stop 2-Santa Cruz

Just under 1.5 hours from San Francisco is Santa Cruz, a cute and family friendly coastal city. It’s the only city in California with a true boardwalk and amusement rides, similar to what you would find on East coast beaches. We recommend stopping her for a few hours, eating some food on the boardwalk and maybe going on some rides before heading down to your next stop.

santa cruz boardwalk
Santa Cruz Boardwalk
games at santa cruz boardwalk
Game booth at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk
santa cruz boardwalk
Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Stop 3-Monterey/Carmel

One of our favorite cities on the California coast is Monterey. Known for its aquarium, it’s a great overnight stop on your coastal California road trip. Visit the aquarium, Dennis the Menace playground and Cannery row. Our preferred hotel in Monterey is the Hyatt, we have stayed here on all of our trips to the area and love the location and how family friendly it is. Now I’ll be honest and say that the aquarium is not worth the $50/person price tag but people seem to love it so decide for yourself!

Monterey Aquarium
Monterey Aquarium
Monterey CA
Monterey
Old Fisherman's Wharf Monterey
Old Fisherman’s Wharf Monterey

Now we lumped Montery and Carmel into one because they are so close to each other (about 15 minutes apart) and it makes sense to visit them during the same trip. One of the most popular attractions in Carmel is the 17 mile drive and we definitely recommend it! You’ll have the opportunity to stop along some beautiful coastline, it’s a must when in Carmel!

17 mile drive Carmel
17 mile drive
17 mile drive Carmel
17 mile drive

Cannery Row has lots of shops and restaurants, as well as family friend tasting rooms. We got to try some wines while Milana played with the toys, it’s a win for everyone! Bargetto Winery has a tasting room in Monterey and it’s very family friendly.

PCH road trip with kids
Bargetto Winery tasting room in Monterey

Another must in Carmel is eating at the Mission Ranch restaurant. Owned by Clint Eastwood, it’s our favorite restaurant in the area with some great views and amazing food. If the weather is nice, they have a large outdoor patio that’s perfect for families. We had Sunday brunch here on our last trip and it was awesome! They don’t take reservations, so come early because the line to get in is long before they even open.

Stop 4-Big Sur

This is going to be one of the most scenic parts of your drive! Big Sur is breathtaking, with redwood trees on one side and stunning ocean views on the other side. We don’t recommend spending a night here but certainly make sure your coastal California road trip takes you through Big Sur! Something to note: if anyone in your traveling party gets car sick, this isn’t the road for you. It’s very windy and very long, so someone with car sickness will be very miserable! It’s also a road we don’t recommend doing once it gets dark, as not only will you miss the views, the lack of street lights will make it hard to navigate the very windy road that is so close to the edge of the cliffs.

coastal ca road trip with kids
Big Sur
coastal ca road trip with kids
Big Sur beach
coastal ca road trip with kids
Big Sur redwoods

Stop 5-Hearst Castle and San Simeon

Now we haven’t actually gone inside Hearst Castle as it doesn’t particularly interest us but it’s a very popular destination! While driving down this stretch of Highway 1, be sure to take a pit stop and see the sea lions on the beach in San Simeon. There are hundreds of them, it’s worth a quick stop!

Sea lions San Simeon
Sea lions on the beach in San Simeon

Stop 6-Morro Bay

On our way to Pismo Beach, we made a quick stop in Morro Bay. Morro Bay is known for Morro Rock, a huge, ancient volcanic mound at Morro Bay Beach. We walked around for a little bit before heading on to our next stop, Pismo Beach. You can drive right up to the rock and there you will see lots of sea otters hanging out!

Photo Credit: Visit California

Stop 7-Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo

Pismo Beach is another popular surf town on the coast of California. If you’re spending the night, we highly recommend the SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel. It’s family friendly and the beach is right below the hotel, with some fun caves to explore.

coastal ca road trip with kids
The beach below the SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel

If you’re not sick of seafood yet at this point, head to the Cracked Crab for lunch or dinner. It’s our favorite restaurant in Pismo Beach and we make it a point to stop here on each trip!

PCH road trip with kids
Delicious seafood at the Cracked Crab

Pismo Beach is also 15 minutes from San Luis Obispo, a beautiful area with lots of wineries, many family friendly! If you like wine, I would seek out a few wineries and visit!

PCH road trip with kids
San Luis Obispo winery
coastal California road trip with kids
San Luis Obispo Winery

Stop 8-Solvang

After traveling down the coast and seeing so many beautiful beaches, Solvang will be a nice surprise to your itinerary! It looks nothing like what you imagine California to look like. Solvang is known for its Danish style architecture and looks more like a European village than a California city! It’s super cute and a must stop on your way down the coast. We like to stay at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott when passing through here, a short 10 minute drive to Solvang.

Downtown Solvang
Downtown Solvang
Downtown Solvang
Downtown Solvang

A popular attraction in Solvang is Ostrichland, and surprisingly the animals are pretty docile! A must eat while in Solvang is aebleskiver, which you can find in pretty much every restaurant. These are traditional Danish round pancake like balls. You can get them filled or plain, and dip in jam on the side.

california road trip with kids
Ostrichland
Ostrichland
Ostrichland
Aebleskiver
Aebleskiver

Stop 9-Santa Barbara

Another huge favorite of ours, we come to Santa Barbara often for quick weekend getaways. It’s another very family friendly city, with so much to do and see! A must stop and preferably an overnight one, as you won’t be able to fit everything into one day. A great family friendly hotel here is the Hilton Beachfront Resort, which is across the street from the beach and walking distance to many attractions.

downtown santa barbara
Downtown Santa Barbara
children's museum santa barbara
MOXI Children’s Museum

Stop 10-Malibu

Aah, Malibu! One of the most famous stretches of coast in CA. This is a gorgeous stretch of road that will take you right into the popular LA beach towns. Stop here for lunch, we love Malibu Seafood, which has gorgeous views of the ocean from their restaurant.

California road trip with kids
View from Malibu Seafood
California road trip with kids
Stop for lunch at Malibu Seafood!
Malibu Seafood
Malibu Seafood

Stop 11-Santa Monica/Venice Beach

It’s not a visit to Los Angeles without seeing Santa Monica and Venice Beach! Stop by the Santa Monica Pier, let your kids ride a few rides then drive on down to Venice Beach and check out the scene. Now we aren’t fans of either to be quite honest but I feel like if you are visiting from out of state, you should at least see these beach towns once! Santa Monica has two great playgrounds right by the pier, which makes it a great spot to stop and let the kids run around a bit.

coastal ca road trip with kids
Santa Monica Pier

Stop 12-Redondo/Manhattan/Hermosa Beach

Take your pick, you really can’t go wrong with any of these! These are our favorite LA beach towns. Super cute, with cute downtowns and very family friendly. Redondo has a fun pier you can walk around and eat some yummy seafood on. Manhattan’s downtown is one of our favorites and very family friendly! There is a small and free aquarium at the end of the Manhattan Beach pier in case you haven’t had enough sea life yet!

Redondo Beach Pier
Redondo Beach Pier. Photo Credit: Discover Los Angeles
Manhattan Beach
Manhattan Beach. Photo Credit: Discover Los Angeles

Stop 13-Long Beach

Long Beach seems to be the forgotten city, smack dab between Los Angeles and Orange County but it’s worth a stop. If you need to stretch your legs, this is a great spot to stop with kids. Aquarium of the Pacific is here and while not as nice as the one you visited in Monterey, still worth a visit! There are many great restaurants in Long Beach and the city is very family friendly. Queen Mary is another popular attraction here!

Long Beach CA
Long Beach. Photo Credit: Visit California

Stop 14-Orange County

Our home county! There are many awesome spots to stop in Orange County, however you can do the coastal stops just by driving down the Pacific Coast Highway. Huntington Beach should be your first stop and while these aren’t exactly authentic recommendations, we think every tourist should eat at Ruby’s on the HB Pier at least once. Just keep in mind that if you walk the pier on a windy or cold day, it will feel like your face is freezing off as there is nothing stopping the cold cross wind from hitting you! Another tourist hit is Fred’s Mexican, which has awesome views of the ocean from their patio. Sure, it’s not the most or even a little authentic when it comes to all the Mexican food we have in SoCal, but the atmosphere is great and the views are amazing. Wander around Main Street and Pacific City before heading on down the coast.

huntington beach with kids
Huntington Beach

Great coastal cities to visit in Orange County besides Huntington Beach are Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and San Clemente. Yes there are others, but most people aren’t going to stop at each beach city and we think these are great spots to stop. If you want some kid friendly attractions in Orange County that aren’t Disneyland, check out our Orange County blog post.

Crystal Cove
Crystal Cove, Newport Beach

Stop 15-San Diego

You made it to your final destination! San Diego has lots to see and do, so you should plan on spending several days here to explore all the city has to offer. Some of our favorite hotels in San Diego are the Hilton Resort in Mission Bay and the San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter if you want to be downtown. You can split your stay between North County San Diego (Carlsbad, Encinitas, etc) and then San Diego proper.

Balboa Park
Balboa Park
La Jolla Shores
La Jolla Shores
Seals in La Jolla Cove
Seals in La Jolla Cove

Have you driven down the CA coast? What are some of your favorite spots to stop?

Coastal California road trip best stops

23 Comments

  • Rachelle

    OMG I love the Cracked Crab! We went there with my grandma and had more seafood that we could handle! So amazing. And I’ve been wanting to go to Solvang for a while. Maybe it’s time that I rent a convertible and drive down PCH! I actually wanted to visit Big Sur a few years ago, but it was right after the major storms and PCH was washed away for a large stretch.

  • Shreya Saha

    I haven’t been to the States yet but I have decided when I will be planning my trip to the US I am definitely going to take a road trip. Your blog shows me how to do it, for example I am surely going to take this particular road trip from San Francisco to San Diego via Monterey, Big Sur, Heart Castle, Santa Monica beach, Long Beach, and places like these that are not to be missed when I am in the States.

  • Fae Celine

    I’ve always wanted to experience a road trip in California. I’m currently planning a trip to California in 2021 and I plan to explore San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are so many beautiful places in California. The Big Sur looks amazing too

  • Maria Yakimchuk

    Great post. You have definitely hit all the fun parts on a trip down Highway 1. It is spectacular and beautiful. I remember that one time my husband and I took a trip to Santa Barbara down Highway 1 and made random beach stops along the way. It was so fun. I miss living in California.

  • Diana Chen

    Wow you really did go everywhere on your Cali road trip! I loved discovering some cities I’d never heard of before from your itinerary, like Solvang. It does look more like a European town than an American town. I’m adding that to my list for the next time I’m in Cali!

  • Bhushavali N

    My friend in USA was just telling me about how road-trips are such a common thing there and its fascinating to hear it, as an outsider. 7 day roadtrip sounds so awesome. My gal would love to take the board walk in Santacruz. Now that I travel with a toddler, I have be consious of not getting her too bored. She’d love Monteray aquarium too. And me, as a wine drinker would love San Louis Obispo. The beauty of nature in Big Sur is breathtaking. I’d love to do a roadtrip in California!

  • Deanna

    This is great! We always seem to be vacationing in California, but mainly southern- these are great tips
    For northern too! We will have to plan some of these out!

  • Rebecca

    What a great list! We love Santa Barbara and Solvang! We haven’t gone everywhere else on this list, but it all looks gorgeous; we’ll have to take my daughter someday!

  • Jennifer Prince

    Solvang looks so interesting! I’ve never heard of it. I really need to do a CA road trip sometime. I’ve been to the state a bunch, but I haven’t ever made a coastal road trip. It’s on my bucket list!

  • Yukti Agrawal

    I still have to go for west coast trip as could not make it because I am confused from where to start. It great that you listed beautiful Californian coastal spots during the whole road trip. Big Sur looks truly enchanting and the Santa Cruz broadwalk looks very colorful. Long Beach also looks another beautiful beach. Thanks for sharing all tips and guide for California coast trip.

  • Ann

    I love everything about California except for the driving part, I’m not used to the huge motorways. I went to LA and San Diego not to long ago and really enjoyed Santa Monica, beautiful place to visit and the theme park at Santa Monica Pier is really fun! Would also recommend the San Diego Safari Park if you haven’t been there, its truly amazing!

  • Kristen

    I used to live in Manhattan Beach many years ago. Reading this post makes me miss California! This is a trip I would love to take with my family one day for sure. Thanks for taking the time to share all the sights and your tips!

  • Melissa

    I’ll be honest. I am an East Coast snob and have zero desire to go to CA but your list is wonderful! I have added some things to my must see list if we ever get to the other coast!

  • Kristin

    I live in California and have only been to 3 out of 15 places here! That makes me so sad, but also excited cause now I must plan a coastline trip with the family! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Brittany Fiero

    Wow! What an amazing trip!!! All that fresh seafood in your meals looks so delicious. California is a dream destination of mine. I will definitely pin this for guidance when travel planning.

  • Clarice

    This is a marvelous idea. We’re visiting our family in California this Christmas and would be staying there for about 2 months. I bet my kids would really love to take a road trip and explore the SF area.

    Bookmarked your post for future reference. Thank you for sharing.

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