Is a Pacific Coast Highway Trip on your bucket list?
It was on ours and so we decided to pack our bags, book a plane ticket, and make our way from SoCal to the Bay Area and explore in between. We didn't nearly cover the vastness of this beautiful stretch of coastal road, but we chose stops that worked for us with certain goals in mind. And we loved every bit of what we saw, and what we wish we had more time to see.
What did our week+ in California look like winding the up the open highway? Read on!
Some prefer to start further south in San Diego but started our trip in LA for reasons all our own!
1. Flight - we flew Delta and wanted a direct flight. Plus, with our Companion Certificate and Skymiles, we only ended up paying about $400 total for the 4 of us to go to west.
2. Location - we wanted to start south and watch the hills turn into cliffs and dramatically change course. Some may argue a trip from north to south would be better since you ride along the coast (rather than the inner most lane), but for us that didn't make a difference on the drive.
3. Disneyland - we wanted to start the trip with a treat for the kids! Capitalize on all the energy they had and use it for something they would truly marvel over.
What to do in LA? What is there not to do?!
After you pick up your rental, head towards Hollywood. You want a picture with the iconic sign and there are some many good spots to get it from, including the Griffith Observatory, which also includes panoramic views all around. If you're heading down to Hollywood Blvd to check out the sights there, head to shopping complex Hollywood and Highland for great views! While you're there, the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann's Chinese Theater (where these days you can watch new movie releases at) are within sight.
Hungry? Visit Pink's Hot Dogs for this staple in Hollywood since the 1930s. The giant loaded hot dogs of all varieties were delicious and worth the wait at this counter service restaurant with outdoor seating. Just be warned, parking may be hard to find!
Then make it a point to cruise around greater LA County - from driving down Sunset Strip to admiring all the luxury of Beverly Hills to hitting up the pier in Santa Monica for some fun or even just checking out another city along the shoreline. There's so much to do in LA, you can easily spend a few days here!
This was *the* destination for us on arrival - to spend a few days at Disneyland California! The parks are nestled in the middle of Anaheim and really a world all their own. We highly recommend spending at least two days here, as there's enough to do without feeling rushed.
The resort itself has 3 Disney hotels (Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian, and Pacific Pier), 2 theme parks (Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure) and the entertainment complex of Downtown Disney. Each park deserves a day all their own to fully immerse and explore AND because there's just that much to do! Promise. They have more attractions per park than the sister parks in Orlando!
There’s so much to cover here we have an article all their own for the parks! Read all about our time at Disneyland and why it quickly became our favorite Disney parks - this alone may be the reason you want to come out here!
Make your way past Malibu and the stunning beach communities of So Cal as you head north up PCH. You'll venture into the beautiful city of Santa Barbara nestled along the coasts and the hills, and upon our arrival, covered in smog. It was such a beautiful piece of real estate as we traveled the highway as, we slowly witnessed the change from relatively flat southern Cali.
We also stumbled up on the mission trail here, where we made a bit of an adventure within one. El Camino Real is a collection of 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma, each spread out about 30 miles from each other. The Spanish missions, from a time when Spain held strong in California, are the oldest piece of history in the state and a captivating game to play while you're on your road trip. Look for the bell markers to signify the trail of missions as you travel el camino.
We only had time to explore the mission in Santa Barbara durinfbour short stop here, but wish we had spent even more time in this stunning city on the sea.
Does the name sound familiar, 90s babies? Well it should if you're a Clueless fan. It the namesake for the "Pismo Beach Relief" that the movie was fundraising for. And for us it was such a welcome surprise! Just when we thought we left everything So Cal had to offer, here's this little beach town that just exudes everything you want from California.
We spent just enough time here to park and play in the sand, bit could easily have spent hours more. From the beautiful shoreline to the relaxed surfer vibes, this is definitely the place you want to go to when trying to escape the hustle of the big cities and the bustle of Hollywood. It was the quintessential beach town on the California coast and a welcome stop for us to stretch as we made our way to our next stop!
Here's another name sake for you! Finding Dory, anyone?
With the name dropped so often in the movie, once we saw signs that we were approaching, we made sure to make a stop to just say we've been! Morro Bay was a seaside village lined with shiplap buildings and the sea painted with an iconic rock. We stopped to check it out just because our curiosity got the best of us, and we're glad we did!
We drove to the inlet that approached the famous rock and were greeted by a sea of otters sunbathing in the bay! What a fun surprise to encounter and certainly a place that made us want to stick around long enough to see what this town had to offer.
San Simeon is best known for Hearst Castle, and though we would've loved to spend a day there, with two little ones our plans led us elsewhere. Seashore - to be exact - to watch the elephant seals. This detour on our trip was a treat, because what a neat experience it was to encounter these giants literally feet from us. Sparring and barking in their own environment, doing just what nature taught them to do. The kids delighted in getting to see animals in the wild and we loved the chance to get to teach something up close and personal.
For this roadtrip in 2017 though, this was as far north as we were able to go on PCH. The road was shut down in Big Sur due to mudslides, so we were forced to diverge inland ... which ended up being a fortunate accident.
Paso Robles was our serendipity on this trip!
We would never have planned a stop here on our way up, as its not on the PCH. But since we had to diverge because of Mother Nature, we got to explore such a beautiful part of the state! This central California wine country is filled with beautiful rolling hills and fields of wineries in between hills. We even spotted a black bear as we drove these rural areas, making his way around home.
We made a stop on arrival at Four Lanterns, a family-friendly winery offering outdoor seating, live music and space to roam. Once we finished our visit and by the time dinner rolled around, we head to downtown Paso. A quaint town made up of a main city block and with some chic restaurants and an adorable Central Park. We had a wonderful dinner at Artisan, a contemporary concept with fresh meals and delightful drinks. A welcome reward after a day of driving!
Our drive was a shorter one, but to a very anticipated destination! MONTEREY!
Yes, home of Big Little Lies, where we had just dived into in 2017, so we anticipate seeing what this stunning location had to offer. It was a beautiful coastal city, with a downtown to match its charm, and lined with mountain and boats.
The attraction here, beyond the show that mapped it, is Monterey Bay Aquarium - where we spent an afternoon discovering with the kids. Just the fact that at times you're staring at the sea while looking at exhibits is a fascinating concept all its own! The experience was only topped by the visitors we had at the dinner that evening - seals and otters splashing under our prime view table at Domenicos on the Wharf!
The only thing we missed doing in our short stop here is going whale-watching - we would have loved the chance to see these beasts in their natural home!
It wasn’t initially on our itinerary but we made another trip back and hit up this beautiful beach village. Adorably lined with pristine local shops and eats, Carmel was a wonderful find on our second trip out west!
For wine lovers, this is also a smaller wine region. Though the vineyards are few and most require reservations to tour, the town has plenty of wineries to taste what they grow!
We NEEDED to see Big Sur, so before we continued north, we quickly headed back south to see how far we could go before being turned away. And we did not once regret this decision. This drive is absolutely beautiful - more than words can even paint to life. We made it as far as Pfeffier State Park as we drove the winding coast to see the beauty of it all. Only to be turned around and do it all again! We certainly didn't mind.
On arrival back, we made sure to take the 17 Mile Drive which would inevitably take us to world famous Pebble Beach. We completed this trip with a visit to the chilly shore, but feeling every bit much accomplished that we were able to see this gorgeous piece of California real estate on our trip!
We heard so much about Santa Cruz from others that we wanted to check out this beach town and see what it was about!
For starters, the homes lining the cliffs with prime view of the ocean were stunning. All were quintessential California homes as we would imagine them. But we also used this stop to let the kids have some of their kind of fun again. We spent the evening playing on the Boardwalk as a way to wind down the trip.
Carnival food, rides, games and even local beer is exactly what we needed after so much exploring. And as an added bonus, we had the perfect sunset to top off our stay. We would definitely recommend this as a stop for kids of any age!
On the skirts of Silicon Valley, this city felt like a perfect blend of SoCal meets the Bay. This stop was intentional on this trip, to visit a very dear friend and meet he mr baby boy. And she welcomed us to her home to spend the 4th of July by the pool, grilling out, and living like locals!
The day ended with us heading downtown for official celebrations, including fireworks and eating hot dogs from street carts. It was the cherry on top for a way to spend this holiday!
This wouldn’t have been a stop we picked out on our own, but we’re so glad we were introduced to Filoli. The beautiful garden situated in city limits, this places is absolutely worth a detour to see.
The drive there is tree lined upon rolling hills. On arrival, you’re greeted at a majestic house beckoned by acres of beautiful topiaries. Breathtaking is the least of word I could use to describe it! An afternoon spent exploring these wonders is enough but you could easily get lost here for a whole day!
Half Moon Bay
Imagine a picturesque coast washed away by the sea, where the only thing more impressive is the crashing waves offshore. That’s Half Moon Bay. We stopped here to check out the views, and get a little bit of that California sun & sand. We finished the day with lunch and drinks at the Ritz Carlton where we sat at fire pits to take in the breathtaking views
Our final official stop on this trip didn’t come without a little mishap - reminder to always check your safe before leaving your room! We made it all the way to San Fran to get an early morning cable car ride (without the lines) when we realized our mistake.
So we came back later (on a family reunion) and finished this stop. We hopped on cable car at Hyde & ___ and rode it into central San Fran! Goal accomplished. We visited the Painted Ladies, Drive down Lombardi Street, watched the sea lions bark at Pier 39, walked Fisherman’s Wharf and ate at Boudin Bakery - all the iconic SF things to do!
If you want a quick overview of the city, hop on a double decker! It’s the easiest way to get a lay of the land and figure out the areas you want to explore more! We recommend a stop in the Japanese Tea Garden for some serenity in the city! If you want something a little different to explore (and you’re a fan like us), the Walt Disney Museum at the Presidio is the perfect place to learn about his legacy and see his dreams come to life. Bonus, you get some scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge!
But make sure your finish your trip with a visit to Baker’s Beach for the most spectacular view of the Golden Gate! If you come at sunset, you can watch the day fade to night while your backdrop is painted all sorts of lovely colors.
Need dinner plans? Cliff House is at land’s end, where San Francisco begins as they proclaim! The spot is perfect for a seafood feast and great views. Sweet tooth? You can’t forget Ghiradelli’s - because what’s a visit without a stop!
If you’re headed across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, you can’t skip one of the best things on this side of the bay. Take time to explore Muir Woods and the glory of these fantastic creations of God. The forest will leave you speechless, and if you time out coming at the right time of day, you’ll have a special experience.
We arrived after the park office closed but before the park did, which granted us free entry and plenty of spots to park on site. The best part of this though was the stillness that overtakes the park when it’s not run over by crowds. It truly makes you feel at one with nature and in deep respect for it. On your way down, take in the views of the ocean meets the mountains, it’s another moment that can stop you in your tracks.
And if you’ve worked up an appetite from all that exploring, make sure to make a final stop at In-N-Out if you haven’t yet! There’s something special about this place with the simplicity in its food, burgers and fries with a sauce all their own that you’ll be dreaming of for years to come! Take it up a notch and get your order Animal Style for a truly unforgettable experience. Best off all, there’s always an In-N-Out en route to satisfy your craving!
If you have time, add in Napa and Sonoma to your plans! This region is so different from everything else there is out there and worth a post all it’s own about the places to check out - with or without kids!
Summer is here, and that means this season brings on all the road trips!
Whether you already have one planned or you're counting on making plans on the whim, the dog days of summer are the perfect time to do it.
Road trips can be as short and easy or as long and thought out as you want them to be. But most of all, they need to fun!
So what makes it work? We just had a few of our friends come back from their own adventures so we teamed up with them for extra advice on what made for smooth sailing, as close to perfect as possible!
1. Have a plan. Or at the very least know what you intend of this trip. It doesn't mean you have to have every minute scheduled, but knowing things like when you want to arrive, help to decide when you want to hit the road. And with that, plan accordingly to help make the drive as smooth as possible. The map may say you'll get there at one time ... but traffic, pit stops, and a barrage of other diversions say another.
Knowing when you're planning to leave can also help as you prepare for the trip. Getting the car ready is half the battle when leaving - the other is getting the little ones well-rested for an ungodly hours wake-up call. If you know you're going to hit the road for an early morning drive, have the car loaded the night before. It'll save you the trouble of waking up the lightest sleeper (and forgetting something while you meander half asleep). If you're planning to leave during the day, run out your little ones so they nap on the road. And if your plans involve a meal time departure, make sure you have food thought out - either pack a meal to-go OR make a special stop to start the trip. Nothing can ruin a road trip like hangry people - of all ages and sizes!
When talking about her drive up the east coast, Kristin H. also made the great suggestion of planning drives around traffic patterns. Ideally avoid rush hours in major cities so you're not wasting any precious time, energy or gas! Make it a point to stop during those hours so that everyone can stretch rather than sit in extra long traffic lanes.
2. Bring ALL the snacks! An essential part of road trip success is food - it can make even the hangriest person human again. Just like we mentioned when planning for a trip with little ones, you will be saved with having this one crucial item. Kids especially are never going have an appetitie when its convenient and a pit stop for food may not always be in the optimal location. While packing, make a few intentional grocery store trips and pick up a mix of snacks that can get you through a car trip.
And make it a point to find stuff on sale to stock up on We love Publix and their weekly Buy One, Get One sales and always grab extra to stash when we find unbeatable prices. Wholesale stores can also make all the difference when it comes to this - especially if you're going to be gone for an extended time. Head over to Costco, BJ, Sam's Club or the like and see what you can grab in bulk with savings at your fingertips. Best of all, make a special trip out of it with the kids once you grabbed all the essentials and let them pick out one special treat for the road!
What do you pack? For us, our non-negotiables are:
We load a cooler in the trunk and easily inventory what we have. We try to bring very little of anything that needs to be refrigerated and load up along the way. We also bring a little bit of each snack to the front of the car in a collapsible cooler bag so we can have easy access when anyone gets the munchies. The smaller cooler is also great to transport food in and out of hotels when you don't need or want to bring the whole cooler in.
A collapsible cooler is also worth investing in for a road trip you're flying into! We've done trips where we're eating out of the grocery bags we shopped with, but to have a cooler makes a huge difference in keeping the mess down! We love our SOMMAR cooler bag from IKEA from a few seasons back - the size is great and the price even better. It's currently out of stock, so if you ever come across it, snatch it!
3. Essentials to pack? Just like planning for a trip, we have our list of items that make the trip a little easier. We keep a running spreadsheet that we clean up and edit every time we learn something new and try to allow ourselves an easier system when packing.
Beyond the usual stuff that you'll bring, here are some of our tried and true suggestions that help make trips a little easier.
4. Activities & Entertainment. Once you made a trip for food, make sure to make a special shopping trip for activities too! Or in my case, two trips - one where I'll get some things I know can easily distract and one where the kids pick out something shiny and new.
The Dollar Store and Target are heaven-sent for these trips, as they both have the greatest variety of delights and greatest bang for your buck! Having a small box of crayons and coloring packs for each child is the #1 item to have on the road or for going out to eat. That way, they each have their own special loot that can (hopefully) eliminate fighting.
Books are always a hit with us, so we make a trip to the library to get a few to have. It will continue to spark their love of reading when the book has a theme to match your special trip, so try to look for some specific to what you're doing! Want to try something else fun? Check for a Little Free Library in your neighborhood before you go - "the leave a book, get a book" concept fuels a global community of readers to share what they love. So if you "check" one out from a local box, if you find another while you're on the road and you're done with said book, return it for a new book, from a new city/state! Want to make it personal? Leave a little handmade bookmark for the next reader in the book your return - write down where the book has been on to encourage the next to do the same. I'm sure any bookworm would delight in knowing that they're spreading their love of reading all over (and finding it too)!
Games, whether the store bought kind or self-generated, are the greatest ways to keep everyone in the car happy too! Kristin H. says she loves playing eye spy or how many "cows, flags, trucks, etc" counting games. License plate and find the sign games are also fun, and engage their curiosity to ask more as you talk. Open the dialogue to teach them about where you are and learn something new together! For when you stop, pack a good age appropriate, family-friendly game for nights in. Make sure they are tried & true so you know it was worth taking! Monopoly is our family favorite - easy to play at any age because just the newness of pulling stacks of cards and wads of money keeps our youngest entertained. Trivia games or Uno are also fun to pair off for some fun parent/child team competition. I promise whatever you decide to do will make for an unforgettable evening!
It's also not beneath us to let the kids watch some movies or play some games on the iPad. It's a nice treat during road trips and definitely a welcoming resource, particularly near nap times. Just let the rocking of the car, a good show (or movie) and a tired kid combination allow for a little shut eye. All of you will need some quiet time so if you're willing to allow even a little screen time, it's a break - for all of you!
Lastly, we always like to make sure to have a notebook/pen on hand for journaling/doodling about our trip, and stamps ready to send out postcards from our destinations. Sending postcards to friends has easily beomce our greatest delight on our trips - from picking out something special for that person, getting to practice writing to them, and then hearing about when they received. And knowing we'll get our own in return - it's the sweetest gift that keeps on giving!
5. The drive itself. Try to break the drive into smaller segments to make sure that no one is going to go stir crazy. This particularly helps with any road trip longer than 4 hours. Make it a point to find something at the 5-6 hour mark to stop at, whether it means stopping for a meal, to do some quick sightseeing, or a break for an overnight. This is the whole point of the road trip! Its not only cheaper to drive but it so much more fun to have a journey full of exploring!
Need some guided suggestions? Download the app Roadtrippers to find random things along your route to make the drive even more fun! Others plus in local attractions that can easily make a detour worth it. Social media forums are also a great place to ask questions and pull fun ideas from what to see, things to do or places to eat while you're on the go! And if all else fails, rely on your friends! Nothing beats a suggestion from a friend you trust - they will have your best intentions in mind!
What else should you count on? Not making any plans too close to your tentative arrival. Don't hard schedule something time sensitive as anything can come up. Don't make the trip a race against the clock - this means anything that can't be flexed should not be done on arrival. You could run into too many factors you can't control so allow yourself time to relax, unwind, and then if you have must-do plans, save them for the next day!
6. Pack Patience. Patience is a virtue and it really can be tested on the road. Don't get frustrated in the midst of planning, because something will always pop up. Just control what you can and roll with the punches. Don't let yourself get unhinged if something doesn't go to "plan" - make the best of what came up and turn to plan B. Sometimes its better than A!
Our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway had a unfortunate encounter as we were planning it the weeks leading up. Mudslides shut the most gorgeous part of the highway off forcing us to move our trip inland to head north. As much of a fork in our plans this was, we did our best to research and came up with an alternative. And you know what, it ended up being better than we imagined! We were able to see a part of California that is beautiful in its own right (and does not receive enough credit) AND we still get to visit the monumental parts of the highway that were unaffected. And we know we can pick up from where we left off AND have a few other places to see in a little more detail!
Remember, its the journey not (always) the destination when you're planning to hit the open road. Make the best and enjoy every moment - the smallest ones will sometimes turn into the brightest memories without knowing you're actually making them!
Feel a little more ready for your trip? We sure hope you do! We know we didn't possibly cover everything that could to make these trips work. So if you have any suggestions you want to pass on, we'd love to hear - comment below!
Otherwise, happy and safe travels!