Epic California Road Trip – 5 Tips for Traveling by Car

Last spring break my family and I hit the open road on our first family road trip since adding two more to our brood! We drove from San Diego and headed to Pismo Beach first. Along the way we visited, Monterey, Lake Tahoe/Reno and Bishop. Nine years ago we took a similar road trip when our older kiddos were in kindergarten. Now that we have four kids, we were excited (and a bit nervous!) about taking the whole family on the road. You might be wondering what is a good itinerary for a west coast road trip? I’ve got the California road trip tips with ideas on where to stop along the way and what to do with the kids.

My family and I were hosted at several of these locations on our trip. Please note that I use affiliate links in my posts. Clicking through and making  a purchase helps me in a small financial way, thank you!

California Road Trip Tips

My husband and I are big time “planners” and like to have a solid route and itinerary. We knew a bit ahead of time what we’d be doing at each location, with free time built in for relaxation, play and adventure! With our little one only just turning one year old, we knew that extended time in the car wasn’t feasible. We planned to be in the car no longer than 3 hours at a time (aiming for her nap time!) We also worked in plenty of time to get out, stretch and play at each stop. Read more about the Art of the Road Trip Pit Stop from my friend Patty at My No-Guilt Life.

Check out these helpful tips for a California road trip.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Ventura, California

We’re started our road trip from San Diego and the first stop was in Ventura. Even as a SoCal native, there are so many coastal towns I’ve never been to, including Ventura! We parked the car at Plaza Park and walked up the street a few blocks to the busy Main Street. Here, we dined at Anacapa Brewing Company. It was a nice break after the initial drive. Afterwards we walked along Main St. to stretch our legs. There was a man with parrots, posing with them on the kid for photos in exchange for a few dollars. We let the kids play at the park before getting back into the car for the next leg of the drive.

Other Things to Do in Ventura –

  • Stop at Marina Park Beach for a picnic lunch and allow the kids to play on the pirate-themed playground.
  • There’s a Golf n’ Stuff here for a rousing round of mini golf!
  • Rent a bike (and more) from one of the six locations Wheel Fun Rentals has in Ventura.

Road Trip Tip #1 – No reason you have to eat all fast food or expensive restaurant meals on your entire road trip. Make a quick stop at the local grocery for healthy fruits, prepped veggies or freshly made sandwiches. Our favorites in California are Whole Foods Market and Sprouts.

Check out these helpful tips for a California road trip.

Dinosaur Caves in Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach, California

Our first overnight of the road trip was in Pismo Beach with a stay at the Hilton Garden Inn. After a cheap dinner at In n’ Out we took the kids for a walk along the Pier. We then window shopped on the streets near the Pier. Lots of cute beachy-souvenirs here that won’t break the bank.

Other Things to Do in Pismo Beach –

  • There is an amazing Monarch Butterfly grove here but it’s only open from October to February each year.
  • The Livery Stables offers horseback riding on private trails through the Oceano Dunes and Beach.
  • Pismo Beach Surf Shop has year round stand-up paddle boarding with board and wet suit rentals available.

Road Trip Tip #2 -Check the City Calendar

Before your visit, check the city calendar online to see if any special events are occurring. There might be a festival, art show or seasonal activity. We also stopped in Pismo Beach in spring break of 2010. Our kids participated in an awesome Easter egg hunt and festival at Dinosaur Caves Park that overlooks the ocean. This event was a highlight of our road trip several years ago (totally free and fun for the kids before we got back on the road).

Check out these helpful tips for a California road trip.

Where the mountains meet the ocean in Big Sur

Monterey, California

Next up for us was two days in Monterey. With a county that includes Big Sur (a waterfall that pours into the ocean!), Pebble Beach (golfing!), Carmel-by-the-Sea (shopping!) and Salinas (food, glorious food!), there are countless things to do in this beautiful coastal area. We stayed at the Monterey Tides Hotel, right on the oceanfront. It was absolutely a perfect location and easy to get to all of the activities within minutes. We took in the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium, an agricultural tour at Earthbound Farms, and a surrey ride from Adventures by the Sea. We also dined on local fresh seafood at Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar and Peter B’s Brewpub. You can read the entire 2-day itinerary for Monterey on this TravelingMom post.

Other Things to Do in Monterey –

  • Take a hike in Big Sur. This majestic area is a must-do for anyone vacationing in Monterey.
  • The Dennis the Menace park was a favorite of my kids on our previous road trip. Lots of fun play equipment, along with peddle boats for rent along the lake front.
Check out these helpful tips for a California road trip.

Dennis the Menace park in Monterey

Road Trip Tip #3 – Study Road Conditions

Check for road construction, updates and closures online before your trip. 7 years ago we drove Hwy 1, a two-lane route alongside the Pacific. Gorgeous, but slow-moving at times. And there is a section of this highway that is currently closed so thank goodness we’re aware of this and not planning on taking the same route this time! Check with CalTrans before your visit for a quick look at road closures.

Fairfield

About 3 hours outside of Monterey we stopped in Fairfield, home to two cool factory tours. Grown-ups will enjoy the Anheuser-Busch factory tour (with beer sampling). Kids (and adults!) will love the Jelly Belly Factory Tour. The Jelly Belly tour was really a lot of fun! They were making lots of neon colored Jelly Belly on our visit and wow, the scent was really strong! Check out our video outlining the tour:

Road Trip Tip #3 – Research Between the Big Stops

When plotting your course, check out those little towns along your route and see what they have to offer. We never would have considered a stop in Fairfield if we hadn’t seen that the Jelly Belly Factory offers tours here. Fairfield  was the perfect place to have lunch, take a family-friendly tour and make memories!

Lake Tahoe & Reno

After two days along the Pacific, we headed inland for “snow-much” more adventure! We stopped in Lake Tahoe and Reno Nevada area, where we visited family and exploring the area. We stayed with my husband’s family, except for one overnight at the Atlantis Casino in the city. I was in heaven, getting pampered in the Atlantis Casino spa for my very first massage!

Check out these helpful tips for a California road trip.

Enjoying the snow in Reno, Nevada

Road Trip Tip #4 Allow Plenty of Travel Time –

The last time we drove this route (from Monterey to Reno) we got held up in a snow storm. Being SoCal natives, neither of us had ever driven in a snow storm before so it was a very tense few hours. After putting on chains, it was a late night white-knuckle drive through the pass that had us arriving to our destination several hours later than expected. This time we allowed ourselves plenty of drive time and left much earlier in the day.

Bishop

Our final day of travel included an overnight in Bishop, CA, one place we’ve never been before. We arrived late at Law’s Historic Village, and wished we’d had more time. It was a snapshot of the old West, including trains, incredibly detailed historical rooms and a gold mine reproduction. We took a warm dip at Keough’s Hot Springs. Bishop is where many “cowboy” movies were filmed, so as we left town we stopped in for a tour of the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine.

Other Things to Do in Bishop –

  • Even though it looks like a hole-in-the-wall, stop in at the Burger Barn for delicious grass-fed beef burgers and handcrafted shakes.
  • Older kids who like history, may enjoy a visit to Manzanar (a Japanese-American internment camp).
  • Take a short hike in the Alabama Hills to view some of the movie sites.
  • For a more in-depth review on some of these activities, see 6 Unique Family Experiences in California’s Eastern Sierra on TravelingMom.com.

Road Trip Tip #5 A Mix of Fun and Learning –

Along your travels see where you can combine history and teaching as well as fun. From Law’s Historical Village to the Manzanar site (place where Japanese Americans were interned during WWII) there was lots to learn in Bishop. If you have very young children, be sure to leave space in your itinerary for free play and fun.

What are your road trip tips? Share with me in the comments!

Check out these helpful tips for a California road trip.