California Coast Family Road Trip Ideas

Driving the California coast is a classic family road trip, with a range of attractions for kids to enjoy. While some popular destinations are very much kid-focused, other attractions such as zoos, aquariums, and unique locales are truly family-friendly, offering a bit of fun for everyone.

San Francisco and the Bay Area

With its interactive exhibits, San Francisco’s Exploratorium allows kids to experience science firsthand. Both the San Francisco Zoo and Oakland Zoo have all sorts of animals to meet. Kids will also want to take a spin on Pier 39’s San Francisco Carousel, painted with images of the City by the Bay.

Wine Country

Wine Country is better known for romance than a family attractions, but there are a few. Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz Museum is for fans of the Peanuts comic strip. Kids love Calistoga’s Old Faithful Geyser, which also has an adjacent petting zoo. Even some wineries are kid-friendly. Castello di Amorosa looks like a fairy-tale castle and serves juice to visitors under 21. Francis Ford Coppola Winery entices parents with movie memorabilia; kids can enjoy the property’s two pools on warm summer days.

A castle-like building amidst a vineyard in fall colors.
A fall morning at Castello di Amorosa. Photo © Jim Sullivan, courtesy of Castello di Amorosa.

North Coast

South of Crescent City, the Trees of Mystery will fascinate the little ones with a near-50-foot statue of Paul Bunyan and the Skytrail, a gondola ride above the redwood forest. With low ceilings and porthole entryways, the buildings of Patrick’s Point State Park’s Sumeg Village are a fun place for kids to learn about Native American history. Just south of Trinidad, Moonstone Beach is a family favorite.

Monterey Bay

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers nonstop amusement. Families flock to Monterey Bay Aquarium to see cute sea otters and scary sharks up close. If your kids just want to play, you can’t beat Monterey’s Dennis the Menace Park, which has all sorts of slides, bridges, and swing sets.

Big Sur and the Central Coast

Pismo Beach’s Dinosaur Caves Park has fun stuff like concrete dolphins, a play ship, a dinosaur statue, and three dinosaur eggs. To see underwater sea life without donning snorkeling gear, hitch a ride with Morro Bay’s Sub Sea Tours, where families ride in a mini submarine.

Santa Barbara and Ventura

The Santa Barbara Zoo has a popular kid’s exhibit called “Eeeww!,” which focuses on all sorts of slithery species. Just west of Santa Barbara, Refugio State Beach has a protected cove calm enough for kids to wade in and the park store is available for a round of ice cream.

Los Angeles and Orange County

Families crowd the Santa Monica Pier for its amusement park, arcade and aquarium. In Long Beach, the Aquarium of the Pacific wows kids with live penguins, sea otters, and sharks. You may have also heard of an Orange County attraction that’s become popular with families: a place called Disneyland. This amusement park is apparently home to an anthropomorphic mouse.

San Diego

The San Diego Zoo has everything from scurrying spiders to giant pandas. In Escondido, the San Diego Wild Animal Park is run by the same folks but has the animals spread out over more land. One way to view the animals is by safari. To see water creatures, head to SeaWorld, which has rides, shows, and exhibits, in addition to dolphins and whales. Up in Carlsbad LEGOLAND is a whole amusement park dedicated to the popular plastic building blocks.

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