Taking a road trip in California is something everyone should do in their lifetime. A coastal California road trip along Highway 1 and the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) will take you through big cities and small towns, crowded beaches and tiny inlets where few have ever explored. It is a nature lover’s delight with the ocean, rugged coastline, and forests coming together for a drive unlike any other. Hop in the car and buckle up, because these are the best kid friendly California road trip stops. Most are these stops are along the Pacific Coast Highway, but there are some additional destinations you have to visit on a California road trip with kids.
California road trip map
Best places to visit on a California Road Trip with kids
There are so many things to do in California with kids, it can be hard to plan a California road trip itinerary. Depending on the amount of time you have, we recommend starting in San Diego and driving north to San Francisco, exploring the Bay Area, or exploring Los Angeles and Southern California. Each California itinerary will offer something different, but they all have plenty of opportunities for fun!
1. San Diego
If you are planning a California road trip with family, it seems obvious to begin in San Diego. The city has endless opportunities for family fun. If you want to know what to do in San Diego, start the day at the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, or the Safari Park. Head to Balboa Park in the heart of the city for a full day of exploring. Spanning over 1,800 acres, the park has 17 museums, eight major gardens, and is home to the zoo.
Those looking for the best San Diego beaches for kids will have plenty to choose from along San Diego’s 17 miles of coastline. Favorites include Coronado Island, La Jolla Shores, and Torrey Pines State Beach. La Jolla is a must see for the La Jolla Children’s Pool where families can see seals sunning themselves on the rocks and search for sea life in the tide pools when the water is low. San Diego with kids does not disappoint and it’s easy to start a California road trip from here.
As you drive north along the California coast with kids you will find Carlsbad, home to unique hiking trails, beaches, flower fields, and Legoland. The city of Carlsbad has maintained a significant amount of land for hiking, birdwatching, and exploring. Visitors can kayak through one of three Carlsbad lagoons or even fish.
The Carlsbad flower fields are 50 acres that bloom every March through May and worth a visit. Legoland California is the star attraction here, but there’s also Legoland Waterpark and Sea Life Aquarium. Families will love stopping here for a break.
Anaheim is home to Disneyland Resort, California Adventure, and Knott’s Berry Farm. In nearby Universal City is Universal Studios Hollywood. If families are looking for amusement park central, this is the place to be.
Disneyland is where families can have the classic Disney experience. Here’s where you find the Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones Adventure, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. California Adventure is home to Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, Cars Land, Pixar Pier, and the Incredicoaster.
Knott’s Berry Farm focuses more on rides than attractions. There’s everything from roller coasters, to family friendly rides, to splash rides and thrill rides. It has a different feel than Disney and that’s what makes it fun.
Universal Studios has everything from movies and television, including favorites Harry Potter, Despicable Me, Sponge Bob Squarepants, and Shrek.
Looking for more US road trip ideas? Check out these family road trip ideas.
To break up the Los Angeles to San Francisco drive, we have a couple of recommended stops. The historic Danish village of Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley will delight children and adults. The village has windmills, a Little Mermaid fountain, a giant wooden clog, and unique shops to explore. Families might enjoy a Segway, trolley, or bike tour through town or a stop at the Hans Christensen Andersen Museum.
Take a peek inside Old Mission Santa Inés which dates to 1804, one of the 21 missions founded by the Franciscan Friars along the California coast. Finish up the day with some Danish pastries at one of the Solvang bakeries.
If you are visiting Solvang with kids, book a stay at The Landsby in the heart of downtown.
Want to stay a little longer? Don’t miss these fun things to do in Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley.
5. San Simeon
A Northern California road trip with kids can start in San Simeon. San Simeon has some of the most beautiful beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway, so make time for a stop at the beach. One of the best attractions on the LA to San Francisco drive is Hearst Castle, the fabulous estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1919.
The property is stunning with 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways. It was built to Hearst’s specifications to showcase his legendary art collection. Even younger children will marvel at the estate.
Nearby is the Piedras Blancas Rookery home to 17,000 elephant seals at different times of the year. It’s definitely a sight to see. Don’t miss the Coastal Discovery Center on San Simeon Bay with interactive exhibits and educational programs that highlight the cultural and natural history of the area. Book a room for the night at Cavalier Oceanfront Hotel where you can enjoy ocean views from your balcony.
While parents know Monterey for Cannery Row and John Steinbeck, kids might recognize its famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium was inspiration for Disney’s “Finding Dory”. It is home to thousands of creatures who call the ocean home as well as amphibians, birds, and other animals. Don’t miss the live video cams, hands on exhibits, and the “Open Sea” where visitors feel like part of the ocean!
Be sure to spend time outdoors at the Dennis the Menace playground with its hedge maze, 9 foot climbing wall, and suspension bridge. Just know the kids will never want to leave because Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibits do not disappoint.
If time allows, plan to take a cruise in Monterey Bay to see the marine life. Various species of whales are visible year round, such as humpbacks, blue whales and gray whales. Dolphins, seals, and tortoises have been known to make appearances too. Monterey is a marine life paradise.
Check VRBO for vacation rentals in Monterey and spend a few days exploring the area!
7. Santa Cruz
The admission-free Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is California’s oldest seaside amusement park, entertaining visitors for 107 years. It is one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz. Kids will love playing laser tag, miniature golf, riding coasters, and trying the arcade games.
Nearby is Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The park is famous for its giant redwood trees, the tallest of which is 277 feet tall, around 16 feet wide, and 1,500 years old. Kids will love hiking through the trees and families might enjoy packing a picnic to bring along for a fun day out.
If there’s a train lover in your family, be sure to check out Roaring Camp Railroads. They offer scenic train journeys in the area. One is the Redwood Forest Steam Train and the other is the Santa Cruz Beach Train. Both are spectacular in their own way. Look at Beach Street Inn and Suites for a comfortable family friendly hotel in Santa Cruz.
8. San Francisco
There are many things to do in San Francisco with kids. Start at Fisherman’s Wharf where children will love riding the carousel and watching the sea lions at Pier 39.
Alcatraz can be a fun attraction if you are visiting San Francisco with teens. Riding bikes or walking across the Golden Gate Bridge for a spectacular view of the city and the bay is one of the quintessential California road trip stops.
The Exploratorium is a mind blowing science museum with over 600 hands-on exhibits. Kids can walk through a pitch dark tactile dome, play in the tinkering studio, and use scientific tools to learn about living systems.
Ride the cable car, visit Ghirardelli for treats, feast on chowder at the wharf and you will check off all of the fun things to do in San Francisco with kids.
Sacramento is the capital of California, so it is fitting that it has a park dedicated to the founding of the state. Old Sacramento is a 28 acre State Historic Park that tells the history of California beginning with the Gold Rush of 1849.
Located along the beautiful Sacramento River, there are historical attractions and museums here, as well as dining and shopping. It provides a look into life in 19th century California. There are so many things to do in Sacramento.
Fairytale Town is perfect for younger children. This park has 25 play sets based on nursery rhymes and fairytales. There are also farm animals, performing arts stages and several gardens. It’s been a Sacramento institution for 50 years!
Families might also enjoy a visit to the State Capitol building, the California State Railroad Museum, or Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. Grab a room at the Embassy Suites on the river or the Kimpton Sawyer hotel.
10. Gold Country
California Gold Country is quite expansive. It runs along the west side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range all the way to Sacramento. Families would love exploring old mining towns like Nevada City or touring an abandoned mine. Try gold panning with kids in Jamestown or rappel 50 meters into Moaning Cavern to see what life is really like underground. California has some family friendly gold rush adventures that shouldn’t be missed!
Families wanting to stay in the area can find some nice accommodations through Airbnb.
11. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe may be shared by California and Nevada, but that’s easy to understand because it is so beautiful. It is the largest alpine lake in North America, surrounded by the stunning Sierra Nevada Mountains. The area averages 300 days of sunshine a year and is an outdoor enthusiasts playground. There are so many things to do in Lake Tahoe with endless winter and summer sports.
Families might enjoy skiing, tubing, or skating at one of the Lake Tahoe ski resorts. When the weather warms up, the lake is the perfect spot for kayaking, hiking, fishing, camping, swimming, and biking. Truckee, Tahoe City, and South Lake Tahoe are the perfect spots for dining and shopping when you’ve had enough of the outdoors.
There are plenty of houses for rent in North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe. Check out Lake Tahoe rentals on VRBO or Airbnb to find a vacation rental for your family!