Making the drive from the Bay Area down to Los Angeles is something almost every family will do at least once–a right of passage of sorts for Californians. Whether it’s making the pilgrimage to Disneyland, visiting relatives, or just an excuse for a road trip, many of us will find ourselves making the trek at some point in the near future, especially with summer vacation in just a few short months. Preparing for your family road trip can seem a bit overwhelming, but the 6-hour (or more) drive isn’t as intimidating as you might think. We’ve broken down the trip by route, so whether you take 101 or I-5 we’ve got you covered, as well as stops and sights along the way to keep your back seat riders entertained for the duration of the drive. Happy road tripping!
Preparing For Your Trip:
Things to Bring (Regardless of route): Make sure your kids are well hydrated without having to pee every hour (kids on the cusp of being fully potty-trained should probably wear diapers on a long road trip to avoid headaches), and feed them as best you can on the road. Keep them occupied with drawing paper fastened to an old clipboard, old-fashioned travel games like I Spy and others (this book is a great resource), movies on a portable DVD player, or education and fun iPad or smartphone apps. If “kid music” drives you bonkers, try to find something they can enjoy that won’t drive you nuts…many kids like the Beatles, the Kinks, maybe some reggae? If your car doesn’t have tinted windows, invest in sunshades that won’t hinder the driver’s visibility.
The Route: Any way you slice it, it’s a long drive. The drive on I-5 is both incredibly boring and long, so one suggestion is to take 101 on the way down, and I-5 on the way home (or vice versa). That way, you can plan to be on the flattest, straightest, stinkiest part of the drive (Harris Cattle Ranch) in the dark, when there’s no scenery to miss.
If You’re Taking 101:
When to Leave: One tried and true method for making the trip down 101 is to get on the road early—4:00am, 5:00am at the latest. That way, if you’re leaving on a weekday, you get out ahead of rush hour traffic. Toss the kids in the car, still asleep, in their jammies, and hit the road. The non-driver can catch a few Zs on the way down, or, fuel up on coffee and take advantage of the rare opportunity to have an adult conversation and enjoy the early morning scenery. After a couple of hours, the sun starts to come up, and the kids may or may not start to stir. If you’re lucky, you might be able to make it almost all the way to Pismo Beach before that starts to happen.
Suggested Bathroom Break Stops: Stop at Soledad (home of this cool sign), King City, or Atascadero (including a McDonald’s with a PlayPlace).
Where to Eat: If you can make it all the way there, Pismo Beach is an ideal stop. Pull up in front of Old West Cinnamon Rolls for more coffee and a sweet breakfast…the rolls with walnuts or pecans are satisfyingly crunchy, and the cream cheese frosting packs a sweet wallop.
Activities & Attractions Along the Way: There are plenty of stops along 101, and since you’re along the coast, the beach cities are a good excuse to get the kids out of the car and run around in the sand to tire them out.
Take a quick detour off 101 and you’ll be in the Danish capital of America, Solvang.
Or, explore the “Three Magical Miles” of Mulholland Highway, where you can hike at the beautiful Peter Strauss Ranch, fish at the Trout Dale, shop for antiques at Charme D’Antan, eat at the local spot the Old Place, and even go wine tasting, all within walking distance of each other.
If you need more stops along your trip, there are plenty of options in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and beyond.
BONUS: There’s a sweet outlet mall in Camarillo (Las Posas exit).
If You’re Taking I-5:
If you’re taking I-5, either on the way down or back, there’s not much to do or see, other than trucks and cows. About those cows, by the way…you may want to roll up the windows when you see signs for Harris Ranch, the smell can get pretty strong when you cruise past the cattle lot.
When to Leave: If you are driving on a weekend, the best time to take I-5 is before 11:00am. On weekends the traffic gets progressively worse through the day. During the weekdays, the best time is actually the middle of the day (11:00am – 4:00pm).
Suggested Bathroom Break Stops: For the fam that packs a cooler full of snacks and just needs a place to potty, there are about a half dozen rest areas on I-5 between the Bay Area and L.A., including a decent one by the Grapevine (Tejon Pass) with vending machines, etc.
Where to Eat: There are serviceable restaurant clusters in Los Banos, Kettleman City, and Fort Tejon. If you feel like stopping for a special fast-food excursion, don’t miss the burgers and shakes at In-n-Out Burger in Santa Nella or Kettleman Station. If the weather’s too rainy for kids to run around outside, you could hit up the McDonald’s with a PlayPlace in Santa Nella.
The Harris Ranch resort and restaurant is about halfway between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and, if you’re in the mood for a steak, can be a great place to stop and eat, and let kids run around the fountains.
Activities & Attractions Along the Way: Fort Tejon nearby was built in 1854 and abandoned 10 years later. They feature interesting Living History demonstrations the first Saturday of the month and Civil War Battle Demonstrations the third Sunday from May to September, a fun way diversion during a leg-stretch stop.
Other Fun Tips for a Successful Road Trip:
– See some big pipes climbing the hill just north of The Grapevine? Those massive structures are part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
– Look for native yellow-billed magpies at any of the rest stops along the way. This bird can only be found in California and is highly recognizable by its bright yellow bill and black body.
– As you drive through the San Joaquin Valley you’ll see lots of different crops including: grapes, raisin grapes, citrus, almonds and pistachios.
No matter how or when you’re planning your road trip with the little ones down south, remember that traveling with kids is less a vacation, but always an adventure. Happy trails, and have fun!
We know there are a ton of you that make this pilgrimage multiple times a year. Let us know where you stop on your road trip to L.A. in the comment section below.
psst: If you’re in the L.A. area, check out our list of 50 things to do with kids in Los Angeles this winter.
— Sarah Bossenbroek