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Family Road Trip: Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Carmel-by-the-Sea

Family Road Trip: Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Carmel-by-the-Sea

This six-day trip will wow the kids with iconic sights, wildlife, and hidden gems

For Oakley Peterson, the key to a perfect family vacation is keeping it simple—and embracing the little joys of travel.

“Our kids are at that phase where they just love hotels,” says the blogger behind Nothing Down About It, which highlights family life including a child with Down’s syndrome. “They just want to stay in fun places.”

They certainly found that on their recent vacation with stops in Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Aside from the festive—and sometimes pretty unique—lodgings, they also found plenty of fun for her whole crew, ranging in age from 8 months to 10 years at the time. “Do what’s right for your family,” she advises. “We choose places where we can take our time and go at our own pace—and our pace may look different than other families.”

The Peterson family flew into Sacramento International Airport to begin their trip, and out of San Jose Mineta International Airport to go home, since San Jose is closer to Carmel-by-the-Sea. When recreating the trip, you could also fly into Charles M. Schulz - Sonoma County Airport to begin the trip, or fly in and out of San Francisco International Airport and drive a little farther on both ends of the trip.

Stop 1: Santa Rosa

Where they stayed: Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife preserve and luxury tent camp

What they did: After driving about two hours from Sacramento, the Petersons arrived in Sonoma County. They browsed the brochures and maps at the California Welcome Center, then checked in at Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife preserve that’s home to 900 animals and 90 species. You can make it a day trip and take one of the safari tours, or stay overnight in one of the luxury tents equipped with bathrooms, hardwood floors, and viewing decks.

“You walk out of your room or treehouse and everywhere you look, there are different animals,” Peterson says. “Not many of us can take our kids to Africa, but you can go to places like this that are local and affordable.”

The tours made a big impact on the kids. “The boys were like, ‘OMG it’s a rhino,’ while my daughter was almost in shock—she was just analyzing and taking it all in,” she says. “And the tour guide knew all the facts about the animals. We learned so much.” Peterson appreciated the care they got as a family with special needs, too. “For the safari tour, my son often wanted to go back and forth between mom and dad in the vehicle, and they made sure he was comfortable.”

The Petersons explored other family-friendly spots in the area, too, including the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, and the Guerneville gourmet deli The Farmhand. They also enjoyed a crowd-pleaser at Sebastopol’s Psychic Pie, where pizzas are made with a sourdough crust: “It was the best pizza I’ve had in my entire life.”

2023 California Visitor's Guide, Oakley Peterson

Stop 2: San Francisco

Where they stayed: Palace Hotel, a Luxury Hotel Collection Hotel, an 1875 hotel with Gilded Age ambience and a family-friendly indoor pool

What they did: The Petersons drove an hour to San Francisco and settled in at the Marriott-brand hotel a few blocks from Union Square. “It was more kid-friendly than I expected to be,” Peterson says. “They made sure the room had everything we needed as far as special needs. Our son doesn’t require a ton, but the staff was very kind and welcoming.” Kids will enjoy the Pied Piper restaurant, where a famous mural depicts the classic story.

They started exploring San Francisco’s biggest sights—riding the cable cars and playing at the Presidio Tunnel Tops, a 14-acre parkland at the Presidio. “It was really cool, with lots of families,” Peterson says of the green space with a play area, a rotating selection of local food trucks, and big views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

They also went to the Exploratorium science museum, and Peterson says, “we could have spent the whole day there—it was very hands on.” It’s the kind of place, she says, that makes a city getaway with kids easier. “Don’t try to do the things that feel too mature,” she suggests. “Do the things where kids can run around and explore—places that spark their curiosity and leave them with memories.”

Stop 3: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Where they stayed: Hofsas House, a 37-room inn with a free continental breakfast and a heated pool                                                                                                      

What they did: The Peterson family drove about two hours from San Francisco to Monterey County, then started enjoying a literal hidden gem in Carmel-by-the-Sea: the 41 secret passageways and courtyards that link fairy tale–worthy houses and buildings from the 1920s, such as the British-style candy store Cottage of Sweets. “I could spend a whole trip just doing the passageways,” Peterson says. “They’re all different, and they feel like they’re 200 years old—they’re treasures. That was my favorite thing on the trip.”

The rest of the town charmed them too, with its shops, art galleries, and plenty of locally owned dining options, including brunch-y Carmel Belle (“some of the yummiest food”), Carmel Burger Bar, and Clint Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn. “Carmel is called ‘a village in the forest by the sea,’ and that is exactly what is feels like,” Peterson says. “It’s this tiny village, and people were so friendly as we were exploring the art galleries. With four kids, we can be like a walking circus, but it’s nice when people don’t treat you like that.”

Make the Trip Your Own

Sonoma County, San Francisco, and Monterey County offer a lot of options for great family getaways. Start with these tips on family-friendly San Francisco, and Sonoma County’s kid-friendly attractions, such as the Charles M. Schulz Museum, the Sonoma TrainTown Railroad, and even family-friendly wineries. Monterey County, meanwhile, is home to the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, and is just an hour from a unique California theme park, Gilroy Gardens.

For more family road trips in this part of the state, explore the hands-on museums on the Family Learning Adventure and the Tech Tour. Enhance your trip with these California destinations for special-needs families and free kid-friendly attractions around the Golden State.