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California Coast Family Road Trip

Hello friends,

Today I am excited to share with you a re-cap of our California Road trip. During the second week of July, we drove from San Francisco to San Diego over the period of eight days. We planned this trip kinda last minute and sort of on a whim, but it ended up being one of my favorite family vacations ever. If you have ever wanted to drive the California Coast, I can’t recommend it enough.

There are many ways to approach this trip and we did a little research before booking everything. We only had one week available to do this trip and I wish we had more time. There were so many amazing places to visit, and I did feel a bit rushed. Knowing that we only had a week forced us to be really selective about the places and attractions we visited.

For example, we decided to by-pass L.A. as we have visited this city several times. We have been to Disneyland twice, and then for Spring Break 2017 we took a Cruise from LA to Mexico, so we felt like we had “been there and done that”.

Worth noting, there were a  few things that were unique to our particular visit to the California Coast. The first is that we have good friends that live in Los Gatos which is a cute little town that is part of Silicon Valley. Fun fact, Netflix is headquartered there! We spent 2 nights of our 7 day adventure visiting with our friends. If you were planning a similar trip, you would leave San Francisco and head south to Santa Cruz or Monterey Bay.

The second thing to mention is that we had to skip Big Sur which was a bummer. A huge stretch of the Number 1 highway which takes you down the California Coast was closed for a year and a half due to a mud slide. Apparently it has just partially re-opened. I found this helpful website, if you are planning to drive this beautiful part of the Coast.

Bixby Bridge. Photo by Stan Russell

So with that in mind, here was how we drove from San Francisco to San Diego, family road trip style!

Day 1 – Arrive in San Francisco

This is one of my favorite cities and I am so happy we started our trip here. We packed a ton into a 24 hour period which I decided to make into a separate post, so stay tuned for that! I will tell you that we bought tickets for a hop on- hop off tour that was good for 24 hours and that is what enabled us to take in so much of this beautiful city in such a short time.

Day 2 – Sightseeing in San Francisco

On day 2 of our adventure, we got an early start on some more sightseeing around the beautiful city. Then in the late afternoon we made our way South to stay with our friends in Los Gatos. We were supposed to pick up our rental car on this day, from a rental agency downtown. The rental car was one of the biggest expenses of the trip, almost more that our airfare! We needed a minivan so that added to the cost, and then we learned that when you are picking up in one location and dropping at another, there is a (steep) surcharge for that. My husband spent a great deal of time before the trip, searching for a rental car online to find the best deal. But here’s the kicker. When we went to pick up our car, the rental place had closed! At 1 pm on a Saturday! That possibility had never even occurred to us, so we didn’t think to check the business hours. What kind of car rental company (ahem, cough, Enterprise) closes midday on a Saturday?? That threw us a serious curve ball and we had to scramble to find another rental and it ended up almost doubling the cost of the car! Anyway, I have gone off on a little rant here. Expensive lesson learned for us!

Day 3 – Santa Cruz

We did this as a day trip from Los Gatos, but it would be a good place to go from San Francisco. We took the kids to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and they absolutely loved it!

Day 4 – Monterey Bay & Carmel by the Sea

We had such a fun visit with our friends in Los Gatos, but Monday morning it was time for us to hit the trail! We headed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I must admit I was not overly impressed and am not convinced that this was a worthwhile attraction to visit. The first issue was that it admission for our family of 5 was a little over $200! Ouch! When you consider the exchange rate, it was closer to $250 Canadian. That is pretty steep price to pay to wander around and look at fish. We did take in a really interesting movie about sharks, but overall, I was underwhelmed by what this facility had to offer. We are also quite spoiled with the Vancouver Aquarium. I think maybe if you have younger kids, you might enjoy the Monterey Bay Aquarium a bit more. I think my kids found it a bit boring. To quote my kids “didn’t love it, didn’t hate it”.

From there we made our way South to Carmel by the Sea. The beach there was gorgeous and the little town is so adorable! Our kids were actually pretty tired so they hung out in the car with my husband and I wandered up and down the main street and looked at all the cute buildings and shops. In hindsight, we should have skipped the Aquarium and just spent the day in Carmel. But live and learn!

From Carmel we drove South via the 101 to Cambria where we spent the night. We stayed in this adorable place called the Cambria Pines Lodge. Our accommodations were cabin style and quite charming. There was a great pool and pretty amazing free breakfast buffet. We could have happily spent a few nights here. But no moss grows on a rolling stone, so the next morning we were up and at it for Day 5!

Day 5 – The Hearst Castle and San Simeon

Now this was one of my favorite days of our trip and I LOVED Hearst Castle. I didn’t know really anything about this attraction before arriving there, so the whole experience was a pretty unexpected surprise. If, like me, you have never heard of this magical place, it was once an estate for a wealthy newspaper magnate, but is now a historic house museum and a California State Park.

William Hearst built this magnificent estate in 1920 but it wasn’t just a beloved hilltop retreat. “It was also a living museum that showcased his superb European and Mediterranean Hearst Castle art collection, which can still be seen today occupying almost every inch of this historic California castle.”

In addition to the Castle, and 2 huge swimming pools (one indoor and one outdoor) he also built himself a zoo. The castle sits on is 80,000 acres and is still home to a working ranch. We saw a heard of Barbary sheep grazing in the fields on the way to the top of the mountain to view the castle. After we left, we also saw a heard of zebras – these animals are the descendants of the zoo he created.

We took a 9:30 am tour and I am so grateful we went early in the morning. Even though it was a comfortable temperature down below, It was already crazy hot on the hilltop.

After our tour of Hearst Castle, we headed about 5 minutes down the highway to visit the Elephant Seal Boardwalk. I would almost say this was more fun than the Monterey Bay Aquarium and it was free!

After checking out the Elephant Seals, we started making tracks for our next overnight stop which was Santa Barbara.  It was a little over 2 hours of driving which was totally manageable, in fact it gave our youngest time for a much needed nap!

I loved Santa Barbara, and we stayed at the funkiest little mid century modern La Quinta hotel. It had a great little pool and garden area and we were really close to shops and restaurants. In fact, we ordered pizza to the room for the kids and then Steve and I went to a lovely restaurant 2 blocks away by ourselves! This is the benefit of having an almost 14 year old who can babysit!

Day 6 & 7 – The Legoland Hotel

The morning of day 6, we got up and enjoyed our complimentary breakfast at La Quinta, we let the kids have a quick morning swim, and then we were in the car and on our way to Carlsbad, otherwise knows as the home of Legoland! This is the point in the trip where some people would have stopped in L.A. for a night or two. If you have never visited this city, it is really fun to visit Hollywood Blvd and see the walk of fame. When we went last time, we did a tour of the celebrity homes and I quite enjoyed that. I love looking at houses in general, but knowing that Justin Timberlake or Beyonce lives there, is extra cool! We also love Santa Monica and Venice Beach. As I mentioned, we have visited L.A. several times so we bi-passed it. We did, however, stop at In-N-Out burger for lunch in L.A. Yummy!

We made it to the Legoland Hotel by about 3 o’ clock in the afternoon. It was definitely slow getting through L.A. and the surrounding area. The traffic there is notorious and for good reason! But when we arrived in Carlsbad, the kids were so excited. Even the teen!

We had been to Legoland about 7 years ago. Our girls were too little at the time to remember it, so it was like their first time. We hit tons of rides, had dinner and then came back to the hotel to chill. It is expensive to stay on site, but it was a pretty awesome hotel. We had heard good things from friends and it did not disappoint. We stayed in the Knights Castle, which is the newest hotel and just opened a few months ago. The only negative feedback I would say about it, is that the walls were paper thin, which I find an odd design flaw. They had so many family friendly features to the room, I was shocked that they would overlook something like sound. Unfortunately for us, our neighbors to the left came to party. They were so loud, our exhausted kids couldn’t sleep. They were yelling and thumping around, it was quite something. Who comes to the Legoland hotel to party it up? It’s not Vegas people! I finally had to call the front desk and complain. Things finally quieted down around 11:30, and then the baby on the other side of us started crying at 6:00 am and did so for almost an hour. So not the most restful night, if you are staying there, bring headphones and a white noise machine! But bad sleep aside, our kids had a great time at Legoland. We spent most of day 7 at the water park. Then it was time to check out and head to our last hotel of the trip, which was a Sheraton in San Diego. It had a really great pool complex and was close to lots of retaurants and stores. We ended up getting take-out Chipolte and the kids swam in the pool for hours. It was actually quite relaxing!

Day 8 – Time to head home

San Diego was the end of the road for us, and the morning of day 8 it was time to return our rental car and head to the airport to catch our flight back to Seattle. We have visited this beautiful city before and done the major attractions, but we decided that we need to visit again and go back to the zoo and maybe check out the Safari Park. There are also has several beautiful beaches that would be so fun to explore.

So there you have our 8 day California Adventure. I had such a great time and can’t wait to go back. I would love to spend more time in each of the cities we visited. In particular I would love to stay in Carmel. One day!

Do you have any upcoming family vacations planned? If so, check out this post I wrote on how we travel as a family without checking suitcases. Yep, you read that right, we travel with carry-on bags only and it is the best! And this is coming from a recovered chronic over-packer.

I would love to hear about your favorite place to travel as a family, or if you have any questions about our trip, please comment below!


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