A Family Road Trip along Highway 1

Bixby Bridge - family road trip highway 1

Everyone’s travel bucket lists were reimagined last year — as borders closed, highways remained opened, beckoning us like that guy at the school dance who all of a sudden seems super cute, even though the day before he was just another guy in Chem class.  You’re looking at him with fresh new eyes, thinking, “Wait a second — How have I never seen him before?”  2020 revitalized the Great American Road Trip — our newly found cute guy who we’re now excitedly thinking about nonstop.  And with the road trip obsession here to stay, it’s time to plan your next summer vacation fling.

Last year, road trips experienced a rebirth as a way to safely scratch the vacation itch created by COVID.  However, this year, Americans are still hitting the road because…guess what?  This country really is, America the Beautiful!  Over the next few weeks — as a nod to all the new road warriors — Compass Roam will highlight some of the best family road trips in the U.S.A.  Pile into the car with your kids because these destinations are worth all the “are we there yet’s?”  Road trips are one of the ultimate ways to celebrate summer.  So, roll down the windows, blast “Let it Go” for the thousandth time, and write the next chapter in your family’s COVID era memory bank.  This week, our road trip series will kick off with Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway.  Read on to learn more about planning a family road trip along Highway 1.

Why Plan a Road Trip along Highway 1?

highway 1 - family road trip highway 1

A drive down California’s famous Highway 1 is — simply put — Earth eye candy, and guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser for every family member in your caravan.  I can vouch for this.  I’ve cruised the Pacific Coast Highway multiple times, at different ages.  As a teenager, not much could distract me from the newly released N’SYNC Celebrity album circa 2001; but Highway 1 prevailed, showing off its rugged coastline and deep ocean blues.  Recently, I’ve returned twice as an adult with my husband and daughter — both when she was an infant and toddler.  I can happily report that Highway 1 is the ultimate nap time drive.  We quietly drove to scenic vistas to snap a quick pic, waking the baby for Christmas-card worthy shots. 

family on the 17 mile drive - family road trip highway 1
stretch of road on the 17 mile drive - family road trip highway 1

Are we there yet?

How long does it take to travel Highway 1?  Highway 1 runs almost the entire length of California, but the star of the show for me is the stretch from San Francisco to Santa Barbara — that’s 350 miles, and roughly 7.5 hours, of front-row panoramic views. However, don’t rush from Point A to Point B.  Spend 7-10 days exploring the cities and hidden gems with your family.  You’ll want to spend a few days each in San Francisco, Monterey/Carmel, and Santa Barbara.  Check out my free downloadable Highway 1 itinerary here

map of highway 1
Photo courtesy of Google Maps

Best Family Friendly Activities Along Highway 1

  • Not long after leaving San Francisco, you’ll pass Half Moon Bay, where you can enjoy a quick pit stop for a walk along the beach at the Ritz Carlton. 
  • A family road trip along Highway 1 is not complete without stopping for a 2-3 days in Monterey and Carmel-by- the-Sea.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium is sure to impress kids (and adults!) of every age.  You can easily spend a whole day exploring the exhibits and watching the penguin shows.  The next day, stroll through the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea; although the town is famous for its art galleries, and wine tasting rooms, the storybook architecture of the shops makes it the perfect place to let imaginations run wild.  
  • Before heading back on Highway 1, take an unforgettable detour, and drive the 17 Mile Drive past Pebble Beach Golf Resort.  This scenic route is famous on its own, and well worth your time. 
toddler at the Monterey Bay Aquarium - family road trip highway 1
Monterey Bay Aquarium
lodge at pebble beach - family road trip highway 1
Pebble Beach Golf Resort – along the 17 Mile Drive
mcway falls - family road trip highway 1
McWay Falls
  • About halfway between Monterey and Santa Barbara, there is a small fishing town called Morro Bay.  This quaint town features local mom and pop candy stores, lobster shacks, and plenty of otters splashing in the bay.  So, if your road trip with the kids is reaching….that point… then it’s time to pull over and spend an hour exploring Morro Bay.
  • Approximately 2 hours from Morro Bay, you’ll finally reach Santa Barbara.  Pencil off a few days to take in this kid-friendly city.  If you’re traveling with young children, don’t miss the playground at Almeda park and the Moxi Museum.  There’s also the Santa Barbara Zoo, and family bike rentals you can use along the water.  My favorite spot was the beach at Rosewood Miramar.
mom and daughter at moxi museum - family road trip highway 1
Moxi Museum
mom and daughter in front of giant drum - family road trip highway 1
Moxi Museum
walk on beach at sunrise - Rosewood Miramar
Sunrise at Rosewood Miramar

Best Family Restaurants Along Highway 1: 

  • San Francisco: 
    • Greens Restaurant – One of my favorite vegetarian spots.  Order the Pinnacle scramble and biscuits.  
    • Gracias Madre – Plant based Mexican cuisine that’s sure to wow even the meat eaters in your group.
  • Carmel/Monterey:
    • The Bench – Located on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, the Bench has the best seat in the house, not to mention delicious food. Don’t miss the mac and cheese, and Thai mussels.
    • Roy’s – Roy’s features Hawaiian fusion cuisine, and is nestled right into the sand dunes along the 17 mile Drive and the Inn at Spanish Bay.  Before dinner, head to the spacious patio and order some hot chocolate for the family as the sun sets.  In the distance you’ll hear the tunes of the bagpiper who visits the resort everynight.
  • Big Sur:  
    • Big Sur Bakery – Grab hiking snacks, fresh sandwiches and cookies at this popular establishment.  It also has homemade granola that is out-of-this-world. 
    • Ventana Restaurant – Enjoy shrimp rolls and a cool drink as you take in the Pacific Ocean below.
mom and daughter at Ventana restaurant overlook -  best family road trips
Ventana Restaurant
  • Santa Barbara:  
    • The Lark – The Lark is a must try for serious foodies, offering fresh California coast cuisine.  While it has more of a date-night vibe, they were very welcoming as we showed up with a 1 year old and sippy cup in hand.  
    • Revere Room (formerly Malibu Farms): You won’t be sacrificing flavor by choosing to dine at this family friendly hotel restaurant.  The food is delicious, and the kids can run around on the spacious green lawn as you wait for the main courses.
    • Brophy Bros – Head here for a quintessential by-the-water dockside lunch.  Clam chowder. Fish and chips.  You get the drill.
    • Lucky Penny – Lucky you!  You get to eat their delicious pizza!  Grab a seat in one of the small outdoor tables, or take it to go. 
    • Helena Ave Bakery – It’s creative toast time!  Are you in the mood for sweet or savory?  They have it all.
dinner at Roys pebble beach - summer road trip
ricotta honey toast - family road trip highway 1
Rosewood Miramar buffet - family road trip highway 1
Revere Room at the Rosewood Miramar

Best Family Accommodations along Highway 1:

  • Lodge at Pebble Beach – Pebble Beach is famous for its stunning golf course, but it will even sweep the non-golfers off their feet.  While it mostly caters to the golfing guests, there is still plenty to do for everyone; check out the tennis courts, swimming pool, spa, and walking trails. 
  • Bernardus Lodge – Only 10 minutes off of HIghway 1, you’ll find this boutique hotel with its own farm and vineyard on site.  There is a swimming pool, grassy lawn with croquet and shuffleboard, and spa too.
  • Rosewood Miramar – the RM is one of my favorite family resorts of all time.  It’s where old world country club architecture meets California charm.  They have spacious suites for families, a stunning pool, and easy access to the beach.  You won’t want to leave.
Bernardus Lodge grass lawn - best family road trips
Bernardus Lodge
view from room at Bernardus Lodge - best family road trips
Bernardus Lodge

Rosewood Miramar
Rosewood Miramar

Highway 1 Planning tips for families:

  • Start from the north, and head south. The southbound lane has unobstructed ocean views, which means  no sibling quarrels over the best seat.  
  • Plan your potty breaks.  There are stretches of Highway 1 (between Cambria and Big Sur) with no gas stations and no bathrooms.  Have everyone visit the loo in Carmel, before hitting the road. 

Want to learn more? Read The Ultimate Guide to Santa Barbara and Monterey, and The Ultimate Guide to Big Sur and Pebble Beach

I hope this article has inspired some ideas for your own summer family road trip along Highway 1.  Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of the Best Family Road Trips Series.  If you have any questions, or your own travel tips, please leave them in the comments below.  Also, don’t forget to sign up for the monthly newsletter, packed with travel tips, upcoming news, and access to FREE destination itineraries.

drive along highway 1
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  1. Carly Hill on November 1, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    Hi there,
    We are in the Uk and are planning a 10 day road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles (our first as a family) but the only time we can go is February.
    Do you think this will be a problem weather wise?
    Your itineraries are so helpful and love your blog xx

    • Jillian on January 19, 2023 at 8:14 pm

      Hi Carly – Thanks so much for reaching out. Apologies for just now seeing this (you can always email hello@compassroam.com). I have been to San Francisco in February and remember it being sweater weather. Los Angelos has more dependable sunny weather year round, but is still in the 50s/60s F. Are you still planning to go next month?

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