Looking to extend your summer? Head south where the sun is out, the waves are calling your name and there’s an adventure around every corner. California’s central coast is a three hour drive from San Jose but as soon as you arrive you’ll feel a world away from the Bay Area. Read on to find out why you should plan your next road trip there, pronto!

Pismo Beach

A great spot to make your home base is Pismo Beach. Located right off highway 101 on the coast, Pismo offers an iconic California beach that’s perfect for a weekend on the sand. Right next to Pismo Pier you can find a swing set right in the sand! And just a little farther south down the beach you’ll find an even bigger playground, also right on the beach. Public bathrooms and snacks are on the boardwalk right near the pier.

Explore Pismo in style! A number of companies rent surreys, double surreys and bikes for the whole family. The double surrey can fit up to four peddling adults and four riding kids. All rentals come with helmets. This is a great activity to try in the early morning hours before the marine layer burns off and the sun comes out.

While in Pismo Beach, check out the HOTLIX Candy Store located on the main drag in town. Not only do they sell everyone’s favorite sucker with a scorpion inside, but they also have chocolate covered wax worms and crickets for the more adventurous eaters.

Where to Eat

The long lines at the Splash Cafe might clue you in that it is one of the most popular spots to grab a bite to eat in town. Crowds line up around the corner for the opportunity to try their award-winning clam chowder. Avoid the line and order your meal to-go or even grab a four-pack of frozen chowder to take home with you.

Wooly’s Beach Bar and Grill is another kid-friendly option in town. It is located right by the pier and offers tons of outdoor seating so that you can whale watch while you enjoy your grub. Grab a table and order your meal at the counter and they will bring it to you.

Another spot with fantastic ocean view’s is Pismo’s Flagship restaurant. Kids will love the nautical theme and giant wooden boat inside the restaurant. It is located on a cliff above the coast and is just a short drive from the downtown area.

In nearby Shell Beach you will find F. McLintock’s Saloon and Dining House. This old west-style restaurant has enormous portions so make sure you bring your appetite. Also, ask your server to show off his water pouring skills. Their signature move is to pour water into a glass on your head, all while blindfolded (get the kids to volunteer for this one)!

A local favorite for breakfast is Surfside Donuts where you can grab the Shaka donut that is a bear claw morphed into a “hang loose” hand. Other favorite donuts are mint chip, salted caramel and the maple bacon long john. Grab some Sumptown coffee and enjoy your donuts on the beach.

Kids and adults line up at Old West Cinnamon Rolls where they have been serving sticky-sweet goodness for over 40 years. Try the crumb-topped cinnamon roll or cinnamon twists and make sure to grab some carrot cake for later. They even offer frozen cinnamon rolls to take home and bake in your own oven.

Avila Beach

Just north of Pismo Beach is the beach town of Avila Beach. Downtown has tons of restaurant options but if you drive just a short distance to the Harford Pier you can eat right on the water. MERSEA’s Restaurant offers a great kids’ menu and an awesome crab melt sandwich served with avocado on sourdough bread. Pick a table outside and the kids can watch the resident seals as they play in the water. You can also buy fresh fish and other seafood at the end of the pier if you want to cook something up yourself.

Central Coast Adventures

Break up the beach days with some exploring! Make sure you plan some time at Oceano Dunes where you can literally drive you car right on the beach! Pick a time when the tide is low and you’ll find loads of sand dollars at the shoreline. It is $5 to access the beach via your personal vehicle and those looking for even more adventure can head south down the beach to rent an ATV and explore the dunes. They even have beach camping here!

If you are in Pismo during the winter months, plan a stop at the Monarch Butterfly Grove to observe these colorful creatures. They stop here from October through February and cluster on the branches of the Eucalyptus trees.


If you want to stay right on the sand (who doesn’t), the Sandcastle Inn is a great option for families. It is just steps from the sand, two minutes from the pier and close to loads of food options. Suites include a small fridge and microwave and all guests can grab continental breakfast each morning. On the third floor there is a roof deck where you can watch the gorgeous sunsets. Check out the Pismo Beach Vistor’s Bureau website for other hotel and vacation rental suggestions.

Road Trip Tips:

Don’t fear hitting the road with the kids, even if you are the only adult on-board! With a little planning you will make it to your destination without too many of the “Are we there yet?” questions. Try these tips before your next excursion:

  1. Download some podcasts before you go. There are loads of fun options like Wow in the World where you can learn fun facts about science and history. The kids will be entertained and you can make it through the drive without having a find a new radio station every hour. Check out some of our favorites here.
  2. Consider bringing a personal cooler for each kid. You will prevent having to pass back snacks constantly and will avoid sibling fighting if each kid has control over his/her snacks. Drinks like Organic Valley milk (which is totally shelf-stable) and juice boxes that kids can open themselves are ideal for the long journey.
  3. For kids who can tell time, let them know the approximate time you will arrive (based on your map app). This gives them a better sense of the duration of the journey.
  4. Set up a trash bag that each kid can reach. It will (hopefully) encourage them to dump their snack wrappers there instead of on the minivan floor.

What’s your favorite road trip stop in central California? Let us know in the comments!

– Kate Loweth

All photos by the author.