Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
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The Golden State is home to seemingly endless coastlines, a wide variety of terrains, and plenty of incredible routes that make family road trips feel even more spectacular. From the scenic, winding road of Highway 1, to the remote desert oasis of Route 66, to the historic mining pathway of Highway 49, the most difficult part of planning a California road trip with kids is figuring out where to go first.
Between the Southern California beaches, national parks nestled by the Golden State’s mountain ranges, and forests tucked in the north, there’s no end to adventure here. And thanks to the plethora of family-friendly amusement parks, museums, parks, and attractions, there’s no need to leave the kids at home.
Traveling as a family can be stressful, but these family road trip ideas can ease the pressure by providing affordable and fun solutions.
Since there’s so much to see throughout the state, it’s easy to find the right road trip route for you and your family. So pack your suitcases, decide on your road trip soundtrack, and get ready to make memories together on these unforgettable road trips. Whether you want to explore Northern California, the Central Coast, or SoCal, these are the can’t-miss places to visit when you’re passing through.
As one of California’s largest cities, San Diego is a destination your family will want to spend some time exploring. Wander around downtown and put your fear of heights to the test at the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge for an unusual experience in this temperate paradise. Then, drive over to Balboa Park to visit one of the Golden State’s best zoos, see the museums, and listen to the organ (if you’re around on Sunday at 2 p.m.). Next, try the local cuisine—including the famous California burritos, foodie flights, and vegan fare—that will satisfy even your pickiest eaters.
Make your way to the beach, too, and if the kids are old enough, add a few San Diego surf spots to your to-do list. While you’re near the coastline, drive across the bridge to Coronado to view the pristine sands, peruse the quaint boutiques, and have wholesome family fun. Finally, you’ll want to take a trip up to Legoland, one of California’s best amusement parks, before you even think about leaving San Diego County.
Los Angeles is packed with things to do. From catching a concert in Hollywood, to visiting Griffith Observatory, to seeing L.A. County’s best museums, it’s hard to be bored here. Walk around downtown, munch on the best vegan pizza, snag your family brunch reservations, and catch a film at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a trip you’ll all remember for years to come.
Then, attend a live TV taping to enjoy cost-free entertainment, or take a two-hour road trip inland to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree before continuing north to Santa Monica, Venice, and Malibu. Spend time rock climbing for a challenging bit of exercise that’s as thrilling as it is fun, and try to work in visits to some of the area’s popular film locations before you leave.
When it comes to Southern California road trip ideas for kids, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the magic of Disneyland. Between the delicious food, out-of-this-world attractions, and character meet-and-greets, there’s simply no replacing this iconic theme park. (If you’re on a budget, make sure to check out our tips for cheap trips to Disneyland, too.)
Afterward, head to the Anaheim Packing District and baseball stadium to make the most of your trip to Orange County. If you’re planning a truly epic family road trip, add Knott’s Berry Farm to your itinerary, too—your kids will thank you.
The Golden State’s Central Coast is all about relaxation, so try to unwind and enjoy the time away from the big cities. While this family road trip is best saved for older kids and nature enthusiasts, it’s a great reset for those looking for a new beginning. Take advantage of the incredible panoramic views in Big Sur by spending a night camping and hiking in the wilderness, or check in to a luxurious hotel for an indulgent stay.
Continue north, stopping by Carmel-by-the-Sea on your way to Monterey. Once you’ve arrived, head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best aquariums in California, for an educational adventure your whole family can appreciate. Then drive north to explore Santa Cruz, making sure to walk along the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and enjoy the rides together.
There are endless opportunities for fun in San Francisco, so it’s easy to spend a week seeing all of the Bay Area’s most prominent sights. The Exploratorium is one of California’s can’t-miss attractions, so it’s a great place to start your S.F. excursions. Next, make your way to the Ferry Building and to Ghirardelli Square for culinary delights and unique experiences, or venture over to the Mission District to admire the vibrant murals and indulge in scrumptious dishes.
Then, head across the Golden Gate Bridge to go stand-up paddleboarding in Sausalito before savoring a bounty of fresh seafood from the local eateries, or drive east to hike Mount Diablo before continuing on. Then, visit Muir Woods National Monument, Point Reyes, and Bodega Bay as you cruise north along the coast.
To continue your journey, cruise inland to Sacramento, drive southeast to Yosemite National Park, keep heading north toward Eureka, or travel northeast to Lassen Volcanic National Park. With so many destinations in the Golden State, your adventures never have to end.
Where do you want to take your family on your next California road trip? Share your plans in the comments below.
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