Highway 1 with kids: 10 fabulous pit stops between Los Angeles and San Francisco

Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz
Seabirds roost on the rocks at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, a welcome stop along Highway 1.
(Eugene Zelenko)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

I often lament having left Los Angeles, my hometown, to live in San Francisco, especially now that I have a son. After Kai was born, we found ourselves making the trek up and down Interstate 5 at least once a month. On our third not-so-pleasant jaunt past the sea of cows, Kai began screaming and would not stop. Yearning for somewhere fabulous to stop so we could cuddle him without the stench of manure and diesel, we vowed to start taking the nice way.

Three years later (after chalking up more than 100,000 miles), we now brave Highway 1’s hairpin turns. Below are our favorite pit stops for families (and antsy adults) between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Santa Barbara

Kids (and drivers) need rewards for good behavior. Hidden in a strip mall, Chocolate Maya, 15 W. Gutierrez St.; (805) 965-5956, is a decadent temple to truffles, treats and the world’s best chocolate bars. This isn’t your average chocolate shop. The owners have carefully selected the top cocoa varietals, alchemizing them into works of finger-licking art. After scoring our purchases, we often walk down State Street until it hits the beach, where we fly a kite.


Pismo Beach

Just when the kids start squirming from all that residual sugar, Dinosaur Caves Park, 2701 Price Road. It’s situated so Mom and Dad can gaze at the sea while Junior climbs dinosaur sculptures or kicks a soccer ball on the grassy field.

San Luis Obispo

Avila Valley Barn, 560 Avila Beach Drive; (805) 595-2810, is a SLO summertime tradition. Pick your own corn, peaches, berries and more, then enjoy them in a homemade pie or ice cream (or choose mountains of cheese and fudge). Stroll around to pet the goats, emus, miniature horses, hens and cows, and then hop on the wagon for a hayride.



Just 3.8 miles north of Gorda, on the western side of Highway 1, you can stop at Sand Dollar Beach for a short (0.7 mile) hike along the bluffs. There is a steep staircase to the largest sandy beach in the area, where the munchkins can run free and hunt for stones (though follow local regulations about taking them home) and sand dollars.

Carmel Valley

Fog got you down? Trek 3 1/2 miles inland to Earthbound Farm Organic’s farm stand, 7250 Carmel Valley Road; (831) 625-6219, Typically sunny, this enchanting farm stand-café beckons kids to walk the labyrinth, sample fragrant herbs, hide in the tepee and munch on organic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Check its website for educational events for the kids.


Even adults enjoy the gigantic Dennis the Menace Playground, 546 Dutra St. Imagine a wonderland of sunny climbing structures and slides, bridges, towers and an old train car, all with views of Monterey Bay. If this playground doesn’t get the child in you all giddy, wander over to East Village Coffee Lounge, 498 Washington St., (831) 373-5601, for nicely brewed organic lattes (or a microbrew, if you aren’t driving), paninis and pumpkin bread.

Moss Landing

Elkhorn Slough, is not only one of the state’s best-kept green spaces, teeming with seabirds, whales, otters and sea lions but also home to one of the finest seafood restaurants on the northern coast. Hidden under a corrugated tin roof, Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery, 7600 Sandholdt Road, (831) 633-2152,, serves freshly caught fish (right out of those waters) and an intensely good cioppino, with a side of live music and a down-home vibe.


Santa Cruz

My family can’t whisper the name Santa Cruz without drooling over the smoothies and moquecas at the popular Café Brasil, 1410 Mission St., (831) 429-1855, Afterward, work off all that tropical fruit by driving west along West Cliff Drive until it ends at Natural Bridges State Park, Throw a Frisbee on the beach as pelicans swoop past, then trek inland to explore the eucalyptus grove that doubles as a Monarch butterfly retreat in winter.


The masses along the coast enjoy Pescadero’s entertaining elephant seals, but we drive east along Gazos Creek Road and escape into Butano State Park, Hike the stroller-friendly path to a rarely used, redwood-draped creekside trail.

Moss Beach

Travel west on California Avenue until it hits a parking lot, then hike down the short path to the James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, at low tide. Wander out to the tide pools to find orange starfish, eels, crab and fish. Check out the resident seals that come to this San Mateo County spot to pup or sunbathe, depending on the season.

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