From what to bring to where to eat and activities to keep kids busy; everything you need to know about driving from SF to LA (and back) is here
There are so many reasons to head south to L.A.—Disneyland, beaches or just a change of scenery and we’ve got all the tips to make your drive south as painless as possible. Whether you choose the scenic 101 or head inland on the 5 for the express (but boring) route, we’ve got all the details on pit stops, dining destinations, and tips to make the trip go by in a snap.
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Preparing For Your Trip:
Make your family road trip more of a "vacation" and less of a "trip" with a little planning!
- Download a bunch of podcasts like Story Pirates and Wow in the World. Boost the learning and keep the brains interested! More recs here and here.
- Pack a personal cooler for each kid. You can nab these retro coolers at garage sales for super cheap and kids will love being able to eat what they want when they want.
- Contain the trash. Make it so each person has easy access to a trash bag so that the floor doesn't become contaminated with loose wrappers.
- Contain the toys. A car seat lap tray can keep tiny toys like LEGO bricks in one spot for the duration of the journey. We love bringing tiny gear in ZizzyBee Bags. They are perfect for LEGO bricks, Matchbox cars, Brainflakes, and more.
- Keep them occupied with drawing paper fastened to an old clipboard, old-fashioned travel games like I Spy, movies on a portable DVD player, or educational and fun iPad or smartphone apps. Wiki Sticks are also fun to bring along (and bonus, they won't make a huge mess in the car like Play-Doh).
- Let them play DJ. Hook up your phone's playlist to the car stereo and let your little one choose the songs.
You can find more road trip hacks here.
Pick Your Route: Any way you slice it, it’s a long drive. The drive on I-5 is both incredibly boring and long, so one suggestion is to take 101 on the way down and I-5 on the way home (or vice versa). That way, you can plan to be on the flattest, straightest, stinkiest part of the drive (Harris Cattle Ranch).
If You're Taking 101:
When to Leave: One tried and true method for making the trip down 101 is to get on the road early—like 5 a.m. at the latest. That way, if you’re leaving on a weekday, you get out ahead of rush hour traffic. Toss the kids in the car in their jammies and hit the road. The non-driver can catch a few Zs on the way down, or, fuel up on coffee and take advantage of the rare opportunity to have an adult conversation and enjoy the early morning scenery. After a couple of hours, the sun starts to come up, and the kids may or may not start to stir. If you're lucky, you might be able to make it almost all the way to Pismo Beach before that starts to happen.
Suggested Bathroom Break Stops: Stop at Soledad, King City, or Atascadero (including a McDonald’s with a PlayPlace).
Where to Eat: If you can make it all the way there, Pismo Beach is an ideal stop. Pull up in front of Old West Cinnamon Rolls for more coffee and a sweet breakfast. The rolls with walnuts or pecans are satisfyingly crunchy and the cream cheese frosting packs a sweet wallop. Just make sure to grab a bunch of napkins if you plan on eating them in the car!
The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is another family-friendly dining spot, especially for the pink lovers in your crew!
Farther down the road in the Santa Ynez Valley, swing by the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company Taproom in Buelton to relax on the patio and enjoy some good eats. There are cornhole and giant Jenga games for the kids to play and it's totally family-friendly. (Bonus: it's just down the street from the ostrich farm mentioned below!).
Activities & Attractions Along the Way: There are plenty of stops along 101 and since you're along the coast, the beach cities are a good excuse to get the kids out of the car and run around in the sand to tire them out. Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach is a picturesque spot to picnic and let the kids climb for a bit.
In addition to having an adorable Danish-inspired downtown, Solvang is home to Ostrichland USA. This spot is right off the 101 and the kids will get a kick out of feeding these massive birds.
The Central Coast Veterans Museum is a fun stop in San Luis Obispo for military buffs. In addition to its massive collection of military memorabilia, the museum is marked by a real tank out front! Best of all, admission is free (and they have bathrooms).
Explore the "Three Magical Miles" of Mulholland Highway, where you can hike at the beautiful Peter Strauss Ranch, fish at the Trout Dale, shop for antiques at Charme D'Antan, eat at the local spot the Old Place, and even go wine tasting, all within walking distance of each other.
If you need more stops along your trip, there are plenty of options in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and beyond.
There’s a sweet outlet mall in Camarillo (Las Posas exit) to stock up on essentials that you might have accidentally left at home.
If You're Taking I-5:
There’s not much to do or see other than trucks and cows when you drive the I-5. About those cows, you may want to roll up the windows when you see signs for Harris Ranch, the smell can get pretty strong when you cruise by the cattle lot.
When to Leave: If you are driving on a weekend, the best time to take I-5 is before 11 a.m. On weekends the traffic gets progressively worse throughout the day. During the weekdays, the best time is actually the middle of the day (11 a.m.-4 p.m.).
Suggested Bathroom Break Stops: For the fam that packs a cooler full of snacks and just needs a place to potty, there are about a half dozen rest areas on I-5 between the Bay Area and L.A., including a decent one by the Grapevine (Tejon Pass) with vending machines, etc.
Where to Eat: There are serviceable restaurant clusters in Los Banos, Kettleman City, and Fort Tejon. If you feel like stopping for a special fast-food excursion, don't miss the burgers and shakes at In-n-Out Burger in Santa Nella or Kettleman Station. If the weather’s too rainy for kids to run around outside, you could hit up the McDonald’s with a PlayPlace in Santa Nella.
The Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant is about halfway between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. If you’re in the mood for a steak, this is a great place to stop and eat while the kids run around the fountains.
Activities & Attractions Along the Way: Fort Tejon was built in 1854 and abandoned 10 years later. They feature interesting Frontier Army Days demonstrations on the first Saturday of the month, a fun diversion during a leg-stretch stop. Bravo Farms in Kettleman City is a fun Old West town with a restaurant and ice cream shop.