The Pacific Coast Highway with kids
When we first met Ben the Frenchman, he was renting a car in San Diego in order to make the trek up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. It was going to be the highlight of his month-long trek across the U.S. Truly, it’s a highway that’s world renowned and the views speak for themselves. However, deciding to do the Pacific Coast Highway with kids can be a challenge.
Since my school-aged children have entered the phase of “just show us something famous,” they also appreciate that this is the route Marilyn Monroe took on her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio from the San Francisco City Hall down the PCH toward Los Angeles. There are also plenty of kid-friendly spots among the big nature and big view, romantic adult sites on this drive. It’s truly welcoming to families.
Navigating this highway is a quintessential American drive (it’s even a designated “All American Road”), but attempting the meandering and windy road (especially between Cambria and Big Sur) isn’t always relaxing.
Many a Hollywood celebrity has met up with police on this highway, and a Malibu Times reporter once said, “at best, stone cold sober, and not fatigued, it is a difficult road to drive” (Find it here). Cell service gets sketchy along its most winding stretches between Carmel and San Simeon. Paying attention to the road and not to screaming children and electronics is obligatory, which to me, can sometimes undermine the purpose of the trip. So go slowly, take in the vistas, and consider the ride the destination itself. If you’re looking to get somewhere, take the 101, which is a good compromise between beauty and speed.
Highway 1 technically runs from Dana Point in Orange County to up past Fort Bragg, in Leggett, where it veers inland and meets highway 101. It’s famous stretch is on the central coast. Highway 1 can be driven from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and an even smaller part of this stretch, between Carmel and Cambria, is where the road and the sea seem one and the same.
This is the most famous stretch, and the heart of any road-warrior adventure down Highway 1. Besides, they probably won’t have reception to stare at their screens around here anyway.
Start with Hiking in Big Sur
The Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur has fabulous views and seemingly thousands of wine choices. It was also once the side-hustle of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, but the real attraction is the coffee. Stop here first. 🙂 It’s first-come, first-served, so I recommend the brunch approach to stock up for a day of soaking in as many of Big Sur’s panoramic views as you can. Grab your morning brew (or wine, you know, whichever is most needed), and head south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Bonus: park on Highway 1 itself and avoid the parking fee.
McWay falls is a doable kid trail with a tunnel under the highway to a waterfall that pours into the turquoise blue pacific.
There’s a sheltered cove that certainly must be some pirates’ paradise. The hike is for kids because it’s a leisurely walk from the parking lot, but there isn’t much to do here except marvel at the falls and indulge parents’ photo-taking opportunities.
Still have energy to burn? The creek trail on the other side of the highway is also gorgeous. You can also get down to the rock arch on the beach. Pfeiffer beach is most easily accessed by paying the $10 fee and winding your way down the dirt road. When you get there, everyone will appreciate the rainbow sand. Depending on season, tide pools also offer hours (errr, 20 minutes, swear to God) of entertainment for little ones. It’s a coastal world, not just an overlook.
North to Monterey
Carmel is a fab town, built for strolling (or sail in for lunch from Santa Cruz harbor!).
However, we opted for the kid-friendlier Monterey, with its world-class aquarium and more casual appeal.
Cannery row has some shops, ice cream, lunch, and people-watching, while the aquarium is one of the most hands-on ever. You can reach for the touch pools, stand under a waterfall, watch kayaks on Monterey Bay, and take in the otter show. There are activities for all ages, from tiny tots to bigger kids. Mine were affronted by the suggestion they wear lost-kid tags, but no one cared when we politely declined and a small crisis was averted.
Fisherman’s wharf goes hand in hand with Cannery Row — it seems to live for souvenirs and shops, walking, and snacking galore.
When you’re tired of ice cream, check out the Dennis the Menace playground. Because seriously. Nothing. Better. Ever. (There’s a skate park nearby for the tween/teen set).
Point Lobos is gorgeous — you’ve no doubt seen the pictures of this nature park even if you haven’t been there. I prefer hiking in Big Sur, but if you need to run off more energy, or aren’t going to get another chance to hike this part of the coast, go. It’s beautiful. When we hit Big Sur, it feels redundant and we usually end up in the hotel pool instead (#confession #sorrynotsorry).
Has always been a “home” away from home. Here we can grab Whole Foods, and let its hot bar feed us whatever we like. Here we can download the parking meter app and it remembers our password like it was yesterday. Eat that Whole Foods box on the beach, get some crunchy crab on the pier, and try not to lose your meal to an indulged seagull (they have no limits and they saw you coming a mile away, tourist).
Hit up Cowell’s beach (right next to main beach) if the little ones want to rent boogie boards and wetsuits and learn to surf in its calm, protected harbor.
Stroll or bike the path through the harbor and dream up names for your future yacht.
Skate like it’s 1979.
Pick your next meal at the UC Santa Cruz urban farm, where deer and redwoods remind you this isn’t the SoCal coast.
Finally, ride some rides! The Santa Cruz boardwalk is pretty easy to figure out. Tickets are a buck, each ride is 2-6 tickets, and ride bracelets are available for all day fun. You can buy and load up a card with dollars and just scan it at each attraction if you’re not spending a full day (you shouldn’t need to, but a bracelet pays for itself with about an hour and a half of fun depending on lines and how timid your chosen rides are).
Warning: this isn’t streamlined like Disneyland. Lines are long and loading is inefficient. Heaps of personal belongings are left at the exits to every ride and that feels wildly unsafe given you’re going to want to drag beach gear, lunch, and purses in there, and given there are tons of random crowds grabbing their stuff from the piles. Diaper bag? No way they’re letting you sit with that on the sea swings. Plan ahead and expect to have to stash things in the car before riding.
We’re huge fans of finishing out the day in Santa Cruz’s largest hot tub at the Hotel Paradox. It lost a little love when it was sold and became part of someone’s boutique signature collection of blah blah not interesting anymore, but… virgin strawberry daiquiris in the hot tub by moonlight? My kids live for feeling this special. The giant downed tree in the lobby also reminds you that you’re somewhere cool, not just in another generic hotel room in another faceless city.