CALIFORNIA SAMPLER: OUR 11-DAY FAMILY ROAD TRIP (with a side kick to Las Vegas)
Getting Ready For the Trip.
There is so much to see in California, that picking the stops to include in a road trip could overwhelm even the most experienced family vacation planner. As US East Coasters who do not get to come to the West Coast often, we (the parents and 2 kids, ages 5 and 15) have put together a road trip with an intent to see as much as we could – with just enough time to enjoy our special moments in each place.
While we don’t plan our itineraries just around our kids, we make sure to include the things that we know they would enjoy – in each destination. To get everyone excited (and thinking about things to do on a trip) we watched California themed movies: in fact, the trip to Hearst Castle was born out of “Citizen Kane” family night. “Cannery Row” was helpful to give Monterey a historical context, and “Side Ways” offered the parents some winery tasting ideas for next trip.
I also researched casual eateries for each place in advance (family friendly could still mean eating local and well!).
Despite all the preparations, life happens, of course, and we were dealing with 2 bad viruses on the road (it is not a good idea trying to locate a pharmacy near Death Valley area that stays open after 5pm – and any time on weekends). And did I mention, there was an earthquake in Napa during our trip? (Napa was not on our itinerary but San Francisco was being reported as part of the possible after shock area).
Now, enough with the preparations; I would love it if you would follow along on our journey:
Day 0: (late evening): flew into San Francisco
Day 1 and 2: Explored San Francisco
Day 2 (evening): left San Francisco in the evening to drive to Monterey (2 hours)
Day 3: Monterey and Carmel, 17 miles drive
Day 4: Morning in Monterey, drove to Yosemite National Park (4 hours)
Day 5: Yosemite; left for Lone Pine in the afternoon (4 hours)
Day 6: Left Lone Pine for Las Vegas (via Death Valley) (4 hours)
Days 6 and 7: Las Vegas
Day 8: Left Las Vegas for Los Angeles (4 hours), Overnight in Ventura
Day 9: Drove to Santa Barbara (30mins); (overnight in Pismo Beach)
Day 10: Drove to Hearst Castle (2 hours); Big Sur (overnight in Monterrey)
Day 11: Drove to Santa Cruz (under 1 hour); then drove to San Francisco. Flight back to Boston late in the evening.
What We Could Have Done Differently:
- Stay additional (3rd) night in San Francisco and then drive to Yosemite early in the morning from San Francisco
- Stay a 2nd night in Yosemite
- Stay 2 nights in Monterrey on the way back to give us more time in Point Lobos
DAYS 1-2. SAN FRANCISCO.
During our first day in the city, we explored China Town and North Beach (San Francisco’s little Italy) on foot. The highlights included a stop at Beat Museum near Jack Kerouac Alley where Den got the unabridged version of “The Road”; and a zigzag Lombard Street.
In the afternoon we took the Cable Car (up and down and up and down) to Pier 39 which despite the tourist trap that it is was happened to become Vi’s easy favorite. Facing the harbor, it was not that bad as far as tourist traps go and Vi certainly deserved a little bit of her own fun. (Large seals occupying ALL of the docks were a big bonus too.). (For our Family’s Top Scoring San Francisco Moments, read this post)
On a second day we split into 2 groups with dad taking Den to the former prison of Alcatraz and me and Vi taking a “duck” tour of the harbor and city center. Get your Alcatraz ferry tickets weeks or months advance and go early in the day to avoid the crowds.
We spent our afternoon in the Japanese Garden of the Golden Gate Park and at the neighboring Ocean Beach. (For next time: Museum of Fine Arts is housed within the Park).
Our initial acquaintance with the city would not be complete without a drive on iconic Golden Gate Bridge – so we headed to the artsy community of Sausalito at the foot of northern end of the Bridge. We enjoyed the views “from the other side” onto the city as we sipped our cappuccinos in a café by the docks.
A note on food: Boudin Bakery at the Wharf (historical bread making institution where kids can observe the bread making from outside through a glass wall) – was a favorite, as well as Molinari Iitalian deli On Columbus Ave in North Beach, and House of Hanking in Chinatown (no reservations, be prepared to wait in line outside).
As we were leaving the city, we made the plan to come back to it on day 11 to get to know some new neighborhoods. But until then, we headed to Monterey.
DAYS 3-4. MONTEREY PENINSULA. WHERE IS PEBBLE BEACH?
We started both of our mornings in Monterey with a refreshing nature walk along uncrowded shoreline trail. Our destination was a coffee house Cafe La Strada on the beautiful ocean terrace of Plaza Hotel on historical Cannery Row. The walk was so quiet and “understated” that we first took the baby seals for wood sticks floating on water! The pace of the place (especially in the morning) just could not have been any more different from Pier 39 in San Francisco!
Monterey’s Aquarium on Cannery Row is arguably the best in the US with adjacent Monterey Bay being a part of the exhibit (adult admission $39; child $25).
After some quality pool lounging at our hotel Casa Munras we headed to the nearby little town of Carmel via coastal 17 Mile Drive ($10 entrance fee). If you are planning a Bug Sur drive- skip the “17 mile”. (A gorgeous coast line in itself, it is just not “rising” to a level of Big Sur’s magnificence.) We kept looking for Pebble Beach (as in beach to have a picnic at)- but as it turned out there is no beach in Pebble Beach, which is a name for the residential “unincorporated” community. So we were left to picnic next to the parking lot by the overpriced sandwich place adjacent to the elegant Lodge at Pebble beach.
Nearby Carmel–by-the-Sea offers nice walks along its beach and cute shop and gallery-lined streets. Dog lovers will rejoice to be able to dine in many of the town’s restaurants with their 4-legged friends. High heel lovers beware, however, as you would need a permit to take your beloved friends for a walk.
Back at the Monterey, Vi welcomed the visit to the nearby Dennis the Menace old fashioned playground (free).
Accommodations in Monterrey (and in California in general) are on a pricier side, but I was happy with our choice of Casa Munras. It felt stylish, had a gourmet restaurant with an open air terrace where folks were enjoying the drinks late into the night. (not us, you see, as the demands of our travels required an earlier nightcap. On the list for next time!)
DAY 5. YOSEMITE AND TIOGA PASS.
Despite the hours I spent researching various trails, Yosemite took us by complete surprise on how enormous it was (747,956 acres with 800 miles of hiking trails) and much there was to see and do. (and so that YOU are more prepared for your first visit, I have put together practical Tips for visiting Yosemite here).
We arrived at 4pm on Day 5 of our journey and had about 24 hours to spend. (As I already noted – we should have for sure added another day to our stay.) We arrived from the western entrance (via El Portal). A note of caution: while roads leading to the park are well maintained, they are narrow and winding so it is best to plan to reach the park before dark.
We spent our afternoon getting acquainted with Curry Village where we stayed (see a note on Yosemite lodging below), had dinner in the cafeteria, and studied the Park Guide to plan for the next day.
With numerous trails and nature exhibit halls Yosemite is a gem for family travel. There are trails for all fitness level, but even if you do not hike at all, you can still admire the park’s beauty via free Valley Shuttle that circles around the Valley floor and lets you see the famous Tunnel View, El Capitan and Lower Yosemite Falls; you could also take a ranger-narrated Valley Floor Tour.
We started the next day early with a moderate level hike to the Footbridge of Vernall Fall. While short (1.4 miles round trip), it was still considered a moderate trail due to the 400 feet elevation, so very proud of ourselves we were when we reached the top (but much happier when we safely made it down). Bridal Veil Falls is a much easier hike but it dries out in the summer.
Despite the family friendliness and accessibility, it is a wild nature park, so it is important to follow the safety instructions on stream crossing and wading (avoid), and mountain animals encounters (follow park guides). We were happy not to have had any bear or mountain lion encounters on our hike (and near our cabin), but we were excited to learn about the Park’s current bear population (10) from a ranger during the narrated 2-hour Valley Tour we took in the afternoon.
We left the Park via scenic Tioga Road (highway 120) which is a 39-mile scenic route with meadows, sequoia groves, blue lakes, and granite domes, offering plenty of hikes and photo opportunities. We stopped at breathtaking Tenaya Lake surrounded by beautiful glaciers to relax at the sandy (but very chilly) beach; that didn’t stop Vi from testing the water!
Tioga Road, of course, leads to Tioga Pass (a trans-Sierra Nevada crossing) which is the eastern entry point for the Yosemite (and is the highest highway pass in California and in the Sierra Nevada). It has a gradual approach from the west (as you leave the Park) and drops off to the east dramatically, losing more than 3,000 ft (914 m) by the time the road reaches Rt. 395. We were certainly apprehensive about this portion of our trip and indeed spent about 10-15minutes of “unpleasant” unguarded mountain driving. We then drove for uneventful couple of hours (beware: no cell phone reception) to spend the night at the town of Lone Pine and get an early start on our journey through the Death Valley.
A word on Yosemite lodging. There is lodging in the park for every taste and budget, but all lodging needs to be booked up to a year in advance for best choices (or you can look for last minute cancellations). We stayed in the canvas cabin in Curry Village – primarily because motel style lodging was already unavailable when we were booking (about 3 months ahead of the trip).
We enjoyed staying in the Curry Village tents- as we felt it provided a right balance between modern conveniences and a nature experience that we have come to the Park for. Bed linens were provided; there is cafeteria and general store in the Village selling anything you might possibly need at the Park. There is also Wi-Fi, pool, bike rental, postal office and outdoor theater with daily kids programming. I liked the “vibe” of the village with people speaking many different languages, young deer walking right next to the terrace of the club house where you could enjoy your morning coffee (or afternoon beer, as wine and beer are offered for sale in the Village.)
Vehicle pass is $20 for a week. For the Yosemite road conditions call ahead (209) 372-0200.
I found the Yosemite National Park Guide (free, given to us on entrance) very helpful and informative.
DAYS 6-7 DEATH VALLEY AND VEGAS
We left our Lone Pines motel at 7am and were greeted by a surprising coolness of 67 degrees at the entrance to National Valley Death Park which rose to 93degrees by 9 am. We made it through the Park before the temperatures got really bad. Death Valley was not a destination we planned in itself (rather a passing point on our way to Las Vegas via Tioga Pass) but we found ourselves mesmerized by the unprecedented silence and magnificent stillness of the powerful (desert) landscape.
Beware: it could get real hot in the summer and cell phone service is extremely spotty.
Once in Vegas we were at first taken aback by seeming lack of “cultured” things to do as well as by HUGE crowds walking the streets, but then we “allowed” ourselves to get into the groove and just enjoy what this destination had to offer to the family with kids: the most beautiful hotel architecture and swimming pools in the country. To our surprise, we even felt pressed for time pursuing these 2 interests!
Read our post about Things to Do with Family in Vegas HERE (and decide for yourself whether you should or should not take your kids to Vegas with you)
There are often great deals offered on Vegas hotels – we paid $150 a day for our stay at Cosmopolitan via Priceline.com (although we found ourselves gravitating towards more traditional beauty of Wynn and Caesar Palace). Vi’s favorite pastime was watching international circus acts, offered continuously throughout the day at otherwise indistinct Circus Circus Hotel (short taxi ride away from the central portion of the strip). Another kid favorite was a gondola ride at the Venetian Hotel.
Beware: Vegas shows go on vacation in the summer, so if you plan to see a specific show you may want to check the schedules ahead of time.
DAY 8: LOS ANGELES
The road from Vegas to Los Angeles took just under (easy) 4 hours. The goal was to arrive by 5pm for our Warner Brother’s Studio Tour. The kids must be older than 8 to participate, so our group had to split. Vit took Vi on an adventure to find the Hollywood Sign instead. Both parties enjoyed their experiences.
We spent the evening exploring the famous Los Angeles boulevards. First, we took the kids to the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. Frankly, I am not a big fan of star plaques that you walk over. We sat down to enjoy Crème Puffs at a nearby Beard Papa Sweets Café. (One thing I wish we did was taking a tour of the inside of the Chinese Grauman Theater.)
We then drove along the Sunset Boulevard past the Hollywood glory all the way to the coast and further to our hotel in Ventura.
DAY 9 SANTA BARBARA, PISMO BEACH
We chose a hotel in Ventura out of budgetary considerations but awoke to an unexpected beauty of the Ventura harbor outside. Today was our day to explore California’s Central Coast, so we were back on the road for a short drive to Santa Barbara.
In Santa Barbara we started with the historical Mission House (one of the 21 Franciscans missions in the state), then walked along the State Street to the beautiful shore line. It could have been a relaxing day, except we decided to make it a “family building” exercise and rented a surrey bike.
We had a short-lived intent to ride the “thing” to the Zoo, but instead, used up all we had left in us to push the “monster” (it turned out to be) back to the rental place.
Our favorite Santa Barbara moment came shortly thereafter at the walk-in massage place down the street were mom and dad got much needed foot massages.
As a preview to California Danish country (for the next trip) we tasted the many marzipans of beautiful (white table clothed) Andersen Bakery on State Street.
We spent the night at Pismo Beach and with the exception of a late night (drink) visit to Madonna Inn decided to leave more of the Central Coast for next time.
DAY 10: HEARST CASTLE AND BIG SUR
We started the day with a tour of Hearst Castle in San Simeon (approximately 1.5 hours from Pismo beach). The only way to get inside the property is to buy a ticket for one of the tours ($25 for basic tour). No movie could quite prepare you for the astounding beauty of hilltop vistas horizoning into the ocean and the no-expense-spared Mediterranean Estate (a product of 27 years of architectural pursuits). The tour is informative and you could stay and admire the grounds on your own before taking the shuttle back to the tourist base.
From San Simeon (and all the way north to Carmel) along Pacific Highway 1 lies what is considered the most scenic highway in the US (and one of the most beautiful in the world) – known as Big Sur, which was to be the next part of our journey.
Beware: phone service is spotty; and if you have (even a remote) fear of heights- plan to drive the route in the direction of south to north -so that you are not edging the ocean (and this is exactly what we did- driving from San Simeon to Carmel).
It is approximately 90 miles between San Simeon (South) and Carmel (North) and we found that the pace of our journey (about 5 hours) was reasonable, but could certainly be extended. We stopped to admire the seals near the lighthouse in Piedras Blancas; to walk the short McWay Waterfalls Trail above the ocean in Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park, and to have a bite while taking in more of the views at Nepenthe Restaurant. (There is no need to dine inside of the restaurant- the views from the outside, at the open air bar, are even better.)
We ended our Big Sur journey as the sun was setting down at the wonderful Point Lobos State Reserve, a relaxing ocean park with leveled ocean trails along the “inlets” of water where we observed the otters and even a whale (in the distance).
As I already noted, we would have enjoyed a longer stay in Monterey at the end of the trip to give us more time to explore this nature park.
Day 11. SANTA CRUZ, BACK TO SAN FRIANCISCO
We spent the night at the Monterey to start our 2 hour trip back to San Francisco in the morning. Our flight back home was not until late at night so we had plenty of time to check out Santa Cruise (about an hour north of Monterey and south of San Francisco).
Carnival-style ocean boardwalk did not leave many memories. So we could not wait for our second rendezvous with San Francisco.
On this final part of our trip, the teen wanted to walk the Golden Gate Bridge, and I wanted to have a picnic in the park with a “vista”. We drove to Mission Neighborhood, got some wonderful Mexican take outs in one of the nearby take out joints to enjoy in Dolores Park. (The city view from the hill was fantastic, but you have to share the park with lots of unleashed dogs and all kinds of smokers).
In conclusion of our journey, Dad and the kids walked part of the Golden Gate Bridge (beware of the strong winds).
In a true road trip fashion of this trip, we have not stayed more than 2 nights (and often 1) in one place, but we had our special MOMENTS in each destination we visited.
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