A family road trip in California was high on our bucket list and in February 2020 we finally managed to get out to L.A. and explore this amazing part of the world. In a nutshell, we started in L.A, drove up the Pacific Coast Highway including Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Carmel by the sea, Monterey Bay to San Francisco, then headed inland to ski Heavenly Lake Tahoe, then on to Yosemite National Park and ended the trip back in L.A at Hermosa Beach.
Los Angeles > Venice Beach > Santa Monica > Malibu > Paradise Cove > Santa Barbara > Carpinteria > Morro Bay > Big Sur > Monterey Bay > Carmel By The Sea > Pacific Grove > San Francisco > Heavenly Ski Resort Lake Tahoe > Yosemite National Park > Bakersfield > Hermosa Beach
We had 21 days in total, 2 of these days were flying so 19 full days to explore California, not long considering how much ground we wanted to cover. We knew we had to be sensible so things like the Mojave desert and Las Vegas would have to be on the “next time” list.
We were one of the lucky ones who managed to bag 4 of the 100 golden tickets in the Black Friday sale in December 2019. 4 return flights (2 adults and 2 children) from London Heathrow to Los Angeles for under £500 total!
We arrived in L.A. late afternoon US time and our first night was booked at Su Casa on Venice Beach located close to the airport and a good starting point for our trip. Once we were out of the airport we picked up the hire car from Hertz and headed straight to Venice Beach.
Our two sons aged 10 and 8 were pretty jet-lagged so we had a good night sleep and at the crack of dawn we headed out to explore our first day at Venice beach and Santa Monica.
Day 1: Venice Beach, Santa Monica & Malibu
Having travelled to Los Angeles when I was a backpacker aged 18, I knew that Venice Beach had mixed reports but there was something about the Venice area and the fact that it’s so close to the airport that I wanted to go back and see if it had changed. It’s still got its sleazy side for sure, but it’s also got a lot of character. For my two boys aged 8 and 10 from a quiet village in Cornwall, England, it was a little shock to witness the amount of homeless in the area and I talk more about this and about travel broadening the mind in our family stay in Los Angeles post.
If we were to do the same trip again, i’d most likely book our first night in Santa Monica or Marina Del Rey. Santa Monica has lots of nice bars and eateries to choose from and we walked the famous pier with the boys. The piers in California are great to wonder along and our boys loved watching the waves break underneath the pier and get a different perspective.
On the way to our overnight hotel, we stopped in the celebrity hotspot of Malibu for some lunch. We had a little mooch around and picked up some sandwiches from Malibu Kitchen which were amazing. We headed across the road to Malibu beach and admired some of the multi-million dollar homes that line this stretch of beach. The beach was beautiful and a cool little place to stop off and dream on the way out of L.A.
On the way we stopped to check out Paradise Cove as my husband is a big Beach Boys fans – this was location of the photoshoot in August 1962 supplying album covers for ‘Surfin’ Safari’ (1962) and ‘Surfer Girl’ (1963).
Map journey – Venice Beach L.A. to Carpinteria
Day 2: Santa Barbara, Morro Bay, Big Sur, Monterey Bay
After overnighting in the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Carpinteria (highly recommend Holiday Inn’s across California for a family stay) we drove to Santa Barbara. As we drove into the city we were flanked on one side by the Santa Ynez mountains and the pacific coast on the other.
Santa Barbara has a very mediterranean feel to it, streets lined with hundreds of palm trees and upscale restaurants and shops. We parked the car and walked from the beach to the marina where we had a coffee and watched the boats and busy working harbour and marina.
We had arrived pretty early so we could take our 5 hour drive up the famous Pacific coast highway for our next stay at the Embassy Suites Monterey Bay Hotel in Seaside.
Half way we stopped at Morro Bay for some lunch, a lovely coastal city in California known for Morro Rock, an ancient volcanic mound at the end of Morro Rock Beach.
We had not intended on doing Big Sur this day but we struggled to find accommodation as it fell on the Presidents weekend, which meant an earlier than planned arrival to Monterey Bay.
Big Sur is one of the most memorable places i’ve driven along, this section of coastline has amazing scenery.
5,000 Santa Lucia mountains flank you on one side and the raw and powerful pacific ocean on the other. The beauty of this drive was enjoyed by my husband and boys, but not so much for me with a fear of heights; this stretch of road is not for the faint hearted. Its narrow and twisting roads take you high up the mountain sides and Big Sur itself feels wild. It has no phone reception and there are few services along the way so be prepared if you have kids.
I would highly recommend the stops we made along this stretch of coastline which include Brixby Bridge.
A visit to see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas is a great thing to do with the kids which is just south of Big Sur near San Simeon.
Map journey – Carpinteria to Monterey Bay
Day 3, 4 & 5: Monterey Bay
We stayed fairly central to Monterey Bay centre and on our first morning we headed to the beach to have a coffee and run about in the sunshine before heading into town to explore.
The main area in town is Cannery Row; here there are lots of shops, restaurants and bars. We spent the day here just relaxing, taking in the sights and the beach.
The following day we spent at the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium which is a fantastic place to visit for a family. Our boys got to stroke a stingray, see hammerhead sharks and green turtles, giant jellyfish and learn about all the marine life surrounding the bay – the setup of this place is brilliant and why it’s voted one of the best aquariums in the World.
For lunch we tried the famous local “clam chowder” which was very good and the boys had two of the largest ice creams of their lives.
Day 6 & 7: Carmel by the Sea
We moved on from Monterey Bay to Carmel by the sea and booked accommodation at the lovely The Coachman’s Inn which is located right in the centre and within walking distance to the beach. Carmel by the sea is a small beach town on the Monterey peninsula and it’s unlike anywhere we’ve ever been, known for its museums, galleries and library of the historic Carmel Mission. Carmel by the sea is also famous for its whimsical fairy tale cottages which look like something straight out of a Disney movie. Our first impression was how clean and beautifully kept everything was here.
We arrived at The Coachman’s Inn, parked the car (car parking is included) and immediately it felt like a home from home. My boys were offered cookies as soon as we arrived. Our room was cosy and homely with a lovely fireplace, large comfortable beds, coffee making facilities, everything we needed. We felt like we’d arrived at a private little gem. It is so peaceful here and for the first time on our road trip I felt really relaxed.
The next morning after booking the Treehouse Cafe located across the road on the recommendation of the friendly staff, we enjoyed a lovely home cooked breakfast which was perfect for us as a family.
We headed straight for Carmel Bay for some beach time as the weather was beautiful, mid 70’s – not bad for mid February. As we made our way through the pristine streets admiring the beautiful houses, we arrived at Carmel Bay beach which is stunning with pure white sand, clear blue and turquoise ocean. On this Californian road trip, this was easily the most beautiful beach we found. We explored the shops and the boys loved the famous Cottage of Sweets sweetshop and the toy stores.
The next day we ventured out in the car to explore Point Lobos State park. as we’d heard from various sources it was a must-see. Before we made our way here, we went via the famous ‘scenic road walkway‘ aptly named! We realised very quickly that we had stumbled into a ‘Big Little Lies’ filmset. The houses along this road fronting the Pacific Ocean are jaw-dropping. So after a little dreaming of where we’d live if we won the lottery, we came back to reality and drove about 20 minutes from Carmel to Point Lobos State park. The $10 entry fee was well worth it and the Trip Advisor reviews were all justified, it’s a must visit for sure!
This beautiful coastal park feels a million miles away from anything touristy. We walked along poppy-trimmed pathways to the tip of the park’s dramatic limestone point to look down into turquoise-blue water. You can see all around long bands of kelp swaying in the waves and cheeky little sea otters chilling out in the sunshine much to the delight of our boys. We came across a park ranger and kindly let the boys have a look through his binoculars at the sea otters, harbour seals and sea lions all congregated on a rocky outcrop, a great experience. This is a great place to burn off some energy too.
Watch a highlights video of our lovely family stay in Carmel by the Sea:
Map journey – Monterey Bay to Carmel by the sea
For more information read our family stay at Carmel by the sea
Day 7 & 8: Lighthouse Point & Pacific Grove
We enjoyed relaxing in the Monterey Bay area so much that we decided to stay another couple of days so we booked into the Lighthouse Lodge & Cottages. This was the ideal location to explore Pacific Grove and Lovers Point which had a great little beach and look out point with crystal clear water. The rest of our time we spent on Asilomar State Beach where we relaxed, played and watched some surfing. All around this headland there are lovely boardwalks for running, walking and bike riding.
One morning on a run, I passed deers just roaming the streets and headland. We did also attempt to drive down the famous “17 mile drive” which this leads to Pebble Beach Golf Links – but at $30 dollars for the entry toll, we didn’t think it was worth it and spent some more time on the beach.
Map journey – Carmel by the sea to Pacific Grove
Day 9, 10 & 11: San Francisco
Next on our road trip was a city we’d been longing to visit, San Francisco!
We stopped half way at Gilroy Premium Outlets for some clothes shopping, picked up some bargains from the Vans Store and headed on to San Francisco. Our first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge was amazing having seen it in so many films and photographs over the years, it was surreal to see it in real life and it’s very impressive. It’s not just the bridge but the whole of the bay area is a beautiful sight.
You have Alcatraz Island ‘The Rock’ right in the middle of the bay, a place again featured in many movies and steeped in history; the most famous prisoner, Mr. Al Capone, lived there for four and a half years.
I was surprised just how close Alcatraz Island seems from the shoreline given that 36 people have tried (and failed) to escape – 3 prisoners called Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin remain the only people who have escaped Alcatraz and never been found, a disappearance that is one of the country’s most notorious unsolved mysteries.
The three nights accommodation we booked in San Francisco was at Hotel Zoe located in Fishermans Wharf which we choose due to it’s a great location and being a hotel that offered car parking (not many do) as we wanted to ditch the hire car for a few days and explore on foot and use the famous trams.
The first day we were up early and headed out to Fisherman’s Wharf. As anyone with boys can vouch for, they are always hungry, so we came across Boudin Bakery known for its sourdough bread. The bakery is recognised as the “oldest continually operating business in San Francisco.” Everything here looks delicious, we enjoyed some pastries and great coffee overlooking the bay. Once we had eaten, we walked the Wharf, checked out Pier 39 and the noisy sea lions. Pier 39 is full of the usual stuff you’d expect in America, a Bubba Shrimp restaurant and lots of souvenir shops.
The next day we decided we wanted something a bit more authentic, so we got up early and went to Lombard Street (also known as the Crooked Street) famous for a steep, one-block section with eight hairpin turns. We arrived early to avoid the crowds and it was well worth it but be warned! walking the steep roads in this part of San Francisco on foot is a workout! We caught a tram down to the other end of Fisherman’s Wharf which was great fun.
The next day we hired some bikes from Basically Free Bike Rentals which we’d highly recommend to anyone – you get your rental bikes from their hire location near Fisherman’s Wharf, you get the value of your rental in store credit at Sports Basement which is San Francisco’s number one sporting goods store. This was perfect as we needed some ski gear for our next part of our road trip.
We cycled to the Golden Gate Bridge which is a brilliant bike trail, mostly nice and flat so it’s perfect thing to do as a family and of course, great scenery.
Watch a little video from our three night family stay in San Francisco:
Map journey – Pacific Grove to San Fran
Day 12, 13 & 14: Lake Tahoe & Heavenly Ski Resort
We left San Francisco early on day twelve via another cheeky stop at Boudin’s Bakery for one last fix of pastries and coffee and we hit the road headed for Lake Tahoe. It’s a great scenic drive, especially as you climb up into the mountains and get closer to Lake Tahoe (see in the video below).
We had three nights booked in the centrally located Forest Inn and Suites – this is the perfect location for a family ski break located within a 2 minute walk of the centre of the village, the main gondola and all the shops and supermarkets.
The shore of the Lake Tahoe itself was a ten minute walk. Once we arrived we caught the golden hour down at the lake. The views of the snow capped mountains reflecting in the lake is a sight I’ll never forget. It was so peaceful and the boys loved the play park on the beach and we watched the sunset over the mountain range. I imagine this place during summer is just a brilliant playground for paddle-boarding and kayaking.
The next day we woke early and geared up for our first day of skiing. The boys were so excited! having skied Canada and La Rosiere in France before, this was their first time hitting the slopes in US. We walked to Heavenly village, picked up our ski rental and ski passes and boarded the gondola for the ten minute ride to the top base station. You can’t fail to enjoy the stunning scenic views of the lake on the way up.
Ski time and the boys found their ski feet quickly – we mainly stuck to the green runs. Heavenly ski resort is more of an intermediate/advanced level ski resort than beginner. If you’ve got kids that are seasoned skiers, the amount of terrain available is fantastic and the views of Lake Tahoe are literally ‘heavenly’. My husband and I took it in turns to explore the area whilst one of us stayed with the little guys. You can even ski into Nevada!
We spent two days skiing here and loved every minute of it, the Forest Suites was the perfect family accommodation and Heavenly ski resort in general is a fantastic ski resort. We had some great food from local restaurants – we highly recommend the food at Tamarack Lodge & Bar on the mountain and at basecamppizzaco.com in the village. All the bars, restaurants and apres ski is brilliant and all very child friendly.
This is a little video from our family stay at Heavenly ski resort.
You can read more about our family ski stay at Heavenly ski resort here
Map journey – San Fran to Lake Tahoe
Day 15 & 16: Yosemite
We left Lake Tahoe to take the five hour drive to Yosemite. This part of the trip my husband was most excited about. The drive took us through pristine wilderness and frontier towns. We stopped along time way at a creek where we watched a gentleman panning for gold and he told us a few gold mining tales and gave the boys a few bits of gold he’d found, what a lovely man!
We arrived at the Evergreen Lodge mid-afternoon, secluded and nestled in the woods approx 20 minute drive from the entrance of Yosemite National Park. This place is truly magical and would recommend to anyone looking to stay and explore Yosemite. The general store here is lovely and sells souvenirs, fresh deli sandwiches, drinks, toiletries etc. We opened the door to our little wooden lodge and it felt like we were miles away from civilisation and was perfect for a family of four, cozy, rustic with a private deck. Nature surrounded us, our boys were in awe, staring up at the huge trees and watching deer roam outside the bedroom window is an experience they’ll never forget. After such a long drive, we relaxed in the hot tub and swimming pool underneath the canopy of trees as the sunset and enjoyed some great food in the main lodge. The playgrounds of the children here are also fantastic. It’s a shame that due to forest fires, a lot of the surrounding area is burned, as it is on your way into Yosemite, but it’s still a magical place.
The next day we were up and ready to go. We drove in through the main gates into Yosemite. A park pass costs $35/vehicle at the Yosemite National Park entrance stations and is valid for seven days.
As we made our way through the winding roads, we were greeted with spectacular scenery, huge granite cliff faces, panoramic views of meadowlands, forests and mountain ranges as far as we could see. We made our way down into the valley where you are faced first with thundering falls on one side and the grand El Capitan on the other. What a sight! you can’t truly explain or capture the beauty of this place in a photo or video until you’ve stood at the bottom of one of its falls with the spray in your face or stood in the shadow of the almighty El Capitan and its towering peaks. This place is immensely beautiful.
The Ansel Adams Gallery here in Yosemite is a must see – browse in awe at stunning photographs from this famous American landscape photographer and environmentalist known for his black-and-white images of the American West.
We spent two days exploring this amazing national park and we stuck to all the easy trails as we had the boys, but you could easily spend weeks in the park and never get bored of its natural beauty and wonder.
Watch highlights of our stay in Yosemite
Map journey – Lake Tahoe to Yosemite
Day 17: Bakersfield
Sad to leave Yosemite, leaving the park from the opposite end gave us a completely different perspective of Yosemite, giant sequoia trees flanking us as we left nature and peace behind for our long drive back to Los Angeles via an overnighter at Bakersfield.
This is the only part of our entire California road trip that I would change but logistically unless we were going to do a 9 hour journey from Yosemite to Los Angeles (with young children that’s not viable!) we decided to stop midway at Bakersfield and stayed at a Hilton hotel for the night. It was interesting to say the least – busy, loud (lots of police noise) and basically had a freeway next to it. We spent as little time as we did here. You can use a more cheaper and alternative mode of transport for the last leg of the road trip using the Bakersfield to Los Angeles Bus
Map journey – Yosemite to Bakersfield
Day 18 & 19: Hermosa Beach
And breathe…after the last 24 hours of freeways and Bakersfield, we arrived at the welcomed site of Los Angeles and headed to our accommodation booked at Hermosa Beach. Our plan was to chill out, relax and enjoy the beach. As it was the end of our trip, we wanted some luxury and the accommodation we booked absolutely delivered! We arrived at Beach House Hotel at Hermosa Beach and the valet parking team looked after our car and took care of our luggage taken to our room.
We entered our ocean front suite and the view of the white beach and pacific ocean in front of us was jaw-dropping. The suite had our bed higher up on a mezzanine level so when you lay in bed you could see and hear the ocean. The boys had a comfy bed with the same view from the lounge and kitchen area. On the first morning we sat in bed with a coffee and watched a pod of dolphins swim past the end of the pier, spell binding.
Whilst in L.A you have to go see some live sports if you can – we got some tickets to watch NBA basketball team LA Clippers vs Philadelphia 49’s in the Staples Stadium, the boys were in their element – America sure know how to put on a show! it’s a must do for any family trip to L.A.
Our eldest son Dylan decided to try out the skyscraper slide located on the outside of the QUE skyspace in LA just a short walk from The Staples Centre. Now i’m not a fan of heights but you can see all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the Hollywood Hills from up there, amazing views!
Our final day we spent having some relaxation and fun on Hermosa Beach. The final night was finished with a beautiful sunset, the perfect Californian ending to an amazing family road trip. The sunsets here are special, full of oranges, reds and glorious palm trees to frame it all. This side of L.A. is by far our favourite, much more chilled, surf shops, cool coffee bars, smoothie places and a relaxed surfing vibe to it.
Here is a short video of our stay at Hermosa Beach
Read more about our family stay at Beach House Hermosa Beach
Map journey – Bakersfield to Hermosa Beach
Overall our Californian family road trip was amazing with so many highlights – my favourite was Carmel by the sea, what a beautiful place. My husband loved Yosemite being a photographer. Harry’s favourite was Monterey Bay Aquarium and Dylan’s was watching the NBA basketball game .
We arrived back in Cornwall just in time before the UK went into Covid-19 lockdown so we felt extremely lucky and privileged we got to travel before the world changed. Hopefully sometime soon we can travel again, enjoy new experiences and make new memories as a family.
Watch our California road trip highlights video here:
For anyone looking to embark on a family road trip around California, we hope this article and itinerary proves helpful. Safe travels.