4 California Road Trip Ideas Kids Will Love

Priscilla Gragg
Priscilla Gragg

The keys to a fun driving vacation with the kids: Limit car time to four hours each day and plan stops around their specific interests. Get revved up with these stops along the West Coast full of nature and animal encounters.

Plan to spend 10 hours in the car over 5 or 6 days for this road trip, and everyone from ages 3 and up will find something to love.

San Francisco

Start here for the city’s iconic family attractions—Golden Gate Park, the Exploratorium (an amazing science center with much for little ones to do), cable cars, and Fisherman’s Wharf. At the wharf, you can see dozens of sea lions hamming it up for tourists at the end of Pier 39.

“They climb all over each other, bark, and posture,” says Betsy McNab, a local mom of two. Unexpected animals for visitors to spy: South American red-and-green parrots. Two flocks are concentrated in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood and Explore San Francisco offers family-friendly tours to see them.

Stay at the Hotel del Sol, a renovated motel that offers family rooms with trundle beds, afternoon milk and cookies, and a heated pool.

Big Sur

More bird-watching is in store for your fam at Big Sur Lodge, one of the few roosting places for the massive California condors. Located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the lodge is home to more than 100 other bird species, as well as wildcats, deer, turkeys, and giant redwoods.

Tell your unicorn lover: Parts of Pfeiffer beach have pinkish and purplish sand, especially after a rainfall. You’ll want to stay here at least two nights, maybe forever.

San Simeon/Cambria

Elephant seals and wild zebras are the big draws in these seaside towns. You can spy hundreds of seals from a viewing platform overlooking Piedras Blancas Rookery, in San Simeon. The wild zebras, descendants of a herd released in the 1950s, graze on a stretch of Highway 1 near Hearst Castle, also in San Simeon. Stay at the Cambria Pines Lodge, which is on 25 acres with nature trails.

Laguna Beach, California

Come to this artsy beach town for its amazing tide pools. A local fave: Shaw’s Cove at Laguna Beach Marine Preserve.

“The waters are so clear. At low tide, you’ll be sure to find anemones, sea urchins, and starfish—some in vibrant colors,” says Jill Parkin, mom of four and founder of the Sandy Toes & Popsicles blog. “And the waves are small, so it’s easy to wade in the water with the kids.”

Stay at the recently renovated Montage Laguna Beach, which gives kids badges for building a sand castle, riding the local trolley, and other fun activities.