No matter your age, California is one big playground. From frolicking among the towering Redwoods along the north coast to digging your toes in the sand of Southern California’s picture-perfect beaches, both the young and the young-at-heart have plenty of ways to explore the Golden State.
To help craft the perfect plan, we turned to the Ingalls, an LA-based family of travelers comprised of Gemma, Andrew, and their two children Izzie and Ollie. Together, this fab four explores from coast to mountains, often using their camper van as a home base for their activity-packed road trips, and discovering the best family-friendly experiences, luxury indulgences, and the best photography spots that they then share over on Instagram @ingallsphoto.
Following their tried-and-tested advice on the best stops for kids and parents, here’s a road trip itinerary for California’s Central Coast and Central Valley to inspire your next family trip – plus suggestions for amazing family adventures in other parts of the state.
North from Los Angeles
There are plenty of family-friendly activities in Los Angeles, but this road trip is designed to get you out of the urban jungle and heading up the coast. Ojai is a perfect first stop – just 90 minutes away and with plenty of activities to entertain the whole crew. If you’re in town on Sunday, the Ojai Farmers Market shows off California’s cornucopia of produce. When you’re ready to get active, Gemma Ingalls says her family loves the kid-friendly hiking trails at Ojai Meadows Preserve. They also love horseback riding with the Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company. “Natural trail rides for all abilities take you through the Ventura River Preserve, winding along the rivers and offering beautiful views of the mountains that frame the valley,” Gemma says.
Further along the coast, Loon Point Beach is just south of Santa Barbara and a nice spot for unstructured time outdoors. Try to time your visit for low tide: Tidepooling is a fascinating way for your family to explore ecosystems that are usually hidden when the water is high. For more science-based adventures, check out MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation. Here your family will love exploring science, technology, and the arts through hands-on exhibits.
When the Southern California weather is at its most beautiful, make a beeline for Lotusland. This 37-acre botanical garden and estate, inland from Santa Barbara, houses incredible giant stag horn ferns, one of the largest cacti collections in the world, and many other fairytale gardens and creations. Gemma offers a glowing endosement: “We love getting lost in the magic of these gardens with our kids,” she says.
Up the Central Coast
After a night in Santa Barbara, pack up the car and continue north into California’s Central Coast region. There are some great stops north of San Luis Obispo (home to a fantastic interactive Children’s Museum which is perfect for families with smaller kids). Both Morro Bay State Park Boardwalk and Cayucos Pier are great for getting everyone out to stretch their legs; the former winds through an estuary while the latter juts out into the relentless Pacific Ocean.
For good kid-friendly hiking and tidepooling, Harmony Headlands State Park offers incredible coastal scenery and lots of trails to burn off some energy. “We love hiking this 1.5-mile, flat, wide trail which passes through meadows and opens out to beautiful unspoiled headlands,” Gemma says. “We hike over the rocks, down to the rocky inlets, for excellent tidepooling.”
Another favorite spot for the Ingalls family is Fiscalini Ranch at Moonstone Beach: “We like to bike the wide, dirt path that runs parallel to the ocean, watching for deer, ground squirrels, and hawks,” she says. “It’s often windy, so bring layers and binoculars.” Moonstone Beach is also great for beachcombing if you’re here near low tide.
Hearst Castle is a must-visit before spending the night in San Simeon. Built from 1919 to 1947 by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst and designed by famous California architect Julia Morgan, this opulent compound is visually fascinating and over-the-top enough to keep everyone riveted to the stories of California history that took place in these halls.
Big Sur to the Beach
Due to major storms in the winter of 2023, parts of the Pacific Coast Highway are closed north of San Simeon but are expected to reopen by the time spring wildflowers begin to bloom on the coastal range. If you’re driving north along the PCH after it reopens, there are more great spots to stop in this part of California known as Big Sur.
Gemma says Sand Dollar Beach is “our go-to beach in Big Sur. Our kids love collecting the green rocks on the beach or using the long sea kelp as jump ropes. Take a break at the top of the steps for a beautiful view of the beach surfers in the water.”
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is another good spot to break up the winding route along the coast; here you can spot seals resting on the beach (especially during pupping season in the spring) and look for other sea life migrating toward the safe waters of Monterey Bay to the north.
In Monterey, every family should plan at least a half day to experience the interactive and engaging Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Monterey Bay Aquarium is as close as our family gets to a ‘zoo,’” Gemma says. “Some of our favorite exhibits are the otters that come in from the wilds of the bay to feed and play in the viewing tank, the giant kelp forest tanks full of local fish and sea life, and the moody glowing jellyfish exhibits which show all sizes of the magical creatures under black lights.”
Down the Central Valley: Fresno & Bakersfield
When it’s time to turn back south toward Los Angeles again, it’s worth heading inland through California’s Central Valley. Depending on how many days you have, you could spend a night in Fresno, Bakersfield, or both. (They’re about two hours apart so you should stay in at least one of them. No one wants to make a long drive back to LA in one day)
In Fresno, there are lots of good options for giving the kids a break from the car. One of them is Forestiere Underground Gardens – these historic subterranean structures were created by self-taught artist and builder Baldassare Forestiere over the course of 40 years. You’ll want to book a guided tour to really appreciate this weird and easily missed experience. The Fresno Art Museum is also a gem, if you have older children who appreciate exploring galleries.
In Bakersfield, the California Area Living Museum showcases plants and animals of California – especially the Central Valley. Gaze in awe at reclusive mountain lions and bobcats, or learn about ringtail cats, coatis, and other animals you might not even know call California home. There’s also a train ride for kids, Reptile House, and Children’s Park for kids of all ages.
For an entirely different experience The Big Red Barn at Murray Family Farms is a good spot to burn off some energy and stock up on hand-picked fruit to snack on for the final leg of your road trip back to Los Angeles.
Other California family experiences
There are plenty of other great regions of California where the whole family can make memories. Here’s some of our favorites:
North Coast: Stretching from San Francisco to the Oregon border, the North Coast is a great choice if your family loves the outdoors. In addition to nearer sites like Muir Woods where you can admire towering coastal redwoods, Redwoods State and National Parks protects much of the region’s old-growth forests. The Ingalls especially recommend Hendy Woods State Park in Mendocino County.
Nearby, the community of Fort Bragg is a good base for some unique experiences. You can admire the carnivorous plants and giant Staghorn fern at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, have unique beachcombing experiences on Fort Bragg Glass Beach (where the entire beach is comprised of large smooth pieces of sea glass), or ride the Skunk Train Rail Bikes into the forest – these electric-assisted pedal vehicles ride on old rail lines.
Sierra Nevada Mountains: Further inland, this picturesque range is another great region to explore for completely different outdoor adventures and scenery. The formidable but exquisite granite mountains enclose magnificent natural landscapes and an adventurer’s wonderland. The Ingalls recommend putting together a trip that visits sites like the otherworldly Alabama Hills, June Lake for watersports like kayaking and fishing, and Mammoth Mountain in the winter months when you can all learn to ski or snowboard together.
Deserts: The natural wonders of this region offer a stark contrast to the verdant valleys of other parts of California. Joshua Tree National Park is an essential landmark, where the whole family can learn about desert climates and see sights like Split Rock and Cholla Cactus Garden. Split Rock has a great hiking trail that the whole family may be able to handle, and Cholla is home to funny, spiky cactus and perfect for watching the sunrise. Riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway offers stunning views of the Coachella Valley and San Jancinto Mountains that separate the eastern deserts from the western coastal regions.
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