Road triiiiip! I am so excited for our next road trip, but inevitably when we plan one in the large state of California, we usually have to log a large amount of miles. Did you know there are 9 National Parks, 19 National Forests, 3 National Historic Sites, 3 National Recreation Areas, 1 National Seashore, 118 State Parks, 9 State Recreation Areas, 8 State Forests, 5 State Historic Sites and countless other national and state reserves, preserves, wildlife refuges, etc… just in the state of California? There’s so much to see and do, but everything is so spread out that we find ourselves driving quite a distance just to get anywhere. I don’t know how you feel about pit stops during long road trips, but we’ve come to love them and the challenge of finding great places to take a break during those long stretches of road.
Maybe I’m too much of a planner, but I like to map our stops so we know how long each driving stretch is, and it gives us something to look forward to when we still have hours and hours left to go until our final destination. I didn’t start out planning our stops, but we noticed that some places were way better than others, and some places were to be avoided at all costs (for the love of all that is holy, do NOT use the restroom at the 76 gas station on Hwy 101 across from the Red Barn Flea Market, don’t even open the door if you don’t want to have nightmares!). So, we started looking for fun road trip stops with good reviews and found ourselves actually looking forward to the long driving days. Being able to get out of the vehicle and stretch our legs made us much
less grumpy better travelers. If we’re going to take the time to stop anyway, then we wanted to do it someplace fun and special (if location allowed because sometimes there just wasn’t anything around).
My hubby’s parents live down in southern California, so every once in awhile we make that trip from the Bay Area to SoCal. When it was just my hubby and I (and when we were much younger!), we powered down I-5 and really only stopped once for gas and one bathroom break, but when my daughter came into the picture, she wasn’t having any of that. Being in the car for a long time without real stops made for a very cranky and very vocal toddler. So, we started looking for places to stop along our routes and although it added a little bit (ok, sometimes A LOT) to our travel time, it made travel days fun, not something we had to just “get over with.” We were pleasantly surprised at the interesting places we discovered along our routes, places that we had just driven by all these years.
The following are our 16 favorite roadtrip stops so far, our collection if you will. Hopefully, we’ll continue adding to this list as we explore more of California and beyond. Some of these places we have been visiting for years, some we’ve only been to once but left us with a great impression, and some we no longer visit because my daughter just outgrew them. All of these stops are free except for the cost of any food we purchase, which I don’t mind when we use their restrooms, and also because it’s good to support local businesses. Some are for quick stops, others are for longer visits if you are able to take the time, but all are in California. Please excuse my photos (and lack thereof for a couple), many of these pictures are ones I already had in my photo stash (taken through the years), not exactly taken to best highlight the places, but they highlight the two things that gave the roadtrip stop a thumbs up, food and entertainment.
Let’s start with the roadtrip from the Bay area to SoCal, or the other way. There are two corridors you can take, I-5 or Hwy 101. I-5 will get you to your destination faster, but there aren’t many options for fun places to stop. We don’t have a set way we travel, but when the weather is nice and we have time, we generally like to travel Hwy 101 and stop along the way.
Hwy 101 between the Bay Area and SoCal
Avila Valley Barn, just north of Pismo Beach
Avila Valley Barn is one of our favorite places to stop along Hwy 101 and is a great halfway point stop. There are plenty of animals for my daughter to feed (they sell bags of lettuce scraps for some change) and lots of delicious treats to try. During the summer they sell roasted corn grown on their farm that is so incredible the smell alone will stop you in your tracks. The taste is just, well, summer-on-a-stick. It’s a quick stop that will get you off the freeway and back on quickly, and make everyone happy in the process.
Pismo and Avila Beach
If we have more time for our stop, we head to Pismo or Avila Beach. Avila Beach is further along the same road as the Avila Valley Barn, while Pismo Beach is bit closer to the freeway. In Pismo, we usually street park near the Old West Cinnamon Rolls store (yummy!) and walk down to the beach on Main Street (park on Main Street if you are lucky!). Parking is generally a pain especially on summer weekends, but if you luck out the beach is beautiful and there is even a pier you can walk on.
Mission San Miguel
Mission San Miguel is just off Hwy 101 on, you guessed it, Mission St. We pulled off the freeway on a whim one day because my daughter was studying California missions and thought it would be fun to explore. For a road trip stop, it was very educational, and the mission and its cemetary were quite interesting. If you don’t have much time, take a peek inside the church, walk through the courtyard and cemetary and take a good look at the mission from outside. If you have more time, you can pay a fee to take a self-guided tour inside the mission and learn more about the history and the people who once lived there. Who knew this unplanned road trip stop would make such an impression that my daughter chose this mission for her California missions project?
If you have more time, a walk around the Danish village of Solvang is always fun. The “village” is full of Danish style buildings, windmills, statues and of course there are bakeries filled with Danish treats (Mortensen’s Bakery) that you can nibble on while you explore. It takes only 8 minutes from Hwy 101 to get to Solvang and if you have some kids in need of letting off steam, we loved the Hans Christian Andersen Park that has a wonderful playground at the very back of the park.
Hwy 152, connects Hwy 101 to Hwy 5 near Gilroy
When you need to crossover from Hwy 101 to I-5, Hwy 152 is a nice route to use. It takes you through Gilroy and next to the San Luis Reservoir making it a very beautiful drive. The other perk is that it takes you by Casa de Fruta. Casa de Fruta is described as a “roadside attraction.” They have it all, a market that sells produce and bulk items, a 24-hour restaurant, a gift shop, an entire shop that sells homemade treats, an RV park, gas station, a carousel, and even a kiddie train. We’ve tried a number of their snack items, but we keep coming back for the pies they sell at the restaurant. We usually stop here to buy a slice or two of pie and use the restrooms in the restaurant which they keep very clean. The fact that the restaurant is open 24-hours is great when you’re driving through here at odd hours.
Interstate-5 between the Bay Area and SoCal
Our preferred stops on this long stretch of I-5 are generally In-N-Out Burgers, but we’ve stopped at Harris Ranch a couple of times for a change of scenery. If we’re in the mood for fresh baked goods, we stop in to pick some up at the Harris Ranch Country Store (then chalk up the price of our treat to being able to use their clean restrooms). Don’t be alarmed by the smell outside, they raise their cattle nearby… don’t know what else to say except, don’t smell too deeply. There is a rest area near Bakersfield if you just need to stretch your legs or use the restroom. However, during the summer we try very hard not to get out of the car in Bakersfield, it gets hot!
Hwy 58 near Bakersfield (when traveling to and from Mojave Dessert, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, etc…)
Murray Family Farm is a good place to pick up a treat or fresh fruit, use their clean restrooms, get gas (Chevron) and entertain the kids with all the animals (can you tell my daughter likes animals?) before a long stretch eastward. You can decide to stay for as little or as long as you like, as there are many activities that would entertain the entire family.
Hwy 99 in Traver (south of Fresno)
Bravo Farms Vintage Cheese Factory is found on Hwy 99, which is another route that runs north-south and parallels I-5. Bravo Farms is an interesting place to stop, it won’t leave you feeling bored, that’s for sure. There is a 7-story tree house that kids can climb around in and quite a number of animals to view and feed. There is so much “stuff” displayed that I got a bit sensory overloaded, but that kitschy decor is part of the charm. Don’t forget to try their delicious ice-creams and cheeses.
I-10 (on the way to and from Joshua Tree National Park)
The Cabazon Dinosaur roadside attraction is a fun place for a quick stop and some fun photos. You can walk into the gift shop that is in the belly of Dinny the dinasaur, but it’s more interesting to view the dinosaur from the outside. There is an exhibit of giant dinosaurs in the back that you can view for a fee, but we haven’t done that.
I-80 (on the way to and from North Lake Tahoe or Reno)
Ikeda’s Country Market in Auborn for sure! We don’t stop anywhere else really, except for some scenic overlooks. Ikeda’s chocolate chunk cookies, chocolate covered gummy bears, and red licorice (a whole pie if we did enough hiking to warrant that 🙂 ) are what we stock up on. They have a restaurant on one side and a store on the other side. It’s just a fun place to pick up snacks and use the restroom.
If you’d rather not stop here, there is a rest area along I-80 about 30 minutes north of there (Gold Run Rest area, but note that they are usually closed in the winter).
I-5 between the Bay area and Sacramento
When we are traveling home to the Bay Area from the Sacramento area (often after a volleyball tournament), we sometimes choose to drive I-5 since the traffic on I-80 is usually terrible. The added benefit of driving I-5 is that the Ghirardelli Chocolate Outlet and Ice Cream Shop is located on that route in Lathrop. Words cannot describe how good the ice cream sundaes are, I dream about their hot fudge sauce. Although you’ll want to eat a whole sundae yourself, your stomach will thank you if you share because these babies are rich, just like chocolate and ice cream should be.
Hwy 80 Between the Bay Area and Sacramento
We drove right by the Jelly Belly Factory for years because… I don’t know why because. Maybe the thought of filling our daughter up with sugar while we’re all trapped in the same car for hours didn’t appeal to us. Suckers for punishment, we decided to stop by one year anyway and were pleasantly surprised at all their offerings. Of course, they have a giant gift store where you can buy all things Jelly Belly, but they also offer tours (self-guided and free) and a food court where you can have a meal. The food was nothing fancy, but we liked that our burgers were shaped like a jelly belly!
Hwy 120 (on the way to Yosemite)
Oakdale Cheese and Specialties makes amazing gouda cheese, so we usually pick some up to eat on a picnic when we get to Yosemite. My daughter tried their freshly made grilled cheese sandwich once and she now has to get one everytime we stop there. There are some cute farm animals out back that you can buy pellets to feed. The pond is stocked with koi and the grassy area around the pond under shady willow trees is a relaxing place for a picnic.
On the way to Point Reyes National Seashore
There are several ways to get to the Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay (on Hwy 1) from Hwy 101. There are many dairy farms in this region, so cheese factories are a great place for a quick stop.
If you take Point Reyes-Petaluma Road:
Marin French Cheese Company specialize in soft style cheeses, which they provide samples of. They also sell everything you would need for a picnic, and provide picnic benches around their pond if you wanted to have your picnic right away.
If you take Lucas Valley Road to Nicasio Valley Road:
Nicasio Valley Cheese Company is another cheese company along the way to Point Reyes National Seashore. When we were there, someone walked us through the various cheese samples and helped us recognize the different flavors and textures of the cheeses. Their cheese is amazing and worth picking up for your picnic.
On the way to the Sonoma Coast from Hwy 101 via Bodega Ave.
Petaluma Creamery is on Western Avenue in the city of Petaluma, which we drive through when heading to the Sonoma Coast. This creamery was another fun place to stop and sample cheeses and indulge in ice-cream. It’s tempting to continue straight on Western Ave until it turns into Spring Hill Road to make your way to the coast, but taking the extra couple minutes to get back on Bodega Ave will make your drive much smoother (don’t ask us how we know 🙂 ).
Hwy 1 on the way to the Big Sur area
The Dennis the Menace Playground located in Monterey about 3 minutes off of Hwy 1, was a great, accidental find. Although finding parking took a bit of time, it was so worth the effort to stop here. The park has the ‘wow’ factor with so many different and interesting areas. My hubby and I found ourselves enjoying playground-time right along with our daughter as we explored all the different nooks and crannies of this park. I warn you, it may be difficult getting your kids to leave, I remember having to use some serious bribery.
Well, this is our list of favorite road trip stops. It’s exciting to know there are still many more stops we want to explore, not to mention that we have yet to visit many areas of California and beyond. So, for now, this is our list. Do you have a favorite California (or anywhere) road trip stop? Any place you might recommend?
Happy road tripping everyone, make sure to stop and stretch your legs!