A road trip in California: A three week itinerary

by Jan

Have you ever considered a road trip for your family holiday? A road trip in California is a great way to have family adventures, explore loads of new places and have fun!.

This travel guide will give you details of our itinerary for the perfect 3-week road trip.  Discover where to go, how to get there and accommodation to use.  We will share all the information you need to plan your own road trip in California.  What’s more we’ll tell you top travel tips, the best things to see and do with kids and the highlights of our trip.

We planned our itinerary for California specifically to avoid ever spending longer than three hours on the road (apart from the drive to the Grand Canyon).

For each new location, we  tried to have two or three days with a permanent base to explore.  If you aren’t careful you could find yourself on the road for exceptionally long periods of time. We found this worked well for the family, enabling us to discover California’s diverse landscape, stunning views, and great climate.

Although we have called it our California road trip, we also visited the states of Nevada and Arizona!

Day 1: UK to Las Vegas, Nevada

12.25 – Firstly, 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 Tips:

  1. Don’t forget your ESTA!  – Use the official government site, rather than websites that will charge you
  2. 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!
  3. There was a long queue to get through customs, so be aware if you are travelling with small, tired children.

Days 1-2: Las Vegas

Accommodation and eating in Las Vegas

Las Vegas Strip at night

On arrival in Vegas, we headed for MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, which we booked through Hotels.com.  We picked this hotel with its massive pool complex (a lazy river, 4 pools and 3 whirlpools), as we thought it would be a great place to relax after the long flight. After check in, we headed straight for the pool, which was full of weekend revellers!

Top tips: 

  • You might consider a smaller hotel if you have younger children.
  • The pool complex is quieter in the mornings when party-goers are still in bed!
  • On Saturday morning pancakes were order of the day, so we headed straight to Coco’s , just opposite the MGM.

Top tip:  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 we set off on 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.

Saves money on roaming fees, save data usage and is a great backup.

Google Map Offline Download

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

2 days in Las Vegas

Days 3 - 4: The Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon, Arizona

After 3 days in Vegas we hired a car with Avis, whose desk was conveniently at the MGM reception. We picked up the car and headed off to The Grand Canyon.  We visited a supermarket en-route, so we could load 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 an awesome structure and far exceeded my expectations.  Photos will not prepare you for how impressive the Hoover Dam is.

Hoover Dam
Sunset Grand Canyon Hopi Point

After our visit to the Hoover Dam we continued our journey for another 4 hours to the world-famous natural wonder The Grand Canyon National Park.

The Grand Canyon is a must-see visit, as the breath-taking views cannot be appreciated until you have been there.  You can hike, cycle round the rim  or even camp.

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.  From here we flew to San Francisco, California.  This took 1 hr 40 mins, using Alaska Airlines.

Alternatively, you can drive to San Francisco in 8.5 hours.  However, we wanted to reduce the number of long car journeys.  As we had limited time, we wanted to make the most of our days.

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

Accommodation in San Francisco

We stayed at The Courtyard by Marriott, which is a great family hotel in downtown San Francisco, as it is walking distance to restaurants, cafes and Fisherman’s Wharf.

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

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, California

Days 7-9: Visit San Francisco, California

San Francisco is an amazing city, with plenty to do for everyone.  It has wonderful scenery with great wildlife, breath-taking views and plenty of family attractions.  During our stay, we visited Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Park and China Town.  We even cycled over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Click here for our full itinerary in San Francisco.

Top Tip:  San Francisco has a very different climate and was noticeably colder.  This was especially noticeable, as we’d just come from the dessert.  Bring a jumper! (or buy a San Francisco hoodie from the numerous ones for sale on the front)

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

Days 10-13: Visit Point Reyes, California (This was a change of plan.)

From here, we planned to go to Yosemite National Park  and stay at the Evergreen Lodge.   However, we were unable to do so because of the 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.  Disappointingly, we’d thought this 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 go back again!

A quick change of plans, a hasty Airbnb booking into The Hideaway in the Woods in Inverness, a new hire car and we were soon off to Point Reyes National Seashore, California. This Californian national park is a short drive of only 45 minutes. Point Reyes is a vast expanse of protected coastline just North of San Francisco.  It is a haven for nature lovers.

We spent a lot of time hiking, but also made it to some of the sandy beaches.

Top tips:

  • Try to stop at a supermarket before you get to Point Reyes, as the choice 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
Hiking Estero Trail, Point Reyes, California

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

4 days at Point Reyes

Simple tips for hiking with kids

Days 14 - 17: Monterey, California

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

There is plenty to do and see for children.  However, top of your list should be a visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium .

We also took a day out and headed down to Point Lobos National Reserve, which is fantastic for nature lovers and the stylish town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

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 nice 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.

Day 18: Visit Pismo Beach, California

We picked Pismo Beach  as it is an ideal midway stop to break up the journey to LA.  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, which we booked directly with the hotel.  This was a smashing choice and an ideal stopover.

Seacrest Hotel overlooks a lovely sandy beach, which you can access via some long wooden steps.  It has 2 outdoor pools, lots of loungers and includes a buffet-style breakfast which you can eat outside.

After some downtime at the pools, we strolled 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, Kevin was keen to try out a traditional smokehouse, Mo’s BBQ .  We ate a huge pile of slow-cooked ribs, which were very tasty.  (However, Kevin still claims his are better!)

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

Mo's smokehouse, Pismo Beach, Califormia

Days 19-21: Los Angeles and Hollywood, California

Pit-stop in Santa Barbara

The drive from Pismo Beach to Los Angeles is about 2 hr 42 mins.  We stopped en-route at Santa Barbara and headed straight to the pier for more clam chowder and ice cream.

Accommodation in Los Angeles

Family things to do in Los Angeles

On arrival in LA, we returned the car and checked into The Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City (which we had booked though hotels.com), as it is so close to Universal Studios.

We ate breakfast here, which was quite expensive, but easy and substantial.  However, the rooms were nice and the pool was great, with an outside bar where you could order food and drink.

Entrance to Universal Studios, LA

The main attraction for us in  Los Angeles was Universal Studios, which the kids loved.  We also did a tour of the Hollywood Hills and strolled down the Walk of Fame .

The Walk of Fame was very crowded and not as glamorous as it seems on the tv.

In the evenings, we spent our time in the entertainment area by Universal.  There are about 29 eateries here, so we were not short of options for dining.  We opted for Mexican one night and Italian the next.

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

Day 22: Los Angeles to UK

We spent our last morning in California lazing at the pool, before flying back home overnight with British Airways .  We booked our transfer in advance with Supershuttle.

Thank you for reading

Are you planning a road trip in California?  Comment below if you have any questions on our itinerary.

Are you planning your own road trip?  Read all our articles about the US in our:

US Road Trip Guide

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CHIMPTRIPS - A road trip to California: A three week itinerary

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Visit50 6th June 2020 - 7:22 pm

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

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.


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