The Pacific Coast Highway is one of America’s most scenic drives and one that everyone should do in their lifetime. The PCH, as its affectionately known, will take you along some of the most jaw-dropping sites of the California coast. From the beautiful beaches of Malibu through the redwoods of Big Sur and onto the foggy sites of San Francisco, this is one road trip that is fun for the whole family and not to be missed!
Having recently moved to LA, my husband and I decided to invite our friends out for a visit and take a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. We wanted to show them what gorgeous sites our new home had to offer and couldn’t think of a better way to do it!
We had traveled frequently across Europe together before we had children and were excited to explore a new part of the world together. Since we now had babies in tow, we knew we’d have to adjust our normal travel style and make more frequent stops, stay in kid-friendly accommodations, and travel with a lot more gear than we did before.
After asking around and doing some research I compiled a loose itinerary that was tot-friendly. We only had time to travel part of the PCH, so our itinerary started in LA and ended in San Francisco. While we would have loved to continue on, this actually ended up being the perfect amount of time for us and our little ones.
We had four adults, two babies and ALL. OF. THE. LUGGAGE. We tried to be pretty strict with what we packed, but we barely fit into our trusty rental Dodge Caravan.
Day 1: Malibu and Santa Barbara
We took off from LA and hopped on the PCH just outside of Malibu to avoid the traffic. If you do go through Malibu, two great places to stop are Paradise Cove, a laid back family-friendly restaurant on the beach, and the Malibu Farm Café. The Malibu Café is this amazing restaurant on a large piece of land, (think Soho House meets summer camp) and is definitely worth stopping for a meal or coffee and to let the kids run around.
Our first stop was Santa Barbara, a cute Mediterranean-style city, that is located on the central California coast. It is a great town to wander around, do a bit of shopping, and visit the beach. We ate at a casual spot directly on the beach while the little ones ran around and watched the boats go by.
We enjoyed the scenic drive as we made our way north to Pismo Beach, our first overnight stop. We got our hotel recommendation from another member of Bébé Voyage, which was the Pismo Lighthouse Suites. It is a great hotel for families that overlooks the sea. The rooms are mostly all suites and include a mini kitchen (perfect for cleaning bottles!) and there are a lot of fun activities for the little ones. Dinner was at Ventana Grill, a great retro-looking restaurant that was on the cliff overlooking the ocean. They made fresh tortillas right in the middle of the restaurant that were a huge hit with our group.
Day 2: Elephant Seals and Redwood Trees
After breakfast, we restocked up on snacks for the kids and headed off again. First up was San Simeon to see the Elephant Seals. The enormous creatures sunbathed on the beach while volunteers gave free informational talks to the tourists. While the kids enjoyed watching them roll around and listening to their strange sounds, I think this stop was actually more enjoyable for the adults! We then headed to Morro Bay for a quick BBQ lunch and to warm up after spending quite a bit of time outside in the Pacific’s cool ocean breeze.
We continued to make our way north to Big Sur where we were staying the night at the Big Sur Lodge. Big Sur is a rugged stretch of California’s central coast between Carmel and San Simeon. The drive through Big Sur takes you on winding roads through a beautiful and mysterious cloud-like mist. With the redwoods on one side and the Pacific on the other, it is quite a spectacular drive with many photo ops along the way. It is definitely worth a stop to grab a drink at the Nepenthe restaurant which has spectacular views of the cliffs. If you really want to splurge for a meal then make sure to stop at the luxurious Post Ranch Inn and enjoy jaw-dropping views while watching the sunset.
The Big Sur Lodge is a moderately priced accommodation that offers small cottage style suites to stay in. The lodge is not right on the coast, but rather further inland amongst the redwood trees. The cabins are a bit dated, but definitely worth it for the location! There are plenty of hiking and walking trails from the lodge that range from easy to difficult. We enjoyed a swim in the pool and a great dinner at their restaurant, which is built on a deck high above a stream and at the base of the enormous redwoods.
Day 3: Carmel and The Monterey Bay Aquarium
A must when passing through Big Sur is a stop at the Big Sur Bakery. I have two words for you: bacon croissant. This bakery turned restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner but make sure to be quick in the morning as the bakery items sell out by 10am! Get there early and join the line up of campers, hikers and road trippers. The bakery has all homemade items ranging from the decadent bacon croissant to warm donuts to just out of the oven scones.
After a filling breakfast, we made our way back onto the beautifully winding PCH. We decided to stop in Carmel for a coffee and to stretch our legs. Carmel is a cute town with beautiful architecture and is worth a stop for sure.
We then headed to Monterey to check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium was a fun day and my 15 month old son loved it. They have a kids section where they could color and run around and play. He loved seeing all the fish in the deep sea exhibit. We then headed to San Francisco and arrived there in the evening, but not before a few stops at the fresh fruit stands along the way!
Day 4: San Francisco
In San Francisco we rented an AirBnb so that we would have more space and a kitchen. This made the weekend much easier with two babies. We stayed in the Haight-Ashbury district right across from a great park called the Buena Vista Park. Highlights of the weekend included riding a famous cable car through the hilly streets of San Francisco, brunching at the kid friendly Presidio Social Club, and exploring Lombard street neighborhood. The entire day was enjoyable and memorable for both the adults and kids!
Day 5: Time to head home!
We spent our final morning and afternoon in the Castro and Mission district and then made our way to drop off the rental car to fly home. A successful Pacific Coast Highway road trip with babies was now in the books!
Top tips for road tripping on the PCH:
- Try avoid major rush hour times when near LA or San Francisco.
- Take A LOT of snacks with you for the little ones.
- Take advantage of stopping at parks and beaches to let the little ones burn off energy.
- There is limited cell phone coverage in Big Sur so make sure you have back up maps or GPS.
- Make sure to go slow and stop along the way for photo ops and just to take in the scenery.
- Sometimes there are long stretches without gas stations, so fill up when you get the chance.
- Most of all, ENJOY!!!
Interested in more amazing family road trips? Check out our article on the German Fairy Tale Road that will leave the kids (and adults!) in awe and wonder.