Pack up the Kids for the Ultimate Southern California Road trip

Pixar Light Show Disneyland, Pack up the Kids for the Ultimate Southern California Road Trip, Marin Magazine

Ask most people to conjure up an idyllic Southern California road trip, and images of beautiful coastal Highway 1 through Big Sur likely come to mind, perhaps with an indulgent weekend at the adults-only Post Ranch Inn or Ventana Big Sur. But continuing south on that spectacular road to Hearst Castle in San Simeon currently isn’t an option: Highway 1 remains closed south of Gorda and north of Ragged Point through at least mid-September*, while Caltrans works to clear last year’s massive slide. So why not pack up the kids and head for SoCal’s theme parks instead? While you could get to those parks by blasting down I-5 to greater Los Angeles, it’s a lot more fun to take the attraction-filled route we describe here. You’ll find both child-friendly pit stops and scenic photo ops, especially if you include an overnight in Monterey or Carmel along the way.

Caltrans announced after the magazine went to press that it will now reopen the last slide area on Hwy 1 at the end of July.

Where to stop

Gilroy Skip the shopping outlets and stop at Garlic World for dried and fresh fruit (as well as the stinky stuff), plus the world’s longest garlic braid and a big garlic bulb cutout for silly photos.

Castroville Just off 101, the Giant Artichoke Restaurant boasts a 20-foot artichoke outside its entrance; inside, find treats such as artichoke cupcakes and fried artichoke hearts. 831.633.3501

Monterey You’ll need at least a half-day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to feed sea otters and penguins in between marveling at creatures great (Great Pacific octopus) and small (striped pyjama squid). Afterward, walk to dinner in Pacific Grove or Cannery Row.


Carmel It’s not a California family road trip without at least one mission. Carmel’s boasts beautiful gardens, the state’s first stone church, Father Junipero Serra’s living quarters and his grave, along with those of many unnamed Native Americans.

Arroyo Grande Unwind from all that driving on the 171-foot-long swinging bridge, the last of its kind in the state and only a block from the turn-of-the-century village.

Solvang Take a slight detour to this Danish-themed town of half-timbered buildings with windmills for aebleskiver (puff pancakes) and other pastries.

Santa Barbara Goggle at the western lowland gorillas, koalas and other critters at the Santa Barbara Zoo, or just enjoy sandy playtime on the ample beach.

Anaheim You’ll need a night’s rest for a day of animation at Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park. Pixar flicks provide inspiration for this summer’s new multimedia fireworks show and parade at the original theme park and for the adventure park’s “Paint the Night” parade, illuminated by more than 1 million LED lights. The family daredevils will want to roll with the roller coasters at Knott’s Berry Farm in nearby Buena Park, including the HangTime, billed as the first “dive coaster,” with a vertical drop and five inversions. Dripping but less daunting fun awaits at adjacent Knott’s Soak,


Where to Stay


Monterey Veterans Memorial Park The 50-acre, pet-friendly park in the Monterey hills has 40 no-reservation campsites, with showers and toilets. From $30.

Malibu Creek State Park An 8,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains preserve in Calabasas with 63 campsites, showers and toilets. From $45.


Hofsas House Hotel In Carmel-by-the-Sea, 38 large, homey rooms with heated pool, free continental breakfast and parking. From $155. 

Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel The Buena Park property has 320 cheery, recently remodeled rooms (some with Snoopy theme), with free shuttle to the park. From $109.


Carmel Valley Ranch A 500-acre all-ages playground on Carmel’s sunny side with pools, kids’ activities and 139 roomy rustic-elegant suites. From $450. 

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa Newly refurbished with Disney imagery and high-tech amenities, the 948-room resort offers direct entrance to the Anaheim park and themed pools. From $417.


Jeane Cooper

Travel and features writer Jeanne Cooper fell in love with Marin and the Bay Area as a graduate student at Stanford University. After 20 years as an editor and writer for the Washington Post, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, she began a freelance career that has taken her from the Austral Islands to Zimbabwe, with many visits to Hawaii in between. Her stories have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines, including Hemispheres, Sunset, San Francisco and Nob Hill Gazette, as well as Marin and Local Getaways. The author of several Frommer’s guidebooks, she now lives on the Big Island, where she’s active in animal rescue. She still enjoys exploring Northern California with her husband and friends.