Northern California Road Trip

Northern California Road Trip

We love far flung adventure holidays and for one reason or another (jobs, starting businesses, new babies...) we haven’t managed one since 2014 when our eldest was seven months old and we did our California road trip. I thought I’d share this one with you as it’s brilliant for a young family, with the perfect balance of adventure and easy living, in a country where the first language is English and there’s good healthcare available if you need it. 

We flew in and out of San Francisco and toured Northern California. We chose to stick north as we were more interested in the national parks and geography and felt that a tour of the sophisticated southern coastal towns would have suited us more pre-children or would be best saved for when our family is a bit older. 

As an aside, flying long haul with a little one isn’t relaxing like flying used to be. There’s no kicking back and watching a movie or dozing whenever you feel like it. However it’s completely do-able if you’re well prepared and follow the usual routine of meals and activities while on board. We always take enough food / milk to keep little tummies full for the duration of the journey. We pre-order the children’s meal but never assume it will go down well. Invariably you can find a whole host of fruit, biscuits, finger sandwiches, carrot sticks, crisps and journey sweets in our rucksack. We also always pack lots of activities (sticker books, magic painting, wipe clean puzzles, crayons, new novelty toys etc). An iPad and set of headphones is really useful if it gets fraught. Other musts are a change of clothes and plenty of nappies and wet wipes. I take a compact change of clothes for the grown-ups too just in case a poomageddon or travel sickness hit! Even though my babies never really used dummies I always packed one for them to suck in case their ears hurt with the changes in air pressure. Another top tip is to make sure you book the bassinet seat in plenty of time as they get snapped up quickly and it’s really handy to have somewhere for an infant under two to sleep which is not on you. We found a big muzzy was great for hanging around the bassinet to block out some of the light. And to get children to settle down for a night flight it helps to follow the nighttime routine with pyjamas, teeth brushing and story. 


Anyway, on with the adventure! Our first stop was San Francisco itself. We stayed in the delightful Argonaut Hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf. We loved the quirky maritime decor and the airy bistro where we ate a delicious breakfast of pancakes and fruit each morning. A visit to Alcatraz to see the famous abandoned prison is a must, as well as a boat trip to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the open top bus tour which takes you all around the city to see sights including the colourful architecture and beautiful and rugged coast. We strolled to Pier 39 to see the famous sea lions, and a ride down the steep and twisting and twining Lombard Street is also good fun. We visited late September / early October and the temperature was perfect; sunglasses and sweater weather. 


We then drove from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe in the mountains. We opted for a beautiful route along the coast and through the wine country. This was very scenic but in retrospect with a baby with us it would’ve been better to take a more direct route. None of the drives should’ve taken us more than about four hours but this one involved lots of crying baby because the winding coastal roads made it more of a detour than we expected.

In Tahoe we stayed at the Landing Hotel; a wonderful water front spa hotel. Our room was cosy, modern and spacious with plenty of room for the cot, and it had a huge bathroom. The elegant restaurant had spectacular lake views and a great patio. Our eldest tried his first American pancakes here and has loved them ever since! In the winter you can ski in Tahoe and we did actually arrive in a blizzard. But this soon cleared and for the rest of our time it was beautifully sunny, though we did need coats. We enjoyed scenic walks and picnics on the beaches around the lake and hiked down to Emerald Bay where the water colour was breath taking. 


After our time in Lake Tahoe we drove on to Yosemite National Park and arrived just as the leaves were turning into the glorious yellows, reds and oranges of fall. We stayed at Tenaya Lodge, a traditional feeling lodge. Here we had a little cabin in the woods and felt as if we might encounter a bear along the paths to the main building. The American diner style restaurant was fun for meals and we enjoyed taking picnics with us on our excursions during the day. With older children we would’ve done more hiking but given we had a baby with us we took a bus tour around the park to see the famous sights including Half Dome and El Capitan which the more intrepid can climb. We also went on an excursion to see the incredible Giant Sequoia trees, otherwise known as Redwoods. These are the biggest trees in the word and grow to a height of 50-85 metres with trunk diameters ranging from 6-8 metres. Here we learnt a romantic fact that we love to re-quote to each other, sequoias grow and live in pairs. 


On our last day in Yosemite we woke up to a dusting of snow outside our cabin. We were lucky that we were about to start driving down to the coastal town of Monterey because we may have needed snow chains to go up into the national park again. We chose Monterey as our last stop mainly because we wanted to take our little one to the aquarium where it was amazing for him to see all of the native marine life. However Monterey and nearby Carmel are also cute places to stroll and soak up the quaint atmosphere, boat spot and look out for seals basking in the sunshine. In Monterey we stayed in the Marriott as it was tricky to find affordable and characterful accommodation but it was perfectly pleasant and very central. 

This was as much as we could fit in with a small one in tow but it would’ve been lovely to keep driving south down the coast to check out the other towns and fly home from Los Angeles. Instead we returned to San Francisco to save the rest for next time. So many happy memories of the perfect first family road trip and definitely a destination to recommend to other families looking for gentle adventure!


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