Real Road Trips: The Mega, Family-Friendly California Coast Journey

Twenty days, 3,500 miles, dozens of Dairy Queens
road trip ideas from seattle magazine
California Highway 1 near Big Sur

Whether it’s the bird-watcher in me or the delusion of leaving little to chance, I have always gravitated toward detailed itineraries when I travel. And when I say detailed, I mean reserved hotels for every night, minute-by-minute estimates for destination arrivals, driving directions, daily mileage counters, weather predictions and, of course, Dairy Queen locators by highway exit. More practically, the fact that I have three kids and want to take the whole family on three-week road trips to see the West each summer necessitates that I engineer a few things. As my college roommate Brian used to say to those who wing it, “You didn’t plan to fail, you failed to plan.” Wise words.

Travelers: Me, Tom Uniack, conservation director, Washington Wild; my lovely wife Stephanie Lucash, our son and twin daughters
Purpose/theme: This was the fourth consecutive installment of that enduring American pastime—The Family Roadtrip. As in the past, our goals were to see the West and give our son the opportunity to collect his 30th Junior Ranger badge by visiting national parks and other federal lands. However, this year a pilgrimage to San Diego’s Legoland, Seaworld and the Wild Animal Safari Park was added to the mix.    
Vehicle: 2005 Chrysler Town and Country minivan
Navigational aid: Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlases for Washington, Oregon and California, mapquest.com, roadsideamerica.com, dq.com
Most essential road trip gear: Our minute-by-minute itinerary.
Biggest mistake: With three young kids in a moving metal box for hours a day, they understandably act like ping pong balls when we roll into the motel at 9 p.m. It would have been clutch to always pick hotels with Disney Junior on the channel list so we could unload the car without the room turning into a bouncy house.  
Lesson learned: The first day is kind of a freebee. We can eat up 500 miles with minimal stops before the kids even think to blurt out “Are we there yet.”


Day 1: Seattle, Washington, to Yreka, California
10 a.m.: Leave home for Salem, Oregon, taking Interstate-5 south (230 miles). Since we are basically going from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, the first day is all about putting miles on the odometer with minimal stops as we move south. Plus we have had lots of other opportunities to explore Washington and Oregon.
1:50 p.m.: Take Exit 258 at Salem and drive to Capitol building to see the Golden Lumberjack. An ode to Oregon’s logging past, the bearded logger has a bird's-eye view  atop the Capitol dome.
3:15 p.m.: After lunch in Salem at Shari’s (503.364.4413; sharis.com), head south on I-5 to Yreka, a historic gold mining town in northern California.
8 p.m.: Dinner at Strings Italian Cafe (530.842.7704)
Accommodations: Best Western Miners Inn Yreka (530.842.4355)
Mileage: 499
Dairy Queens: 10. Knowing the locations of Dairy Queens along the route is key for the itinerary. When someone gets a craving, instead of wasting time trolling random highway exits or depriving my family of their right to have ice cream on a road trip, I can keep myself in the running for dad of the year and say, “There’s a DQ 25 minutes ahead.” Map by John S. Dykes

Day 2: Yreka to Manteca, California
Breakfast at Grandmas House restaurant (530.842.5300; Facebook: “Grandma’s House Restaurant”).
10 a.m.: Take I-5 south out of Yreka to U.S. Highway 89 east along the Volcanic Pass Legacy Scenic Byway. The two-state highway is anchored on each end by the volcanic features of Crater Lake National Park (in Oregon) and Lassen Volcanic National Park (in California).
11:30 a.m.: Visit McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park (parks.ca.gov). The park’s centerpiece is the thundering white-water falls on Burney Creek, augmented by the voluminous springs emanating from the basalt cliff face. It's not the largest waterfall in California, but it is widely hailed as one of the most beautiful.
12:30 p.m.: Explore the Subway Cave (fs.usda.gov), a must-see for amateur geologists and spelunkers. It is actually a one-third-mile-long lava tube created by a lava flow that occurred some 20,000 years ago. We wore our headlamps as it is pitch black inside the cave. This cave is kid-friendly with smooth and flat walls and ground and the headroom is tolerable even for a 6-foot-7-inch dad.
1:30 p.m.: Next stop: Lassen
 Volcanic National Park (530.595.4480; nps.gov/lavo). This park is a hidden treasure with shades of Yellowstone (thermal features), Yosemite (polished granite) and Glacier (winding roads). On May 19, 1915, the mountaintop exploded, complete with a 30,000-foot ash cloud, the most recent volcanic eruption in the Lower 48 states until Mount St. Helens blew its top in 1980.
Stop and eat a packed lunch at the Loomis Museum (530.595.6140), before visiting the exhibits that explain the volcanic history of the park and additional sights, such as Chaos Jumbles, Noble’s Pass, Bumpass Hell and Sulphur Works.
4:30 p.m.: Leave park at south entrance on U.S. Highway 36. Take I-5 south to Manteca.
Accommodations: Best Western Plus Executive Inn & Suites
Mileage: 409

Day 3: Manteca to Indio
Free hot breakfast at hotel. We needed it for the long driving day, which included battling traffic in southern California. Where is everybody going at 1 p.m. on a weekday?!
9 a.m.: Leave Manteca on I-5 south to intersection with I-210 past Santa Clarita (299 miles).
12:30 p.m.: Grab lunch along the way.
2:30 p.m.: Take I-210 east. Then take U.S. 57 south to I-10 east. Thirteen miles west of Palm Springs take the Main Street Exit to see the Cabazon Dinosaurs (951.922.0076; cabazondinosaurs.com). As we speed along I-10, a cry from the back of the van of “Look, dinosaurs!” means we have arrived. The kids delight in checking out the life-size concrete dinosaurs just off the highway. You can pay to enter the creationist attraction, which boasts robotic dinosaurs and exhibits that show humans and dinosaurs sharing the earth. Don’t miss the gift shop inside the brontosaurus.
5 p.m.: Take I-10 east and then take U.S. 111 to Palm Springs.
5:30 p.m.: Eat at Ruby’s Diner for a taste of the ’50s
6:30 p.m.: Drive from Palm Springs to Indio (23 miles).
Accommodations: Best
Western Date Tree Hotel (760.347.3421; datetree.com)
Mileage: 462
Dairy Queens: 4

Day 4: Joshua Tree National Park
10 a.m.: Eat breakfast at hotel, grab food for picnic lunch. Take I-10 east 27 miles to entrance of Joshua Tree National Park (760.367.5500; nps.gov/jotr). Here, two desert systems (the Mojave and Colorado or Sonoran) abruptly merge within the park with an abrupt transition. The western part of the park rising above 3,000 feet is home to branching yuccas—known as Joshua trees—which thrive on sandy plains studded by massive granite monoliths and hoodoo-like rock piles.
Follow the Pinto Basin Road north for seven miles and stop in at the Cottonwood visitor center. Drive on to Cottonwood Spring Oasis (760.367.5500; nps.gov/jotr). The result of earthquake activity, the spring was used for centuries by the Cahuilla Indians, who left bedrock mortars and clay pots in the area. This shady respite is usually filled with the chatter of birds that find shelter here from the heat. Other required stops: Arch Rock Nature Trail (half-mile interpretive trail), Jumbo Rocks (massive granite monoliths), Key’s View (the park’s premier vantage point) and Hidden Valley (site of many of the park’s trademark branching yuccas and a good lunch spot).
2:30 p.m.: Leave Hidden Valley on Park Boulevard. Drive 10 miles to the town of Joshua Tree and turn left onto California Route 62 west to I-10 west to CA-79 south all the way to I-15 south, and then take CA-76 west to the coast and then take I-5 south through Oceanside.
6:30 p.m.: Eat dinner at Ruby’s Diner on Oceanside Pier. We loved this ’50s diner chain, which gives out cardboard foldable thunderbirds. There is often a wait, but you can pass the time watching the sunset over the Pacific and eyeing local surfers and fishermen from the pier.
8 p.m.: Return to I-5 and leave for Carlsbad.
Accommodations: Legoland Hotel (877.534.6526; california.legoland.com) for two nights
Mileage: 232 miles

Day 5-9: San Diego area
Day 5: Holy Grail! Legoland (760.918.5346; california.legoland.com)
If you have an young boy you must go to Legoland. This was by far the highlight of the trip for our son. We splurged and stayed in the recently opened Legoland Hotel, complete with perks that include early admission, Lego-building contests, pirate-themed rooms, a treasure hunt game and Lego movies by the pool each night.

Day 6:  Another day in Legoland

6 p.m: Leaving Legoland was accompanied by tears as apparently two days was “not fair.” Take I-5 south to the Palomar Airport exit to see the full-size windmill with blades that actually turn before continuing east to Escondido.
Accommodations: Howard Johnsons (760.743.1443; hojo.com)
Mileage: 18

Day 7: Visit San Diego Zoo Safari Park (760.747.8702; sdzsafaripark.org).
This was a great stop. Think zoo on steroids. The park features some of your favorite critters in open-space environments including a variety of ways to see them (tram, personal vehicle, zip line—I am not kidding!). Two highlights: watching the cheetah run from 0 to 60-plus miles per hour in front of hundreds of onlookers and, my favorite, the bird show.
Evening drive to San Diego.
Accommodations: Days Hotel (619.297.8800; dayshotelhc.com)  
Mileage: 30
Photo: Tom Uniack with family at Legoland

Days 8-9: Explore Sea World (800.257.4268; seaworldparks.com).
The Manta rollercoaster was a thrill for our son, pictures with Elmo in the Sesame Street Bay of Play was a hit with our girls.  
2 p.m.: Take 1-5 north to Ventura.
Accommodations: Stay the night with friends in Ventura.
Mileage: 188

Day 10: Ventura to San Simeon
Noon: Take U.S. Highway 101 past Santa Barbara to CA-246 to the Danish-themed town of Solvang. Check out windmill on the corner of Alisal Road and Molle Way. However, the girls were more interested in the Little Mermaid statue at the corner of Alisal and Mission Drive.
2 p.m.: Eat lunch at Pea Soup Andersen’s family restaurant in Buellton (805.688.5581; peasoupandersens.net), a classic California standby.
3 p.m.: Leave Buellton on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo and then take U.S. 1 to Morro Bay.
4:30 p.m.: Arrive Morro Bay. Check out the human chessboard near Market Street and Morro Bay Boulevard, part of Centennial Park on The Embarcadero.
5:30 p.m.: Leave Morro Bay on U.S. 1 to San Simeon.
Accommodations: Days Inn, San Simeon (805.927.8659; daysinn.com)
Dairy Queens: 1
Mileage: 178

Day 11: San Simeon to Pebble Beach
11 a.m.: Visit Hearst Castle (800.444.4445; hearstcastle.org). This stop was all about my wife’s love for history. All of us took the basic tour of Hearst’s 165-room dream home on 127 gardened acres. I ate lunch with the kids, while Steph got to take a second tour of the upstairs unencumbered.
2 p.m.: Stop to check out the elephant seals on the beach just north of San Simeon before driving up CA-1 through Big Sur to Pebble Beach. A hidden gem and great reward for a 15-minute walk is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (12 miles south of Big Sur; 831.667.2315; parks.ca.gov), which boasts a waterfall that falls right into the Pacific Ocean.
Accommodations: My parents’ home in Pebble Beach
Mileage: 93

Day 12-14: Pebble Beach & Monterey Bay
Day trips to Fisherman’s Wharf (montereywharf.com), Monterey Bay Aquarium (831.648.4800; montereybayaquarium.org), Moss Landing (one of the most reliable spots to see sea otters, seemonterey.com), the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (831.423.5590; beachboardwalk.com) and Roaring Camp Railroad Steam Train (831.335.4484; roaringcamp.com).

Day 15: Pebble Beach to San Anselmo
10 a.m.: Leave Pebble Beach
10:30: Visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (866.338.7227; pointlobos.org). One of the true gems of California’s state park system, Point Lobos contains headlands, coves, sea otters, sea lions, whales on the horizon and unforgettable views of the coastline directly across from Carmel-by-the-Sea.
12:30 p.m.: Drive up Highway 1 toward San Francisco.
3 p.m.: Late lunch at Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay (650.712.0245; samschowderhouse.com), whose lobster roll was voted one of the top five sandwiches in the country by NBC’s Today show. From the deck, we watched hundreds of pelicans and terns dive into the water in a feeding frenzy just off shore.
4:30 p.m.: Visit Fitzgerald Marine Reserve (650.728.3584; fitzgeraldreserve.org) in Moss Beach. Recently designated a Marine Protected Area, the rocky shore of this San Mateo County reserve becomes an outdoor classroom at low tide.
5 p.m.: Drive up the coast. Dinner with my beloved cousins in San Bruno.
Accommodations: My parents’ home in San Anselmo. It pays to have relatives in beautiful places.
Mileage: 151

Day 16: Marin County
10 a.m.: Drive to Marin Headlands, up the bluff, with its jaw-dropping views of the Golden Gate bridge to Point Bonita Lighthouse and then back on Bunker Road to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (415.561.4700; nps.gov/goga) visitor center.
11 a.m.: Leave visitor center on Bunker Road. Then take Highway 1 to Muir Woods National Monument (415.388.2595; nps.gov/muwo), established in 1908. “This is the best tree lovers monument that could be possibly found in all the forests of the world,” declared conservationist John Muir when describing this grove of majestic coastal redwoods, named in his honor.
2:30 p.m.: Leave Muir Woods and drive to Mount Tamalpais. Just north of San Francisco's Golden Gate is Mount Tamalpais State Park (415.388.2070; parks.ca.gov), with redwood groves and oak woodlands and a spectacular view from the 2,571-foot peak. On a clear day, visitors can see the Farallon Islands, 25 miles out to sea, the Marin County hills, San Francisco and the bay, hills and cities of the East Bay, and Mount Diablo.
5 p.m.: Picnic on west slope,  drive to East Peak.
6 p.m.: Leave Mount Tam.
7:30 p.m.: Dinner with friends in Terra Linda
Accommodations: My parents’ home in San Anselmo
Mileage: 114

Day 17: San Anselmo to Redding
10 a.m.: Visit Point Reyes National Seashore (415.464.5100; nps.gov/pore). It’s got it all: thunderous ocean breakers, rocky headlands, a lighthouse, expansive sand beaches, open grasslands and forested ridges, plus 1,500 species of plants and animals and the legacy of several cultures over thousands of years.
Stop at visitor center. Our son adds another Junior Ranger badge to his collection.
Noon: Visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse, the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second-foggiest place on the North American continent. A short hike from the parking lot and a descent of 300 steps is worth the effort.
1 p.m.: Leave lighthouse.
2 p.m.: Play a bit in the sand at Point Reyes north beach. Eat lunch at Station House Café (415.663.1515; stationhousecafe.com). This restaurant has been serving West Marin since 1974, and features local, organic beef and dairy.
3 p.m.: Drive northwest on Highway 1/CA-1 to CA-37 east to I-80 east to I-505 to I-5 north.
6 p.m.: Dinner at Shari’s (503.364.4413; sharis.com) in Red Bluff
7 p.m.: I-5 north to Redding.
At Redding, take Exit 678/Eureka to Highway 44 west/Downtown Redding to Sundial Bridge (turtlebay.org/sundialbridge), which has a translucent deck that provides a between-the-toes view of the water and operates as a giant sundial.
Accommodations: Thunderbird Lodge (530.243.5422; thunderbirdlodgeredding.com)
Mileage: 285

Day 18: Redding, California to Klamath Falls, Oregon
10 a.m.: Take CA-299 east to Canby and then take CA-139 and U.S. Highway 97 on to Lava Beds National Monument (530.667.8113; nps.gov/labe), about 169 miles. Lying on the north flank of the massive Medicine Lake volcano, this national monument boasts geologic features resulting from the ancient eruption including lava tubes, surface lava flows, cinder cones and spatter cones. More importantly, with more than 700 caves—the highest known concentration in the contiguous United States—it is one of the coolest places our kids will ever go. Flashlights are a must and hard hats are advised, even though Mushpot cave is illuminated by motion-sensor lighting.
5:30 p.m: Take Lava Beds National Monument Road north to Oregon Route 39 north to Oregon Route 140 west to U.S. 97 north to Klamath Falls.
Accommodations: Microtel Inn and Suites by Wyndham (541.273.0206; microtelinn.com). There’s a bowling alley attached!
Mileage: 216

Day 19: Klamath Falls to Salem via Crater Lake
9 a.m.: Leave Klamath Falls on U.S. Highway 7 north to Oregon Route 62 north to Crater Lake. Depart at 10 a.m.
11:30 a.m.: Explore Crater Lake National Park (541.594.3000; nps.gov/crla), a scenic treasure and the deepest lake in the United States. We drove the loop and took in the sights from every angle. It was a pleasure to be here without the park being covered by snow, which is the case up to 10 months of the year.  
3:30 p.m.: Leave the park through north entrance and take  Oregon Route 138 west to Roseburg and then north on I-5 to Salem.
8:30 p.m.: We ate a wonderful and reasonably priced seafood dinner at Newport Seafood Grill (503.315.7100; newportseafoodgrill.com).
Accommodations: Red Lion Hotel Salem (503.370.7888; salem.redlion.com)
Mileage: 161
Dairy Queens: 1

Day 20: Salem to Seattle

10 a.m.: Take one last side trip to McMinnville for the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum (503.434.4185; evergreenmuseum.org), one of the nation’s best—though often overlooked due to its out of the way location—flight museums. Here you will find Howard Hughes’ flying boat the Spruce Goose in all its glory.
Leave McMinnville and head home on I-5 north.
Mileage: 272

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