California Trip, Featured, Travel

The Pacific Coast Highway – the ultimate roadtrip with a toddler in tow

So, the reason for our recent horrific jet lag and an extremely mixed up toddler who is playing by her own rules at 2am, is our return from an incredible trip to California and the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).

Here is a small insight into our itinerary for the PCH and how we broke down the journey with the best things to do if you are bringing children along on the trip. Travelling with a two year old on a journey of this type was a completely different experience to the travelling I have done in the past but also completely doable, especially when your little one adores the outdoors and the beach (and is partial to the odd bribes of chocolate, lollipops and pizza).

Before our trip, I extensively researched where to go and what to do on blogs similar to this and guidebooks (I call it being prepared, John calls it OCD) but now having done the trip I can recommend exactly what works and what doesn’t when the terrible twos are in full force.

The start of our road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Days 1-4 – San Francisco

Our trip began in San Francisco for 4 nights but I have written a separate post for the city which you can find here and another one for Los Angeles, where we spent our final week, here.

We made use of the incredibly easy and efficient public transport while in San Fran, and didn’t pick up our hire car until the morning of the 5th day. Definitely make your way back to SFO airport either on the BART or a hotel shuttle service to pick up your car so you’re not thrown into the middle of city traffic on the opposite side of the road for the first time, scrambling around for the gear stick which isn’t there. And the airport car hire offices are in a prime location to get you straight on to the highway to begin your journey.

The PCH road trip part of our holiday took 3 nights/4 days with accommodation in a different town each evening. We found this was the perfect amount of time with a toddler as the stretches of time in the car weren’t too long (the longest we drove without a stop was 2 and a half hours from the closure on Highway 1, detouring back past Carmel to the 101 and south to Pismo Beach -more on this below).

Day 5 – Natural Bridges/Santa Cruz/Monterey

After picking up the hire car (spending $110 extra on upgrading to the last available vehicle in the next car class up which then got swiped from under our noses by somebody else so we got a free upgrade to the one ABOVE that –  smooooth), we set off to our first destination of Natural Bridges State Beach. Although very scenic and a great first stop for Ivy to get her first taste of the Californian coast beaches, looking back i would have happily skipped this as we saw plenty of prettier beaches and rock formations further on.

Image of Natural Bridges State Beach

San Francisco to Natural Bridges Beach takes about 1 hour 40 minutes (which Ivy happily napped through) and then onwards to Santa Cruz Boardwalk is only another 10 minutes.

Image of Santa Cruz Boardwalk along the Pacific Coast Highway

The Santa Cruz boardwalk is the ideal spot to stop with children (let me stress, this is not the place to stop for a peaceful couple of hours -there is plenty of those elsewhere along the way) filled with colourful rides, loud music and calorie laiden food. We wandered up and down picking out some treats for lunch and let Ivy run wild on the beach to burn some energy for a bit before getting back in the car (tracking in half the beach with her).

Image of Santa Cruz Beach with funfair in background

Burrito bowl

Another hour and a half down the road brought us to our stop for the night – Monterey. After checking in to our hotel, we drove down to Cannery Row which is filled with places to eat and plenty of shops. Strolling around the sea front just before sunset was the perfect way to unwind for the night.

Image of cannery row

When eating out, I never tend to choose places which are specifically classed as ‘kid friendly’ – if I am spending my hard-earned money I want to enjoy it too. And Ivy is the least fussy of eaters so I don’t search out an extensive kid’s menu. However, our choice for the evening, Bubba Gumps Shrimp Co, had something for everyone..most notably the frozen margaritas for me. The staff were so friendly, making a big fuss over Ivy and setting her up with crayons and chatting away. The food was amazing and I got to take my branded cocktail shaker and glass home with me.. so many mum points.

Image of Bubba Gumps food and drinks in Monterey, California

Image of dolphin statue in Monterey, California

Day 6 – 17 Mile Drive/Carmel by the Sea/Big Sur/Pismo Beach

I will start by saying the Monterey Aquarium comes highly recommended but we made the decision to skip this as we had already visited the Pier 39 Aquarium in San Francisco. For anyone looking for some underwater fun, certainly check this out before resuming your journey. We had a fairly lazy morning before we headed off to the 17 Mile Drive entrance which I regretted later when we didn’t reach our next accommodation until almost 10pm. You get handed a map when you pay the $10 entry fee to the area, which is handy for picking out your stop points. Spanish Bay is a must see with it’s fine, white sand and lapping waves. However, my highlight was probably when a man and woman asked me to take pictures of them on their camera and I happily obliged as the top tourist I am. They then began an extremely intense display of PDA in front of me while I angled for the perfect shot.Warning – the mornings on the coast can be very misty, as can be seen on the picture below, but none the less still so beautiful. We found the sun didn’t shine through until well into the afternoon. Great for children, not so great for my tan.

Image of Spanish Bay along the 17 Mile Drive

Image of Spanish Bay

Top tip – time your kid’s nap time for just as you leave the 17 Mile Drive for reaching Carmel. Strap them in the pram and stroll around the quaint little town straight from a fairytale. Time to enjoy a large glass of wine! We picked a lovely little restaurant called Dametra Cafe which served Mediterranean food. They even began serenading the diners at one point with a singer and guitarist and everyone got up to dance. Ivy woke up just as I ate my last mouthful of food – always a bonus! The bakery a few doors down is also highly recommended to pick up lunch and a treat for the next leg of the journey for the kids (or John).

The bad weather which caused landslides last Winter along the PCH means that part of the route is still closed. The closure to Highway 1 begins 26 miles from Carmel by the Sea so we could make two main stop offs at Point Lobos and Bixby Bridge. As far as I’m aware, the road won’t be fully open again until next year. Point Lobos State Park has an entry fee of $10 for a car and is well worth it for the amazing views and scenery.

Continuing down Highway 1, the views of Big Sur were exactly as I imagined – absolutely breath-taking with roads winding along the cliff edges with sheer drops below. The sea was sapphire blue and the sun was shining down. The Bixby Creek Bridge is an excellent stop for a photo opportunity and has spots on either side of the road to safely pull over and get the kids out of the car.

Image of the Pacific Coast Highway near to Bixby Bridge at the Big Sur

View of Bixby Bridge on the PCH

Just before you reach the road closure, there is a small resort with a shop, petrol station, hotels and restaurant. We stopped off to pick up some supplies and to use the toilet before doing a U-turn and heading back the way we came. Instead of going back in to Carmel, follow the signs for Highway 101 South to your next destination. We chose Pismo Beach but I know Morro Bay is also a popular overnight stay with not too much distance between the two. Due to our late start, we didn’t reach our Air BnB in Shell Beach (5 minutes from the main beach of Pismo) until after dark and we were absolutely exhausted. The Big Kahuna Studio is quite easily the best Air BnB I have ever stayed in, with a host who had thought of every single amenity you would ever need: drinks in the fridge, snacks in the cupboards, games to play and all the streaming services going on the TV. Check them out if you are in the area.

Day 7 Santa Barbara

After getting up and enjoying some more time at The Big Kahuna, we took the short drive down to Pismo Beach. There was plenty of cheap metered parking in the area and we had brunch close to the pier and spent some time relaxing on the beach. The area is very touristy and has lots of souvenir shops so is a great place to stock up on things to take home. John also was able to feed his love of snapbacks and purchased a couple of unusual ones.

Image of toddler on Pismo Beach on Pacific Coast Highway

View of Pismo Beach and part of pier with mountains in background

We got back on the road again early afternoon and drove the one and a half hours to Santa Barbara. We decided to take a step back from the sightseeing and have a well needed pool day at our hotel which I definitely think was important with Ivy after an intense few days with a lot of time in the car.

For dinner, we initially drove down to the seafront (Santa Barbara was a lot bigger than I expected and spread out) but didn’t fancy the more upscale restaurants which were there. We travelled back closer to our hotel and ended up in the Downtown area. It was much livelier and more family friendly, filling up on pizza and wine.

Image of Santa Barbara at sunset with stop sign

Day 8 – Malibu/Los Angeles

Our final day on the PCH took us to our final destination of Los Angeles. Before setting off, we ate breakfast at the Shoreline Beach Cafe on Leadbetter Beach. The eggs – oh my! Highly recommended. The on the beach location meant Ivy enjoyed eating on the sand and was able to play in it until the food arrived.

The easiest and quickest route to LA is on the 101 straight from Santa Barbara but we decided to veer off and rejoin Highway 1 to take us through Malibu to gawp at the holiday homes of the rich and the famous. We had a wedding to attend so were staying in Woodland Hills so the detour didn’t add too much time on to our journey and we got to take another look at the beautiful Californian coastline.

The Pacific Coast Highway is an amazing place which needs to be added to your bucket list and kids should definitely come along for the ride.

Travelling the Pacific Coast Highway with a toddler in tow seems like a challenge but it is actually one of the ultimate trips for you and your family. Find out how to do it!

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