Making the drive from the Bay Area down to Los Angeles is something almost every family will do at least once. 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. With a little prep, the six hour (or more) ride in the car can be a breeze. We’ve got some tips and pit stop spots that will make the drive itself part of the adventure. Let’s hit the road!

photo: Kate Loweth

Preparing For Your Trip:

Things to Bring: 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. For bigger kids, nab some of those mini Igloo coolers at a garage sale and fill one for each kid with snacks and cold drinks.

Keep them occupied with drawing paper fastened to an old clipboard, old-fashioned travel games like I Spy, movies on a portable DVD player or educational and fun iPad or smartphone apps. Wiki Sticks are also fun to bring along (and bonus, they won’t make a huge mess in the car like Playdoh).

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 or maybe some reggae? Or, download some fun podcasts that will keep them entertained and maybe even learn something while you are on the go!

Kids in Car

photo: iStock

Pick Your 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.

photo: iStock

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—like 5 a.m. 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 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).

photo: Kate Loweth

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. Just make sure to grab a bunch of napkins if you plan on eating them in the car!

Farther down the road in the Santa Ynez Valley, swing by the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company Taproom in Buelton to relax on the patio and enjoy some good eats. There are cornhole and giant Jenga games for the kids to play and it’s totally family friendly.  (Bonus: it’s just down the street from the ostrich farm mentioned below!)

photo: Kate Loweth

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. Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach is a picturesque spot to picnic and let the kids climb for a bit.

In addition to having an adorable Danish-inspired downtown, Solvang is home to Ostrichland USA. This spot is right off the 101 and the kids will get a kick out of feeding these massive birds.

photo: Kate Loweth

The Central Coast Veterans Museum is a fun stop in San Luis Obispo for all of the military buffs. In addition to their massive collection of military memorabilia, the museum is marked by a real tank out front! Best of all, admission is free (and they have bathrooms).

Eplore 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.

There’s a sweet outlet mall in Camarillo (Las Posas exit) to stock up on essentials that you might have accidentally left at home.

photo: Peter Thoeny via flickr

If You’re Taking I-5:

There’s not much to do or see other than trucks and cows when you drive the I-5. About those cows, you may want to roll up the windows when you see signs for Harris Ranch, the smell can get pretty strong when you cruise by the cattle lot.

When to Leave: If you are driving on a weekend, the best time to take I-5 is before 11 a.m.. On weekends the traffic gets progressively worse through the day. During the weekdays, the best time is actually the middle of the day (11 a.m.-4 p.m.).

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.

photo: m01229 via flickr

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 Inn and Restaurant is about halfway between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. If you’re in the mood for a steak, this is a great place to stop and eat while the kids run around the fountains.

Activities & Attractions Along the Way: Fort Tejon was built in 1854 and abandoned 10 years later. They feature interesting Frontier Army Days demonstrations the first Saturday of the month, a fun diversion during a leg-stretch stop.


—Kate Loweth