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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
Admittedly, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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