Epic California Road Trip – 5 Tips for Traveling by Car

My family and I will soon be heading for the open road on our first family road trip since adding two more to our brood! We’ll be hitting the road from San Diego and heading to Pismo Beach, Monterey, Reno and Bishop. Eight years ago we took a similar road trip when our older kiddos were in kindergarten. Now that we have four kids, we’re excited (and a bit nervous!) about taking the whole family on the road. Check out where we’ll be visiting so you can follow us on our road trip adventures!

My family and I will be hosted at several of these locations on our trip #hosted

Check out these helpful tips for a California road trip.

California Road Trip

My husband and I are big time “planners” and like to have a solid route and itinerary. We already know a bit of what we’ll 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 know that extended time in the car won’t be feasible. We’ll be in the car no longer than 3 hours at a time. We’ll be working in plenty of time to get out, stretch and play at each stop.

Check out these helpful tips for a California road trip.

Monterey Bay Aquarium


We’re starting our road trip from San Diego and the first stop will be in Ventura. Even as a SoCal native, there are so many coastal towns I’ve never been to, including Ventura! We’re planning a stop at Marina Park Beach for a picnic lunch and to allow the kids to play on the pirate-themed playground.

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

Our first overnight of the road trip will be in Pismo Beach with a stay at the Hilton Garden Inn. We 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. Hoping to make another stop at this beautiful park again this trip! There is an amazing Monarch Butterfly grove here but it’s only open from October to February each year, so we’re missing it this time.

Road Trip Tip #2 -Check the City Calendar

Each of the cities I mention here have a clickable link that leads to their website. You’ll be able to see what activities are happening in each community. Before your visit, check the city calendar to see if any special events are occurring. There might be a festival, art show or seasonal activity. For instance, the Pismo Beach annual Easter egg hunt was a highlight of our last road trip (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


Next up for us will be 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’re staying at the Monterey Tides Hotel, right on the oceanfront.

We’ll be taking in the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium, an agricultural tour at Earthbound Farms, and a surrey ride from Adventures by the Sea. We’ll be dining on local fresh seafood at Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar and Peter B’s Brewpub. We have a pretty packed schedule so I’m not sure but we might try to squeeze in a Big Sur visit for some hiking. Also hoping that the Dennis the Menace park will be reopened by the time of our visit, it was a favorite of my kids last trip.

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.


About 3 hours outside of Monterey we’ll be stopping 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. We’ll be making time for the Jelly Belly tour for sure!

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 will be the perfect place to have lunch, take a family-friendly tour and make memories!

Lake Tahoe & Reno

After two days along the Pacific, we’ll be heading inland for “snow-much” more adventure! We’re heading to the Lake Tahoe and Reno area, where we’ll be visiting family and exploring the area. We’ll be staying with my husband’s family, except for one overnight at the Atlantis Casino in the city.

I’ll be pampered in the Atlantis Casino spa for my very first massage! While I’m lounging in the spa my family will be taking advantage of the indoor pool. Other than hopefully playing in the snow, visiting family and checking out the local culture, we don’t have much planned yet. And that’s okay by us, we’ll play it by ear.

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 year we’re allowing ourselves plenty of drive time and leaving much earlier in the day.


Our final day of travel will include an overnight in Bishop, CA, one place we’ve never been before. We’ll be letting the kids play at Law’s Historic Village, taking a warm dip at Keough’s Hot Springs and visiting the historic Manzanar site. Bishop is where many “cowboy” movies were filmed, so as we leave town, we’ll stop in for a tour of the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine and take a short hike in the Alabama Hills to view some of the movie sites.

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

Along your travels see where you can combine history, teaching as well as fun. While we’ll be visiting the Manzanar site (place where Japanese Americans were interned during WWII) we’re also leaving space in our itinerary for free play and fun.

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