From the sunny beaches of Dana Point to the majestic redwoods of Mendocino, Highway 1 follows the California coast for 655.8 miles. Along the way, it reveals much of the state’s coastal character and impossible beauty. In this mega-post, you’ll find 50 fun ways to enjoy an amazing Highway 1 road trip with your kids.
You may hear that a Highway 1 road trip is not for kids. The truth is, there is something for everyone along this iconic highway. We’ve tackled sections of it in bits and pieces for years now, and have made many happy family memories along the way. I hope you’ll find some perfect ways for your family to explore it together.
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HOW TO HAVE FUN DRIVING HIGHWAY 1 WITH KIDS
“The secret to happiness is low expectations.” This quote by psychologist Barry Schwartz is one of my favorites. And I find it especially fitting when it comes to traveling with my kids.
I don’t mean to be a downer here. I LOVE traveling as a family and have made incredible memories with them up and down Highway 1. But Highway 1 has been romanticized so much that the reality may at times struggle to match the myth. Check out our planning and travel tips to help you prepare for some possible bumps in the road.
Know that there is no way to do everything you’re going to want to do. Focus on everyone’s favorites, and aim to be flexible from there. If this mega-list of 50 things to do has you feeling overwhelmed, skip ahead to the itinerary as a jumping-off point. I had so much fun dreaming up Highway 1 ideas, that I ended up extending my usual 4-day itinerary to a 7-day plan.
Whatever happens along your journey, the best way to have fun on Highway 1 with kids is to stay in the moment. Make some happy / funny / crazy memories with your favorite people. Read on for some of the best stops to help you do just that.
IN THIS POST
In the map shown here, attractions and sites are color-coded as follows: Northern California stops (blue), Slow Coast and Big Sur (yellow), Central Coast (green), and Southern California stops (red).
HIGHWAY 1 WITH KIDS: NORTHERN CALIFORNIA STOPS FROM MENDOCINO TO SAN FRANCISCO
Many people forget that Highway 1 continues north of San Francisco. Those that can continue from the city have some Northern California magic in store for them. This section includes amazing groves of old-growth redwoods and unforgettable seaside villages. And some really good food and wine.
1. Leggett, Chandelier Drive-Through Tree
The northern end of Highway 1 starts where the highway meets 101 in Leggett, CA. This is redwood country, and the roads are framed by giant trees for miles. Shortly after Highway 1 begins, you’ll find a road trip attraction that has been drawing visitors since 1937: The Chandelier Drive-Through Tree.
Though this is known to be the largest of the three California drive-through trees, I was sure our car wouldn’t fit. But we were told that all standard-sized SUVs could make it…depending on the skill of the driver. Let your first Highway 1 driving test begin!
I’ve put a lot of dents in the car, so John drove the kids through. And sure enough, he made it!
Besides the main attraction, the property is a nice large park. Explore the duck pond surrounded by bullfrogs. There’s plenty of room to run around and enjoy a family picnic here. It’s a perfect first or last stop on a Highway 1 road trip with kids.
2. Fort Bragg
Ten miles north of quaint downtown Mendocino is the seaside town of Fort Bragg. It’s a bit grittier than its neighbor to the south, but it’s also larger and offers a lot of family-friendly things to do.
The most popular family attraction here is the Skunk Train. The Skunk Train has wound its way through old-growth redwood groves and into the Noyo River canyon since 1885. Riders enjoy the same gorgeous views that have welcomed passengers for over 100 years.
The Skunk Train Depot is now offering rail bike rides as well. The electric-powered rail bikes seat two and travel along the rails through Pudding Creek and into the redwood groves. Rides include a stopover at Glen Blair Junction for a picnic or walk in the woods. Children 3 and up can ride, but those ages 3-5 need to use their provided harness or a car seat.
When you’re not riding the rails, stop by Pudding Creek Beach. This beach surrounds the area where the creek reaches the ocean. Swimming is not recommended in most northern California beaches due to rough water and rip currents, but my kids could have splashed in the creek all day.
The town of Mendocino is an idyllic village that feels out of another time and place. Surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean with a redwood forest in its “backyard,” it has an unconventional and adventurous spirit.
Stop for a bite at Frankie’s Pizza and Ice Cream or the Good Life Cafe & Bakery. Take a walk to explore the lovely trails overlooking the ocean in Mendocino Headlands State Park. Browse an excellent selection of scientific toys for all ages at the Out of This World Shop. Find the perfect beach book at the Gallery Bookshop & Bookwinkle’s Children’s Books. The town may be small, but there is something for everyone here.
When you’re ready for an adventure, rent a unique – and very stable – redwood outrigger canoe from Catch-a-Canoe-and-Bicycles-Too. This is a great way to watch for local seals, otters, and great blue herons along Big River.
Check out more of our favorite things to do in and around Mendocino here.
4. Bodega Bay
South of amazing Sonoma Coast State Park and its famous Goat Rock Beach is the quaint seaside town of Bodega Bay. Sonoma Coast breezes make this a great place for kite flying and bubble blowing. Stop by Candy & Kites or Second Wind to pick up a souvenir that you can use at breezy beaches down the coast.
North Salmon Creek Beach is an ideal place for kids to play. It has a wide sandy beach and a lagoon that forms where Salmon Creek meets the ocean. The lagoon makes this a safe place for kids to splash around while their parents take in the natural beauty of the landscape. It’s a wonderful place to rest and play on your Highway 1 road trip with kids.
If a few buildings look familiar, you may have seen them in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” which was filmed here.
Read more about things to do in and around Bodega Bay and the inland Russian River area here.
5. Point Reyes National Seashore
At Point Reyes National Seashore families can discover the wonders of wildlife-watching while hiking on a range of trails. Make sure to stop by a visitor center to pick up a Junior Ranger activity book when you arrive.
The park is home to nearly forty species of land mammals and at least a dozen more marine mammals. Almost half of the bird species in North America have been spotted here, and one of the largest populations of tule elk calls the park home. With its location 10 miles into the ocean, Point Reyes is also a great spot for viewing migrating California gray whales.
Take photos at some of the most recognized locations in the park: the tunnel of Monterey cypress trees and the famous Point Reyes lighthouse.
6. Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach has been welcoming folks eager to escape the city since the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937. Today it is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area,
The flat and expansive beach is a popular getaway for local families. The sand is fine and smooth and often filled with families building sandcastles. Framed by Muir Woods, Stinson Beach is picture-perfect coastal Northern California.
Though the water is shallow and popular with families, it’s still a part of the Northern California coast with strong rip tides and sneaker waves. On the plus side, it’s not uncommon to spot dolphins, seals, and whales during the migration season. On the negative side, great white shark attacks have happened here before. In short, enjoy making sandcastles, but keep an eye on the water!
Weekday mornings are your best bet for easy parking and plenty of space on the beach.
7. Muir Woods
Muir Woods became the 7th National Monument in 1908. With 554 acres of old-growth redwoods, its namesake John Muir declared it to be “the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.”
Today, Muir Woods makes a perfect stop on a Highway 1 road trip with kids. It has easy well-defined and accessible trails. Visitors can choose from loops that range from 0.5-mile accessible trails to 2+ miles that go up into the hillsides. You can see a description of the 6 miles of trails here.
Kids can take part in the Junior Ranger Program here, If you need more time, you can fill it out and mail it in from home. Your Junior Ranger Badge will be mailed back to you.
All visitors need to reserve parking in advance. This requires some planning, but makes your experience on-site a smooth one!
This happy seaside town gets less fog than its famous neighbor across the bay and has amazing views of the city.
One of Sausalito’s biggest attractions is its waterfront. There are plenty of options for waterfront dining. After your meal, grab a cone at Lappert’s Ice Cream and enjoy the views while strolling along the promenade.
If you plan to stay awhile or to stop here for the night, make time for a bay adventure. Skip the stress of driving and parking in San Francisco and take a ferry into Fisherman’s Wharf. You can also enjoy a family-friendly kayak tour or a one-of-a-kind sailing experience on the Schooner Freda B.
9. Marin Headlands and the Bay Area Discovery Museum
When traveling with younger children, a stop at the Bay Area Discovery Museum can be a fun break for the whole family. This children’s museum at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge features hands-on exhibition spaces and programs. Parents will love the views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Talk about an amazing family photo op!
The museum’s newest interactive experience, Gumnut Grove, offers the chance to run, play, and climb through 3 treehouses. It’s a great way to burn off some energy before heading to the next leg of your trip!
Consider extending your visit with a Marin Headlands hike and picnic. The popular 0.5 mile Point Bonita Trail leads to views of Bonita Cove, San Francisco, and the wild Pacific Ocean. Picnic tables are available near the trailhead at Battery Mendell.
10. The Golden Gate Bridge
Crossing into San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge is one of my favorite parts of this drive. No matter how many times I cross here, the view of the bridge with the city in the distance as you emerge from Rainbow Tunnel never fails to make me smile.
This is an iconic spot for a family photo to commemorate your trip down Highway 1 with the kids. Some of the best places to snap a photo are Battery Spencer and the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point on the northbound side of the road.
Sadly, this is also well-known to local criminals who have been breaking into cars all over the city. Never leave your car in or around San Francisco with bags or valuables inside. In less time than you’d believe, they can break your windows, take your things, and ruin the rest of your trip.
They haven’t stopped us from enjoying these views yet! But if we’re here mid-road trip with bags, one of us stays behind in the car while the other takes the kids out to explore.
HIGHWAY 1 WITH KIDS: SLOW COAST AND BIG SUR STOPS FROM SAN FRANCISCO TO SAN SIMEON
This section of the drive includes one of the most iconic parts of the entire route: Big Sur. But it also includes some super fun places for families to play. Get ready for landmark roller coasters, world-famous aquariums, purple sand beaches, and waterfalls that pour right into the ocean. This stretch can be an amazing family vacation all on its own.
11. Golden Gate Park
Highway 1 leads right through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Whether you’re making San Francisco into one of your major stops or are passing through, this is a great place to see some of the city’s best attractions.
The California Academy of Sciences is one of our favorite places. You can roam through a four-story living rainforest, experience the city’s largest earthquakes, and see a planetarium show all in one place. Don’t miss a spin on the 150-foot tall Skystar Wheel nearby.
Families also love exploring the Japanese Tea Garden, the Buffalo Paddock, and Stowe Lake. You are sure to find plenty of fun outdoorsy activities here, whether you’re staying for a day or a week.
12. Fitzgerald Marine Preserve
This stretch of Highway 1 between San Francisco and Santa Cruz is known as the Slow Coast. You can bypass the section via two inland freeways, but choosing Highway 1 means switching into a slower mindset and enjoying the ride.
The small town of Moss Beach is only 22 miles south of San Francisco, but its wild coastline feels a world away. Here you’ll find the thriving Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. One of the best tidepool areas in California, the preserve boasts three miles of protected coastline and an awesome collection of colorful marine animals. To see if you’re passing through during low tide, check the tide charts here. The reserve opens each morning at 8 am.
13. Half Moon Bay
The coastal towns along this section of Highway 1 are popular for both farming and surfing.
Named for its crescent-shaped harbor, Half Moon Bay is a quiet beach town until seasonal festivals begin. People flock to the area for pumpkins and family-friendly farms like Harley Farms and Lemos Farms.
Along the coast, the town is famous for the huge waves known as Mavericks that attract surfers from around the world. A calmer beach scene can is in the Half Moon Bay Jetty which is a bit more protected from the winds.
If you’re driving through during lunchtime, stop at the ever-popular Sam’s Chowder House. The restaurant offers waterfront dining and is known for lobster rolls and – you guessed it – clam chowder.
14. Pigeon Point
My kids love visiting the Pigeon Point Light Station. They even have a stuffed lighthouse that holds coastal animal stuffies.
The 115-foot Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the tallest on the California coast. It reminds visitors of a time when whalers and Gold Rush-era clippers fought gales, fog, and jagged coastal rocks to reach the California shore. Although the original 16-foot tall lens is no longer in use, the station is still an active Coast Guard navigation aid.
The Light Station buildings are now unique lodging houses run by Hostelling International. Few other budget options allow visitors to wake up to awesome ocean views, on-site tidepools, seals, and a beach!
15. Pie Ranch
Part of the fun of a family road trip is pulling off the road for the occasional splurge snack. Though we’ve pivoted from restaurant stops to picnic stops and love it, there are exceptions to every rule. Pie Ranch is one of those exceptions.
The founders of Pie Ranch run it as more than a quaint roadside stop. They focus on the ways that agriculture impacts every aspect of life.
Pie Ranch is an organic diversified farm and also an educational nonprofit. At any given time they grow thirty to forty crops and offer education programs centered on pie ingredients. Volunteers play a key role here, from maintaining crops to helping rebuild after the disastrous 2020 fire season.
Stop at the farm stand for fresh produce and pies, plus other homemade local goods like books and pottery. You’ll get a delicious treat and support some fantastic people.
16. Año Nuevo State Park
Año Nuevo is one of many gorgeous state parks on this stretch. If your journey along Highway 1 with the kids takes you nearby, you should definitely make a stop here. The family will love a chance to see the 10,000 or so elephant seals who return to the beaches year after year.
From December to March, mating and pupping season, rangers offer 2.5 hour guided hikes to the protected area. Be sure to make tour reservations in advance if visiting in that range. From April through August, molting season, you have to get a hiking permit but can enter the protected area on your own.
Aside from fascinating animals, rocky windswept trails, bluffs, dunes, and beaches make visiting this park a special experience.
17. Swanton Berry Farm
We have a hard time passing Swanton Berry Farm without stopping to pick up fresh fruit and a baked treat. It was the first certified organic strawberry farm in California, and the produce is sooo good.
Just as they commit to organic farming practices, they also display their commitment to fair farming on the human side. People who work at Swanton Farm are part of a union contract and it’s not hard to find visible support of United Farm Workers here. In fact, this was the first organic farm in the country to do so.
The farm’s dedication to ethical farming, both in how crops are grown and how workers are treated, has come together here to produce delicious fruits, jams, and baked goods.
And if you stop by in the summertime and want to pick your own, their U-Pick is open every summer weekend. Get a box in the farm stand, pick a pound of strawberries for $6, and enjoy a healthy treat throughout the next stretch of your drive.
18. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a must-stop location on any Highway 1 road trip with kids. The main event here is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the oldest continuously running amusement park in California.
You can’t come here without riding the Giant Dipper, a 1924 wooden roller coaster that is a national landmark in and of itself. The carousel, built in 1911, is also a classic the whole family will enjoy. Between the beach and the rides, it’s easy to spend a full day here playing in this iconic park.
If you’re traveling with little train lovers, take a spin on one of Roaring Camp’s steam engine trains in nearby Felton. You can tour the redwoods or head to the Boardwalk on the Beach Train for a full day of fun. You can also walk from Roaring Camp’s Old West-style station to Henry Cowell State Park next door. The park’s flat and easy Redwood Grove tail is perfect for the whole family. Pick up an interpretive brochure to learn interesting details about these beautiful old-growth redwood trees.
If you’re thinking about making an extended stop here, read our post on 15 Ideas for an Amazing Santa Cruz Getaway with Kids.
19. Elkhorn Slough
The Elkhorn Slough is a unique waterway full of wildlife. Winding seven miles inland from Monterey Bay, this is a biologically rich estuary that is home to hundreds of otters, seals, and birds.
Nearby, Moss Landing State Beach is a good spot to picnic and play on the sand if you’re not ready to get back in the car yet. My family has been frequenting the Sea Harvest Restaurant right at the Slough’s entrance for years. It’s a great little spot to relax with some fish tacos after a morning adventure.
South of Santa Cruz, the next big town you’ll reach is Monterey. Monterey was once full of commercial sardine canneries until the industry collapsed from overfishing in the 1950s. Today Cannery Row is one of the main tourist areas, named for the book written by the city’s most famous son, John Steinbeck.
At the end of Cannery Row, Monterey Bay Aquarium is somewhat ironically housed in the old Hovden Cannery. Visiting the famous aquarium on a Highway 1 road trip with kids is pretty much a no-brainer. There are things to do here for everyone in the family, from admiring the kelp forest to standing in an immersive crashing wave. The Aquarium has expansive online learning resources, so prepare for your visit with fun puzzles and coloring pages in the car or hotel.
Another great stop is the awesome Dennis the Menace playground across the street from Del Monte Beach and near Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The park features a climbing wall, swinging bridge, tunnels, and mazes, and no shortage of slides and things to climb on. When the kids need a break, take a family ride on one of the park’s rubber duckie paddleboats for a fun change of pace.
If you’re planning on staying a night or two in Monterey, check out our top 20 ideas for exploring Monterey with kids.
21. Point Lobos
South of the quaint village of Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of my favorite parks in California. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has wonderful nature trails that are gorgeous and fun for the whole family.
Our favorite walk with the kids is the Cypress Grove Trail. It’s less than a mile long but offers some of the park’s most awe-inspiring landscapes from the orange-algae-covered cypress trees to the spectacular blues of Monterey Bay. And there are opportunities for a little rock scrambling and side trails that the boys love.
22. Garrapata State Park
South of the Carmel Highlands, the 90-miles of mountainous coast known as Big Sur begins. Like many other stretches of Highway 1, the landscape is dotted with amazing parks. One of our favorites is Garrapata State Park.
Garrapata has two miles of gorgeous beachfront and easy hikes with awesome views. Soberanes Point is one of the most popular along the park’s spectacular coastal headlands. Garrapata Bluff Trail is a short loop, 0.6 miles long, and connects with Soberanes Point.
One of our favorite spring hikes here is to Calla Lily Valley and Garrapata Beach. This short loop is a lot of fun and feels like discovering a big secret. It’s right off the highway, but you would never know the wildflowers were there if you didn’t hop out of the car and explore. Because conditions are always changing, check the main park site before heading out.
23. Bixby Creek Bridge
The icon of Big Sur, Bixby Bridge might be one of the most photographed spots in California. Think Nicole Kidman driving her children to school in far-off Monterey during the opening credits of Big Little Lies. There is no reason her character would be driving here, but the sight of the bridge sets the perfect tone for the set.
Built in 1932, the art deco bridge’s 342-foot-long center arch looks like it is wedged into the canyon walls before stretching hundreds of feet into the ocean below. Cars almost always slow down as you approach, and there’s a pull-off with parking on Old Coast Road at the northeastern corner of the bridge. Hop out here to take a closer look…and photos, of course!
24. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
The clear Big Sur River carved a small flat valley through the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. That valley is the site of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Though small by many park standards, Pfeiffer Big Sur packs a punch with its dramatic scenery.
The Pfeiffer Falls Trail makes a great Highway 1 stop with kids. It’s one of the park’s easiest and most popular trails, and it just reopened after suffering severe damage in a 2008 fire. The new trail offers an improved visitor experience while also focusing on the health of the ecosystem. Visitors climb through a redwood canyon to view the 60-foot falls streaming into a serene pool below.
This is one of the most southern groves of redwoods in California, so soak in the skyward views before continuing south. You can explore the trail as an out and back, or connect with the Valley View Trail for a 2-mile loop.
25. Pfeiffer Beach
About a mile south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is Pfeiffer Beach, a public beach managed under the Los Padres National Forest. The Forest System requires a $12 admission fee when parking. You’ll arrive via winding narrow Sycamore Canyon Road. There is no obvious sign marking the road from Highway 1, but you should see a yellow sign indicating the intersection.
Once you arrive, you’ll be delighted by improbable spots of purple in the white sand. The purple streaks are more visible if you visit after rain, but you can find purple sand at other times too. This is one of the most popular spots on the Big Sur Coast and will thrill any purple-loving kid.
Besides having purple sand, this beach is where you’ll find the Keyhole Arch, another well-known Big Sur landmark. If you’re staying nearby for the night, Keyhole Arch makes a dazzling display at sunset.
Click here for a full post on planning a family day at Big Sur’s purple sand beach.
26. McWay Falls
McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the most popular stops along this route. The secret’s out on this one, so don’t expect to have the scene to yourself!
Bug saw a photo of the famous waterfall in our hotel, and couldn’t believe it when I said we could drive to see it in person. This was probably the most excited his little 4-year-old self has ever been for a road trip stop!
The walk to the falls overlook is quick and easy, about 0.25 miles. Shortly after the falls come into view, you’ll come to a fence that has closed off the rest of the trail. Unfortunately, the natural processes that have shaped the park’s dramatic scenery, have also made some of these popular areas unstable.
McWay Falls is one of only two tidefalls, a waterfall that pours into the ocean, in California. As long as you know to expect a short trail and crowds, it’s kind of fun to view it with others. And you’re sure to find someone willing to snap your family photo!
One item for your Big Sur bucket list is to reserve one of the two walk-in campsites located behind McWay Falls. This is one of the most prized camping spots in the state. Reserving the second they are available is essential.
27. Ragged Point
Ragged Point is considered to be the southern gateway to Big Sur. If you’re traveling from the south, pull over for the first glimpse of those magical views. If you’re driving from the north, pull over to say farewell to them.
Ragged Point has a restaurant and the Sandwich Stand for quick bites and milkshakes. It’s a great Highway 1 stop with kids thanks to the perfect combination of an Espresso Bar and Ice Cream Stand. The on-site Mini Market is also handy, should you need to restock your road snacks. If you’ve packed a picnic, you can enjoy that here too on a wide lawn with picnic tables.
If you are traveling north from Cambria and didn’t fill up there, make sure to get gas here. Though you’ll already be paying Big Sur prices.
HIGHWAY 1 WITH KIDS: CENTRAL COAST STOPS FROM SAN SIMEON TO SANTA BARBARA
If you’re traveling north to south, you’ll notice that the road mellows here after Big Sur. This stretch is lined with some of my favorite California beach towns, each with its own unique vibe. Experience the largest coastal dunes on Earth, savor the Danish capital of America, and meet plenty of marine mammals and seabirds.
28. Piedras Blancas State Marine Preserve / Elephant Seal Vista Point
Elephant seals sure do love the California coast! Like Año Nuevo, the elephant seal action at this rookery peaks during different times of the year. In late January during pupping season, around early May at the peak of molting season, and in late October when the juvenile elephant seals return from their first 6 months or so in the ocean.
Unlike Año Nuevo, it’s very easy to view these elephant seals without a special permit or hike. You just park in the lot and wander over along the boardwalk. You’ll find interpretive signage and brochures along the way.
Friends of the Elephant Seals supports the site, trains docents to speak with visitors, and maintains an informative site with a kids zone. Check it out before your trip or use it to answer all the inevitable post-visit questions!
29. San Simeon: Hearst Castle and the Coastal Discovery Center
Hearst Castle looms high on the mountain above San Simeon. It is a mansion-turned museum that recreates what it would have been like to be a guest of famed media baron William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and 30s.
The visitor center offers movies about the site’s history, food, and gift shops. From here, buy tickets for a shuttle that winds up the hill to the “castle.” The Grand Rooms tour is the most popular for first visits, though there are several options to choose from.
We visited when the boys were 2 and 4 years old. They loved the bus ride, and JJ was impressed by the grand scale of the house. But tour sizes are large, and they aren’t structured for young kids. We enjoyed the outdoor spaces because I could walk with Bug at the edge of the group when he got antsy, but inside wasn’t so fun for either of us. The experience is best for families with kids 5+.
Across the highway from Hearst Castle is William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach and the park’s Coastal Discovery Center. The center is a joint venture between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and California State Parks. It celebrates the connection between land and sea through interactive exhibits and education programs.
Keep a lookout for zebras as you drive by the Hearst Castle property. They are descendants of some of the animals from Hearst’s onsite zoo. I’ve only glimpsed them once, and of course, everyone in the car was snoozing!
At the time of writing, Hearst Castle, the Visitor Center, and Discovery Center are still closed. Hopefully, they’ll be back to business again soon.
30. Moonstone Beach
Moonstone Beach makes for a great spot to stretch your legs and let the kids run around for a bit. The beach was named for its smooth stones which impress many visitors with their intricate patterns. Keep an eye out for interesting rocks, sea glass, and driftwood shapes.
At Shamel Park on the southern edge of the beach, you’ll find a sign from the Whale Tail identifying this as a good spot for whale watching. Besides the migrating gray whales, you might also spot dolphins, sea lions, seabirds, and otters. Shamel Park also marks the point at which Santa Rosa Creek meets the ocean. This creates a small lagoon that kids are usually happier playing in than the rougher ocean.
Depending on your route, Moonstone Beach offers a great lunch break. Bring a blanket and enjoy a picnic on the beach, or have lunch with a view from the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill. Motels with impressive views line the road here, making this a popular spot for an overnight stay as well.
31. Nitt Witt Ridge
About 10 minutes inland from Moonstone Beach is the eccentric house known as Nitt Witt Ridge.
Having worked for a time at Hearst Castle, artist Arthur “Art” Harold Beal bought a hillside lot in 1928 and spent the next 50 years creating his own “castle on a hill.” Today, that house is known as Nitt Witt Ridge. It is a California Registered Historical Landmark where bits and pieces from Hearst Castle sit alongside other found objects like beer cans, abalone shells, concrete, washer drums, car rims, old stoves, and more. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
The blend of materials here is mind-boggling in its scale and placement. It reveals much about the artist’s character and approach to life. Call ahead if you’d like a tour, or stop by to gawk and snap a few photos. It looks to me like it’s about to fall down, so viewing from the street might be a better option!!
Many families traveling Highway 1 with kids pass by this sleepy beach town without a second thought. But those that make the time to check it out love how it feels like stepping back in time to the classic family beach vacation of yesteryear. There are no chains or huge resorts, and it’s full of small-town Americana.
As with many neighboring beach towns, the sand and the waves are a big attraction here. Kids enjoy swinging on the old-fashioned swing set on the beach, and parents like that they don’t have to scheme for a parking spot.
If your vision of a Highway 1 road trip includes an overnight within walking distance of a quiet beach, consider planning a stay here. You’ll find beachfront rentals at a fraction of the cost of towns to your north and south.
33. Morro Bay
Morro Bay is known for its landmark attraction, Morro Rock. It’s a 576-foot tall volcanic plug perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of Morro Bay’s harbor. Formed about 23 million years ago, it is now home to nesting Peregrine Falcons and has California Historical Landmark Status. You can drive all the way to the base of Morro Rock through Embarcadero Road for a closer look.
Besides getting you to Morro Rock, the Embarcadero is a good starting point for exploring the town. Visit shops and restaurants along the waterfront and say hello to sea lions and otters. The dock outside the Great American Fish Company is a big hang-out spot for the otters in particular!
South of the Embarcadero, you’ll find one of our favorite California State Parks. Morro Bay State Park’s Estuary Preserve is an 800-acre wetland that creates rich habitats for animals who call Morro Bay home. It’s also a wonderful place for outdoor recreation. After hours of driving Highway 1 with kids, it’s the perfect place to have an adventure break. Outfitters like Central Coast Outdoors offer an awesome half-day kayak tour on the bay’s calm water that’s perfect for families.
Near the Inn at Morro Bay, the park’s Heron Rookery Preserve is one of the coolest wildlife experiences I’ve had. You can see (and hear) double-crested cormorants, great egrets, and great blue herons roosting in trees between February and June.
34. San Luis Obispo
As you near San Luis Obispo, Highway 1 veers inland and merges with 101 for a stretch. As a Cal Poly alum, I may be a bit biased, but I love this town and have a hard time passing by without stopping.
San Luis Obispo is one of the largest towns on the Central Coast. There are no ocean views here and downtown is a bit fancier than it used to be, but it still makes for a lovely place to spend the day.
Take a wander up and down Higuera and Marsh and see what grabs your attention along the way. It’s tradition for many to stop into Bubblegum Alley to leave their gum on the wall for all to see. I’ve never loved the spot, but at least all the gum is in one place! While there are many fantastic restaurants here, it’s tradition for folks like me have to stop by Firestone’s for their famous tri tip sandwiches.
If you visit on a Thursday evening, don’t miss the town’s famous farmers market. The streets are blocked to car traffic, and the students, locals, and tourists all head downtown for food, fun, and people watching.
During our last visit, I drove through campus with the boys and found U-Pick hours in the agriculture fields. The boys, my mom, and I had fun running up and down lanes of citrus trees in search of the perfect orange.
If you’re looking for something different to do, check out Santa Margarita Adventures. Children older than 3 who are at least 30 pounds and 36 inches tall can zoom through the park’s awesome zipline tours!
35. Avila Beach
Sandwiched between the college town of San Luis Obispo and the resort town of Pismo Beach, Avila Beach is an often overlooked gem hidden in plain sight.
Besides the namesake beach, families love stopping by Avila Barn to feed the animals and enjoy the roasted corn and treats from the Sweet Shoppe. And if a soak sounds good after a long drive, consider a stop at Sycamore Mineral Springs where hot springs are tucked into the hillsides.
If you’re coming from the north, this may be the first beach you arrive at in a protected cove with calmer water. It’s usually warmer and less windy than its neighbors and is a great spot to get out on the water.
Avila Beach Whale Watching offers a smaller boat and shorter trips than some of the big tours in Monterey. This makes it a bit easier on the kids than bobbing in the bay for 3+ hours! SLO Tours’ exciting Harbor Adventure Tours also offers family-friendly boat/roller coaster rides.
There’s a ton of family-friendly things to do here! Check out our top 10 things to do in Avila Beach to see why it’s one of our favorite Highway 1 stops with kids.
36. Pismo Beach
This classic kitschy beach town is anchored by the downtown pier. It feels more like a resort town than many of its neighbors in either direction, with large hotels set into the cliffside facing the Pacific.
You’ll find summertime outdoor concerts overlooking the ocean, food and wine festivals, classic car shows, clam festivals, and more. Check out what’s going on when you get to town.
One of the most popular attractions for road-tripping families is Dinosaur Caves Park, an 11-acre bluff-top ocean-front park. Play structures include a dinosaur and eggs, concrete dolphins and playful seals, and the USS Imagination.
The one thing that draws me into Pismo every. single. time. is Splash Cafe’s award-winning clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl with a seafood topper. Seriously, every bite of that combination is addicting. I now know that there is some fierce competition going on between Splash and Brad’s Restaurant, located right next door. If the line for Splash snakes around the block, and they haven’t already ruined your taste for any other California clam chowder, give Brad’s a try.
37. Oceano and Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes
The dunes that stretch 18 miles south of Pismo are the largest intact coastal dune ecosystems on Earth. Some of the towering dunes reach more than 500 feet into the sky. If they look familiar to you, you may have seen them as the setting for far-off lands in movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.”
To the north, the Oceano Dunes SVRA is a popular spot for offroading. It’s the only beach in California that you can drive on … a fitting activity for an epic road trip. Only attempt it if you are driving a 4WD though, as you don’t want a towing emergency to ruin this leg of the trip. You can pay a $5 fee and access the beach in two spots: Grand Ave and Pier Ave. Those not willing to risk their own car can find places to rent ATVs, dirt bikes, and dune buggies nearby.
If driving on the sand is not your thing, the dunes are popular for sandboarding as well. One of my favorite family activities, it’s basically snowboarding on sand instead of snow. Which means it doesn’t hurt when you fall! We’ve made our own sandboards out of a flat sled and some universal board wax as there isn’t anywhere to rent boards. I keep hoping sandboard rental shops will open up here soon, as it would make it much easier to enjoy playing at this Highway 1 stop with kids.
If you’d like to explore dunes without worrying about being hit by an ATV, consider the much quieter Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes to the south. The Dunes Center is a great place to start. Staff and volunteers here will help you map out a route or you can join a guided naturalist tour.
As you drive past Vandenberg Air Force Base you might be surprised to see the surrounding landscape burst into color. Lompoc’s gorgeous blooms include both wildflowers and huge commercial flower fields.
The flowers begin blooming around mid-April and can be found on the town’s lush rolling hills into June. Check the town’s flower tracker map for bloom locations timed to your visit. If you’re driving through in late June, you might be lucky enough to catch part of the annual Flower Festival too!
The somewhat-kitschy but always fun town of Solvang is known as the “Danish Capital of America.”
Solvang was established in 1911 when a group of Danish-Americans decided to trade in the midwestern winter for the California sun. They began to build in a way that reminded them of a traditional Danish village, and the trend continued as tourists took notice. Today that decision draws thousands of visitors who flock to the village’s quaint facades and delicious Danish bakeries.
Wander through the village by surrey or horse-drawn carriage. Buy some fairytale at the Book Loft and head to Hans Christian Andersen Park to play. You can even feed some ostriches on your way out of town. Even though that one doesn’t have anything to do with Denmark, it still makes for a fun Highway 1 activity with kids. There’s plenty to do for all ages around here.
You can read more about our favorite things to do in Solvang with kids here.
40. Santa Barbara
This gorgeous coastal town is also called the American Riviera. It is improbably known for its glamorous sheen and laid-back beach attitude. Plenty of opportunities for family adventure can be found here.
If you’re up for more beach time, take a one-mile hike in the Douglas Preserve and then head down to Arroyo Burro Beach for tide-pooling. End your adventure with delicious food and amazing views from Hendry’s Boathouse nearby.
Stearns Wharf is also a big draw for families. You can pet sharks at the Santa Barbara Sea Center or catch a ride on the Lil’ Toot Water Taxi. Nearby, rent some bikes and enjoy a coastal bike ride on the Cabrillo Blvd bike path. There are endless options for family fun.
HIGHWAY 1 WITH KIDS: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA STOPS FROM SANTA BARBARA TO DANA POINT
Starting here Highway 1 becomes commonly known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). You are in So Cal territory now, and you can feel it. The beaches are wider and longer. Rather than wild and rugged, they are gathering places where everyone comes to play. Surfing is huge and surf culture is everywhere. Get into the Southern California mindset, relax, and enjoy the ride.
The small beach town of Summerland is 6 miles south of Santa Barbara. It’s a pretty stretch of coastline with terrific views and family-friendly amenities.
Lookout Park is a beachfront park on the bluffs with Summerland Beach below. Families enjoy the grassy park, picnic tables, playground, and bathrooms. The beach itself is wide and sandy with calmer breaks. It’s a perfect location for those looking for a relaxing, laid-back beach day without city stresses.
There are also some great vacation rentals here within walking distance of the beach, the little downtown area, and hiking trails. No car is needed until you’re ready to get on the road again!
When I think of Ventura, I think of Patagonia. Drawn to the surf, beautiful surroundings, and quick access to mountain and river experiences, Yvon Chouinard established Patagonia’s HQ here in 1973. And unlike many of its neighbors, Ventura hasn’t changed all that much since then.
For visiting families, Ventura Harbor is a great place to start. You can grab an ice cream, take a spin on the carousel, or head down to the beaches to play in the sand. You might even get the chance to watch the Hokolua Outrigger Canoe Club practicing on the shores.
Marina Park is on the north end of Ventura Harbor Village, but as far as I can tell you can’t get there on foot. This is a family-friendly spot where kids can run around the lawn or play on the big pirate ship in the sand. Soter’s Point can be accessed by a nearby trail that leads out to the jetty where you can watch boats leave the Harbor and head into the ocean.
Ventura Pier, the city’s main landmark, is north of the Harbor area. This is an ideal spot for a sunset stroll. Extending from the Pier is the Ventura Promenade, a popular pedestrian pathway that leads to Surfer’s Point.
43. Channel Islands
Another National Park on the route, Channel Islands National Park is visible from the Ventura coast. This is the rare National Park that offers an escape from the crowds. It includes 5 islands and the mile of ocean surrounding them.
To get to the islands, hop aboard an Island Packers ferry from Ventura Harbor Village. Most visitors will ride to the Santa Cruz or Anacapa islands for hiking, camping, and nature photography. Some also enjoy sea kayaking through sea caves and snorkeling or diving in the kelp forests. The other three islands receive even fewer visitors and offer a wilder experience.
There are no services on any of the islands. Pack in everything you’ll need for a day exploring, especially drinking water, and pack out your trash.
You can find more information about visiting the Channel Islands at the Robert J Lagomarsino Visitor Center in Ventura Harbor Village.
44. Zuma Beach and Point Dume
You are now in luxurious gorgeous Malibu. The place that many of LA’s rich and famous call home from their bluff-top houses. Malibu’s Zuma Beach is considered to be one of the best beaches in the Los Angeles area. It’s filled with locals and tourists all year round and is the place that John uses as a point of comparison to every other beach in the state.
Zuma Beach has miles of clean sand, mild waves, plenty of parking, bathrooms, lifeguards, and easy access to beachside snacks. What more could you ask for? If you’re hungry for more than the beach concessions offer, make your way to Trancas Country Market for a waterfront meal on the beach’s north end.
Point Dume is located at the southern end of Zuma Beach. It is a rocky bluff that extends into the Pacific Ocean and marks the northern end of Santa Monica Bay. Part of Point Dume is a Nature Preserve. You can hike to see amazing views of the Santa Monica Bay, north Malibu Coast, the Santa Monica Mountains, and Catalina Island off in the distance.
Below the Preserve, you’ll notice that it’s also a popular rock-climbing location. Many of these moderate routes are exciting and beginner-friendly. If seeing the climbers has you inspired, give Rock and Rope Adventures a call. They offer lessons and routes tailored to families with children 6 and over.
45. Annenberg Community Beach House
If you plan to spend a full day at the beach, consider starting at the Annenberg Community Beach House. This was once a beach house owned by William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. But unlike the castle to the north, the public can actually swim in the pool here without a massive donation. Saved by The Bell fans might also recognize it as the Malibu Sands Beach Resort.
Today, anyone can enjoy a day playing at the beach house with no membership required. Families love the splash pad, playground, heated pool, concessions, and the ability to reserve a canopy on the beach. This makes for a perfect stop on your Highway 1 trip with kids, and a great introduction to the second big city on the route.
46. Santa Monica
Two iconic roadways, Route 66 and Highway 1 come together at one unique place: the Santa Monica Pier.
Many will instantly recognize the famous Santa Monica Pier, lit up by Pacific Park’s famous Ferris Wheel. With a dozen rides and games, it’s the perfect stop on a Highway 1 family road trip. Take a photo in front of the “Route 66: End of the Trail” sign, and confuse your friends back home.
The Heal the Bay Aquarium is located under the Santa Monica Pier. It has over 100 local species, hands-on exhibits for little kids, and daily educational programs. I’m a fan of smaller aquariums that you can stop in for an hour or two, and love that kids 12 and under are free with an adult ticket!
Behind the Pier and Aquarium is another fun spot to explore is Tongva Park. Parents love the award-winning landscape architecture, and kids love the playground and splash pad.
South of Santa Monica, the PCH transitions into heavily trafficked city streets. You can continue here if you’re determined to drive the complete route, but most people choose to hop on a freeway and rejoin Highway 1 further south.
47. Aquarium of the Pacific
It should come as no surprise that Highway 1 is anchored at either end by two of the country’s best aquariums.
Unlike its neighbor to the north, the Aquarium of the Pacific has reliably sunny Southern California weather. This makes it easy to bring visitors outdoors to the Harbor Terrace for hands-on exhibits like the Moon Jelly Touch lab, spitting Archerfish, and Mudskippers. If you’ve ever wanted to feed or touch a jellyfish, this is your chance!
If you are itching to get out on the sea yourself, the aquarium also offers excursion experiences. Join naturalists and staff experts for an ocean voyage in search of beautiful blue whales or to see the animals that live in the Long Beach Harbor.
There are also several animal encounters here to add to your Highway 1 with kids bucket list. One option for adventurous visitors includes arriving before the aquarium opens and helping the staff feed the sharks and walk among the rays!
48. Huntington Beach
Soak in all things surfing at California’s ultimate surfer town. Crank up Jan & Dean’s classic “Surf City USA” and keep an eye out for Dean himself who calls Huntington Beach home.
This is the perfect place to try out a family surf lesson. Book a private lesson for the whole family with Corky Carroll’s Surf School. They’ve been sharing the fundamentals of surfing through their lessons and camps since 1996.
Huntington Beach also has an 8.5-mile paved path perfect for beach cruisers. Enjoy a one-of-a-kind family bike ride that follows along the PCH. Make sure to stop for tacos and ice cream cones along the way. Wheel Fun Rentals has options for the whole family.
One thing I like to do on long road trips is to splurge a bit on our last night somewhere. If you’ve been traveling south, the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa would make a perfect final stop to cap off your Highway 1 journey with kids. The hotel is steps from the beach and caters to families with dive-in poolside movies, waterslides, sandcastle building lessons, s’mores roasting, and even an opportunity to swim with mermaids. They have spacious rooms and family suites that will be very welcome after several days on the road.
49. Crystal Cove State Park
Located in gorgeous Newport Beach, Crystal Cove State Park has 3.5 miles of beach and woodland. Families come to hike, camp, horseback ride, and explore the tidepools and sandy coves.
The park has a cute little Historic District on the beach where the Los Trancos creek meets the ocean. The seaside colony of 46 rustic cottages was originally built in the 1930s and 1940s. When the California State Parks acquired the land, they began renovating the cottages. Today you can book 19 of them for a fun family vacation on the sand.
One of the cottages became the popular Beachcomber Cafe and Bootlegger Bar. It’s the perfect spot to have brunch before spending a day at the beach. There is also a Ruby’s Shake Shack nearby which is well-loved for its milkshakes (of course!).
The parking lot is actually across the PCH from the beach. You have to pay to park, but the restaurants can validate your parking. There is a shuttle from the lot to the beach and tidepools, or you can walk using a tunnel that goes under the highway. The cheerful tunnel is painted with murals from local kids and teens.
50. Dana Point
Dana Point sits on a stunning stretch of the Orange County coast. Enjoy the beaches and family activities like Ocean Institute tours.
The Ocean Institute is a non-profit marine science and history education center. Their immersion-based approach brings history and science to life. Step back in time and experience life as a sailor by hoisting barrels and touring the tall ship Spirit of Dana Point, join a guided tide pool hike, or enjoy a naturalist-led harbor kayak tour.
Road-trippers will want to make their way to the best photo op in town. Not the incredible views from Hilltop Park, but the historical marker celebrating California’s Highway 1. At the Highway 1 bridge over San Juan Creek, a 31-foot-tall tower spells out PCH in golden letters. Whether at the beginning or end of your Highway 1 road trip with kids, make sure to snap a family photo at the southernmost point of “The Most Beautiful Drive in America.”
TOP 5 TIPS FOR DRIVING HIGHWAY 1 WITH KIDS
1. Know the Road
Highway 1 is improbably carved into rugged and wild coastal cliffs. While this makes for a beautiful drive, it also means a lot of maintenance and closures.
Download the California Department of Transportation’s Quickmap App for real-time updates on things like traffic and lane closures. You can also get updates on road conditions on the CALTRANS website. If you have any questions before driving, call the CALTRANS Highway Information Network at (800) 427-7623.
2. Pull Over
There can be a lot of traffic on Highway 1, and everyone wants to go at a different pace. If you notice cars behind you, don’t be stressed. Use the next pull-out and let them go by. I always prefer pulling over and taking my time so that I don’t feel rushed by the cars behind me.
3. Mind the Cliffs
Sadly, Highway 1 is no stranger to scary accidents. The combination of sheer curves and stunning views in places like Malibu and Big Sur can be tragic. It’s hard to be in the driver’s seat sometimes, but keep your eyes on the road and make use of the many viewpoints along the way.
And when you’re taking in those views from viewpoints, stay in the marked areas. Remember that no photo is worth the safety of you or your family.
4. Download Maps and Tide Schedules
Plan on cell reception disappearing through stretches like Big Sur and northern Mendocino. Try to download all the maps and brochures you need before starting your trip.
It’s also a good idea to download tide schedules so that you know when it’s safe to go to the small beaches and tidepools.
5. Fill Up Before You Need To
There are several stretches of Highway with few to no gas stations. And remote places with only one gas station are pricey! A station in Mendocino was recently named to have the most expensive gas in the country.
It’s a good idea to fill up in the larger cities when you pass through them. Apps like GasBuddy can also help you plan.
For more tips on road tripping as a family, we have a full post that shares our road trip essentials.
TOP 7 PLANNING TIPS FOR DRIVING HIGHWAY 1 WITH KIDS
1. Weekdays are Best
I know this is common advice for any major tourist destination, especially in the summer months. With driving being the main feature of this trip, you’ll appreciate fewer cars in parking lots (many of which have limited spaces) and less traffic on the road.
2. Take an Alternate Route When It Makes Sense
Interior routes like 101 and the 5 will get you where you need to go much faster than Highway 1. If you need to make a round trip drive, plan to start on Highway 1 and then take an interior freeway back (or vice versa).
Also, some sections of Highway 1, particularly in Los Angeles south of Santa Monica, are just busy city streets. They aren’t particularly scenic and take a long time to get through. Imagining inching down this section of Highway 1 with kids asking why you’re going so slow doesn’t sound very fun to me. There’s no shame in heading off the route and looping through one of the LA freeways if it makes sense for your trip.
3. Pack for Different Kinds of Weather
Coastal mornings in Northern California are often foggy and cold, even in the summer. Layers are your friend in Northern California, and you’ll want to be ready for the beach in southern California.
Prepare for unpredictable weather by having easy access to layers. Save room in the car by bringing items like multi-use raincoats that you can wear anytime. A good one will be windproof, waterproof, and easy to pack.
4. Expect Highway Name Changes
When planning your route, know that Highway 1 is called different names in different parts of the state. It’s the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura Counties. It merges with 101 at certain points near Oxnard and San Luis Obispo. And further north, near Santa Cruz, it’s the Cabrillo Highway. Know that these are all the same route. If you can see the ocean, you’re in the right place.
5. Plan Picnic Stops Over Restaurant Stops
During COVID, we learned to keep our little bubble contained on the road. A big change was in our approach to meals and snack breaks. We shifted from restaurant stops to picnic stops. This allowed more time for us to spend in amazing state and regional parks, and the boys had fun running around after meals. Traveling also became healthier and more budget-friendly.
This is an easy strategy to implement when traveling Highway 1 with kids. Plan to stop at restaurants with something special to offer, but otherwise, pack groceries for picnics and enjoy some of the best outdoor seating in the country.
6. Be Proactive When It Comes to Motion Sickness
This road has a LOT of twists and turns. I’ve driven it with adult friends who felt sick from the backseat. Sometimes my kids say they feel sick, and sometimes they are fine. Always prepare for the worst on this road so you don’t end up like us, frantically cleaning out car seats a mile from Garrapatta State Park!
I cover our car sickness prep in detail on our Roadtrip Essentials post. Our go-to solutions for preventing car sickness are giving the boys a ginger tablet whenever we see a winding road warning sign and having a bag of quartered limes on hand for them to chew. If they look pale, especially if their lips are white, we find a place to pull over and take a walk. We haven’t used Dramamine yet, but I have some in the car in case it becomes necessary mid-trip.
7. Be Flexible
This is my number 1 planning tip for any type of travel and especially driving Highway 1 with kids. I know that I have to remind myself to be flexible every. single. time.
When traveling Highway 1 with the kids, I’ve skipped stops if the boys are asleep. If it’s something they were excited about seeing, I’ll pull over and wake them up. But if it’s something that was only on my list, I might decide to keep moving and enjoy the views (and the quiet) from the front street.
Every day we likely have one or two must-experience stops. The rest are likely to change as we go.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO PLAN A HIGHWAY 1 ROAD TRIP?
Late spring is the best season for a long Highway 1 road trip. There are fewer crowds and the combined benefits of late spring blooms, elephant seal seasons, and whale migrations.
Summer weather is good, but expect June gloom in the morning, peak lodging costs, and more traffic.
With fall’s fire season intensifying each year and winter storms that can cause mudslides and major highway disruptions, try to plan a spring or summer trip if you can.
SHOULD YOU DRIVE SOUTH TO NORTH OR NORTH TO SOUTH?
The biggest factor is going to be where you’re traveling from, and if you’re driving one-way and flying back or doing a loop. When doing a loop, I prefer to tackle the longest and most boring interior stretch first, and then drive back along the scenic route.
From a view perspective, you get a better look at the ocean when traveling north to south, as the southbound lane is on the outside.
Then again, being on the interior lane traveling north is less stressful with fewer cliff drops! You can always make use of those viewpoints to soak in the views without driving distractions.
ITINERARY: 7-DAY ROAD TRIP ON HIGHWAY 1 WITH KIDS
Day 1: Depart San Francisco
A few hours is not much time to explore a city like San Francisco. If you really want to explore the city, you’ll want at least one or two full days before starting your Highway 1 road trip. And that’s another post entirely! For our purposes, we’ll be leaving the city after a couple of hours in Golden Gate Park.
GOLDEN GATE PARK
Highway 1 leads you right through Golden Gate Park. Take a wander through the gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden and sample the famous fortune cookies. Fortune cookies were rumored to have been introduced to the United States here from Japan in the 1890s or early 1900s.
Take a spin on the 150-foot tall Skystar Wheel before hitting the road and heading south.
HALF MOON BAY
You should already be enjoying the coastal views by the time you get to Half Moon Bay. Stop for a waterfront outdoor lunch at ever-popular Sam’s Chowder House. The restaurant is known for its lobster rolls and – you guessed it – clam chowder.
Work off your lunch with a hike at Año Nuevo State Park. Take a walk down to visit the famous elephant seals, or enjoy a gorgeous hike along the coast to Franklin Point from the North Whitehouse Creek Trail.
Stop in at the Swanton Berry Farm for a serving of delicious strawberry shortcake before leaving the Slow Coast.
Santa Cruz is up next! The Dream Inn is right on the water and an easy walk to the Boardwalk and wharf. Check in and then stroll over for a ride on the famous Giant Dipper and a spin on the classic carousel. It’s easy to have fun here until it closes.
Day 2: Depart Santa Cruz
Get an early start and head down the Bay to Monterey. This drive is less than an hour, so you’ll have no problem getting to the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium when it opens. Take your time here enjoying the kelp forest and jellyfish, petting some stingrays, and playing in the immersive wave crash tunnel.
If the kids still have energy to burn, take them down the road to the awesome Dennis the Menace playground. The park features a rock climbing wall, swinging bridge, tunnels, and mazes, and no shortage of slides and things to climb on. When they’re done playing, take a family ride on one of the park’s rubber duckie paddleboats for a fun change of pace!
Grab some dinner and a souvenir on Old Fisherman’s Wharf before heading back for a relaxing evening at your hotel. Because you’ve been in the thick of things all day, consider a peaceful place to call home, like rustic Asilomar. A part of the California State Park System, the rooms are basic. You won’t have a TV, which helps you get outside and enjoy the gorgeous and peaceful setting. It is a perfect spot for a sunset stroll on the beach.
Day 3: Depart Monterey
Head out early to embark on one of the most exciting stretches of the trip: Big Sur!
Kick off your journey at Point Lobos, the “crown jewel of the California State Park System.” Aim to arrive right when the park opens at 8 am, so you can park at the trailhead of the Cypress Grove Trail. Enjoy the otherworldly setting on this flat and easy 0.8-mile trail. If you’re visiting at low tide, head down to Weston Beach to check out the tidepools before you leave.
As you leave Point Lobos, the 90-miles of pristine Big Sur coastline begins. Take your time on the drive, pulling over to explore whatever catches your eye along the way.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is the southernmost park to experience redwoods. Stretch your legs on the Pfeiffer Falls Trail and pause for a picnic before continuing. Take some photos on Pfeiffer Beach in front of the keyhole arch, and see if you can spot the purple sand. Enjoy the site of McWay Falls, one of only two waterfalls in all of California that pours directly into the ocean.
Stop at Ragged Point on your way out of Big Sur for ice cream and one more look at those dramatic views.
As the roadside widens around you, it’s time to look for some wildlife. See if you can spot the zebras that live on the Hearst Castle grounds in San Simeon and pull over to gawk at the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.
Before you know it, it’s time to stop at your hotel in Cambria. Consider the Sea Otter Inn, which delivers a picnic basket of breakfast burritos to your room in the morning. The hotel is right across the street from Moonstone Beach, so the kids can burn off energy on the sand or in the hotel’s heated pool. Enjoy the sunset view from the hotel’s fire pits in the evening.
Day 4: Depart Cambria
Today it’s time to explore the SLO Coast (named for San Luis Obispo County).
After days of looking out at the water from the shore, experience the coast from a new perspective. Head to Morro Bay for an awesome family-friendly kayak outing with Central Coast Outdoors. Because of the bay’s protected waters, kayaking here is calm and easy with some incredible opportunities to spot wildlife. It’s the perfect starter family trip for kids 2 and older. Add on a lunch option for a picnic in the dunes.
SAN LUIS OBISPO
You’ll drive through lovely San Luis Obispo on your way to tonight’s pitstop: Avila Beach. If you’ve been chewing gum, leave your mark in the town’s oddly alluring Bubble Gum Alley.
Make a stop at the Avila Barn on your way into town. It’s a great place to browse and to pick up some snacks for the road. Kids love feeding all the farm animals and grown-ups love the fresh grilled corn.
Continue into the beach town and check into your room at the Avila Lighthouse Suites. Located right across the street from the beach, it’s the perfect place to park the car and take a wander around town. Let the kids play at the pirate-themed playground and then spend the evening playing in the pool, soaking in the hot tub, and playing life-size checkers.
Day 5: Depart Avila Beach
Spend the morning at Avila Beach, exploring this beautiful slice of the Central Coast. Book the super fun SLO Tours Adventure Boat or Avila Beach Whale Watching tours for an unforgettable perspective.
Make a stop in Pismo Beach to try Splash Cafe’s famous clam chowder in a bread bowl. Skip the line and order it ahead, then take it to go and enjoy picnic-style while the kids play at Dinosaur Caves Park.
Moving on, consider pulling off the highway and driving a part of this route on the beach at Oceano Dunes. Then, continue through Lompoc and snap some photos of the blooming flower fields along the way.
Make a stop in the quaint Danish village of Solvang for some danish baked goods. It’s admittedly a little cheesy, but always fun.
Continue to Santa Barbara from here. You can get back onto Highway 1 / 101 at Gaviota, but this is one section that I actually prefer the inland drive through the Santa Ynez Valley.
In Santa Barbara, trade-in your car for some beach cruisers or a surrey and enjoy a leisurely family bike ride along the Cabrillo Blvd bike path. After, head onto Stearns Wharf to check out the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center or to take a harbor boat ride on the Lil’ Toot Water Taxi.
Santa Barbara is a pricey place to stay. Consider driving a bit further south to Ventura for a glamping stay at the Waypoint Ventura Vintage Trailer Hotel and Campground. Watch the sunset from Ventura Pier and head back to the campground for some evening s’mores.
Day 6: Depart Ventura
Before leaving Ventura, stop by the Patagonia store on W Santa Clara Street, steps away from the brand’s corporate headquarters. Pick up a souvenir that’s sure to last you through many future adventures.
You’re firmly in Southern California now, and Highway 1 is called the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH. This is the second gorgeous stretch that will wind along cliffs with amazing ocean views. Take your time and enjoy the viewpoints near Malibu.
After Malibu, the PCH takes you to Santa Monica, a perfect place for families to play. Park the car near the famous pier, and have fun playing games and taking a spin on the Ferris Wheel at Pacific Park. Take a bit of time to explore hands-on Heal the Bay Aquarium beneath the pier.
For your final stop of the trip, check into the amazing Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. Located steps from the beach, the hotel caters to families. Enjoy dive-in poolside movies, waterslides, sandcastle building lessons, s’mores roasting, and even an opportunity to swim with mermaids. You might even be able to sign the kids up for an activity and sneak away to the spa for a massage. It’s the perfect way to relax after a week on the road!
Day 7: Depart Huntington Beach
If you have time, make some lasting Surf City USA memories with a morning surf lesson. Book a beginner lesson for the whole family with Corky Carroll’s Surf School.
You’re now on the final stretch of your trip. Enjoy one last hour of amazing Orange County coastal views, then snap a photo at Dana Point’s PCH Monument. You’re now officially at the end of the route.
Enjoy one last long view of the ocean before heading inland for the return trip home.
If you rented a car for a one-way drive, the flight back to San Francisco is a short hop from LAX or Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. If you have to drive north now, settle in for one last long drive on the 5. And if you started with the long inland drive first, make your way home and start sharing your amazing family road trip stories.