Here are four family-friendly driving trips that might entertain your kids and sharpen your appreciation of California. I came across some of these spots during my years of reporting in the state and others while on vacation with my own family.
Carlsbad and San Diego
Head south on Interstate 5 to Carlsbad, where Legoland awaits with new lodging, the entrance-adjacent Legoland Castle Hotel, which opened in April. Rates start about $300 a night, if you include the resort fee, for rooms that sleep up to five.
Continue south to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park for restored adobes, loud mariachis and large margaritas in the Fiesta de Reyes area and nearby Bazaar del Mundo. You’ll find several hotels nearby.
Next day: Roam Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre green space with more than a dozen museums and the San Diego Zoo. Or explore the USS Midway Museum, a retired aircraft carrier now moored along the downtown waterfront.
Finish the day with a baseball game at Petco Park downtown. (Based on 49 years of Padres history, there’s an excellent chance the visiting team will win.)
To cap off the trip, why not a hotel on the water? I haven’t tried it in a few years, but the marina-front Kona Kai Resort (on Shelter Island, eight miles from Petco Park) recently completed a major expansion and renovation. Even after you add in the $25 resort fee, you can still get a room for less than $200 on slow nights. Great location.
Round trip from downtown L.A.: About 260 miles
Legoland Castle Hotel, 1 Legoland Drive, Carlsbad; (888) 690-5346
Kona Kai Resort, 1551 Shelter Island, San Diego; (800) 566-2524 or (619) 221-8000
Sacramento, Gold Country and the American River
If your kids love riverboats, consider a night on the Delta King (a rustic floating hotel on the Sacramento River, usually starting at $150-$170). If you want more comforts on solid ground, try the Citizen Hotel, where I hope to stay next time I’m in town. (Because it gets so many business travelers, rates start at more than $200 midweek but less than $200 on weekends.)
Next, head east to another river: the South Fork of the American, probably the best place in California to try whitewater rafting for the first time.
To spend a day on the water with one of the many outfitters, you’ll probably leave your car in or near Coloma. You’ll want a big dinner afterward, and there are plenty of options in Placerville, about eight miles southeast. (I liked Heyday Café.)
The next day, you’ll head southeast to Columbia State Historic Park (basically a whole Gold Rush town populated by reenactors). Then head home by way of the San Joaquin Valley’s old-school road, California 99 through Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield.
Round trip from downtown L.A.: About 850 miles
California State Capitol Museum, 1315 10th St. Room B-27, Sacramento; (916) 324-0333
Heyday Café, 325 Main St., Placerville; (530) 626-9700
Hearst Castle and the San Luis Obispo Coast
Drive north on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo. Downtown, peek in at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, then browse nearby Higuera Street. If it’s Thursday night, you’ll find a rip-roaring farmers’ market has taken over Higuera between Nipomo and Osos streets.
Spend a night, perhaps at the Apple Farm (Americana is the theme; rooms run about $130-$430, not including taxes and fees). Or you could go with the quirky Madonna Inn (pink everywhere, big with newlyweds; rates usually $209-$339, not including taxes and fees).
No matter where you sleep, you can hike or mountain-bike the Cerro San Luis Trail near the Madonna Inn (four miles round trip) for great views from the 1,292-foot peak of San Luis Mountain (a.k.a. Madonna Mountain).
Or you could head to the backcountry of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus and hike Poly Canyon, where architectural students over the decades have put up a series of building projects that demand exploration.
Now to the beach. Head north on California 1 to sleepy little Cayucos, then continue north to larger, artsier Cambria, where you’ll probably want to see Moonstone Beach Drive (and you might want to sleep in one of the many inns and small hotels along the east side of the drive).
Next comes Hearst Castle at San Simeon. (There are seven kinds of tours; prices start at $25 per adult, $12 per child. Kids younger than 5 are admitted free.)
Then you double back on Highway 1 about 10 miles so you can climb California 46 through the oak-studded blond hills that lead east to Paso Robles and wine country.
Save a few minutes to wander downtown around Paso’s Downtown City Park at Spring and 12th streets (where there’s a little playground and room for kids to run). The Paso Robles Inn, across the street from the park, is a strong overnight option. (Rates drop especially low in August — less than $150 — when it gets beastly hot.)
Also, though most of the 200 or so wineries in these hills are adult-oriented destinations (check websites or call before showing up with children), a dozen or more wineries have things for kids to do, including bocce ball (Eberle Winery and Robert Hall Winery); cornhole (Lone Madrone); grape-juice tasting (Castoro Cellars); and ping pong (Sculpterra Winery & Sculpture Garden).
On the return journey south, you’ll be taking U.S. 101 south all the way. But you could hop off in Santa Barbara County to take California 154 and stop for a meal at Cold Spring Tavern. Park with care and order the tri-tip.
Round trip from downtown L.A.: About 490 miles
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo; (805) 781-8220
Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo; (805) 543-3000
Apple Farm, 2015 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo; (805) 544-2040
Hikespeak guide to Poly Canyon Design Village
Palm Springs and Coachella Valley
Head east on Interstate 10, keep an eye out for desert windmills, then bear south on California 111 to the northern outskirts of Palm Springs, where you’ll find the road to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
The 10-minute tram ride ($16.95-$25.95 per person) will take you to the upper slopes of Mt. San Jacinto (8,516 feet above sea level). The panorama-rich trip is always an escape from the heat, and sometimes there’s snow on top.
To continue your explorations on foot, proceed to the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens (admission $9.95 -$19.95), where there are giraffes to feed and various desert flora, fauna and a massive model train setup. (Camel rides, now on hiatus, are scheduled to resume in the fall.)
When it comes time to sleep, beware those stylish Midcentury Modern inns. They’re great for couples, but many of them scorn children.
Instead, think of pools and games, which you can find with a rental house or at a big hotel. (My family has enjoyed the Renaissance Indian Wells several times.)
Finally, to get full desert immersion and see some native California palm trees, hike Palm Canyon. The standard three-mile loop (lots of boulders and some shade along the creek bed) is enough for most people.
Like nearby Tahquitz, Andreas and Murray canyons, this one is owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and open to hikers; admission $5-$9 per person.
On the way back to Los Angeles, stop for date shakes at Hadley’s in Cabazon, which dates to the 1930s. The site is not the quaint fruit stand it once was (the new building looks like a Whole Foods outlet), but the shakes are as sweet and cold as ever.
Round trip from downtown L.A.: About 275 miles
Palm Springs Aerial Tram, 1 Tram Way, Palm Springs; (888) 515-8726
The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, 47900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert; (760) 346-5694
Follow Reynolds on Twitter: @MrCSReynolds