Crossing California with kids: I-5 or Hwy 101?



As two native Californians who’ve spent our lifetimes traveling up and down all of the possible routes between Los Angeles and Sacramento or San Francisco (Highway 1, 101, 5, and 99), you’d think we’d have a clear opinion about the best route.

But the question does become a bit more complicated when you’re traveling with two kids under four, neither of whom are especially keen on long car trips. With Hudson, there’s always the iPad to fall back on, but for poor backward-facing, one-year-old Skyler… well, you just never know if she’s going to sleep for 30 minutes or two hours and whether she’ll cry throughout the times she’s awake. With a possibly disastrous scenario looming, it was tempting to set out late for Los Angeles on our last trip via I-5—going quickly while the kids were asleep.

But as might guess from those ocean views, we chose the more scenic 101 this time—figuring that the abundance of good stopping points along the way (a sort of insurance for the unexpectedly brief nap or a suddenly h-angry 3-year-old) justified the extra couple of hours.


Driving 101 can easily take 2-3 hours longer than I-5. But there’s a worthy stop along the way, almost every hour. Google maps will tell you it’s the difference of 1-1/2 hours, but you take the risk of more random accelerating/decelerating with all of the turns, of more traffic as go through major towns, and the speed limit is slightly lower.

This may be useful to some of you debating a similar route, so I thought I’d share the details…



The first leg of the trip was timed to Skyler’s 10am nap, and we’d assumed we’d make it all the way through the Bay area to Salinas before stopping.

(You can see if there are any farmer’s markets in the area on the day you’re traveling, and there happens to be one in Salinas Saturday mornings. Of course, for longer stops one could also visit the Steinbeck center.)

But Skyler woke up just as we were getting into Gilroy, so we stopped at the outlets instead. I’ve actually found that non-goal-oriented shopping with kids isn’t so bad: we tried on glasses, ran fingers along sequined purses, and picked out our favorite shoes. (Hudson actually chose a studded pair of slip-ons for me that I ended up getting.)
There’s an Off 5th—a Sak’s Fifth Avenue outlet—and American Apparel right beside one another, for an easy stop. Or there’s a large playground at Las Animas, about 4 minutes off the highway.


We didn’t spend any of that time sitting to eat; the kids had PB&J sandwiches and other snacks in the car before eventually falling asleep for an afternoon nap. That worked out perfectly, because the stretch of driving between Salinas and Paso Robles is probably the least interesting. In fact, if it had looked like we were in for a really rough trip, we had noted that we could stop extra early and detour into Monterey—just looking around there until closer to bedtime.

Instead we hurried past Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo (for which, if you stopped there, you could use this 5 Things guide) to Avila Beach. Avila was new to me—a smaller beachside town with apple orchards and mineral springs, just before Pismo—and made for a great break.

We pulled up to beach parking beside one of the town’s three piers—facing a nice playground with restrooms and a small aquarium—and headed down to the sand. It was low-tide and there were just enough interesting things to look at in the tide pools to keep Hudson more interested in the sand than in the surf. I honestly think touching anemones and finding hermit crabs that afternoon remained a highlight of the whole trip for him.





That beach—the main beach—is where most of the restaurants and bars face out, but we were actually interested in finding the Olde Port pier.



You have to head past the RV parking toward the fishing boats to find it, but it’s a cool old pier with a pride of resident sea lions. (Here’s a map of the town.) Fisherman were coming in and heading out and some opened up there ice chest to show us the crabs they’d just caught.

There was also a seafood restaurant on the pier, The Olde Port Inn, with a great gimmick: a handful of tables have holes in the middles, lined with mirrors, that let you watch the action below the pier! We didn’t want to subject the kids to any more sitting down than was necessary, but I’m guessing they’d have liked those tables more than most. I noted the restaurant also had a take-out window with items like clam chowder and hot dogs, but only until a certain hour.


We watched the sky grow dark and listened to the sea lions barking before getting back into the car for the last 200 miles into Los Angeles—most of which the kids slept through.


Later that week, on the way back home from LA, we were faced with the question of whether to press our luck on 101 again or just go back on the 5. We opted to stick with the coastal route until Paso Robles and then cut back across to I-5 on Hwy 46 for the last half.


We debated passing the morning in Santa Monica or at the Getty, but decided to press on: This time Skyler’s first nap took us as far as Santa Barbara, where we grabbed lunch on Milpas Street at Julia Child’s old haunt, La Super-Rica Taquería.

Next, having had such a great time tide-pooling at Avila, I’d looked up the tide tables and thought we might get lucky in the coves below nearby Shoreline Park.



It turned out that the tide conditions were just right and the scenery beautiful, but there wasn’t much to see in the tide pools. Still, Hudson had fun looking for shells and burying “treasure,” and making conversation with passing surfers and dog-walkers.


From Santa Barbara, one can cut over 154 or stay on 101 to continue. Google maps will likely take you on 154 through Los Olivos, which is a lovely but windy drive (if you have anyone who gets queasy easily). If you stay on 101, you can stop at Pea Soup Anderson’s (a classic) or take a slight detour into Solvang for a taste of Denmark. We skipped the æbleskiver and instead made a quick stop at Ostrich Land, where someone had the brilliant idea of charging people to feed their farm animals. It’s a quick but entertaining stop if you’d willing to part with the admission fee.

Our favorite detour, however, is driving down Zaca Station Road toward Firestone Winery. We got married at their Crossroads barn and have a hard time passing it by without a look at the Oak tree under which we said “I do.” This was our first time back with children.  (Here are some photos in the same spot, from the last time we had a look.)


We crossed over to the 5 at Paso Robles, driving along Hwy 46 (the road along which James Dean fatally crashed) to get there. I noticed that just after you turn onto 46 there’s a large water park and a series of small restaurants—just in case you come this way.


I-5 is fast. If you’re not looking to stop a lot or your kids will be content watching movies or listening to audio books in the backseat and you just want to get the trip over with, it’s great. It can be quite monotonous, however, with few real towns or sights along the way. The big excitement comes when you reach Harris Ranch in Coalinga—which most people know by the smell of its 100,000 cattle.

All kidding aside, it’s the best stop along the way—there are extensive grounds for burning off energy, a nice gift shop with some kids’ toys and a range of snacks, and a good restaurant. (AAA has a few other non-fast food suggestions, here.) Otherwise, you’re left with the option of hanging out at rest-stops and fast-food eateries—which would be far more tempting if they’d at least install those indoor playgrounds.

We made our final stop at Harris Ranch (an expensive stop by road-trip standards), just before the giant feedlot.



What’s your philosophy on long road trips with kids? Stop often or push through? And those of you who make one of these drives on a regular basis surely have some favorite stops or tips to add?

I’d love to hear your tips—I hope you’ll add them in the comments!

P.S. Driving along Highway 1, tide-pooling near Monterey, and a series of posts on road-trip activities with kids.

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