Driving along Route 1 down the California coast is a classic road trip, and a kid-friendly one at that. Cities, towns, state parks and beaches pop up at regular enough intervals that make it easy to take a break when the kids hit their maximum capacity for sitting in the back seat. The road passes right through Muir Woods, San Francisco, Big Sur, San Diego and several classic Southern California beach towns, making it easy to experience some of the most famous things in the state to see and do.
But just in case you need to take a break in between these more famous and hard-to-miss places, here are 11 smaller stops that you might miss but that are worth seeking out with kids as you dive down The Coastal Highway.
At the northern end of Route 1 you’ll find the town of Leggett, considered the start of California Redwood Country and home to some of the biggest trees in the world. Standish-Hicks State Park is home to the 1,200-year-old, 225-foot-tall Captain Miles Standish Tree. It also has ample opportunities for swimming and kayaking in the Eel River. For your daily dose of road-trip kitsch, stop by the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree Park. This is where you’ll take photos of your car driving through the arched roots of a giant redwood.
Thrill-seekers will head straight to the roller coaster and other rides on the boardwalk, but if your idea of a “thrill” involves wildlife spotting, bypass the amusements and seek out Venture Quest Kayaking. You can kayak on your own or take a guided tour through water where you will see otters, seals, dolphins and even whales.
Monterey has its well-known aquarium and spiffed-up Cannery Row and is a short hop from the stellar scenic drive through Pebble Beach. But if your kids really just need to run around, then just before you hit town, stop at Dennis the Menace Playground, originally designed by the creator of the vintage comic strip. Get a drink of water inside a lion’s mouth, run across a draping rope bridge, find your way through a hedge maze, and burn of energy at the whimsical looking playground in El Estero Park.
Yes, you want to go to Hearst Castle. Reward your kids for good behavior there with a stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, a protected habitat in town where long-nosed moms and pups live year round and elephant-nosed males visit for mating from November to March.
Many of California’s age-old hot springs have been built into spas and resorts–not always particularly kid friendly. But for a natural hot springs experience stop near the entrance to Gaviota State Park, just beyond where Route 1 briefly mergers with 101. There a brief hike will bring you to a shallow warm sulfur spring that’s about perfect for kids to splash around in. If you have tweens or teens with you, you can do a longer hike to the peak before soaking your toes in the mineral water.
If you have time for a longer stop, consider hopping on a ferry to Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara. There are five islands but Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands offer the shortest boat rides (about an hour) and are easiest for a day trip. Each one offers good hiking, swimming, snorkeling and opportunities to kayak. Bring plenty of water and lunch though, as the islands have little in the way of facilities (which they make up for with views and sea life). Stop at the ranger station on the mainland for a Junior Ranger activity book.
If you have kids under 8 or so with you consider a stop at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, a small very hands-on aquarium. Kids can touch sharks, sea anemones and hermit crabs and crawl beneath a glassed-in tide pool to see sea life from below.
With all that hiking and kayaking it’s ok to make a few candy stops. Consider SweetBu Candy Co at the Trancas Country Market in Malibu for seasonal and local confections and classic candy bars from across the country. Seek out Balboa Candy in Newport Beach if you’re a fan of saltwater taffy. If your kids arrive in Carmel-By-the-Sea expecting a town filled with caramel, no need to disappoint. Head to the Cottage of Sweets, where they make their own fudge and licorice and import popular chocolate bars, shortbreads and other sweets from Europe.
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