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The Ultimate 10 Day California Road Trip Itinerary

The Ultimate 10 Day California Road Trip Itinerary

There is nothing quite like a California road trip. With destinations like Monterey, the Sierra Nevada range, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Disneyland, and San Diego, there is just so much to do and see! With all those major attractions, planning the ultimate California road trip itinerary can be a challenge, but I love a challenge!

I have spent my entire childhood road tripping up and down the Golden State. I have racked up thousands of miles traveling along the coast, mountain, and deserts, and my brain is filled with countless California road trip ideas. Those trips have helped me craft our ultimate California road trip itinerary for families who want to visit some of the most popular destinations in the state.

We’ve take the brain work out of planning this road trip with the help from our friends at Caio Bambino. This is a 10 day California road trip itinerary for a vacation of a lifetime.

10 Day California Road Trip Itinerary

Spend Days 1-3 of Your California Road Trip in San Francisco

Begin Your California Road Trip with a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Golden Gate Bridge Heading North of San Francisco

Welcome to California! San Francisco features more attractions and activities than you could possibly visit in just two nights, so you’ll have plenty of options to keep your family busy.

Although it is an extremely touristy thing to do, I recommend every visitor to San Francisco start their tour at Fisherman’s Wharf. From here, you can stroll along the water with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge on the horizon. Watch as fisherman unload their catch, sample fresh seafood, enjoy a classic San Francisco sourdough clam chowder bread bowl, and breathe in the salty bay air.

The boat ride to Alcatraz, which should be reserved well in advance of your trip, offers a great historical account of the entire city, as well as a fascinating tour of the Rock itself. Alcatraz is one of many national parks near San Francisco, and such an interesting place to visit.

Don’t miss a cable car ride through the sloped streets of San Francisco. Be sure to stop and explore some of the city’s distinctive neighborhoods like Chinatown, Little Italy, and Haight-Ashbury. And be sure sample all the food specialities in each neighborhood.

Golden Gate Park is a sprawling natural oasis in the urban core. It is home several great playgrounds, paddle boats, a lovely Japanese Tea Garden, and even a herd of buffalo! It is also home to numerous museums including family-favorite, the California Academy of Sciences. Here is our complete guide to Golden Gate Park.

Want the perfect photo? Check out our guide to finding the best views in San Francisco

San Francisco Kid-Approved Best Bets

Alacatraz is a good place to visit on a California Road Trip Itinerary

Babies & Toddlers: Your little ones can play the day away at the Bay Area Discovery Museum just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito. Parents rave about their outdoor play section, ample parking, and hours of fun.

School Age Kids: The Exploratorium was my absolute favorite museum when I was a kid. The recently expanded museum, now located on the Embarcadero, is still my go-to choice for hands-on, educational fun.

Teens & Tweens: Send your teens to the slammer with a visit to Alcatraz. Although the tour is family-friendly for all ages, young kids may quickly tire of the audio tour. But, the award-winning audio tour is riveting for even those hard-to-please teens.

But Wait, There’s Even More to do in San Francisco!

View of San Francisco from Alamo Square
View of Alamo Square in San Francisco, photo by Flickr/blupics

San Francisco Driving Tips

Lombard Street
Lombard Stree, photo by flickr/ Alan Kotok

Driving in San Francisco can be a bit challenging for many newbies. The hills and traffic may be intimidating. Parking can be a frustrating (and expensive) addition to your trip as well.

I recommend families park their car at their hotels and utilize the exceptional public transportation system that can take you within one city block of just about any spot in the city. Download MuniMobile for helpful tips regarding public transit in San Francisco.

If you are flying to San Francisco to begin your road trip, consider picking up your vehicle after spending time in San Francisco. 

Head to Monterey and Carmel on Days 3-4 of Your California Road Trip

Point Lobos is a great place to stop on a California Road Trip
Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel, photo by Sharlene Earnshaw

As you head south from San Francisco on Highway 101, be sure to veer west in time to stop for a night in the Monterey/Carmel area. There are so many things to do in Monterey, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium should be at the top of your list.

It is widely regarded as one of the nation’s best aquariums, and its bayfront location can’t be beat!

In addition to a tremendous variety of fish, the Aquarium boasts plenty of amphibians, birds, invertebrates (like the super cool jellyfish!), adorable marine mammals (sea otters, anyone?), reptiles, and more.

After spending time at the aquarium, walk the shops on Monterey’s famous Cannery Row and stop for a sourdough bread bowl full of clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Monterey & Carmel Kid-Approved Best Bets

Kids Looking at Seals at Point Lobos
Checking Out the Seals at an Overlook at Point Lobos by Sharlene Earnshaw

Toddlers and Above: Dennis the Menace Playground is paradise for kids of all ages and consistently rated as one of the best playgrounds in the country. It is located in Estero Park and is free for all visitors to enjoy.

There is a large climbing wall, several slides, tunnels, suspension bridge, a few play structures for varying ages , and so much more!

School Aged Kids: Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel offers hikes for outdoor enthusiasts from all levels.

From mini-hikes with wildlfe-spotting opportunties to full-day hikes for eager moms and dads, your family will love the fresh air, the smell of the ocean, and even the chance to spot sea lions from a bluff.

Teens & Tweens: Want to see sea otters, seal, and sea lions in the wild? Your best bet is to take an easy kayak trip up Elkhorn Slough, located 20 minutes north of Monterey.

There are several options (including guided and un-guided trips) and the chances of spotting sea otters are near 100%! Read more about this and other experiences you can have Discovering Monterey County’s Wild Side.

Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Monterey with kids on Ciao Bambino. 

Monterey Area Driving Tips 

Scenic Viewpoint on the 17-Mile Drive
Scenic Viewpoint on the 17-Mile Drive by Sharlene Earnshaw

You absolutely must explore the coastal route down and through Carmel. The trip down Highway 1, lovingly dubbed Pacific Coast Highway or PCH, will only add about 30-45 minutes to your total commute, but the scenery is breathtaking.

17-mile drive, the meandering and indirect route from Monterey to Carmel, is also worth your time, especially if  you have interest in seeing world-famous Pebble Beach. 

Enjoy the American Riviera of Santa Barbara on Days 4-6 of Your California Road Trip

Santa Barbara is a great place to stop on a California Road TRip
Santa Barbara at Sunset

If you’ve dreamed of experiencing the luxury of the French or Italian Riviera but just can’t commit to the price tag, Santa Barbara might be your favorite destination on this trip.

This “American Riviera,” located about 250 miles south of Carmel, features terraced seaside cliffs, unique Spanish architecture, luxurious vistas dotted with grand estates, farm to table dining, and a host of family-friendly activities.

State Street is the heart of Santa Barbara’s shopping and dining scene. From fine dining to homemade ice cream, you’ll find it here. Consider taking the narrated trolley tour that your littles will love or hop on the Downtown-Waterfront Electric Shuttle.

Down in the bay, take a walk along Stern’s Wharf where you can spot sea lions, watch the sailboats arrive in the working recreational harbor, or explore the Ty Warner Sea Center for maritime fun and activities.

Active families will love kayaking or stand-up-paddle boarding in the calm bay. Here are our picks for the best things to do in Santa Barbara with kids

Have more time? Although only accessible by plane or boat, Channel Islands National Park is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise.  For something closer to the city core, consider touring the Mission Santa Barbara, built in 1786.

Santa Barbara Kid-Approved Best Bets

Santa barbara is a great place to stop on a California Road Trip
Santa Barbara Beach Sunset

Toddlers and Above: The Santa Barbara Zoo is a great place for families. In addition to being beautiful with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains and ocean, it is also a great place to see a nice variety of wildlife.

Highlights include girafffe feedings, train rides, and a small playground and “sliding hill” to keep the kids entertained.

School Age Kids: What kid doesn’t love a spin on a magical, old-fashioned carousel? Chase Palm Park features a shipwreck-themed playground, carousel, and ocean views for mom and dad to soak in. A quick walk across Cabrillo Boulevard and you are in the sand.

Teens & Tweens: Start from West Beach and take your teens and tweens out on a stand-up paddle-boarding or on a kayaking expedition. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers packages that include instruction, supplies, and even lunch!

Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Santa Barbara with kids on Ciao Bambino.

Santa Barbara Driving Tips

McWay Falls is a highlight of a California Road Trip
McWay Falls is a Great Place to Stop on the Way to Santa Barbara

There are two ways to get to Santa Barbara from Carmel. The most scenic (and highly recommended) way is to travel down Highway 1 through Big Sur. This route hugs the coastline and the views are phenomenal.

Be sure to stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to witness the beauty of Mcway Falls plunging onto the beach below. The drive on Highway 1 is about 4 1/2 hours without stops. If you would rather take the direct route on Highway 101, it will take about 4 hours.

Parking meters and pay lots make up the bulk of parking near the beach and downtown State Street. The Downtown-Waterfront Electric Shuttle is an extremely frugal way to leave your car parked in one spot and visit Santa Barbara’s main sites. 

Are you looking to enjoy more of California’s rugged and beautiful Central Coast? Then check out our California Central Coast Road Trip itinerary.

Spend Days 6-8 of Your California Road Trip in Los Angeles and Orange County

Disneyland is a must visit on a california Road Trip
Mickey and Minnie on Main Street at Disneyland, photo by Disney Parks

I grew up in the Los Angeles area and still take regular day trips into the city. What surprises many about visiting Los Angeles is how sprawling the city actually is.

LA encompasses 468 square miles, and the entire Southern California area is hard to cover in just a couple of days. Only 95 miles south of Santa Barbara, you can approach this city in the early afternoon to give you some extra time on your two-night stay.

Of course, while you visit Los Angeles, you must venture into Orange County to take the kids to Disneyland. Trekaroo has several great resources to help you plan your trip to Disneyland. Start with these Disneyland tips which will help you make the most of your visit.

Back in LA, family will be thrilled to see the famed Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles. Nearby, explore the Griffith Park Observatory or see the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

For the classic SoCal, laid-back beach vibe, head straight to the Santa Monica Pier for big thrills, great eats, and a sunset that can’t be missed atop the Pacific Ferris Wheel, located at the very end of the iconic Route 66.

Los Angeles & Orange County Kid-Approved Best Bets

Universal Studios Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Hogwarts Train in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios

Babies & Toddlers: For all things make-believe, in a pint-sized environment, your little ones will adore role-playing at Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine.

Your child can pretend to be a fireman, policeman, librarian, sushi chef, postman, doctor, dentist, farmer, and much more.

School Age Kids: The California Science Center in Exposition Park is the perfect place for your school age kids to fall in love with learning. The Endeavour Space Shuttle calls this center home and budget-savvy parents will love that visiting is completely free.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles is located next door, and also highly recommended.

Teens & Tweens: Your star-crazed teens will love checking out a studio tour; older kids can also take part in the audience of many locally filmed TV shows for some sweet bragging rights when they return home.

Warner Brothers Studio Tour and Universal Studios are the most popular options.

Get more kid-friendly tips and information about Los Angeles with kids on Ciao Bambino.

But Wait, There’s More to do in LA and Orange County!

best beaches in Southern California for families
Zuma Beach in Malibu

Southern California Driving Tips

Los Angeles Freeway Sign

Driving on LA and OC freeways can be stressful. Although no time of day is traffic-free, avoid rush hour heading towards downtown Los Angeles in the morning (before 10am) and away from the city in the evenings (after 4pm) for a faster commute between LA attractions.

Public transportation between activities can be complicated and pricey as the mileage between them is great. Pack a hefty amount of patience for this leg of driving.

End Your California Road Trip by Spending Days 8-10 in San Diego

Hotel del Coronado in San Diego
Hotel Del Coronado and Coronado Beach

There are really very few cities that rival San Diego. It has an amazing mixture of family fun, outdoor activities, cultural exhibitions, and natural beauty.

Landing at the top of of our list of the best zoos in the USA, a trip to the San Diego Zoo is a must when visiting San Diego. Plan to spend an entire day at the zoo exploring amazing habitats like the sprawling Elephant Odyssey, Africa Rocks, and The Outback.

Behind-the-scenes opportunities allow guest to meet or feed animals like flamingos, rhinos, zebras, and a variety of big cats.

The zoo is located in stunning Balboa Park, which was built in 1915 for the Panama California Exposition and is larger than New York City’s famed Central Park. Explore one of Balboa Park’s numerous kid-friendly museums, enjoy seasonal cultural activities, or just take walk through the remarkable grounds.

Although San Diego boasts 70 miles of coastline, I think the best place to grab a slice of sand is on Coronado Island, located just minutes from downtown San Diego across the Coronado Bridge.

With the iconic Hotel del Coronado as a backdrop and views of Point Loma across the water, it is hard ot beat Coronado Beach. There are also plenty of adorable local shops and restaurants to enjoy in this bike-friendly small town.

Have more time? Be sure to check out the Cabrillo National Monument or the La Jolla Children’s Pool and Cove.

San Diego Kid-Approved Best Bets

La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove by ToGa Wanderings

Toddlers and above: La Jolla Cove is a great family beach and tots will love digging for sand crabs.

Older children will enjoy snorkeling and kayaking in this protected marine area filled wth sealife. Nearby, Children’s Pool is a great place to see harbor seals and sea lions.

School Age Kids: Climb aboard the USS Midway Maritime Museum for a hands-on history lesson with your school age kids on this historic aircraft carrier. Be sure to let them try their skills on the simulator.

Nearby, the Maritime Museum of San Diego grants access to sailing vessels of all varieties.

Teens & Tweens: Inspire the inner Californian in your teen by spending a morning enjoying a one-on-one or group surf lesson. Pacific Beach is a popular place to learn in the San Diego area and there will several shops ready to help you hang ten!

But Wait, There is More Fun to Be Found in San Diego!

San Diego Driving Tips

downtown San Diego

Compared to other cities, San Diego offers plentiful parking. And although freeways can get crowded, they are definitely not as bad as in Los Angeles.

If you want to leave the navigating to someone else, consider Old Town Trolley Tours for inter-San Diego travel. Despite their name, they actually take visitors on a hop-on, hop-off tour of nearly every major San Diego tourist attraction, not just Old Town.

Katie Bodell