With stunning beaches, world-class amusement parks, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, California is a place like no other. You can explore the sun-soaked deserts, soak in the cosmopolitan cities, ski the mountains, or surf the beaches, all without setting foot on a plane. For the ultimate road trip, look no further. Here is your ultimate California guide for families.
How Long to Spend on a California Road Trip
You could easily spend two weeks driving the length of California. In fact, major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco alone are worth a week of your time. Ultimately, it is the kind of place where you can visit time and time again without getting bored.
That said, if you are short on time but still want to see as much as you can, the whole trip can be done in five days. While you will easily find more things to do, let’s have a look at a California guide for families that covers the best of the best.
California Guide for Families
Ready to start packing? Here is your day by day guide to a five-night road trip in the Golden State.
Night One: San Francisco
San Francisco is one of those cities that has something for everyone. Explore educational picks like the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Aquarium of the Bay, and Exploratorium. Climb up Coit Tower then get over to Baker Beach for sweeping views (and family selfie ops) of the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond.
Looking for a rainy day activity? Head over to the House of Air, an amazing trampoline park where kids can get their energy out rain or shine.
Planning Tip: Check out this rundown of our fave family hotels in San Francisco. From five-star luxury escapes to budget-friendly family breaks, we’ve tried ‘em all.
Night Two: Big Sur
After a night in the big city, get away from it all in Big Sur. This jaw-droppingly beautiful oasis is a heavenly place to unwind. Whether you’re an adventurous family looking to camp and explore the great outdoors or you want to lounge at a beach and be pampered in a lodge, you can do it here.
For serious hikers or families with young kids just looking to get out for some fresh air, check out Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. To snap picks of a gorgeous sunset and find a prime picnic spot, we love Pfeiffer Beach.
For a dream rustic-but-cozy pick, try the Big Sur Lodge. In the heart of it all, this family-friendly place is a great base for exploring. Want to sleep under the star in the magical spot? Check out Big Sur Campground & Cabins for kid-friendly amenities and a location in the center of it all.
Night Three: Santa Barbara
While it is a bit of a drive, if you can keep the kids in the car for just under four hours and make it down to Santa Barbara, it is worth the long drive.
Of all the picks in our California guide for families, the Santa Barbara Zoo is a definite winner for animal-loving kids. Not only does it have a stunning location on the hill overlooking the sea, but there are countless fun activities. Bring your kids out to feed giraffes from their hands then take a train around to tour all the sites.
Soak in the sun and go for ice cream at Stearns Wharf then bike down the Cabrillo Bike Path. Explore the sites at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History then go play around at MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation.
For a lovely family-friendly boutique hotel in the middle of the action, we are fans of the Brisas del Mar. You can get all of the comforts of home with a villa suite. Complete with a full kitchen, it’s a handy spot if you’re traveling with little ones.
Night Four: Los Angeles
Of course, you will need at least one night in Los Angeles. You can stay in the city and be just 30 minutes from Disneyland (though you will definitely want to avoid driving there during rush hour as those 26 miles can quickly turn into more than an hour).
Most families will want at least one day for Disney and one day for exploring LA so try to plan for as much time as you can here.
Planning Tip: When you are ready to start creating your itinerary, be sure to check out our guide to kid-friendly Los Angeles.
When it comes to hotels, if you are planning to do both Disney and LA, you might consider staying in between the two places. By staying on the south edge of town, you can cut down on travel time and save some cash. Options like the Best Western Plus Commerce Hotel that is just between the two places are far more affordable than staying at either the city or near Disney.
Night Five: San Diego
Last but certainly not least, San Diego is one of the most incredible cities in the US. In fact, we love this kid-friendly city so much that we’ve got a guide to the ultimate family vacation in San Diego. To get our rundown on the best of the best, keep on reading there and start planning your itinerary.
Planning Tip: Check out our detailed guide San Diego – Family Vacations with hotel recommendations.