The Best Family Fun on Hwy 101: Coastal California Family Travel

We loved living in SoCal for three years, and in Monterey, CA for two years. Loved it! We made great friends and enjoyed myriad interesting outings.

Recently a friend asked me for ideas for a road trip, especially for kids, parents, and grandparents altogether, within a six-hour drive of San Diego. The coast wins! So many plusses. The weather’s easy, you can take it slow and still have a rich experience, and there are so many stops that appeal across generations.

If you’re heading OUT of tourist-fantastic San Diego, steering north on Hwy 101, here are some of my favorite stops (within a 6-hour drive of Balboa Park).  I’ll have to save all my faves for the bay area for another post.

 

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

In a reference book somewhere there’s a definition of “quaint historic town” with a photo of San Juan Capistrano next to it. From the historic low-roofed wood houses-turned-art-galleries, to idyllic dirt paths, to incredibly wild-yet-manicured gardens, to the nostalgic train, the atmosphere and pace make for a great day, especially with extended family.

Zoomer’s Petting Zoo

Zoomar's Petting Zoo

We try to arrive first thing in the morning, while the animals are still hungry (especially the guinea pigs), and before the crowds.

Our kids have loved Zoomars from preschool to late elementary age. It’s probably geared toward younger children, but the animals have a lure we find ageless. The guinea pig pen is still a favorite, even for my fourth grader, and the goats take everybody off guard–grandparents included. They always get a big reaction.

Also available: super tame pony rides, mining for gold, and riding a mini train.

Hummingbird House Cafe

My kids love lamb and Mediterranean food, so this casual cafe with abundant patio seating was perfect. Order inside, and sit inside or out. There’s a walled courtyard, which gives kids room to get their wiggles out. This place is a short walk from Zooms–the perfect place to enjoy a cool drink.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

photo courtesy Mission San Juan Capistrano

photo courtesy Mission San Juan Capistrano

California missions are a great way to dive into history, from military, religious, agriculture, and architecture perspectives. Many are still in use as places of worship. Most include outdoor gardens, a large fountain, and room to roam. Some have a museum or film to view, brochures to review, and services to attend.

I recommend a stop at any mission, especially with kids and grandparents. From the beautiful frescos and well-tended gardens to sacred art and flickering candles, there’s something for each person to appreciate.

We’ve visited three California missions with our fourth grader, who did a mission project for school. Her final report covered Old Mission Santa Barbara. When I heard about the San Juan Capistrano Mission, and how grand it is, I got a little jealous. Mission SJC is still on my bucket list.

 

LOS ANGELES

The main tip in LA is to avoid the traffic. It may sound obvious. But it’s worth planning. Keep an audiobook or other back-up fun, just in case.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

LA Nat Hist Museum

Few institutions rival this one, in my book. It’s right up there with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Louvre in Paris. Maybe I’m biased because we had a dino lover in the bunch. This place has the most impressive, staggering dinosaur displays. I still get chills when I think about the T-Rex exhibit, and we were there a couple years ago.

The gem and mineral room was a big hit. It seems to go on forever. The specimens are enormous, a wide variety rocks, minerals and gems. Our jaws hit the floor a few times–such color, texture, and raw beauty–all made by nature. Spectacular.

 

La Brea Tar Pits and Museum (Page Museum)

Page Museum La Brea Tar PitsThis is a very indoor/outdoor experience. We started by visiting the many skeletons and exhibits inside, then moving from pit to pit outdoors during guided tours. We let a few tours create structure to the day, and enjoyed the museum in between. One exhibit shows a history of animals, seemingly from the dawn of time–staggering. Our kids loved finding tiny min seeps popping up in the lawn.

We took sandwiches–very glad. No restaurant on site. Another option is LACMA next door, and there are restaurants within walking distance.

The Getty Villa

Getty VillaAdmittedly, this is a more grown-up place. There are several reasons it worked for us as a family outing. For one, the food. We hit the on-site cafe first. I’d like to say that starting with a meal was important for the kids, but actually it was important for everyone. A brunch start set us up for hours of happiness.

Audio wands for each person meant we could all listen as we wished, which gave every person the ability to engage differently.

Extensive outdoor gardens meant the kids could let loose a little, a nice contrast to the many rooms filled with ancient sculpture, fine art, and delicate relics from around the world. There’s one sculpture you can touch, too! It’s outside on an upper level patio, so you have to mean to go to it. It was great to touch the ancient marble. It surprised me! I loved the herb garden, and a colorful fountain.

The kid room was a big hit with my kids. they can put on costume pieces and stand in front of a screen to make silhouettes like the images on ancient greek pottery. We hit that room twice.

BioQuip Bugs

BioQuip Bugs

This probably isn’t in any tourist book. If you’re local, you’ll appreciate it even more. We went to purchase a gift for a friend, and ended up getting to see thousands and thousands of specimens from all over the world. Floor to ceiling, drawer after drawer, spectacular collection. If you want the hand-held experience, consider making an appointment ahead of time. Also check out their events.

I wish we’d made more time to shop in the gift shop. They sell hard-core gear for bug lovers, and offer an impressive book collection.

The good folks at BioQuip helped me select a gorgeous Morpho, and went above and beyond on presentation.

Morpho from BioQuip

Hiking

There are great spots to stretch your legs along Highway 101. North of LA, we enjoyed The Chumash Trail at Point Mugu State Park. It’s a fairly steep climb on a dirt trail. It’ll get your blood pumping. I’d allow at least 1.5 to 2 hours. Totally worth it. The car ride was way more fun after a stretch.

The bathroom sitch: there are port-a-potties across the highway at the State Park Beach.

Shoes: we often road trip in flip flops, but I was glad we had sturdier shoes handy for this trail.

SANTA BARBARA

One thing I loved about our Santa Barbara trip was the pace. We set our expectations low and slow, with one main objective. Our must-do was the Mission, and we had two days and an overnight to enjoy the area. If you go over a holiday weekend, book early! The city fills up.

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Old Mission Santa Barbara
Knowing all fourth graders cover a mission in California, we told our daughter before the long President’s Day weekend to pick any California mission, and we’d go there. Luckily for us, Audrey chose Old Mission Santa Barbara. It made for a great mini vacation, and it’s plum gorgeous.

We were sure to get a brochure in the gift shop. There is a small admission fee. We enjoyed watching a short film, discussing Roman architectural influences, and noticing the variety of plants in the gardens and cemetery. One highlight is a memorial for the real-life girl who inspired the novel Island of the Blue Dolphins (which you could listen to on the road). An original bell is on display in the museum–and available to touch!

Mexican Food

After a morning at the Mission, a good lunch fit the bill. Los Agaves on De La Vina St. exceeded our expectations. Tasty and fresh, old favorites with a twist, a salsa bar, generous portions (enough to split) hand-hewn raw wood tables, indoor or (even better) outdoor seating, and perfect proximity to the Mission equalled a fine lunch.
Afterwards I hit The Daily Grind across the street for a mid-day pick-me-up. Sipped that java all the way to our next adventure, recommended by our Los Agaves cashier: a hunt for monarchs at a local preserve.

Coronado Butterfly Preserve

Coronado Butterfly Preserve
This is the most delightful series of trails just north of town. Tucked into a neighborhood, it meanders through eucalyptus groves and leads to a hilltop prairie overlooking the ocean, with access to the beach. We missed the masses of monarchs, but enjoyed every minute nonetheless. The kids especially enjoyed collecting beautiful shells on the shore, which (mean mommy) I made them leave behind, for preservation. So glad a guy at Los Agaves recommended this to us!

SAN SIMEON

I love the idea of San Simeon because a little slowness is built in. San Simeon’s main attraction is Hearst Castle, which is one of the most amazing properties in the US. If you can stay the night before your tour, and also the night of the tour, it’s nice to slow down. Before San Simeon, you can hit the tidal pools at Moonstone beach, enjoy relaxed shopping and dining in Cambria, and (kids’ favorite) do a quiet night in San Simeon with a hotel pool.
Moonstone Beach
Moonstone Beach was a favorite stop on the way there–there are super-colorful rocks on the pebbly beach, and we saw critters of all kinds in the rocky tide pools. I intentionally left my big camera in the car so I could enjoy being in the moment, but now I’m kicking myself. I want to convey and remember how gorgeous the scenery and the moment–so rich.
This beach broke up our drive. After an hour or two of tidal pooling and searching for colorful rocks, we felt like we’d returned from another world.

Nearby Cambria has much better dining options than San Simeon. And it’s so close! But if you ask at your hotel, probably no one will tell you (but they should!): go to Cambria.
We at a Robin’s Restaurant, and enjoyed it. It’s a little on the adult side. The kids’ menu fare had a little more flair than our kids appreciated, but I was happy to expand their palates.
Cambria, CA
In Cambria, before dinner we found a rocks and gems shop, and a gallery of handblown glass sculptures. This tiny town’s quaint, and it’s multi-generation-friendly: exploring, shopping, eating.

Hearst Castle

Touring Hearst Castle is at least a half-day event. It requires a bus ride to the top of the hill. If you’re traveling on a holiday weekend or any tourist-heavy time of year, I recommend booking tours well in advance. There are too many good tours to recommend just one.
But here’s an important note if you go with kids: go as early in the day as possible, while everybody’s fresh–you, your kids, and the guides. I can’t believe we made it through our tour with a toddler and a preschooler. But we did! So many breakables, with a guide at the front and the back of the group watching our every move. The early start helped! And we let our kids run around each time the tour took us outdoors.

Tickets come with a free pass to the IMAX movie, which shares even more detail about William Randolph Hearst and Hearst Castle. For us it was a great follow-up to the tour.

I’ve always pipe-dreamed about doing more than one tour in a day, and if I went with other adults, I might leave my kids with them and make a date for an evening tour as well.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery (Seal Beach)
About four miles north of San Simeon is seal beach. From afar, it may look like a bunch of gray blobs on the sand. If you get out of the car, it’s thrilling to watch the charming elephant seals on the beach.

Whether you take 10 minutes to stretch your legs (which is great after breakfast), or hours with binoculars studying the animals, this stop is a highlight across generations. Go for the kids. Stay for grandma. Mom and dad, grab the camera!

Recap

If you make it just past San Simeon, it’s so easy to push a little further to see the redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park! But by then you’re also close to quaint shops and art galleries (not to mentions great restaurants) in Carmel, the aquarium and so much more in Monterey, fun quirky greatness in Santa Cruz, and some stellar life experiences (hey, Alcatraz is on the list for 4th grade California site projects!) in San Francisco. Maybe another post. I have so many great memories in the bay area.

Our family tries to live by this rule: “everybody gets a turn.” When we have the Grands along, we tend to hit more shops for my mom, and sometimes I’ll find a concert I think my dad will enjoy. My parents are great sports for kid events, and are still in tact, despite some feisty goats at the petting zoo.

It’s a nice pace, young kids and grandparents, hiking around parks, tooling around missions, and eating slow meals together. It’s also great to get hotels with a pool. It’s nice to give each family a little space in the evening. Whoever wants internet time gets it, and those of us who have been so nice in the car and sitting still at meals can enjoy the best full-body exercise on the planet: swimming.

Another bonus: babysitting. Parents might get a date night! Wahoo! Or you can split up the group by interest–maybe one parent and one grandparent are up for a late-evening tour at Hearst Castle or an early-morning walk on the beach.

CA Hwy 101 2009 and 2016 collage
This post got me down memory lane. Here we are coastal road tripping in California in 2016–and back in 2009. Ah–these sweet moments are fleeting!

I’m curious to hear about your extended family vacations. What worked well? What do you avoid? What are your key ingredients?

© 2016, Experience Connect Relish – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  1. gfranklin

    Fascinating! I’ve never been to any of these places but now want to see all of them. Thanks for a great tour! gfranklin

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