12 Things to do on a California Road Trip

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We’ve spent the past couple of weeks in California, Flea and I.

I had a birthday coming up, and depressed at the thought of my rapidly looming old age, I wanted to go and do something different this summer. To see somewhere new, to try some new things, and spend time with Flea.

So we planned a road trip – flying out to San Francisco, and 17 days later, flying home from Los Angeles.

From the outset, I didn’t want to go on one of those road trips where you’re in a different hotel or motel every night. For starters, there’s too much packing and unpacking involved, and I think when you’re travelling with kids, that just gets exhausting. So instead, we booked a hotel for 2 nights in San Francisco and then rented houses and apartments at four different places along our route.

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The plan was to kick off in San Francisco then drive North through wine country to end up in Mendocino, in Northern California. After a few days, we would head back down, past San Francisco to Santa Cruz, for a few nights, taking the famous Highway 1 past Big Sur and heading all the way down to Santa Monica, on the outskirts of LA.

We originally planned to spend a couple of days at the Grand Canyon, but looking more closely at the maps, I realised driving 900 miles to and from the Canyon wasn’t a good use of time on such a short trip. California is BIG. We managed to drive for 11 hours without ever leaving it. Rather than the Canyon, which we’re saving for next time, we opted to drive down from Santa Monica to San Diego, which was much more manageable.

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So what were our trip highlights? There are almost too many to mention, but here are a dozen of our very favourites:

San Francisco 

I’ve spent a lot of time in San Francisco over the years but for Flea it was her first time and she loved riding the cable cars, taking a boat trip out under the Golden Gate bridge and (randomly) having dinner at Benihana’s. For both of us, though, our highlight was driving our car over the Golden Gate Bridge, and pulling into the park that sits on the bridge’s far side to take in the views. We were driving but you can hire bikes at dozens of shops just on the city side of the bridge, and ride those over – just be aware San Francisco is pretty cold in California terms and the fog can be pretty gloomy, especially in the morning, so afternoon rides are best!

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Kayak tour, Russian River, Healdsberg 

About halfway between San Francisco and Mendocino, we stopped in Healdsberg to take a kayak tour along the Russian river. This easy, gentle 9 mile trip is suitable for even quite young kids, and takes you through woodland and vineyards with lots of little beaches where you can jump into the river, lounge about in the sun, and enjoy a picnic.  Although the group starts out quite large, within a few minutes everyone seems to spread out and for most of our day, we didn’t see another soul.

Which wasn’t entirely positive, considering how many times we managed to capsize or steer ourselves into yet another clump of trees. The trip we took with Russian River Adventures costs $50 per person, and you can also pre-order everything you need for a picnic and the company will have it waiting for you in a cool box. Genius.

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Big River State Park 

Mendocino is a quirky, affluent town in Northern California that’s on the doorstep of five state parks, making it an amazing place to explore the rugged coastline here, and see lots of redwoods. Our favourite spot was Big River state park, which takes you from the edge of the town along an eight mile trail taking in freshwater, coastal pathways, huge redwoods and lots and lots of wildlife.

During the late summer, wild berries grow here, and we loved picking berries then taking them down to the beach for a post-hike picnic – I’m not sure what we do really qualifies as hiking, but Flea considers that any walk which ends with a picnic is a hike.

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Highway One  

From Mendocino, we took the coastal road down through Big Sur towards Santa Cruz. Highway 1 is famous as one of the most beautiful highways in the world – and it truly is, with breathtaking views of the ocean, and dramatic cliffs that fall away from the roadside. If you drive from North to South, you get the most staggering views, and every mile or two, there are little roadside ‘turnouts’ where you can pull in to take a proper look at the view. The road also passes some amazing places to stop off – we loved exploring some of the little parks and restaurants around Big Sur, and stopped for lunch in Monterey.

However, what I did kinda wish someone had told me is that Highway 1 is completely and utterly terrifying to drive –  imagine being in sole charge of a child, driving an unfamiliar, automatic car, driving round hairpin bends, with the edge of a cliff about 4 feet from your tyres and some nutter in a convertible overtaking you doing 90mph. My nerves took days to recover. Allow plenty of time to cover the road and my heartfelt advice is to plan your drive for daylight, and avoid if it’s foggy.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk 

Santa Cruz Boardwalk is one of the West Coast’s oldest working boardwalks, with a rollercoaster that’s over 100 years old. There are more modern rides too, and lots of fairground type stalls with games and contests – Flea really loved one that involved trying to clamber through a pitch black room without setting off various lasers that criss-crossed the space, all while Mission Impossible music played in the background. The boardwalk also has a great vintage arcade, and Flea spent a very fun evening here learning to play Pac Man and Street Fighter, amongst others.

We loved all the completely random foods that you can buy on the boardwalk – if you’ve ever hankered for garlic fries, hot dogs on sticks, and a deep-fried Twinkie, you’ll find them here. If you’re visiting in the summer, every Friday night there are free live bands on the beach in front of the boardwalk. We also found that on a Wednesday and Thursday, you can swap a can of Pepsi for a voucher that lets you get unlimited rides for just $13, compared to the usual price of around $35.

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Monterey Bay Kayak Cruise

The bay outside Santa Cruz is a protected marine environment and a perfect place for wildlife. Sure, you can watch the famous sea lions from the wharf, but we opted instead for a sunset kayak cruise. We met up with the amazing Riley from Kayak Connection an hour or two before sunset, and then paddled our kayak out of the harbour to the ocean. Flea was a bit nervous to begin with at being so far from shore, but being able to see the sea otters, sea lions and pelicans up close, against the backdrop of a glorious sunset, meant she soon forgot her nerves and we both had an amazing time.

The tour takes around 2 and a half hours and costs just $45 per person – Kayak Connection provides boats, lifejackets and even jackets if the wind is cold (we definitely didn’t need those in August). This means you too could look as stylish as we did in our kayaking gear. Oh yes.

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Surfing in Santa Cruz 

If you’re going to learn to surf, then Santa Cruz is a pretty good place to start – Cowells Beach has some of the most consistent waves in California, and plenty of areas that are suitable for absolute beginners. You can rent boards from dozens of shops in town, but surfing is HARD, and getting lessons is by far the best way of ensuring you’re going to at least stay on your board for more than five seconds. Flea took a private surf lesson in Santa Cruz with Club Ed, which offers loads of kids classes, from individual sessions to small groups.

For under 10’s the company recommends one-to-one classes and I’d say, judging by how far from the beach the surfing happens here – knowing that Flea had someone looking after her all the time was definitely worth the investment. An hour’s lesson cost $90 and Flea was in the water after a quick five minute intro. Within an hour, she was managing to stand up on her board – not for long, but still pretty amazing!

Santa Monica Pier 

After Santa Cruz, we headed down the coast to Santa Monica, which is just outside LA. If you’re planning on visiting LA, or any of the theme parks in this part of California, then I’d advise not wasting time staying in downtown LA – you’ll have to drive everywhere regardless, and heading out of town a little to Santa Monica means you can be close to an amazing beach, and the pier.

We were really lucky to find an apartment here right on the beach, just a 2 minute walk from the Pier, which is an old fashioned wooden pier with restaurants and fishing platforms and a little amusement park that has a collection of kid-friendly rides that are perfectly suited for under 10s. For older kids, the waves on the beach here are strong and big enough for some serious boogie boarding – Flea loved it so much here that she didn’t want to leave!

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LA Farmers Market and the Grove

I love shopping overseas, and in the US I love to go to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market (where else can you buy socks that come with a label telling you they were made in a wind-powered factory?). But my favourite shopping destination in California was at third and Fairfax, when you’ll find the original LA Farmers Market. This place is absolutely packed with food stalls and quirky shops selling everything from books and postcards to toys and $9 artisan toffee apples. It made for some great people watching, and we loved the central part of the market, which is full of food stalls where you can feast on Brazilian barbecue, fresh seafood, gourmet hot dogs or just about anything else you can wish for. And you must wash it all down with an ice cream milkshake from the vintage ice cream stall – but share one, ‘cos they put 5 scoops of ice cream in every milkshake.

After the market, we wandered the 5 minutes to The Grove, a gorgeous shopping district where we spent far too much money in Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Borders, Banana Republic and more. After an hour or two Flea did actually ask me if she thinks we’re addicted to shopping. And we might just be. We rounded off the day with a trip to the cinema at The Grove, where you can cool down with a frozen sugar free lemonade Slurpee that’s the size of your head.

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Universal Studios, Hollywood

A lot of people visiting LA want to go to Disneyland, but since we’ve already visited Disneyland in Orlando and Paris, Flea decided this time around to visit Universal Studios, which was a good choice. What I loved about the Studios was that there are some fantastic rides – they’re mostly 3D simulations rather than roller coasters, but the Transformers, Jurassic Park and Revenge of the Mummy rides are particularly good fun. But there are also amazing shows to be seen, including a really fun show that explains how special effects work, a show where kids can meet Hollywood’s animal actors, and a Waterworld stunt show, that’s pretty spectacular.

To avoid the queues, we bought Front of the Line passes, which allow you to jump the line on all the rides, as well as getting access to the best seats at the shows without having to queue up. There are a limited number of tickets issued each day but you can book in advance, online – admission is around $75 and the front of line pass costs from $140. We found that with the passes, we were able to go on all of the rides and see most of the shows in a single day, and given the heat we were glad to avoid standing in line.

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Surfing at La Jolla 

While the waves at Santa Cruz are some of the best in California, there’s a lot to be said for learning to surf in San Diego – especially if you head to La Jolla Shores beach. During our visit to San Diego, we stayed in La Jolla, which is a really pretty little town, that has a long sandy beach that has small waves and shallow water – this makes it perfect for younger kids who want to surf, because they can go out into the water for a massive distance and still be able to stand up. It’s also warmer here than Santa Cruz, so you won’t need a wetsuit.

Flea took lessons here with Surf Diva, who have a big, friendly group of instructors who are incredibly good with kids, and enthusiastic about celebrating their achievements. After the lesson, which costs around $65 for an hour, you get 20% off everything in the Surf Diva shop, which is perfect if your child wants to pick up a new shortie wetsuit and surfing t-shirts. After your surf lesson, head across the street to The Cheese Shop, which makes amazing sandwiches to order and has a fabulous selection of retro 1980s American candy as an added bonus.

 

About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She's also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world's coolest ten year old.

14 Comments

  1. 28th August 2014 / 8:52 pm

    Amazing, what a trip. Highway 1 is mental thought isn’t it? I’ve driven it a few times and always scares me, I think part of it is the lanes are quite narrow and the trucks massive!
    Monterey is one of my favourite places in the world, never seen it by kayak though, that looks like fab.
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    • 1st September 2014 / 1:33 pm

      Oh my goodness, you’re not kidding – I was scared to death. Seeing Monterey Bay from the sea was one of my favourite things on the whole trip 🙂 Definitely recommended!

    • 1st September 2014 / 1:33 pm

      Exciting! I’ve always loved San Francisco, but this trip really was a surprise to me as there was so much of California I’ve never seen before.

  2. 29th August 2014 / 11:24 am

    Thanks for all these ideas, going there in September, can’t wait!

    • 1st September 2014 / 1:34 pm

      Oh, I hope you have an amazing time!

  3. 29th August 2014 / 11:56 am

    What an amazing holiday. Fabulous photos, too. I’ve never been to California but my husband works in San Francisco a lot so I might just hijack one of his trips. It looks and sounds like an amazing place. Bet it was hard to come home.

    • 1st September 2014 / 1:34 pm

      Oh, definitely. The Russian River is only an hour or so from San Fran and you can do sailing, kayaking, ziplining – it’s fantastic!

  4. 31st August 2014 / 8:44 pm

    Sounds (and looks) like you had a fantastic time! What amazing memories you and Flea are creating. 🙂
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    • 1st September 2014 / 1:35 pm

      Here’s hoping – I need something to get me through the winter!

  5. 1st September 2014 / 11:33 am

    Looks so gorgeous. I’d really love to do that sunset kayak cruise with my eldest. Sounds like a totally fab holiday x

    • 1st September 2014 / 1:35 pm

      It really was, and we do always try and do some new stuff with each trip – on this one the sea kayaking was definitely a highlight 🙂

  6. 19th September 2014 / 1:45 pm

    Loved this post, I spent 3 weeks in august in California, stayed a week in playa del rey. Then two weeks in marina del rey right beside venice beach! it was so much fun and the kids LOVED it.
    My kids also loved santa Monica pier like flea did, they went 3 times didn’t want to leave and also thought it was way better then disneyland as their rides were not as big and scary.
    A x

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