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!