Taking a toddler and a preschooler on a road trip comes with its own set of challenges. But when Krystian Gabrielle took her four-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter on a trip from San Luis Obispo to Ventura and Buena Park, she was amazed at how well the kids not only behaved, but embraced the journey.
“We were blown away by beach everywhere,” says Gabrielle, a Tampa-based blogger who brought her brother on the vacation, too. “When we drove from city to city, at first I thought wow, two hours to get from one city to another? How will the kids do with that? But not one time was it bad. They’re looking out the window and they’re just seeing beach for every bit of the ride.”
On Gabrielle’s trip, they flew into San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport and out of Los Angeles International Airport. It’s an easy itinerary to follow and customize for your own family:
Stop 1: San Luis Obispo County
Where they stayed: Pismo Beach’s Pismo Lighthouse Suites, an oceanfront hotel with a pool, beach access, and a huge play deck that includes badminton, life-size chess, and a pirate-ship play structure.
What they did: Gabrielle’s family started their trip in San Luis Obispo County, a stretch of mellow beach towns on the Central Coast. For an outing, they went to the Avila Valley Barn, a u-pick produce farm with a café and petting farm in San Luis Obispo. “It was free, and you could buy lettuce and things to feed the goats or sheep, and the kids really enjoyed that.”
The next day, before heading south, they enjoyed a brunch at the Madonna Inn, the colorful boutique hotel famous both for its fabulous decor, unique themed rooms (like the Caveman, Yosemite Rock, and Antique Cars rooms), and its epic dessert list, including its signature Pink Champagne Cake. “It’s just wild, just eclectic,” says Gabrielle. “I thought I got a feel for it, but then I went to the bathroom and was blown away again. I was like a little kid getting distracted by the smallest details—I had never been to a place like that.”
Stop 2: Ventura County and the Channel Islands National Park
Where they stayed: The beachfront, pet-friendly Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach
What they did: After brunch, the family headed south to Ventura, about a two-hour trip on Highway One. They checked into their hotel, then explored Ventura’s pedestrian-friendly downtown. They browsed shops like Plum Gift Boutique, with its little-kid fashions, and the vintage home goods and surf boards at Contrast, then checked out dinner options including ‘50s diner Busy Bee Cafe and brewpub Finney’s Crafthouse.
“We walked up and down the main street, where there are no cars allowed,” she says. “We shopped, ate, kids ran around, there was live music, and some of the best food. We were walking along the promenade, at sunset with the kids, and the vibe of people on surfboards, on skateboards, people walking. it was just so peaceful, so family friendly.”
The next morning, they picked up a to-go lunch from Harbor Cove Cafe and boarded an Island Packers ferry to Channel Islands National Park. The hidden-gem national park “was a trip of a lifetime,” Gabrielle says. “I have terrible motion sickness and thought about not going, but I’m so glad I went—I did fine.”
On the ride to Santa Cruz Island, they got a cool surprise—“a humpback whale jumped out of the water—I have never had a moment like that with my kids and brother. And we saw thousands of dolphins in a pod.” Once on the island, she says, they had a stroller, but she wouldn’t take one next time. “It’s better to have hands free on the island.” The uninhabited island was pure bliss, too. “The views were very pretty. And you see things in a different way than when you drive to a beach. They don’t have trash cans, and it holds people accountable.” Back on land, they chose from dinner options at the seaside Ventura Harbor Village, such as Brophy Brothers and Andria’s Seafood Restaurant.
Stop 3: Buena Park
Where they stayed: The Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel, which offers photo ops with Snoopy and a very short walk to the theme park
What they did: From Ventura, Gabrielle and her family headed south to Buena Park in Orange County, about two hours from Ventura County along Highway 101 and I-5. Their destination: Knott’s Berry Farm, the theme park that was born out of the family farm that first cultivated boysenberries. Today, the park offers plenty of boysenberry treats, as well as a mix of big roller coasters (such as the Silver Bullet, California’s largest inverted coaster) and little kid–friendly rides, especially in the park’s Camp Snoopy area.
“There was one ride that my son literally got on seven times in a row,” says Gabrielle. “That place shocked me—I thought it was going to be tiny, but it was huge. Even my daughter could get on some rides, so it was fun for her too.”
For dinner one evening, the family went to Pirates Dinner Adventure, a family-friendly dinner theater with pirates and audience participation. Since her kids were so little, “I thought they weren’t going to get into it,” Gabrielle says, “but my son was into it, and my daughter barely even blinked. She waved her flag, and was clapping her hands.”
Make the Trip Your Own: The stretch of California coastline between Pismo Beach and Buena Park is rich with possibilities for any family road trip, whether you’re looking for outdoor adventure, edutourism, or theme parks.
In San Luis Obispo County, add family-friendly side trips such as the Butterfly Trail and the Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve. Ventura County has a plethora of ways to play, too, from its hiking and biking trails to a long list of places that welcome the family dog. Check out the different places in California where you can go whale watching, and more ways to experience Channel Islands National Park; when planning your trip to the national park, you can go from either Ventura itself or from nearby Oxnard, home of strawberry farms and a Taco Trail. In Orange Country, Buena Park makes an excellent SoCal home base, both for exploring its own attractions and for easy access to Anaheim and its hidden gems.