USA had never really featured high on my travel bucket list. So, when we started planning our recent trip to California to meet family, I wasn’t really that excited. Till I started planning that is, and realized how much the state has to offer.
What started off as a meet-the-family trip, escalated into an amazing road trip across California that eventually included cityscapes, iconic attractions, lake, mountain, forest, and even an amusement park. Add to that the lovely weather, snowfall in summer and delicious plant-based food, and it readily became a cherished memory.
Planning the Trip
When it comes to an expanse as vast and vibrant as California, it is wisest to try not to cram everything into two short weeks. So, we picked and we chose, which wasn’t an easy task at all. After spending days trying to zone in on the most desirable places and experiences, we decided on the 2 top cities, a lake town and a National Park. So, San Francisco to Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park to Los Angeles it was!
Once we had the cities down, the planning started in earnest. Between booking a car (read van big enough to accommodate 4 adults and 5 kids), booking Airbnb apartments, realising that 3 months prior to the travel was too late to find accommodation within Yosemite National Park and finding out that part of the Pacific Coastal Highway would be closed during our trip, we managed to chalk an itinerary and most importantly, book our flights.
If you’re flying into the West Coast of USA, chances are you’ll fly into San Francisco or Los Angeles. We opted for a direct flight to SFO to make the long journey just a wee bit less painful. Before we knew it, we were on the way to sunny California.
Days 1-5: San Francisco and the Pacific Coastal Highway
Settle in and give yourself and the kids some time to adjust to the jet lag.
We covered quite a bit in San Fran. I was seriously surprised at how much the city has to offer besides the Golden Gate Bridge – chic neighbourhoods, picture perfect streets, museums and art galleries galore, beautiful parks and gorgeous views from just about any corner. You could happily spend a week here but you probably want to see the rest of California, so 4-5 days are enough to cover the city well. In fact, check out our article for a 4-Day Family Friendly Itinerary for San Francisco for details. And if you’re vegetarian here are the 11 Best Vegetarian & Vegan Restaurants in San Francisco.
Some of our most favourite experiences in San Francisco were:
- Taking in spectacular views of the sprawling Bay Area from Twin Peaks
- Enjoying the gorgeous views at Lands End
- Walking on the Golden Gate Bridge
- Walking along the waterfront & the piers
- Watching the Sea-Lions at Pier 39
- Gorging on an amazing vegetarian Cauliflower Burger at Hard Rock Café
- Walking up and down Lombard Street
On Day 4, Visit Land’s End and drive along the scenic Pacific Coastal Highway
Yes, this while still staying in SF. Instead of doing the whole long PCH drive which most people do, we drove to just Santa Cruz and back in a day (because of road closures before and after the Carmel area).
If you cannot do the entire stretch because of kids or other circumstances, you should still enjoy driving along the Pacific Coastal Highway for the breath-taking views of the blue waters and the Californian coastline. Start your day by driving to Land’s End for some great views and then continue on the Pacific Coastal Highway to enjoy the scenic drive.
Above: A slideshow of some of our favourite experiences and attractions in San Francisco.
Days 6-8: South Lake Tahoe
The Drive from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe can take 3.5 to 4 hours, so do start right after breakfast on Day 6. Also, try not to take more than 1 pit stop on the way. If you’re travelling with kids, discipline is key here, else you’ll just waste the entire day on the road (yup, 4 stops and lesson learnt for the next drives). As you approach Tahoe, the drive gets more and more beautiful, so also factor in some time to stop for some photo-ops.
Tahoe is better known as a winter destination, but summer here promises beaches with clear blue waters, ridiculously beautiful lake and mountain views, and a chance to have a couple of laid-back days minus the crowds. Then there is the nightlife, the shopping, the casinos and the spas.
With 2 full days to explore Tahoe, hit Emerald Bay State Park, Pope Beach, Taylor Creek and Fallen Leaf Lake. We enjoyed our trek to Vikingsholm, located at the base of Eagle Falls in Emerald Bay. Built in 1928, by a possibly eccentric millionairess, the mansion is a popular tourist attraction thanks to its scenic location. Word of warning: You might end up carrying a kid or two on the uphill hike back.
In the evenings, explore Heavenly Village with its boutiques and eateries. We enjoyed a wonderful vegetarian meal at Blue Angel Café, a very popular dining spot with the locals. The café is just a few minutes’ drive away from Heavenly Village. For the veg foodies, here are South Lake Tahoe, California: 5 Best Vegetarian & Vegan-Friendly Restaurants.
Above: A slideshow of some of our favourite experiences in South Lake Tahoe.
Day 9: Drive from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park
Onwards to Yosemite! The incredibly scenic drive from South Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park is around 4 hours, but as we all know, a 4-hour-drive with kids is actually 6-7 hours on the road (factoring in meal stops). On the way to Yosemite, you can enjoy Tuolumne Meadows if you have the inclination and the time.
Tip: Make sure you get dinner on the way before you enter Yosemite Valley, especially if you’re not staying within the park.
Days 10-11: Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias and a vast wilderness area. The kids though, were most excited about the possibility of seeing a bear – unfortunately, we didn’t get to see one.
We started our first day in Yosemite by taking the Glacier Point Tour (a four-hour tour to Glacier Point and back) – highly recommended as you get to learn a lot about the history and ecology of the park. The views from Glacier Point are breathtakingly magical. On the way back, the bus stops at Tunnel View, which is a mandatory stop if you want to enjoy sweeping vistas of the park. The viewpoint affords you views of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall.
Take the morning tour, so that you can be back by lunch. We lunched at the café next to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Centre, followed by a walk along the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail. Part of North America’s tallest waterfall, Lower Yosemite Fall is the final 320-foot (98-meter) drop. The walk is short and easy (around 30 minutes) and rewards with spectacular views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. The evening was spent driving around the valley floor, exploring meadows and getting hundreds of pictures. Tip: Please don’t walk on the grass. The next day, you can also go to Mirror Lake and Tuolumne Meadows or just spend more time on the valley floor.
Must-visit in Yosemite is Bridalveil Fall. This is often the first waterfall you’ll see when entering Yosemite Valley – so you can stop here when you’re entering the park, saving you a drive later on. Plunging 620 feet (189 meters), the fall affords you majestic views. This was a favourite spot with the kids, thanks to the mist flying around.
Yosemite National Park is very popular for adventure-lovers – think hiking, biking, camping, rock-climbing – but if you have young kids, don’t let that deter you from visiting. Yosemite is among the most beautiful places I have even been to. No wonder it consistently features as one of the top destinations in West USA. We hope to return here when the kids are older, after all, there’s always next time for the adventure.
Tip: If you want to stay within the park, you will have to book your accommodation at least 6 months in advance, preferably more. Check the NPS website for information about Yosemite National Park (weather conditions, road closures etc).
Above: Slideshow of some of our favourite views in Yosemite.
Day 12: Drive from Yosemite National Park to Los Angeles
The drive from Yosemite National Park to West hollywood is around 5 hours. So you won’t really be doing much else on the day, especially if you’re travelling with kids.
Days 13–16: Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Disneyland
When you think of Los Angeles, you think of style, swagger, glamour and celebrities. What you probably don’t think of are the words ‘child-friendly’ or ‘family-friendly’. But truth be told, LA is a diverse city with something to offer everyone. The entertainment capital of the world is bustling with museums, aquariums, beaches and a whole lot of other stuff for well-rounded family fun.
We based ourselves in West Hollywood (WeHo) and I highly recommend that you do too. It is central, close to Hollywood & Beverly Hills and a destination on its own. It is home to the legendary Sunset Strip and the West Hollywood Design District is urbane, chic and worth a visit. Spend 2 days in West Hollywood and then head to Anaheim for the next 2, so you can maximise your time in Disneyland.
Some of our favourite things to do in West Hollywood and Los Angeles, with the little ones in tow, were:
- Catching the sunset from Griffith Observatory
- Walking with the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Family beach fun at Venice Beach followed by a stroll around Venice Canals Walkway
- Getting a feel of the good life at Beverly Hills & Rodeo Drive
- Walking along Sunset Strip and visiting an American diner
- And of course, spending two very exciting and happy days at Disneyland
Once again, there’s a lot to do in the LA area, so, for details check out West Hollywood and Los Angeles with Kids: Top 6 Things for Well-rounded Family Fun. For the foodies, here are the 11 Top Restaurants in Los Angeles for Vegetarian & Vegan Dining.
Above: Our favourite times in Los Angeles
So, while the trip is over the fun memories linger on. We took it a step further though, as we flew to New York City from Los Angeles. But more on that, later. For now, enjoy California!