Melissa's Travels

The Ultimate California Road Trip: San Francisco to Big Sur and Beyond

One of the great classic American family trips is exploring the central California coast. But as with all travel, especially with children, knowing the right way to do it can make all the difference. One of my favorite driving trips is to Carmel, where you can explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium, drive along the coast in Big Sur and visit the Hearst Castle at San Simeon. For the combination of great natural beauty and fun educational activities, Carmel and the region is tough to top for a wonderful long weekend or longer. Here are a few tips on how to do a California road trip right.

Contact Indagare for help planning a California road trip. Our travel specialists can match you with the best itinerary, plan great meals and activities and arrange special experiences.

Note: Several activities mentioned in this article, including Hearst Castle and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, are temporarily closed due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. 

1. Head south. If you are going to incorporate the stretch between San Francisco and L.A. on your trip start from San Francisco and work your way south, instead of the reverse, to ensure the best views. A few weeks before I went the first time, a friend reported that she had driven from Santa Barbara up to Carmel along Highway 1 and (with her two kids in the car) and it took them seven hours, not the four that the GPS had indicated. However, if you drive Highway 1 from Carmel to Cambria (the prettiest stretch) and then cut over to the 101 to Santa Barbara, you will make much better time.

2. Choose your hotels carefully.The Lodge at Pebble Beach

recently finished a room renovation and while its renowned golf course is the main draw, it is also a wonderful option for families because it has a plethora of amenities (a beach club, golf and tennis academies, equestrian center and spa). The hotel also has a smaller boutique property, Casa Palmero, which has just 24 rooms that are more luxurious than those at the Pebble Beach complex. Gourmands should stay at Bernardus, a hotel well-known for the vegetable-driven fare at its restaurant, Lucia. Couples (or those looking to admire the coastal views) should stay at one of Carmel's two adults-only hotels: Post Ranch Inn or Ventana Big Sur. Ventana has a great restaurant, the Sur House, and new glamping tents that allow children. And make sure you book dinner at Post Ranch Inn weeks in advance.

3. Plan ahead.

Sign up in advance for tours at Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hearst Castle. Both institutions are extremely popular tourist sites, for good reason. You cannot avoid crowds, but you can be sure to get tickets for the specific experience that you want, if you book ahead. Before we went, we signed up for one of the aquarium adventures. Ranging from behind-the-scenes feeding tours to sleepovers, the special access tours have to be booked online in advance. My son decided to do the Underwater Explorer dive in the tidal pool, during which kids eight and older do a surface scuba-dive (in full gear) with an aquarium staff member. Hearst Castle, meanwhile, is one of the most fascinating private residences ever built in America, so to arrive and not have a spot on one of the tours would be a huge loss. Meat lovers should be sure to pick up steaks from Hearst Ranch.

Note: Both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hearst Castle are temporarily closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. You can still see the legendary publisher's famed mansion from the road, but tours are not currently operating. 

Courtesy Hearst Castle

One of two pools at Hearst Castle. Courtesy Hearst Castle
4. Overestimate and take your time.

Leave plenty of time for the Big Sur drive. One of America’s most iconic stretches of road is Highway 1, which runs from just south of Carmel to an area north of San Simeon, stretching along the region known as Big Sur. Even if you have never driven it, you have probably seen it featured in the movies or car commercials, but advance viewing doesn’t diminish the power of its beauty. Breathtaking is the only word to describe the landscape of rugged cliffs dropping into the Pacific. There are plenty of look-out points along the drive, but the road is a narrow, winding two-lane one, so traffic moves slowly, and if your GPS says it will take you two-and-a-half, know that it could take you significantly longer. You will also want to take advantage of stops along the way. There are ten state parks within Big Sur and lots of great hikes. You can follow trails on your own down to the beach, or work with our team to be paired with a hiking guide to take you into redwood forests that lead to waterfalls or special coves.

Related: Slideshow: Road Trip Along the California Coast

5. Pick your pit-stops.Big Sur Bakery

 is the perfect place to stop for breakfast, coffee, lunch or dinner en route to activities in Julia Pfeiffer State Park or a walk on Pfeiffer Beach, if you plan to detour here. Located in a ranch-style house tucked along the road next door to the Big Sur post office, it is just right for a casual meal. Don't miss the yummy breads and pastries that are baked on the premises daily. Some of the best offerings also include wood-fired pizza, soups and seasonal salads, as well as vegetable dishes and desserts such as rhubarb pie. The park is 37 miles south of Carmel; be sure to walk the half-mile trail  to see the view of the McWay Falls, which have an 80-foot drop to the sea below, then drive down to the beach itself and take a walk amid the lovely purple sand and the rocky formations of Keyhole Arch (go early to ensure parking). It could be windier and cooler than you might expect, so plan accordingly. Further down the road, on a sunny day, a nice place for lunch along the way (for the setting, not the food, which is basic diner fare) is Lucia Lodge.

6. Brake for wildlife.

At many times of the year, the beach just up from Hearst Castle and Point Lobos will be packed with sunbathing elephant seals. They can be aggressive, so you won’t want to venture on to the sand with them, but there are viewing platforms, and they provide quite a show. One of America's great conservation success stories can also be witnessed in Big Sur. As recently as only the late 1980s, there were fewer than 30 condors left in the wild, but the California Condor Recovery Plan has managed to increase their population to 300, and many of the massive predatory birds can be seen circling overhead at Mile Marker 41 as well as Andrew Molera, Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns state parks.

7. Know when to leave the coast.

If you are heading south from Hearst Castle to Santa Barbara or Los Angeles, you may want to cut over to the 101 just south of Cambria, since the most scenic part of Coastal Highway 1 is to the north.

Contact Indagare for help planning a California road trip. Our travel specialists can match you with the best itinerary, plan great meals and activities and arrange special experiences.

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