So the time has finally come for my first official written blog post! I have been posting all of my YouTube content on this lovely site but I have yet to actually write a dedicated blog post on here. This is a little odd because I’m a writer in my day job…but, maybe that’s why I’ve avoided it! 🙂 Anyways this trip is worth breaking all the rules for, because for me and for my family it really did change our perspective on what the best vacations are.
I’m from LA originally so I am a Cali Girl at heart and have a GREAT BIG love for the Golden State, however I haven’t seen much of Northern California, or hella NorCal as we not so lovingly referred to it growing up. We planned a 10 day road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles because we have family in both of those cities, in between it was just the three of us, me, my husband and our almost two year old son Max.
We landed early morning on Day 1 in San Francisco. We were there to stay with my husband’s uncles and attend a wedding, which they very kindly babysat for us during! My husband and I had both been to San Fran many times and we really just wanted to spend time with family and friends and help our son adjust to the time difference and to sleeping in a new place. We brought his Pack-n-Play with us which helpful because it’s familiar to him. Each time we arrived at a new spot for the night we asked him to help us set it up by bringing over the (multiple!) stuffed animals he sleeps with and his sheet and blanket. I really recommend participating in these routines with your little ones to help them find comfort in the familiar even when they’re away from home.
So our time in San Francisco was spent sipping cappuccinos from lovely little coffee shops that we walked to and running around at the playgrounds and dog parks of Noe Valley. Even though you wouldn’t likely see these things listed on a ‘Best of’ guide to the city I actually think it is the best way to really see the locals and get the feel of a place. I could people (and dog!) watch for hours just observing how people dress and speak differently in each city. It was fun to see what the mommies and stroller brigade looked like in NorCal (vintage sweats, Patagonia light jackets paired with a natural fabric baby carrier).
We spent just two hours really touristing it up there by taking a cable car (tickets are $7 pp) from the top of the line down to the Ferry Building which is a converted warehouse offering an endless selection of baked goods, fresh cheeses and fruits to eat your way through. We even got a glimpse of a very crowded farmers market as it was Saturday morning along the waterfront edge. That night me and my husband had our first date night in months when we got to feast our way through an amazing dinner at Foreign Cinema in the Mission district at the wedding.
And then, everything changed. We abandoned the familiar San Francisco skyline and traffic and headed to the most remote undeveloped coastline in the continental U.S. – my ultimate California bucket list destination – Big Sur. I might be a writer but I really don’t have words for the beauty of Big Sur. The thousand foot high sheer cliffs drop straight into the rough blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. The pristine beaches that aren’t even accessible by land dot the coast and provide little inlets of jagged rock that invite turquoise blue and white foam waters to crash into it. These little alcoves are home to sea otters, seals and even some sea lions.
We camped* (*glamped) for the night in Glen Oaks Big Sur in our own little cabin which had two large wooden chairs and a campfire nestled next to towering redwoods and a lake just a few feet away. When researching hotels for this trip I always tried to find a suite style room because we wanted to be able to keep my son on his normal bedtime (7PM) and still allow ourselves to be able to enjoy the nighttime. In Big Sur after my son went to bed, happy and exhausted from our adventures, we got takeaway grilled pizza from Big Sur Bakery (cheese and the wildest of wild mushrooms) and ate it next to our firepit with a glass of the Pinot the hotel included with the room. By the time the smores and extra melted chocolate were finished we were ready for bed too.
It was here in Big Sur that I really spent some time in the world of mindfulness. I didn’t meditate silently by a tree, though I probably could have, but instead it was during this random evening hour when we realized we didn’t have time to go out to dinner before my son’s bedtime and there wasn’t really any quick food for us to pick up nearby. So my husband drove into the town “town” to get some food but had to wait almost 45 minutes for places to open for dinner and we could only FaceTime over WIFI to communicate because there was zero cell reception. Though this sounds like a chaotic and stressful event it was actually really lovely. I stayed in our little cabin with my son who spent the hour playing with his crayons (not coloring lol, he likes to put them in different containers and move them around the room..toddlers are funny creatures).
Max was playing so nicely and we were chatting about the usual (purple crayon, blue crayon, big truck) and I just found myself getting into this calm meditative state, we were alone in the woods after all. I always knew me and my husband liked to hike and be on adventurous trips in nature but it was like that sort of vague knowledge crystalized into a real self understanding of how i like to invest in my vacation time. This right here was my most favorite way to escape, not a busy city or touristy spot, but in a protected wild spot.
The next day we tackled three hikes in the Big Sur region. Knowing we only had a few hours before nap time (which we wanted to use to drive to Carmel) we chose some short easy hikes that really hit the MUST SEE spots in Big Sur. The first one is the iconic Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. A short walk from the parking lot is a little path to the famous overlook that Big Sur is known for. Because we were operating on toddler time we were the first ones there and it afforded us a private just after sunrise experience during what would have been an otherwise crowded tourist season.
After taking a million photos of the beach below and annoying Max by trying to get him to smile for each one we headed into the redwoods along another trail. The shade the trees provide following the cold river along the path make for a lovely cool walk even in the early summer. When we got back to the picnic area we feasted on apples and sandwiches purchased earlier that morning from the Big Sur Deli (yes every single destination in Big Sur is called the Big Sur Such and Such or the Pfeiffer Such and Such – it is really confusing when you’re trying to remember which of the three Pfeiffer hiking trails you want to go on of Big Sur eateries you want to frequent.) For our last hike we headed to Pfeiffer Beach (see what I mean) where we just walked over to the tide pools and giant rocks. By that point it was nap time so we didn’t stay long but saw lots of families having picnics and long beach strolls.
Then we sadly said “bye bye” to the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and most lovely glamping grounds and headed back north. We would have continued south and done Monterey and Carmel first, but the roads south of Big Sur were still closed from the previous year’s mudslides and fires. Because #BestToddleEver fell right to sleep I only jumped out of the car quickly to take a photo of the Bixby Bridge and we didn’t all stop to take a family shot there. It was stunning though and I highly recommend including some time in your drive to do so. We also stopped along a few more photo stops along the route, there are many places to pull over and just watch the world go by, the drive was built for it.
We planned to drive to Carmel and check into our hotel but as #BestToddlerEver was still sound asleep when we got to Carmel about an hour or so after leaving Big Sur we decided to attempt the famous ‘17 Mile Drive’ along the coast. This is just a scenic drive with places to pull over and if I’m being honest, compared to the views of Big Sur it didn’t really seem all that epic, but I imagine if we started there it would have been a different story. Also driving vs. hiking in nature is just a little underwhelming. Apparently there’s a $10 charge to drive the route but the gates were just open when we showed up so we never had to pay…apologies to the gods of karma if we inadvertently missed it. Also, the drive is allegedly not hard to find but we made SO MANY wrong turns until we finally got to it – from the South gate you have to go THROUGH the parking lot of Pebble Beach Golf Course and past the restaurant and shops to find the red and yellow lines that indicated you’re actually on the right path.
When Max woke up we drove straight to see the sheep (baaaaaaaa) at Mission Ranch Carmel. We almost booked this hotel but they didn’t have a suite available when we looked but I saw they had their own sheep and Max is a major animal lover. It is just 5 minutes from the town so we thought it would be a nice after nap experience. It was very cute, unfortunately the restaurant wasn’t open so we just stayed a little while before heading over to the local children’s library. This is a top toddler travel tip I have, of course local playgrounds are great spots to let kids run around but local libraries can be very helpful too. This one had a table for coloring and these adorable bean bags for climbing on (well I assume that wasn’t their original intent but that’s what Max happily did).
The Hotel Carmel was a beautiful little hotel with super friendly staff who were happy to grab us some cold whole milk for Max when we arrived. The best part was their amazing hot tub just outside the rooms (definitely worth requesting a room close to it and their fire pit!). We were able to put our son to bed in the room and hang out in the hot tub just outside with the monitor and a view of the room right there. The hotel is also very centrally located just a few minutes walk to the main street and shopping area of the town called Ocean Ave. It is a farther walk from the beach though (about 15 – 20 minutes) and you would need to drive if your plan was to pack and go for a day at the beach. Northern California beaches can be very chilly though! Even in mid summer they’re better for a stroll and splash of the toes rather than an all day beach experience.
For our full day in Carmel we started with a hike of Point Lobos State Park and we absolutely loved it! Again it’s about $10 to park and there’s a bunch of trails you can walk along. Most are very easy and have clear paths some are even wheelchair accessible. One of the most spectacular things about this area is the sea life that live here. You can see and definitely hear the seals and sea otters in the water and lounging in the sunshine along the rocks of the beaches, there are also tons of birds, we think we saw a hawk of some sort. The trails can get cold as the sea breeze blows off of the rocks but that just made the hikes with a heavy toddler in the carrier feel that much better to me. Our favorites were Sea Lion Cove, China Cove and Bird Island. *For toddlers – we kept our son in the carrier for almost all of the hikes because there is a lot of poison oak on all of these trails so it really isn’t safe to let them roam.
That day while my son napped I took a stroll into the town of Carmel and found the famous Carmel Bakery which has amazing cookies and ice cream. It turned out that was the only thing I bought that afternoon. I am on a minimalist journey this year but thought I might do some shopping in California. I’m easily influenced by anything from Cali or expressing the Cali love because it speaks so closely to my heart. I did see some artwork that I liked, just little things like a wooden block with an image of the state and heart on it. And i was tempted at first but i thought about where in my home I would put it and couldn’t think of a spot that I really wanted it to be forever, so I knew it wasn’t something I really wanted. Instead I bought a postcard from each of the places we visited on our road trip because I like to write little notes about what we saw as mini letters to my son and I keep them in the albums I make as the years go by.
That night we had a delicious Italian dinner at Little Napoli which I saw my friend Hannah recommended on her blog and it was very enjoyable. We had the lasagna and eggplant parmesan, yum! They even had a courtyard so we could sit outside, always easier in restaurants with a toddler.
The next day we headed to Monterey which is just a 15 minute drive from Carmel. It’s a much larger and more touristy city so I enjoyed staying in the quiet little town of Carmel but still being driving distance from lots of activities. We spent the morning at the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium. So, I was very hesitant to buy tickets for this, our son isn’t even two and although his entrance was free me and my husband would each be $50. It seemed wasteful for just a few hours but I was completely wrong.
First off the Aquarium is part of a non profit research and ocean conservancy organization so the money was going to go a good cause and secondly it was my son’s favorite part of the whole trip by far. He LOVED the FISHIES!!!! And I think being able to get so close to them made him really be able to enjoy and interact with everything. Also we got there right when it opened which I highly recommend because it gets busy so we basically had the place to ourselves until about 11AM when we grabbed a quick early lunch and left. There are so many touch pools and even a play area for little ones, but honestly my son just really liked the fish tanks and saying hi to all the giant fishies swimming by. His favorite book is The Pout Pout Fish so I think he has a bit of an aqua love.
Then we drove four hours while #BestToddlerEver napped down to Santa Barbara where we met my parents. The rest of the vacation was just spent going on walks and parks with my family. We have spent lots of time in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles so let me know if you’d like a separate post about fun kids activities there
If you want to see more summer road trip travel tips from me click here:
And if you’re interested to see what I packed for my toddler’s carryon on the cross country flight check out my YouTube video here: