A road trip in California: A three week itinerary

by Jan

Have you ever considered a US road trip for your family holiday? If so, California is the perfect destination.  With its wide open roads, stunning scenery and fantastic landmarks California is the ideal state for a family road trip.  Read our 3-week California itinerary to find out how to have a fun, family adventure on a road trip in California.

Although we call it our California road trip, we started in Las Vegas.  We include the states of Nevada and Arizona, as we wanted to visit the Grand Canyon.  This post will give you all the details of our itinerary for the 3-week California road trip, including our route, accommodation and the best places to go in California.

What’s more we’ll share out top travel tips, our California road trip map, stops and must-see places to visit with kids.

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Planning our family road trip in California

We started our road trip plan by choosing our must-see places in California; San Francisco, Yosemite and Monterey.  We then planned the route to avoid spending longer than three hours on the road for any one trip (apart from the drive to the Grand Canyon).  We also booked an internal flight so that we could save time and make the most of our 3-week itinerary.   If you’re on a budget, you could drive this stretch instead.

For each new destination, we aimed to have two or three days with a permanent base to explore the area.  This gave us a chance to wash our clothes and get to the supermarket every now and then.

If you aren’t careful you could find yourself on the road for exceptionally long periods of time, which isn’t ideal if you are doing a road trip with kids.

Overview of our California road trip itinerary

  • Days
  • 1:           Fly from UK to Las Vegas
  • 2-3:      Las Vegas, Nevada
  • 4-5:      The Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon, Arizona
  • 6-9:      San Francisco, California
  • 10-13:  Point Reyes National Seashore (alternative plan to Yosemite)
  • 14-17:  Monterey, Point Lobos, Carmel-by the-Sea
  • 18:         Pismo Beach
  • 19-21:   Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Hollywood

The full itinerary for our 3-week road trip in California:-

Day 1: UK to Las Vegas, Nevada

12.25 – To start our California road trip, we flew from London Heathrow to Las Vegas (10 hours) with British Airways.  We arrived in Las Vegas at 15:05 (8 hours’ time difference).

Top tip:  There was a long queue to get through customs, so be aware if you are travelling with small, tired children.

Days 2-3: Las Vegas

Las Vegas Strip at night

The first few days of our 3-week itinerary were spent in Las Vegas.

On arrival in Vegas, we headed to the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, which we booked through Booking.com.  Located on the Las Vegas strip, this hotel has a massive pool complex (a lazy river, 4 pools and 3 whirlpools), which we thought would be perfect after the long flight.  After check in, we headed straight for the pool, which was full of weekend revellers!

Practical information for Las Vegas

  • Consider a smaller hotel if you have younger children.
  • The pool complex is quieter and more family-friendly in the mornings when party-goers are still in bed.
  • If you are looking for breakfast, head to Coco’s, directly opposite the MGM.

Things to do in Las Vegas

As you’d imagine there’s non-stop entertainment in Las Vegas.  And it’s not just for adults.  We walked up the Strip and visited all the major hotels; New York New York, The Luxor, Caesar’s Palace, and the Venetian.

Check the timings of the daily free shows, such as the Bellagio’s Fountains and the Volcano Show at The Mirage.  We also booked a family show, the Tournament of Kings, for the evening.

Accommodation in Las Vegas

There’s such a fantastic choice of accommodation in Las Vegas, so just pick something to suit your budget.  The bigger, more luxurious hotels on the Strip will cost more money.

You also need to think about location.  Some people prefer to pay less and be Downtown.  Obviously for ease of going out, it’s better to be near the Strip.  As we were with children, we were influenced by the pool facilities, so chose the MGM Grand.

For more information on things to do in Las Vegas, read our post:

2 days in Las Vegas

Days 4-5: The Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Hoover Dam, Nevada/Arizona

After 2 days in Las Vegas we started the road trip and headed for The Grand Canyon.  We hired a car with Avis, whose desk is conveniently at the MGM reception. After collecting the car, we stopped at a supermarket, so we could stock up on provisions for the next few days.

About 45 mins out of Las Vegas we stopped at the Hoover Dam, which lays on the border between the states of Nevada and Arizona.  This is one of the top 10 construction achievements of the 20th Century.  It is a totally awesome structure and far exceeded my expectations.

You can park up the hill and walk down to the Hoover Dam so you can really appreciate the Art Deco features on the lifts.  There is also a Visitors Centre if you want a tour of the power plant.

The weather was stifling at the dam, even after coming from Las Vegas.  Take your water bottle, which you can fill up at the fountains on the bridge.

Hoover Dam
Sunset Grand Canyon Hopi Point

The Grand Canyon, Arizona

After our visit to the Hoover Dam we continued by car for another 4 hours to the The Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

Often considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon is a 1-mile deep gorge formed by the Colorado River.  At 277 miles long and 18 miles wide, this natural wonder has formed over billions of years.

Today it is one of the oldest national parks in the USA and attracts millions of visitors.  It is a unique landscape and the views are breathtaking, so it really is worth a visit.

Cycling at the Grand Canyon, Arizona

As you’d imagine, the Grand Canyon is full of opportunities to enjoy the views.  Whether it is hiking, cycling or horse-riding, you can get out and explore the park.  Once you are at the park you won’t need your car, as there are free shuttle buses to transport you around.

On day 1 in the Grand Canyon, we hiked the family-friendly Trail of Time, which is just under 3 miles long.  On the second day we escaped the crowds by cycling round the rim of the Grand Canyon, which was an amazing day out.

Accommodation at the Grand Canyon

For the best location in the Grand Canyon, stay at one of the in-park lodges in the South Rim.  From here, you’ll be able to walk from your accommodation to the Grand Canyon view point and trails.

We stayed in the Yavapi Lodge East cabins, which were ideal for a family of four.  The accommodation was basic, but the location was excellent.  There are several other lodges and hotels, which you can book directly at Grand National Park Lodges.

Alternatively, you’ll find several hotels just outside the park, including the The Grand Hotel and the Grand Canyon Plaza Hotel.

Day 6: Fly to San Francisco, California

View of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

After 2 days at the Grand Canyon, we drove directly back to Las Vegas, which took about 5 hours.

From here we returned our car and flew to San Francisco, California.  This flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco takes 1 hr 40 mins, using Alaska Airlines.

Alternatively, you can drive to San Francisco in 8.5 hours.  However, with limited time we wanted to reduce the number of long car journeys.

From here is the official start of the California road trip!

Accommodation in San Francisco

Our California itinerary starts in San Francisco.

On arrival in San Francisco, we checked in at our hotel, The Courtyard by Marriott.  The Courtyard is a modern, family-friendly hotel in the heart of San Francisco.  The hotel is in a central location, within walking distance to restaurants, cafés and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Top Tip:  The hotel has a laundry room downstairs, which was great for refreshing our cases.

Click here for details and availability of other hotels in San Francisco.

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, California

Days 7-9: San Francisco, California

San Francisco is an amazing city, with plenty to do for all ages.  It has wonderful scenery with great wildlife, breath-taking views and plenty of family attractions.

We started our first day with breakfast at Boudin’s Café, one of the oldest bakeries in San Francisco.  From here we headed to Pier 33 to take the ferry to the notorious Alcatraz Island.  This is a fantastic trip, but is very popular, so worth booking in advance.  On our return we meandered to Fisherman’s Wharf.

One of San Francisco’s most popular spots for tourists, Fisherman’s Wharf is a vibrant area with street entertainment.  Make sure you head to Pier 39, where you can see the antics of the sea lions on the pontoons.

On day two we did an epic bike ride over San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and on to Tiburon.  What a fantastic ride.  There is an option to visit Muir Woods, but this is a really long way with kids.

Day three of our San Francisco itinerary is all about exploring the Golden Gate Park, which is immense.  Of course, we couldn’t leave San Francisco without a ride in a cable car down Lombard Street and a visit to China Town. We all loved San Francisco and we could have easily spent more time here.

Click here for our full itinerary in San Francisco.

Welcome sign at Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco, California
San Francisco Cable Car, California

Practical information for a visit to San Francisco

  • You won’t need a car in San Francisco and parking can be expensive.  You can either walk, cycle, take a tram or taxi.
  • San Francisco has a very different climate and was considerably colder.  This was especially noticeable, as we’d just come from the desert.  Bring a jumper! (or buy a San Francisco hoodie from the numerous ones for sale on the front)

Days 10-13: Point Reyes, California (alternative to Yosemite)

After San Francisco, the plan was to go to Yosemite National Park and stay at the Evergreen Lodge.   However, the trip was cancelled because of wild fires that that were ravaging the area.

Unfortunately, the rangers were forced to close the park because of the smoke. This was really upsetting because of the devastating damage to the natural habitat around this area.  We’d hoped Yosemite would be one of the highlights of our trip.

Luckily, Evergreen Lodge were great about refunding our accommodation.  Now we have a good excuse to return to California!

Our alternative plan was a visit to Point Reyes National Seashore.  Point Reyes is a vast expanse of protected coastline just North of San Francisco.  It is a haven for nature lovers and has plenty of opportunities for hiking.

We made a last-minute booking into The Hideaway in the Woods, a cabin in Inverness.  We picked up our new car and set off, stopping en-route for groceries.

Point Reyes National Seashore is only 30 miles North of San Francisco and makes an ideal break from the city.  We hired a new car and within  45 minutes we had arrived.

On arrival, you should visit the Visitor Centre at Bear Valley.  Here you can pick up lots of information on the best beaches, hikes and things to do at Point Reyes.  You can also sign your kids up for the Junior Rangers scheme.

Hiking Estero Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, USA

Practical information for a visit to Point Reyes

  • Try to stop at a supermarket before you get to Point Reyes, as it has a limited choice.
  • The weather can be unpredictable.  It can be sunny, but turn cold when the fog comes in.
  • We booked our car through Avis, using Avios  points that we had earned with our credit card
  • If your children are not used to hiking, you could look at these simple tips to get them going

For more information on what to do in Point Reyes, read our post:-

4 days at Point Reyes

Days 14 - 17: Monterey, California

The next few days of our California road-trip itinerary were spent in Monterey.

Monterey is a popular destination on California’s rugged coast.  It is a charming, small town, offering stunning natural beauty and wildlife.

Monterey a great family-friendly town, with lots to so and do for children.  However, one of the must-see attractions should be a visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium.  This is  a world-class aquarium set over 2 levels and home to 35,000 marine creatures.  As well as being an interactive, child-friendly day out, Monterey Aquarium is a leader in research and conservation.

Whilst in Monterey, you can hike along the Monterey Coastal Trail to Pacific Grove and visit Cannery Row.  This area was former home to Monterey’s sardine canning industry, immortalised by novelist John Steinbeck.

Alternatively you could take some days out and head down to Point Lobos National Reserve, which is fantastic for nature lovers.  We also stopped at the stylish town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, with its boutique shops and beautiful sandy beach.

Continue further down this coastal road to see the dramatic scenery of the Big Sur. You can even cross the iconic bridge, seen in TV drama Big Little Lies.  Keep an eye out for the Lone Cyprus Tree on the 17-mile drive.

Fishermans Wharf, Monterey, California

Accommodation and eating in Monterey

We stayed at the Monterey Bay View House, a large family home which we again booked through Airbnb. It was a short drive to the shops, beach and main family attractions and had a lovely sunny garden.

We all had our own room, which was relaxing after lots of time in shared hotel rooms.  Another bonus was its very large washing machine and dryer.  Once again our clothes were fresh and fragrant!

As we were now self-catering, we were able to stock up, make picnics and barbecue in the evening.  Obviously this is much more cost-effective for the budget than eating out every day.

Day 18: Pismo Beach, California

The next stop on our California Road trip was at Pismo Beach.  This was it an ideal midway stop, which breaks up the journey to Los Angeles.  It takes about 2.5 hours in the car from Monterey.

sunset at Pismo Beach, California

Accommodation and eating in Pismo Beach

We stayed at the SeaCrest Hotel, an oceanfront hotel looking out over Pismo Beach.   You can access the sandy beach, via a private set of wooden steps.

As well as its great ocean views,  the SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel has an outdoor pool and three hot tubs. Our overnight stay included a buffet-style breakfast, which we ate in the outside dining area.

Pismo Beach is an ideal stopover, as it is halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The hotel is comfortable and the ocean views are fantastic.

After some downtime at the pool, we took a stroll along Pismo Beach.  There is a large pier on the beach and a small town.  Pismo Beach has lots of beach shops selling arts and crafts and beach gear.

In the evening, we headed for Mo’s BBQ, a traditional smokehouse. We ordered a huge pile of slow-cooked ribs, which were very tasty.  (However, Kevin still claims his are better!)

After dinner, we returned to the hotel to watch an amazing sunset.

Mo's smokehouse, Pismo Beach, Califormia

Days 19-21: Los Angeles and Hollywood, California

Santa Barbara

The drive from Pismo Beach to Los Angeles is about 2 hr 42 mins.  We stopped en-route at the stylish town of Santa Barbara.   Santa Barbara has a long golden beach, lined with palm trees, but we headed straight to the pier for more clam chowder and ice cream.

Accommodation in Los Angeles

The final days of our California itinerary were spent in Los Angeles.

On arrival in LA, we returned the car and checked into The Hilton Los Angeles-Universal City.   This is a brilliant hotel if you are planning a visit to Universal Studios, as it is walking distance.  The hotel also offers a shuttle service to Universal Park, which runs every 20 minutes.

The Hilton Los Angeles Hotel offers an impressive choice of buffet breakfast, though it is quite expensive.  However, we found this an easy option and the portions were substantial.  The hotel rooms are spacious and clean.

In the outdoor area, the pool is set in a pretty garden area.  You’ll find a small poolside bar, from which you can order food and drink.

Entrance to Universal Studios, LA

Family things to do in Los Angeles

The biggest family attraction for families in Los Angeles is the theme park, Universal Studios.  We spent a full day here, enjoying all the rides and shows, especially the famous studio-tour.

In the evening we returned to the entertainment area, where you’ll find about 29 different eateries.  There’s loads of options for family-friendly dining, to suit all budgets. We opted for Mexican one night and Italian the next.

On day two of our 2 day itinerary in Los Angeles, we did a tour of the Hollywood Hills.  We travelled up through Beverley Hills, past the celebrities’ homes and to a viewpoint overlooking the city.

Later we returned to follow the stars on Hollywood’s famous Walk of Fame.  However, this was probably our least favourite day of our road trip.  The Walk of Fame was very crowded and not as glamorous as it appears on tv.

Top Tip:  We booked our theme park tickets in advance using Attractiontix, which gives great deals on tickets

Day 22: Los Angeles to UK

On the last day of our California road trip, we spent the morning lazing by the pool.  Then we took an overnight flight to London with British Airways.  We booked our transfer to Los Angeles Airport in advance with Supershuttle.

Practicalities for a California road trip

Visa requirements

If you are travelling from Europe, you will need an ESTA.  This is a digital authorisation which will permit you to travel without a visa.  You should arrange this in advance, using the official government site, rather than websites that will charge you

Don’t forget your customs form handed out on the plane, one per person.  Fill it in accurately or risk being sent to the back of the line!

Electricity

American appliances run on 110 volts, while European appliances are 220 volts, so you will need to take a travel adaptor if you’re travelling from outside the US.

Using Google Maps

Consider saving Google maps directions for offline use and travel. Google maps can really help if you’re lost or trying to find a unfamiliar place.  It doesn’t help you if you’re travelling abroad.  Or if you are trying to avoid roaming charges from your cellular provider. Fortunately, you can save Google Maps directions offline so you can access the info without using your data up.

Using the hotel’s free Wi-Fi, we set up directions offline on our phone before each leg of our California trip. Here’s how:-

  1. On your phone/tablet open the Google Maps App
  2. Search for your chosen route, like Las Vegas to Grand Canyon
  3. Tap on the ‘Download offline directions for spotty connections’
  4. To save battery and cell data, use ‘Wi-Fi only’ mode. In this mode when you’re not connected to Wi-Fi, Google maps will only use data from the offline areas you’ve downloaded.
  5. Use the Google maps app like you would normally.

This top tips will save you money on roaming fees, save data usage and is a great backup.

Google Map Offline Download

Are you planning a road trip in California?  We’d love to hear your comments or questions below.

These posts will help if you are planning your own California road trip:-

US Road Trip Guide

*Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links – any purchases you make are unaffected but I may receive a small commission. (Read our full Disclosure Policy)

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2 comments

Avatar for Jan
Visit50 6th June 2020 - 7:22 pm

I liked the beach at Malibu a lot. And San Diego was so beautiful!

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Avatar for Jan
Jan 7th June 2020 - 6:38 pm

We didn’t have time to get down as far as San Diego, but would love to go.

Reply

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