One of the most beautiful and scenic roads in the United States is the famous Pacific Coast Highway in California.
The highway stretches along the whole length of the west coast in California. It’s famous for its meandering path along the high coastline and offering its visitors stunning view over the Pacific ocean.
The road is as stunning as its iconic status suggests and a great road trip to do with kids. In this post I’ll share the 9 best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway to help with your trip planning.
Updated 2021. Guest post and photos by Marta Correale, LearningEscapes.net and MamaLovesRome.com. Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, for more information please see my disclosure policy.
The first thing to consider when planning your Pacific Coast Highway road trip with kids is that this road is long and bendy, and can therefore create problems for kids who suffer from motion sickness. Make sure you pack anti-nausea medication and regularly break up the drive. The second is that not all stops along the way are as interesting for kids as they might be for adults.
In this guide we share the best stops on Highway 1 between San Francisco and San Diego. If you need to hire a car then we have previously hired through RentalCars.com and Auto Europeand have been pleased with both car rental options.
Pacific coast highway road trip with kids
Table of Contents
Stop 1: San Francisco
San Francisco is a wonderful city to visit with kids and one that can be a family destination all in itself. Beautiful, green and with amazing museums and playgrounds, you can easily spend a whole vacation here and not run out of things to do.
However, this doesn’t mean that you cannot make it a quick stop on your road trip as well.
If you only have one day in San Francisco with the kids, you can go to Pier 39 and spot the sea lions that sunbathe in front of Alcatraz or you can stretch your legs in the vast and beautiful Golden Gate Park. From here it’s not far to the Golden Gate Bridge.
For a special treat, you can also bring the kids to the Exploratoirum, the kids’ and science museum, and get a ride on the city most iconic mean of transport: the famous San Francisco cable car!
If you do decided to spend longer in San Francisco, then Get Your Guide offer a Go San Francisco Explorer Pass that’s valid for 30 days and gives you access to 2, 3, 4, or 5 attractions.
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in San Francisco, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]
Stop 2: Santa Cruz and its boardwalk
Heading South of San Francisco on Highway 101 you soon encounter the coastal town of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is one of the most popular Pacific coast highway stops. It’s famous for being a great surfing destination (if you don’t mind cold waters), a university city and for having an alternative, hippy vibe.
The town is indeed lovely but what makes it special is its vast boardwalk and amusement park. Here, roller coasters, carousels and games are ubiquitous and kids can pay to their heart content amid the sweet smell of popcorn.
The Santa Cruz pier is a fun location and a scenic one: just on the ocean, it frames the Santa Cruz beach which is a lovely stretch of golden sand perfect for stretching your legs and quiet castle making after the colours and noise of the boardwalk.
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in Santa Cruz, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]
Stop 3: Monterey and its aquarium
Possibly the most child friendly of all stops on Highway 1 is the town of Monterey, home to an incredible aquarium. The Monterey aquarium is world famous and a place that is likely to inspire awe in adults and kids alike.
Perched on the edge of the ocean, Monterey Bay Aquarium is vast (plan for a full day here) and has tanks with a huge variety of fish and sea animals as well as interactive exhibitions teaching about the ocean’s might and vulnerability. You can visit the aquarium at your own pace but make sure you catch at least some of the talks, such as the one about sardines: it is one of the most fascinating!
The aquarium is in the centre of Monterey town and there is plenty of parking is available nearby. The best way to enjoy everything that Monterey has to offer is to spend the night here and plan to spend a at least the morning exploring.
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in Monterey, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]
Stop 4: Bixby bridge
Bixby bridge on the Big Sur coast of California, is one of the most famous – and best – places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway. There’s a parking lot on the north side of the bridge on the ocean side of the road.
Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in California; the tall reinforced concrete open-spandrel arch bridge was recently made famous for its appearance in the opening scenes of the hit TV series Big Little Lies.
Its height is what captures children’s attention but adults are likely to be just as awestruck not only because of its engineering but the views surrounding it. This part of the coast is high and scenic and a large part of the reason why the Pacific Coast Highway is so famous.
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in Big Sur, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]
Stop 5: Hearst castle
Immediately inland from Highway 101 sits Hearst castle, a grand estate with amazing views over the pacific ocean. This is not a stop for small kids, who are unlikely to take to it much, but is a good one for older kids who may enjoy seeing an extravagant and beautiful castle-like estate.
The castle is rich and elaborate and the views over the Californian coast make it truly special. The castle has a gift shop and restaurant onsite with child favourites (they have pizza!) which makes it a pleasant and handy stop for families.
Should your kids not like princesses tales and castles, you may swap this stop for one at nearby Piedras Blancas beach, which is famous for its sea lions.
Not far from Hearst Castle is San Simeon, home to the Piedras Blancas Rookery and thousands of Elephant Seals. Elephant Seals visit the beaches near San Simeon year-round and, at peak times, there can be up to 17,000 of the creatures sprawled out on the sandy shores. January, April and October are when you’ll spot these seals in large numbers.
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in San Simeon, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]
Stop 6: Cambria
Cambria is a small town and a wonderful place to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway. Here, the ocean sees beautiful low tides, and kids and adults can explore what gets uncovered by the waves walking along the rocky coastline. Walkaways are provided to reach the beach and parking is easy, making Cambria a great place for a short stop or even an overnight stay between San Francisco and San Diego.
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in Cambria, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]
Stop 7: Santa Monica
Highway 1 crosses Los Angeles and once you get to the city, the number of children attractions becomes significant. However, unless you want to stray away from highway 101 and head into Los Angeles proper or even Anaheim for days, the most child friendly stop along the road is Santa Monica.
Santa Monica is a lovely beach town on the LA coast and is super family friendly. The town centre has a pedestrian street with stops and restaurants, the oceanfront has lovely playgrounds and the large Santa Monica beach is vast and family friendly.
Here you can make sand castles, bathe, surf, eat or you can play on the Santa Monica pier where there are arcade games, an amusement park and even a trapeze school where you can try your hand at being a trapeze artist!
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in Santa Monica, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]
Stop 8: Carlsbad
Carlsbad is a lovely California beach town just north of San Diego and one of the Pacific coast highway’s best stops. The city is famous for being the home of Legoland California but it a pleasant stop even if you decide to stay away from theme park. Get Your Guide often have good deals on tickets to Legoland.
The town has a lovely beach and pleasant town centre and is easy to enjoy on foot. Park the car near the beach and take a stroll along the ocean front or play at the nearby grassy playground to get the kids to stretch their legs before the last stretch of drive.
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in Carlsbad, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]
Stop 9: San Diego
San Diego is the last stop on highway 101 southbound and arguable one of the most child friendly places in the whole of California.
The city is big, has a relaxed vibe and a plethora of family friendly attractions to choose from. Depending what your kids are into, they can enjoy Balboa park and its amazing green spaces, museums and zoo, the impressive USS midway warship museum (it is an aircraft carrier!) or just enjoy the many swimming and water sport options in and near the city.
While driving highway 101 with kids does take some planning, it is a wonderful California trip to take with family and one we highly recommend with children of almost any age.
[author] [author_info]For ideas on where to stay in San Diego, take a look at these options from Booking.com[/author_info] [/author]