With hundreds of kilometres of gorgeous coastline, world-renowned National Parks, vibrant cities and the open road, the US West Coast is the perfect destination for a road trip.
The toughest decision? Where to go! There are 59 National Parks in the USA and many of them are dotted along the USA West Coast. Los Angeles and San Francisco are fantastic city stops. The famous Highway 1 weaves along the spectacular coastline between these two cities.
This ultimate 4 week itinerary for a west coast road trip with kids includes the best of the National Parks plus some great city stops too.
- 1 West Coast Road Trip Itinerary Planning
- 2 Road Trip Car Rental
- 3 Yosemite National Park (4 nights)
- 4 Death Valley (2 nights)
- 5 Pahrump & Las Vegas (2 nights)
- 6 Zion National Park (4 nights)
- 7 Bryce Canyon National Park (1 night)
- 8 Page (1 night)
- 9 Grand Canyon (2 nights)
- 10 Joshua Tree National Park (2 nights)
- 11 Anaheim, LA (2 nights)
- 12 Highway 1 (LA to San Francisco) (9 nights)
- 13 San Francisco (4 nights)
- 14 What would we do differently?
- 15 Add it to your bucket list
West Coast Road Trip Itinerary Planning
When planning your west coast itinerary, it is important to consider the time of year. The USA West Coast spans an enormous area and the weather will play a large part in deciding where will be the best places to go.
We visited in the shoulder season from mid-October to mid-November. That meant we decided to exclude areas north of San Francisco as they were getting cool. On the plus side it meant places like Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley were ideal to visit.
Our 4 week USA West Coast roadtrip with kids started and ended in San Francisco. It took us east and south through some of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes we saw on our family gap year.
Along the way we visited 6 National Parks, 3 State Parks, Disneyland, San Francisco and Las Vegas. We drove along sections of famous road trip routes Route 66, Route 395 and Highway 1 along the coast.
There is no doubt you could squeeze more in to a 4 week US itinerary. But we think that to really explore the national parks and keep the kids happy in the backseat, it is worth taking your time.
Essential Planning Guides
To help plan your visit to the National Parks we recommend you pick up a copy of Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to all 59 National Parks (Second edition).
The book contained a wealth of information useful for planning which parks to visit, the best hikes with kids and it helped us decide how much time to spend in each park.
The book is available as an e-book with maps that can be downloaded, but with poor mobile (cell) reception in the national parks, it was much more convenient to have the hard copy book on hand.
The Lonely Planet Western USA is also a great reference to start your itinerary planning. Lonely Planet Guides are great for getting a solid overview of the highlights, distances and times to visit. Buy a copy online here.
If you are planning to visit more than a couple of National Parks we also recommend you purchase the annual America the Beautiful pass.
This pass covers the entrance fees to all 59 national parks and is great value if you are visiting a number of national parks. It can be purchased online, but it is just as easy to purchase from the Ranger entry at your first national park stop.
Map courtesy of Travellerspoint
Road Trip Car Rental
Once you have a general plan for your itinerary, the next big decision is the type of vehicle to hire for your West Coast road trip. There are three main options (unless of course, you live in the US and already have a car – bonus!):
- Rent a car and stay at hotels
- Rent an RV and stay in campgrounds or free camp (boondocking, wild camping…)
- Rent a car and take camping gear to stay in campgrounds
We think to truly experience the best of the West Coast National Parks you need to stay in or close to them. Which is why we chose to rent an RV for our road trip.
RV rentals can be expensive. But once we calculated the savings we would get by preparing our own meals and staying at campsites (or free camp), the total trip cost will most likely be cheaper than staying in hotels. Plus you get the wonderful experience of camping out under the stars.
In our case, we had just finished 5 months traveling through Europe in a large RV and wanted to try something different. The Jucy camper with rooftop tent was available at a great price so we jumped at the chance to rent it for our road trip.
Overall the Jucy Camper was a great choice for our USA roadtrip. It was a regular sized car to get from place to place quickly, we could travel and park easily on any type of road, and it comes with beds for 4 people and a kitchen. Perfect!
There is a huge range of RV models and sizes available. The best vehicle will depend on the length of your road trip, the number of people, where you want to go and how comfortable you want to be. Plus of course how much you want to spend!
Yosemite National Park (4 nights)
After picking up the camper in San Francisco, squeezing all our belongings inside and stocking up the fridge, we hit the road to get to our first destination, Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite is one of the most famous National Parks on the West Coast (if not the world). With dozens of spectacular hiking trails and the iconic El Capitan and Half Dome mountains, we couldn’t wait to arrive and explore.
We stopped in at the Visitor Centre to chat to the Rangers and find out what trails were open and read up on the history of the area. Our kids enjoyed reading the information about the park. It is also where you can pick up activity sheets for the Junior Ranger Program.
The views from every location in the park were awe inspiring. Yosemite Falls and Bridal Falls were still flowing despite the dry weather and the trail to Nevada Falls was surrounded by trees beginning to lose their leaves in a gorgeous autumn display of colour. The nights were cool but the days were perfect for hiking.
Note that although it was outside peak season the park was crowded. There is no doubt this did take away from the experience a little. However, the views and hikes are spectacular and it should be on any west coast road trip itinerary.
Favorite hike: The Mist Trail to Nevada Falls
We spent 3 days at Yosemite and could easily have spent more time here. But, we were seeking some warmer weather and packed up for our next destination, Death Valley.
Where to Stay at Yosemite National Park
For the more popular parks, like Yosemite, it is necessary to book months and months in advance if you want to have any hope of staying at one of the awesome campgrounds or cabins within the park. Check here for campsite availability.
We always luck out when this is the case – we just aren’t book in advance kind of people! It would have been incredible to stay within the National Park so if you are able to plan ahead, we strongly recommend you book early.
So for our visit to Yosemite we stayed about 20 minutes drive outside the west entrance to the park at Indian Flat RV Park. It was basic but it had the advantage of being close by and allowed us to start our days early in the park.
Unfortunately there are not many budget hotel options close to the Park and you will need to book a long way in advance.
For the ultimate in convenience and comfort with kids, you can’t go past the Tenaya Lodge at Fish Camp.
For cheaper hotels you will need to look further afield to towns such as Mariposa with hotels like the Best Western. Note that it is 50km (30 miles) from the west entrance.
Another option is to look for lodges and bed and breakfasts in the area.
Death Valley (2 nights)
Next stop on our West Coast Road Trip with kids was Death Valley National Park. There are two ways to get to Death Valley – south via Bakersfield or east via the famous Tioga Pass.
Fortunately for us, Tioga Road was still open (it closes in winter) so we could make our way directly from Yosemite to Death Valley. We had heard great things about this drive and were so excited to take this route to Death Valley. We recommend this route over the Bakersfield route if it is open.
We set off early and made our way to the Tioga Pass. After driving through densely forested areas for an hour or so the landscape started to open up and we were rewarded with spectacular views back to Half Dome.
There are many stops on the way to take in the views – Half Dome, Cathedral Peaks and Tenaya Lake were among the most impressive sights.
There are countless marked hikes along this section of road and a couple of campsites too (open during the summer).
As we exited Yosemite National Park and made our way downwards the change in landscape was dramatic and sudden.
The trees, shimmering blue lakes and snow topped mountains are gradually replaced with a treeless, barren, red landscape. The roads no longer need to weave around mountains and the heat wrapped around us like a warm blanket.
It was a big driving day, taking 5-6 hours to make the journey. We spent the night at StovePipe Wells, a sparsely populated “town” with a gas station, a hotel and an RV carpark.
We parked the van in what was essentially a desert car park with 360 degree valley and mountain views. As we set up for the night we were rewarded with a gorgeous orange sunset. The warm air overnight was a very welcome change to the chilly nights in Yosemite.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Early the next morning we visited the nearby Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Rising seemingly from nothing, the 30 metre high dunes spread out over an enormous area. The dunes are mesmerising. The colour, the feel underfoot, the shadows and formations were simply stunning.
The kids couldn’t resist climbing up and racing down the sand dunes that got bigger and bigger the further in we walked.
When we reached the tallest dunes, we got chatting to a couple who had brought sand discs with them. Before long the kids were taking a turn sliding down the dunes on the discs, screaming as they slid down the dune.
It is well worth walking out to the furthest dunes for the best views and pictures but it definitely needs to be tackled in the morning. By the time we got back to our car in the late morning, the heat was sweltering.
In the afternoon we drove down to Badwater Basin. The basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 ft (86m) below sea level and is a large salt flat. It is about 45 minutes drive from Stovepipe Wells.
To be honest, it wasn’t as white or as impressive as the salt flats we have seen in Bolivia, but it was very salty. Amelie and Harvey confirmed this as they picked pieces off the ground and licked them…
We had time on the way back to camp to drive along Artists Drive, a road that was obviously built by a former roller coaster designer!
It is a narrow one-way road that weaves up, down and around stunning colourful rock formations. It is great to visit in the late afternoon as the colours are simply spectacular. We suggest you stop at Artist’s Palette on the way to get out and admire the view.
Early the next morning we made our way to Zabriskie Point. A popular lookout spot at Sunset, we opted to take in the wrinkled golden hills at sunrise and it was an impressive sight.
We almost had the place to ourselves and enjoyed the views out across the strangely shaped and coloured hills as we had our breakfast.
We loved our time at Death Valley National Park. The main challenge (apart from the heat) with Death Valley is many of the places recommended to visit or hike require a big time commitment and/or a 4wd vehicle.
Our kids were never going to be happy about a 4 hour round trip to check out a crater or the famous sailing stones at the Racetrack so we opted not to go to the outer reaches of the valley.
Favourite outing: Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes
Where to Stay in Death Valley
Stovepipe Wells – operated by the National Park Service, this is where we spent our first night. It is a basic campground with showers and toilet facilities. It operates on a first come first served basis. We loved the experience of camping in the desert and it is a great budget option.
Across the road it is also possible to park your RV at the Stovepipe Wells hotel. You have access to the hotel facilities including a pool.
Furnace Creek – For our last night in Death Valley we stayed at the campground in Furnace Creek next to the Visitor Centre. The kids were very excited as you have access to the pool at the adjacent hotel, The Ranch at Furnace Creek.
Furnace Creek is the best base for exploring Death Valley. Many of the major sites are within easy driving distance. There are a number of hotels in the small town.
Pahrump & Las Vegas (2 nights)
Our first week had involved a lot of driving so we broke our trip to Las Vegas with a one-night stopover in the small town of Pahrump.
The kids played in the pool, enjoyed admiring the huge RVs and we had an afternoon catching up on laundry. You could easily skip this stop and head straight to Las Vegas for a longer stop.
One night in Las Vegas was just enough to see the craziness, eat at an extravagant buffet and swap our Jucy van out for a newer, more reliable model. The reason we did this was when we drove from Yosemite to Death Valley it shuddered violently as we drove down the steep hills. Needless to say we weren’t happy!
I can’t say I enjoyed Las Vegas much. Maybe it was because we were with the kids, or that we had just been a week in the wilderness, or maybe it is just that I am getting old! I was happy to push on and head to our next beautiful destination, Zion National Park.
Things to do in Las Vegas
You won’t be surprised to know there are many things to do in Las Vegas! If you decide to stay longer than 1 night, Las Vegas is a convenient base for many great day trips.
- Vegas is within easy driving distance of some great hiking, including Red Rock Canyon
- Drive out to take a look at the impressive Hoover Dam.
- Visit one of the many theme parks, go to a show or admire the views from the High Roller at The Linq. Click here to save up to 40% off tours and activities in Las Vegas
- If you aren’t planning to drive to the Grand Canyon, many bus tours and helicopter flights leave from Vegas to the South Rim. Check out the lowest prices on Helicopter Tours in Las Vegas here
Where to Stay in Las Vegas
There are a number of campgrounds scattered around the edge of Las Vegas. We stayed at the Las Vegas Oasis RV Resort – one of the fancier stops on our road trip.
We drew a fair amount of attention as we drove our little dusty camper into our enormous “pull-thru” site next to the biggest RVs we had ever seen and piled out of the car.
There are SO MANY hotel options in Las Vegas! Which means there are often great bargains to be found.
Zion National Park (4 nights)
Our next stop was Zion National Park. I can safely say it was everyone’s favourite park.
Sheer red cliffs, cool clear rivers, hanging gardens, canyons, forests and waterfalls. It has a bit of everything and everything was spectacular!
There is a lot to see and do in Zion NP. The park kept us very busy over three days and we could easily have spent a week here exploring all the trails.
There is a wide range of trails for different abilities which makes it a great destination for families.
During our three days we covered the following hiking trails:
- Observation Point
- Hidden Canyon
- Emerald Pools
- Riverside Walk
- Angels Landing (Matt did this on this own)
We also went to the start of the Narrows hike (it is where the Riverside Walk ends) and have added this hike to our bucket list.
Favourite hike: Observation Point & Hidden Canyon.
Junior Ranger Program
The kids completed their first of 4 Junior Ranger Programs at Zion National Park. This program was such a great find.
The Rangers provide each child with an activity book to complete during their stay. The activities are targeted to different age groups.
It wasn’t onerous and was pitched at just the right level for it to be fun and educational. Once completed they return the book to a Park Ranger who checks it, gets the kids to state an oath to protect the park and then awards them with a badge.
This program completely changed the way our kids engaged with their surroundings while in the parks. They learned about the local wildlife, plants and geology. They took an active interest in the information shared by the Rangers on the free tours they offer.
We all learned a lot and I cannot recommend this program enough to other families visiting the parks.
Where to Stay At Zion National Park
We didn’t realise that we had timed our visit with Utah’s fall school break. This meant it was impossible to get a site at the National Park campground and again we had to camp just outside the park at Zion Canyon Campground in Springdale.
It was more expensive that the campground in the National Park, but it was very conveniently located to access the park. We could walk to the free shuttle at the visitor centre and the campground had a pool, which the kids were thrilled to use at the end of each day.
The site had impressive views of the surrounding mountains and we loved watching the sun set over them each day. While it is impossible to avoid every public holiday, school holiday or weekend, it makes sense to try and plan visits to popular places out of these busy times. Noted for next time!
The best place to base yourself is at Springdale. It is the last town before the park and has a large number of hotel options in every price range.
We suggest you look for availability at hotels close to the park’s entrance, as you are then walking distance to the Visitor Centre and shuttle bus.
Bryce Canyon National Park (1 night)
Reluctantly we left Zion National Park and made our way along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway towards our next stop, Bryce Canyon National Park.
The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway is another spectacular mountain drive. We were lucky to spot a group of bighorn sheep and a herd of bison along the way. The highway connects to Highway 89 where we made our way to Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Canyon is a small park that can easily be visited in a day and is absolutely worth the detour. It has some of the most unusual and interesting sights of all the parks we visited – the hoodoos.
The hoodoos are pillars of rock that have been shaped by erosion over millions of years. There are thousands of them scattered throughout the park and their colours and shapes make for an incredible sight.
Sunrise and sunset are especially good times to experience the beauty of the valley of the hoodoos. The kids had a lot of fun pointing out different shapes in the hoodoos as well as searching out the chipmunks that seemed to be everywhere.
There are a number of different trails at Bryce Canyon. We think the best is the Wall Street and Queens Garden Loop. You can start the loop from either end on the edge of the rim.
Walking down “Wall Street” into the valley of the Hoodoos and being able to explore them up close was a really special experience.
An interesting fact about Bryce Canyon is that the Park has some of the darkest night skies in the USA which makes it one of the best places to stargaze. The rangers offer free astronomy tours too. Unfortunately there wasn’t one running the night we stayed.
The park is at a much higher elevation than Zion, ranging from 8000-9000 feet above see level (2400-2700m). It experiences something like 200 days a year below freezing overnight!
We stayed just one night and early the next morning went back into the park to admire the sunrise views before setting for our next destination, Page.
Where to stay at Bryce Canyon
There are two campgrounds within the park, and they operate on a first-come-first-serve basis. You can find out more here.
We opted not to camp fearing we would be too cold overnight in our little van. We stayed at Bryce View Lodge, only a few minutes drive from the park entry.
The hotel is well priced for an overnight stop and was a great spot to stay the night.
Page (1 night)
Next stop on our West Coast road trip with kids was Page, a small town where we visited two spectacular sights – Lower Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.
Lower Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon is a very popular destination and pre-booking is highly recommended. There are actually two canyons – Upper Antelope and Lower Antelope.
You must join a tour to visit either canyon and you are allocated a specific timeslot with a group and guide. Earthtrekkers provide a great summary of the two canyons to help decide which one to visit.
We opted to visit Lower Antelope Canyon with Ken’s Tours. It took a while to actually climb down into the canyon (there are many reviews highlighting the issue with the wait times).
Thankfully it wasn’t too hot while we waited. Our guide then moved us along the canyon floor quite quickly, but despite that it was well worth a visit.
It felt quite magical walking along the sandy canyon floor. The path is narrow and you glide past rocks smoothed by millions of years of erosion into the most fantastical shapes.
The canyon is very narrow so everyone walks in single file. There are a number of short ladders to climb too. The kids LOVED this place. We had plenty of opportunities to stop and admire the colour and shape of the canyon. The guides gave us helpful advice on how to get the best photos while in the canyon.
I could have spent hours in there! It is an expensive outing, but one of the most memorable places we visited during our road trip.
Note that you will need to book your tickets (potentially months) in advance to visit Lower Antelope Canyon.
Horseshoe Bend gave us our first glimpse of the Colorado River before it weaves its way through the Grand Canyon. Here the river traces a horseshoe-shaped bend which you view from the top of the surrounding 1000 ft high cliff.
Incredibly, there are no railings. I found myself holding my breath as I watched people with selfie sticks in hand shimmy to the edge for the perfect photo. I nagged the hell out of the kids to stay away from the edge while admiring the view!
It is absolutely worth a stop – the views are beautiful.
It was perhaps an oversight that we didn’t stop and spend a little time at Lake Powell. There is a lot to do – including kayaking on the lake, taking a cruise down the river and visiting Rainbow Bridge.
Where to Stay in Page
We stayed at the Page Lake Powell Campground. It was unremarkable, but it was cheap and we weren’t fussed as we spent just one night and very little time there.
If you are planning a longer stop at Lake Powell there are a number of better options closer to the Lake.
There are a lot of budget hotels in Page, so if you are planning to stay just one night or longer to visit Lake Powell, you should be able to find a reasonable deal.
Grand Canyon (2 nights)
Our next stop was the Grand Canyon. We had glimpses of the Grand Canyon as we made our way from Page along Highway 89, opening up across the sparse dry landscape.
It is only a 2.5-hour drive from Page to the National Park Campground and we arrived late in the afternoon, just in time for sunset.
So much has been written about the Grand Canyon. I don’t think I can add much other than to say it is spectacularly huge. It is so difficult to capture the enormity of it in a photo. It is far bigger than I ever imagined.
Hiking at the Grand Canyon
The park provides a free shuttle for visitors which makes it very easy to get around. We were able to experience the canyon from a number of different viewpoints by hopping on and off the bus along the rim.
South Kaibab Trail
For a unique perspective of the Canyon, there are a number of trails that make their way down towards the Colorado River.
We decided to hike the South Kaibab trail with the kids. It offers a number of different viewpoints and options to turn back which made it a great option with the kids.
Our kids are pretty good little hikers now and we hiked all the way to Cedar Ridge, which is a 3 mile roundtrip with a steep climb out.
The hike was not too difficult in the cooler fall weather and while we were all tempted to continue walking down we resisted the urge, knowing we had to make our way back up!
It is important to carry sufficient water for everyone as there is no water available on the trail. We carried two water bottles and a 2l CamelBak Hydration Reservoir in another pack to stay hydrated. The CamelBak hydration reservoirs are great as they can be slotted into any backback.
We are gradually getting the kids used to carrying their own packs and these reservoirs are perfect to put in their packs.
It is possible to hike to the bottom of the canyon. A number of people we met said it is pretty special to stay overnight at the bottom of the canyon.
There are a number of tours that run, but it is also possible to plan the hike independently. It is definitely something I will look into if we ever make it back.
Favourite view: Ooh Aah Point, South Kaibab Trail
Whilst we couldn’t afford it this time around, I would LOVE to sign up for a helicopter flight over the canyon. It would look so amazing from the sky I am sure! Perhaps next time!
If you are keen to experience the canyon from air, you can check the latest prices and availability here.
Click here for more ideas on how to explore the Grand Canyon with kids.
Where to Stay at the Grand Canyon
We stayed 2 nights at the Mather Campground, a gorgeous campground within the National Park close to the village. They recommend you book for stays between March and November. We had no trouble finding a spot in late October.
It was a great spot on the South Rim from which to explore the Canyon. As it was shoulder season we didn’t need to book but in summer it is very busy.
The campground is a large site surrounded by trees. The kids had space to run around and were amazed (and a little terrified) of the elk that frequented the campground in search of water.
The elk have learned it is much simpler to get water from the taps, so it was amusing watching people try and fill up their RVs while fending off fierce looking adult elk.
There are a number of hotels within the National Park located close to the Village. For budget accommodation you will need to look further afield to the closest town of Tusayan.
Joshua Tree National Park (2 nights)
Joshua Tree was the last National Park we visited on our West Coast America road trip.
The drive from Grand Canyon is about 6 hours so we broke the trip up with an unremarkable overnight stop in the small town of Needles.
On first glance Joshua Tree National Park appears desolate and barren. The beauty becomes more evident as you begin to explore.
The huge smooth boulders, the teddy bear cactus and of course the Joshua trees are such unique natural features that made this park so fun to visit.
It was still quite hot through the day in late October but cooled off quickly at night.
Walks at Joshua Tree National Park
There are a number of great walks in the park. We decided to explore the short walks on offer as the day time heat was still quite hot but there are many full day hikes available too.
The ones we loved include:
- Hidden Valley
- Cholla Cactus Garden
- Skull Rock
We joined a Ranger Led walk at Skull Rock and it was great for the kids to learn about the desert animals, plants and geology.
One great thing about the park is the relative freedom to explore off the path. The kids had so much fun choosing which boulders to climb up and over.
They discovered all types of cactus growing within the rocky outcrops and kept a watchful eye out for animals like the Jack rabbit and coyote.
Favourite walk: Hidden Valley.
Where to Stay at Joshua Tree National Park
There are 9 campgrounds at Joshua Tree and most are operated on a first-come, first-served basis.
We didn’t think we would have a problem securing a site, so when we arrived at Joshua Tree late morning on a Friday we were surprised to hear most of the campgrounds were already full for the weekend.
Thankfully there were still sites at the Cottonwood campground at the southern end of the park. While not as centrally located, we still enjoyed the desert setting with the sounds of the coyotes in the distance in the evening.
Many of the other campsites are nestled among the huge boulders. So my recommendation is to arrive early!
There are no hotels within Joshua Tree National Park so you will need to look at the closest town, Twentynine Palms which is about 30 kms (18.5 miles) from the centre of the park.
Anaheim, LA (2 nights)
We couldn’t visit the USA West Coast without a trip to Disneyland! The kids had been excited about this visit since we started our trip around the world.
They spent many hours poring over ride reviews and park maps to plan their day. It was a huge day, racing from ride to ride. It was a lot of fun. Although, I am not planning on riding Space Mountain again. Ever!
Where to Stay in Anaheim
For our visit to Disneyland we stayed at the Anaheim RV Park. The RV Park has a pool but the sites are all pretty close together.
However it is the closest RV park to Disneyland so it makes a convenient stop for a night or two.
The RV Park does offer a shuttle service to Disneyland, but for the 4 of us it was cheaper to book a car through Lyft instead.
You are spoiled for choice when it comes to hotels in and around Anaheim.
Highway 1 (LA to San Francisco) (9 nights)
After our stop at Disneyland we made our way up Highway 1 from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
We took our time as there are so many great Highway One stops including Carpinteria, Morro Bay, Monterey, Big Sur State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Carpinteria (1 night)
Our stop at Carpinteria coincided with Halloween. The kids were very excited to have the chance to experience Halloween in the USA and spent LOTS of time choosing outfits for the occasion!
After making some inquiries in town we found a lovely neighbourhood to take the kids trick or treating. We had all purchased costumes from Walmart (I couldn’t believe how cheap dress ups are in the USA compared to home).
Matt did an excellent job carving out a pumpkin at our site and the kids had so much fun going from house to house. They collected far too much candy and we are still finding chocolate wrappers in pockets weeks later!
The Carpinteria campsite on the beach was our stop for the night, just south of Santa Barbara.
Morro Bay (2 nights)
From Carpinteria we traveled to Morro Bay. Unfortunately at this point the weather started to turn wintery and wet.
We knew we were probably pushing our luck on the road trip in November with the weather. While this didn’t stop the kids building sandcastles on the beach all afternoon, we didn’t really get to appreciate the area as we would have in summer.
On our way to Monterey a great stop is the Elephant Seal Rookery just north of San Simeon. The elephant seals spend 8 to 10 months a year in the ocean and only come to the rookery twice a year for breeding and molting.
In October the juvenile seals are on the beaches to rest. The boardwalk is very close to the beach so we were lucky to spend time watching the seals spar, sleep and generally make a lot of weird sounds at each other! The kids really enjoyed watching them until the rain came and forced our retreat to the car.
Unfortunately due to a number of huge landslides over the past year or two Highway 1 was still partially closed which meant a detour from Cambria to Monterey was required.
The inland highway is peppered with wineries and farmland but I suspect it is far less spectacular than the coastal road.
Monterey (3 nights)
We made our way to Monterey where the weather again thwarted our plans a little.
After a wet day spent watching movies the sun came out and we got outside to explore.
Things to do in Monterey
Point Lobos State Park
It is a small, pretty state park close to the town of Carmel.
The sun was out, the kids spotted sea lions and sea otters while walking along the point and it was nice way to spend the afternoon after being cooped up inside for a day or so.
There are some gorgeous little coves and beaches to explore as well as some very friendly volunteers who had displays of bones, furs and feathers for the kids to examine.
Kayaking at Elkhorn Slough
While we were in Monterey we decided to explore Elkhorn Slough, a tidal salt marsh that travels seven miles inland from the coast and is home to sea otters, sea lions and harbour seals.
You can hire kayaks and explore the slough at your own pace. There are tours available on the weekend, but we were able to hire two double kayaks and some wetsuits to keep us warm and set off to explore independently.
Kayaking with the kids is always a little risky. They are always super keen to do it then generally one or the other of them is over it not long after starting!
The paddling was very easy and completely do-able with the kids. However, this time Harvey was having issues with his wetsuit which made him uncomfortable for much of the trip.
We tried a couple of things to reduce the itchiness but nothing really worked. After an hour or so we turned and made our way back. Ah, the joys of traveling with kids!
The good news is we all survived and enjoyed paddling out on the water. The weather stayed clear while we were out on the Slough and we were lucky to spot many sea otters busy at work eating and sleeping as well as some very curious harbour seals. Not to mention hundreds of birds.
Pretty much as soon as we finished the kayaking the weather closed in and the rain started bucketing down!
Monterey is a busy little town with a lot to do and one of the most popular activities is to visit the Monterey Aquarium.
Unfortunately we ran out of time for a visit, but if you would like to visit click here for the latest prices and availability.
Where to Stay in Monterey
We stayed at Monterey Veterans Memorial Park campground. It was a very basic site but made for a good cheap base to explore the area.
It also had a playground which was a bonus. Amelie and Harvey were pretty excited to spot our first raccoon wandering through the campground after dark.
There is a lot of holiday accommodation at Monterey so you should easily be able to find a good deal.
Big Sur State Park (2 nights)
Our next stop was Big Sur State Park. The drive along Highway 1 from Monterey to Big Sur is renowned and it didn’t disappoint.
The road weaves high up along the cliff edge, with beautiful views across the ocean. I was a nervous passenger at times looking out over the (very close) edge!
We were fortunate the sun was shining. The Bixby Creek Bridge was as impressive as the pictures I have seen, as were the houses jutting out along the cliffs.
Things to do in Big Sur
Fortunately the road had been repaired and recently opened just south Big Sur so we could visit McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It is a pretty unique waterfall!
We also hiked to Buzzards Roost – one of the few hiking trails opened since the landslides.
The trail wandered through the redwood forest up to the top of the ridge with great views across the ocean. It was our first glimpse of the big Redwoods and we were in awe of their height and size.
Where to Stay in Big Sur
There are a number of options for good campgrounds in Big Sur.
Our campsite for two nights was the Big Sur State Park campground. It is a beautiful campsite along the river and we were lucky to arrive mid week and get a site.
There were very few campers, but apparently on the weekends it books out, so our timing was good this time!
There are a number of lovely hotels tucked away in Big Sur if you are looking for more of a treat, but it is also possible to stay in Monterey and explore Big Sur as a day trip.
Big Basin Redwood State Park ( 1 night)
Our last park stop on our West Coast USA road trip was Big Basin Redwood State Park. As we made our way there the rain continued to worsen.
A downed electricity pole meant a deter along a tiny narrow road littered with leaves falling from the trees.
Despite the rain, the drive into the park was absolutely stunning. Huge old redwood trees, some thousands of years old, lined the road.
The fog and rain gave an eery feeling as we admired the autumn colours. The landscape was such a change from what we had seen for the past few weeks.
Despite the rain we were excited to see the famed redwoods we had read about.
Where to Stay in Big Basin Redwood State Park
We stayed at the Huckleberry campground within the State Park. While we were tempted by the basic cabins available for rent complete with wood fires due to the rain, our ongoing budget constraints meant we were camping.
The good news is we managed. The kids watched a movie on the laptop, the roof tent didn’t leak and we all stayed dry overnight!
Thankfully the weather cleared long enough in the morning for us explore the Redwood Loop walk near the visitor centre.
Despite our attempts at capturing images of the Redwoods, it is impossible to convey the magnitude of these 1000 year old trees in photos.
San Francisco (4 nights)
Our road trip on the USA West Coast concluded with 4 days in San Francisco.
After 4 weeks staying in National Parks surrounded by wide open spaces, the busyness of San Francisco was quite an adjustment. We spent quite a lot of time chilling out, but made plans to explore some of the city.
Our first stop was Alcatraz. Our friends had told us to book in advance as tickets sell out and we were pleased we did.
While it was an expensive outing for us, the boat trip out to the island and the free audio guide was excellent. Combining a harbour cruise, a history lesson and a unique look into a famous prison made for a pretty great day out.
As well as the Alcatraz ticket office, there are a number of different packages available that include a ticket to Alcatraz. This one includes a cruise on the spectacular San Francisco Bay which would be a fabulous way to finish the day. Click here for latest prices and availability.
We only touched the surface in this amazing city.
- While we were in town we took a ride on the famous cable cars and marveled at how anyone with a pram could make their way up and down the hills in the city.
- We drove over the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog which made for an eery experience and later visited Bakers Beach for a great view of the bridge once the fog cleared.
- Matt and I enjoyed exploring the Mission District alleys famed for their political murals (kids not so much)
- We had a fun time making our way up two gorgeous tiled staircases in the Sunset district.
Despite feeling like we had a busy few days we only just touched the surface of all the amazing things you can do in San Francisco.
It is a gorgeous city and deserves far more time than we had.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
We were very fortunate to stay with friends in San Francisco at the start and end of our road trip and thoroughly enjoyed catching up.
It was also a treat to stay in a house with all the luxuries we have long forgotten (full kitchen with oven, bathrooms under the same roof as your bed, a couch to sit on!).
What would we do differently?
With less / more time what would we have done differently?
I have mixed feelings about the Highway 1 section of our road trip along the coast to San Francisco. We visited in early November and the wintry and wet weather meant we didn’t get to enjoy the route as much as we would have in summer.
As sections of the highway were closed due to landslides I don’t think we really got the most out of this section of the trip.
In hindsight considering the time of year we should have included another inland National Park such as Arches or Canyonlands where the weather was sunny and warm. With less time this section could easily be covered in 1-2 nights.
We decided not to visit Sequoia National Park as it was getting too cold (which was a good decision as they got their first snowfall in the early weeks of November). Had the weather been better I think this would make a great stop on the west coast road trip itinerary.
The other thing we would have changed is to dedicate more than a month to explore the Parks! While we are so lucky to have had 4 weeks to explore this part of the world we could easily have spent another two weeks visiting more of them. We never tired of visiting the Parks – they were all so unique, well run and easy to visit with the kids.
The other thing to note is that it was a very easy trip to organise compared to other places we have visited, like India and Africa. Supermarkets and gas stations were easy to find, there were no issues with availability of water and information was readily available.
Add it to your bucket list
A West Coast USA road trip had been on our travel bucket list for a long time. We road tripped through 4 states, visited 6 National Parks and 3 State Parks and it is one of our favourite trips to date.
In our Jucy camper we spent much of our time outside. Cooking, eating, sitting around the campfire toasting marshmallows and gazing up at the star filled skies made it a memorable trip and one I hope we can repeat in the not too distant future. We highly recommend a west coast road trip with kids for families who enjoy traveling independently.
Thinking of booking a road trip? Compare RV prices here.
If you are planning a road trip to the USA West Coast, take a look at this list of recommended reading for you:
Have you visited the USA West Coast? What was your favourite destination? Let us know in the comments!
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