The California coast might just hold some of the most beautiful destinations in the world. Use this itinerary for a perfect California coast road trip and enjoy every moment.
I love a road trip. Love. I think it’s because I grew up in California, and there are so many great places to get to by car in this state.
When Ryan asked what I wanted to do for my birthday my immediate answer was ROAD TRIP!
So we planned it out so that the kids could see a few towns on the California coast that we’ve never been to before as a family, and I encapsulated our best tips for the California coast road trip itinerary right here.
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The best Car for a Road Trip
On a road trip, I find the vehicle to be of utmost importance!
Our must-haves? A few things.
- A spacious interior, large enough for our family of four to comfortably spread out and hold our luggage
- Navigation on a digital display
- Cupholders and a place to hold snacks for everyone
- For the kids, an easy place to mount their tablets to watch a movie (we use something similar to this mount)
- A way to block out the sun from the side windows (if your car doesn’t have built-in shades, I recommend these)
How to Plan a Family Road Trip
I prefer to plan a long road trip like this California coast road trip so that you have a fun place to get out and stretch or explore every couple of hours.
Our trip itinerary starts at the central coast, but you could just as easily start from elsewhere in the state, or even do our route in reverse. So if you’re traveling with little ones, here are our favorite California coast road trip stops and a few tips & tricks.
Carmel, Monterey, and the Central Coast
I used to go to Carmel when I was little with my family all the time, and I grew to love this gorgeous, quaint little place. Head straight down Ocean Avenue first thing and blow off some steam at one of the most beautiful beaches in the state.
The sand is soft and if you wait until the tide rolls out there are some awesome tide pools. It’s also a leash-free beach, so be ready to frolic with some dogs.
After the beach, take a walk a few blocks to Thinker Toys and let the kids test out some fun toys. Grab lunch after that at Little Swiss Cafe, which is adorable and perfect for kids. There are murals on the walls with all kinds of kids characters hidden in them, so it’s the perfect distraction while you’re waiting for your food.
Before you get back on the road, grab a little something from Cottage of Sweets.
Hop back in the car and hope your kids nap on the way to your next destination or take 17 Mile Drive to explore Monterey as well.
Pismo is a perfect stop on the way down the coast to relax. The Pismo Lighthouse Suites is awesome for kids — the rooms are huge and each is a suite so you don’t have to all cram into one bedroom.
There’s also a free breakfast (clutch for families whose kids are hungry as soon as they wake up) and lots of fun amenities, like a life-sized chess board, ping-pong tables, and a pool that looks over the ocean.
Obviously whenever there’s a beach around, that’s where our kids want to be. There’s a stretch of Pismo that has some swings and a little playground, so snag a spot there and bring a bucket and a shovel. Hours of entertainment.
For dinner, try Rosa’s Italian. It’s nice enough that the grownups will feel like they’re having a good dining experience, but super kid-friendly as well.
If you’re there during the right season, stop by the Monarch Groves as well! The butterflies flock to a eucalyptus grove in the winter and they hang on the branches by the thousands.
There is a scenic route from Pismo to Santa Barbara so that the kids could run around Lake Cachuma for a bit. There’s a scenic overlook where you can pull off and explore (there are bathrooms there, too).
After you blow off some steam, continue on to Santa Barbara. You can go ASAP to Shipwreck Park, one of the coolest playgrounds I’ve ever been to with the kids.
The structures are all built in the shape of sunken ships and other ocean imagery, and it’s just too fun. There are nice clean bathrooms nearby and good benches for parents. You could really spend some time here.
Once you work up an appetite, grab lunch at Shalhoob Meat Company. The seating is all outside in the sunshine, and the food is killer. There’s a great kids’ menu as well.
For a more in-depth Santa Barbara list of ideas, check out our full SB post here.
It’s a bit inland, but Los Angeles is always worth a trip in my book! To stay closer to the coast, explore Malibu or Santa Monica. I highly recommend Matador Beach for a beautiful, secluded place to play in the sand, sunbathe, or climb through beautiful rock caves.
And if you want to explore inland, we have lots of Los Angeles ideas here.
Hop back in the car and cruise south to Balboa Island. It’s such a special place with an incredible amount of charm!
Take the ferry across to the little arcade and pier, or wander through the streets and shops. Be sure to try a frozen banana.
We also loved kayaking and stand up paddleboarding through the marina. Here’s a post full of ideas for Balboa Island!
San Diego, La Jolla, and Coronado
Keep heading down to some of the most beautiful places in the state! San Diego, La Jolla, and Coronado are a triad of incredible beach towns.
You’ll find amazing shopping, incredible Mexican food, and some of the best beach vibes ever.
Check out our specific posts for lots of details, but my top recommendations are hunting for the hidden swings in La Jolla, spending time at the Hotel Del Coronado, and hitting a few great San Diego restaurants.
Happy travels! xoxo