When it comes to travel variety, Northern California reigns supreme; you should have no trouble pleasing everyone in your family with a trip through this diverse region. Spend the first half of your vacation along the most rugged and scenic stretch of the California coast.
Use Carmel as your seaside base; the area surrounding this charming, Mission town has plenty of opportunities for family fun, including one of the country’s best aquariums, viewing points for watching sea lions play, secret beaches, and rushing waterfalls. After each action-packed day, you can unwind in town at tasty, yet low key and affordable, gourmet restaurants. For your trip to Yosemite, I’ll help you find the most scenic vistas and some easy walking trails that are manageable for the entire family. On your way back to the airport in San Francisco, don’t forget to stop at the Jelly Belly Factory for a tour or some shopping in its colorful and sugary gift shop!
A Taste of San Francisco
Make the most of your limited time in San Francisco by taking a taste of its famous culinary scene. There are plenty of family-friendly spots in town that showcase the city’s gourmet legacy. Tacolicious, located in the trendy Mission district, dishes up tasty tacos, creative cocktails, and tempting mocktails for your little one. Kids can even assemble their own taco trucks while mom and dad sip on Paddington Bears and Tickle Me Telmos. Also in the Mission, the nouveau-American Foreign Cinema is slightly more upscale, but provides kids and adults with entertainment in the form of movies projected on the restaurant walls. Even though they don’t play cartoons, kids will be intrigued but the novel setup.
If you end up eating or lodging in the Mission, you can enjoy some pre- or post-dinner exploration. Dolores Park offers unparalleled people watching, and Balmy Alley is home to some beautiful wall murals.
Head to the Coast
Today you’ll begin your journey along the California Coast. Split your time between Santa Cruz and Monterey, two family-friendly spots that offer two very different experiences.
Your first stop is Santa Cruz, a beach town whose claim to fame is its boardwalk amusement park, which is the only original one still operating on the West Coast. The boardwalk has games and rides for all ages, as well as a smorgasbord of classic carnival treats.
Continue on to Monterey, a historic seaside town that features a gorgeous bay teeming with diverse wildlife. The city is also home to one of the best aquariums in the country; the Monterey Bay Aquarium features local sea life and has especially impressive sea otter and jellyfish exhibits.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a good spot for sea lion spotting. Just a ten-minute walk south from the wharf is Dennis the Menace Park, a public park beloved by local children. This play area has unique features, including a full-sized locomotive, hedge maze, roller slide, and suspension bridge.
Seafood rules the Monterey restaurant scene, and a good spot to try the local cuisine is Monterey’s Fish House. This family-friendly spot is slightly off the beaten path, which means better prices and a dining room packed full of locals. Remember to call ahead for reservations!
The Road Trip of All Road Trips
Today you’ll enjoy a road trip down the winding highway that runs along the most rugged and scenic stretch of the California coast. Drive the famous Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey through Big Sur and back up to Carmel, your home for the night. The best way to do this trip is at your leisure, stopping when a “Vista Point” catches your eye.
Suggested stops along the route include a visit with the sea lions in the beautiful coves of Point Lobos State Reserve, a walk to the secluded Pfeiffer Beach, and a quick hike to the stunning McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Also be sure to nab that classic Big Sur photo of the Bixby Canyon Bridge. The perfect lunch spot is the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant, a slow-food restaurant serving up the best of California cuisine in the environs of a rustic cabin. Especially good are the wood-fired pizzas and anything from their baked goods case.
Head back north to the charming Mission town of Carmel in time for some exploration and dinner. You can grab picnic fare at Bruno’s Market and Deli and enjoy it on the City Beach or fully embrace the town’s European vibe at La Bicyclette. Another restaurant option is PortaBella, a gourmet, Mediterranean restaurant that is casual enough for kids.
A Mini Vineyard Tour
This morning you’ll make your way to your cabin just outside of Yosemite National Park. Upon arrival, drop Cason off with grandma and grandpa; after your long car trip you’ve earned a trip to the area wineries!
There are three vineyards in the Mariposa area, and they can all be tackled in an afternoon. Start at Ciera Wine Cellars, a relatively new winery located in Mariposa’s quaint downtown area. Continue on to Silver Fox Vineyards, an award-winning vineyard that gives tours and tastings by appointment. Finish your tour at Butterfly Creek Winery & Vineyards, a scenic spot in the Sierra Foothills that produces a unique white merlot.
America’s Most Famous Valley
This morning you’ll drive to the majestic Yosemite National Park, by way of State Route 140. Rather than immediately attempting a hike, spend the morning getting acquainted with the park by taking a tour of the best scenic viewpoints along the Yosemite Valley floor.
Start at Yosemite Falls View; the path at the foot of this waterfall is paved and runs along a mossy lagoon to the misty base. Continue on to Bridalveil Fall, one of the few park waterfalls that flow year-round. A short walk along the nearby, roadside path will afford you a full view of El Capitan, the largest, sheer face of granite in the world. End your tour along the valley loop road at Tunnel View, where you can see the expansive valley spread out before you and the iconic Half Dome and El Capitan towering above. A great place for lunch in the valley is at the historic Ahwanee Hotel.
In the afternoon try either the Mirror Lake or the Cook’s Meadow walk. Both are paved, flat, and relatively short. The one-mile Cook’s Meadow trail offers classic views of Half Dome, while the two-mile Mirror Lake walk takes you to a gorgeous lake that reflects the surrounding cliffs.
Big Trees, Bigger Views
Enter the park through the south entrance today so that you can stop by the Mariposa Grove. This wooded area is the park’s largest sequoia grove and contains over 500 of these giant, awe-inducing trees. Check out the immense base of the 2,7o0-year-old Grizzly Giant and the incredible length of the Fallen Monarch. There are also several trees with tunnels that you can walk through.
Continue on to Glacier Point, a vista that provides astonishing views over the valley floor. On your way out of the park, consider doing the other of the two walks suggested in yesterday’s itinerary. Kids also enjoy rides on the Green Dragon, a tram that takes visitors on a guided and narrated tour of the park’s highlights.
Cason and the Candy Factory
What better way to break up your drive back to San Francisco than with a trip to a real-life candy factory! The Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield gives informative and fun tours. Cason can see the jelly beans being made, and he’ll get some free samples along the way. Brave souls can try odd flavors not fit for store shelves… dog food and pencil shavings anyone? After the tour, enjoy the colorful gift shop where you can buy some misshapen beans at a discount!
With time, you might also consider a stop at Muir Woods. This beautiful National Park is home to some of California’s famous redwood trees and is a great place to stretch your legs after a long day in the car. If you decide to make this detour, stop for dinner in nearby Sausalito. This picturesque, artsy town is filled with galleries, boutiques, and great places to eat.
The Pacific Coast Highway… is not for the faint of heart. Proceed along the road cautiously, as there are many steep drop-offs and several spots without guardrails.
Fill up on gas… whenever you get a chance; when you’re exploring some of the more remote areas, gas stations are few and far between.
You’ll be in Yosemite… during peak waterfall season! Enjoy this exciting time in the park, and see as many of them as you can!