Spring Break Travels on the Pacific Coast Highway

It’s March, and for families with school age children, that means Spring Break! With the end of a long winter finally in sight, I started thinking about some of my favorite family spring break trips. Our tour down the coast of California via the Pacific Coast Highway was definitely top on my list. It is one of my favorite spring break recommendations because a) it is completely doable in one week to 10 days, b) it is classic Americana, and c) there is something in it for every age. Also, after the storms and massive mudslides of 2017, Highway 1 has happily been repaired and reopened.

Bonus: I have added a few of the best “kitsch” spots along the way which would be great to add to your itinerary if you have grumpy teens or tweens with you.

We started our 10 day journey down the coast of California with a flight to San Francisco and drove south. We spent 2 nights in San Francisco, two nights in Big Sur, one night in San Luis Obispo, and 3 nights in Los Angeles. The trip could be made longer by adding San Diego at the bottom or Leggett at the top. The direction you go should be determined based upon 2 things –

  1. Are you nervous about cliff driving? If the answer to that is yes, start in Southern California and drive north. You will be on the inside of the highway and closest to the mountain , where it feels less scary. If you drive north to south, you will be on the outside lane of a 2 lane highway, which is narrow and on the edge of some very beautiful (and sometimes frightening) cliffs.
  2. Weather – If your spring break is early in March, don’t count on good weather until you get to the south. For that reason you may want to start at the bottom and work your way up as the later it is in the North, the more likely the weather will be warm. If your spring break is mid to late April, the weather is a bit more predictable, so starting at the top and working your way down may be just fine. We liked the idea of starting in cooler weather and ending in warm weather.

 For purposes of this post, we will assume you start in San Francisco and work your way downstate. San Francisco deserves 2-3 days. There is so much to see here, and since it is mostly a pedestrian city, you don’t need a car. Fly into San Fran and don’t rent your car until you are ready to leave. In fact, ride the cable car to get around, it’s a San Francisco treat (am I dating myself here?). Also don’t miss a trip to Alcatraz, a peek at the line of cars crawling down Lombard Street, the Fisherman’s Wharf, and of course a romp in the Presidio – find Crissy Field for some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Kitsch tip: Visit Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze — located on Pier 39, not too far from Fishermans Wharf. For only $5, your teens will love feeling their way through a giant mirror maze lit by neon lights and accompanied by rave music.

When you are ready to leave San Francisco, consider renting a convertible for the classic American road trip experience. While it may not be warm enough to leave the top down the whole trip, you will get some periods of sun and warmth and the kids will never forget it.

Your first noteworthy stop is at Half Moon Bay about 30 miles south of the city. You can take a quick stroll on the cliffs and will be rewarded with some great photo ops, if its a nice day. If traffic was bad leaving the city (which it almost always is), and you want to make some headway, you can skip this town and head straight for Santa Cruz which will be another hour south. In Santa Cruz, take a walk along the paved pathways of W. Cliff Drive and the old school Santa Cruz Boardwalk for a classic oceanside amusement park. W. Cliff Drive is about 3 miles long beginning at Natural Bridges State Beach and going all the way east along Monterey Bay until the Santa Cruz Wharf. This is a good stop for lunch and a long walk to stretch your legs.

Kitsch tip: 10 minutes drive from the beach is a place called The Mystery Spot. Its a well visited, small place in the middle of the redwood forest where the laws of gravity don’t seem to work – ordinary objects behave in ways they shouldn’t. A trip here for the 60 minute tour of The Mystery Spot might give your teens something to text their friends about.

After Santa Cruz, continue south on Highway 1 for another 45 minutes to Monterey Bay. We loved this little town for an enjoyable afternoon stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a nice lunch. Stroll Cannery Row for lots of food options. We like the family friendly brewpub, Cannery Row Brewing Co on Prescott. Another half mile down the road, you can check out the seals and otters at Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Back in the car for 30-45 minutes and you will be at Carmel-by-the-Sea.  I recommend a relaxing afternoon and overnight stay here.  Carmel is such a beautiful little town.  You can have a nice dinner and stroll through one of America’s prettiest small towns before starting off for Big Sur in the morning. 

Note:  The famous 17 Mile drive is here (as is Pebble Beach) but I don’t recommend another 2 hours in the car for this if you’ve got kids in tow.  First, you will be charged $10 to drive it.  Second, you will see similarly beautiful vistas for free when you drive through Big Sur.  Third, everyone probably needs a break from the car at this point.  However, if you need to see the Lone Cypress on this journey, you will have to take the drive.

Today’s expediton will include the most breathtaking part of the trip. Before you set off, consider packing a picnic for the various stops along the way. Just 17 miles south on Route 1 is Bixby Bridge. The setting for countless car commercials, it is one of the most photographed places in CA. There are plenty of places to pull over and take pictures, but the best viewpoint is from a lookout about a mile south of the bridge. This part of the journey is the entryway to Big Sur and is filled with cliff driving and hairpin turns. Traffic moves slowly and there are plenty of lookout points. Take your time to stop and enjoy them.

I recommend 1-2 nights in Big Sur somewhere within the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It’s a rugged, sparsely populated region that deserves some time to just embrace the great outdoors. Take the time to explore the countless coves, inlets and vistas. Experiences there can vary greatly depending on what you are looking for. A few ideas – at Treebones Resort you can go galmping in a yurt. At The Post Ranch Inn you can bask in luxurious views 1,200 feet above the Pacific. Lucia Lodge is a chance to really get away from it all, and at Ripplewood Resort you can enjoy the rustic cabin experience. All are within 30 minutes drive of one another. Reserve in advance. The following two stops in Big Sur can be coordinated with where you end up staying so that you continue to travel north to south.

About 30 miles from the Bixby Bridge is one of my favorite places on the whole journey – Pfeiffer Beach.  Well hidden, this beach is worth the search. With purple sand, crashing waves, and gorgeous vistas, it is a place both you and the kids will be thrilled to spend a few hours. It’s also a good place to break out that picnic lunch you packed. To get there, you will need to find the paved road west of Highway One called Sycamore Canyon Road. It is usually unmarked, as the locals try to discourage visitors. Follow Sycamore Canyon for a slow narrow crawl, about 2 miles down to the entrance to Pfeiffer Beach. Don’t forget the photo op of the Keyhole Arch.

Note: the Pacific Ocean is icy – especially in March or April – wetsuits are encouraged if you plan to swim.

Another 12 miles down Highway 1 is McWay Falls. An 80-ft tall waterfall, McWay Falls is in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. A 1/2 mile walk down Falls Trail (and under Highway 1) is the best way to see this. Note two things: you will have to pay the park day fee to enter this trail, and due to severe storm damage in 2017, the Falls Trail had been closed. It is expected to reopen mid 2019, but be sure and check before you pay the park fee. If it is still closed, you can still view the falls from the pullout just north of the park entrance.

Leave Big Sur in the morning so you can spend a full day on this part of the trek. The next notable stop is the Elephant Seal Rookery (1-2 hours drive south depending on where you spent the night) at the well marked Piedras Blancas Beach. It’s hard to resist spending at least 30 minutes here viewing the elephant seals sunning themselves in their habitat. Cost is free.

Hearst Castle, the opulent estate of William Randolph Hearst (worth over $195 million) is just a few minutes drive from Piedras Blancas Beach. A one hour tour of his decadent residences can be reserved in advance for about $25 per person. You can decide if you think this is worth the stop. Our kids were young, and we weren’t that interested, so we skipped it. If you do go, reserve tickets in advance.

Bonus: Hearst, being an eccentric, built a zoo on his property. Most of the animals are gone, but you will see an occasional zebra mixed in with the cows.

Kitsch tip: After visiting the grandeur of the Hearst Castle, it might be entertaining to give your teens a different perspective at Nitt Witt Ridge – the poor man’s Hearst Castle. Considered one of the finest examples of folk art, Art Beal built this house in 1928 out of remnants. Tours are available generally on the hour and last 40 minutes. The tour guide is a bit elusive, so tours may not be happening when you arrive but you can still see the house from outside and will likely be more memorable to your teen than Hearst Castle.

These activities could take the better part of the day and you will be perfectly timed to roll into San Luis Obispo on Highway 101 in the late afternoon for a stay at possibly the most kitsch spot in America – The Madonna Inn.  It is an absolute must if you drive the PCH, even if for just a meal in the flamboyant explosion of pink and gold dining room. Reserve a themed hotel room in advance – and if you have teens in tow, consider getting them a separate themed room. The caveman suite is built into a den of rock, the captain’s bridge is a reproduction of a ship’s cabin, and the Old Mexico room adds a bit of Spanish culture to your stay. If the weather is warm enough, there is a great infinity pool with a 45 ft waterfall. Book one night here.

Kitsch tip: If the Madonna Inn isn’t enough kitsch for your teens, head on over to Bubble Gum Alley with a pack of gum and a strong stomach. An estimated 2 million pieces of gum line this pedestrian walkway and you can add yours as well.

The charming downtown of San Luis Obispo is filled with vibrant boutiques, shops and cafes and is worth a wander. If you want more time in this college town, go to classic California beach, Pismo Beach and put your toes in the sand.

You are heading into about 3.5 hours of driving today so get on the road before 11am. The last stop before the bright lights of LA is Santa Barbara. About 90 minutes south of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara is a good afternoon stop for a seafood lunch on the beach. We saw tons of dolphins in the water when we were there, which was a highlight. Consider getting your legs moving for an hour or two on rented bicycles along the coastline. Bike rental places are set up right on the beachfront.

The last 2 hours of the drive drops you into shiny and expensive Los Angeles. Might as well dive right into the craziness of the city of lights. If you are flying home from LA, I recommend you get rid of your rental car and use Uber while in the city. Parking is a fortune, LA traffic is harrowing, and Uber is pretty reasonably priced. If you are heading further south to San Diego, you will need to manage with it – just park it in the garage at your hotel and leave it there.

When choosing a hotel in LA, the pool is an important factor. Especially with kids. Make sure it is a lively spot, one where adults and kids can both enjoy. The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Beverly Hilton are quintessential and classic (albeit expensive) LA experiences. We splurged and spent 2 nights at the Beverly Hills Hotel. During breakfast in the Fountain Coffee Room we sat next to Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield, who offered to share his pancakes with my youngest. Other hot spots for the pool include the Mondrian, the Millenium Biltmore, the Standard, and the W Hollywood.

LA is chock full of activities and a little research will help you narrow down the best things to do that are at the right age group for your brood. For all ages, Universal Studios is a good bet. The backlot tour is the highlight and goes into a working movie studio with various film sets on the lot. Venice Beach and Santa Monica Pier are a must. We like to rent bikes at one and bike to the other along the beach path with plenty of entertaining stops along the way.

We flew home from LA after 3 days of exploring, but if you have an extra day or two, and want more beach, it’s about 2-3 hours to San Diego where you could visit the “jewel” of a beach La Jolla, see the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, or spend an afternoon at Sea World or Legoland.

Happy Travels!

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