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They say getting there's half the fun. And that's a fact, if you take the slow road from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Driving Highways 1 and 101 up the California coast takes nearly twice as long as Interstate 5. But that's the reason this scenic roadway is the state's most famous and popular drive.
What it lacks in speed, it makes up in scenery. Part freeway, part two laner, the road twists and turns along the jagged coastline for about 435 miles. In many spots, it hugs cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean. (Vertigo sufferers: don't look down.)
Along the way, there are lots of places to stop: cool little towns, ancient groves of redwood trees, offshore islands, the castle that media magnate Hearst built, and pullouts where you can watch waves crash along the rocky coast.
Plan on two days to do the drive leisurely. Our recommended itinerary provides enough pit stops and detours for the kids. So buckle the seat belts, load up plenty of games, and set your Global Positioning System for North.
An hour out of Los Angeles on Hwy 101, you'll reach your first stop: the Gull Wings Children's Museum in Oxnard. This interactive children's museum offers face painting, a dress-up stage, and a puppet theatre. Reptile lovers can meet Romeo the Iguana and check out his 10-foot python buddy.
If you miss Oxnard, there's another detour 11 miles up on Seaward Avenue in Ventura. This is a good place to grab a cup of java and stretch your legs with a stroll on the beach. There's street parking and a small lot with clean restrooms and showers to rinse off the gritty stuff. If time permits, let the kids ride the carousel in nearby Ventura Harbor Village, or take a guided cruise around the harbor.
On the half-hour stretch from Ventura to Santa Barbara you'll get your first unobstructed view of the Pacific. The first signs of life appear in Carpenteria and Summerland, quaint beach towns that are also great stops.
From there, Santa Barbara -- or the "American Riviera" as it's often called -- is just five minutes away. Plan to spend at least an hour there. Stroll up State Street, a hip pedestrian promenade with some of the trendiest shops and restaurants on the Central Coast. Or head down to Stearns Wharf at the foot of State Street, where you'll ooh and ah at 30 miles of white sand beaches.
No, it's not Denmark. But the quaint, flower-lined streets, windmills, and Tudor buildings make you think it is. You can spend an entire day shopping and stuffing your faces here. The aroma of freshly made chocolate and Danish pastries are particularly hard to resist. Top off your visit with a ride on a horse-drawn streetcar.
When you hit Santa Maria, make a detour to the Dunes Discovery Center, site of buried Hollywood treasure. In 1923, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille built "The City of the Pharaoh" for the epic The Ten Commandments. Upon completion of the film, DeMille ordered the set -- the largest ever built in movie history -- dismantled and buried in a secret location in Santa Maria.
In 1983, film buffs discovered the site (thanks to a clue in DeMille's posthumously published autobiography) in the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes, nine miles west of Santa Maria. The Lost City of Cecil DeMille, as it's now called, will be excavated someday. For now, you can check out the artifacts that have been unearthed to date, as well as the Ten Commandments movie memorabilia on exhibit at the visitors center.
Take a sprint in your car along Pismo State Beach, California's only "driveable" beach, located 19 miles north of Santa Maria. About 1.5 miles south, along the same strand of sand, you can ride the dunes at Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area. A day pass gets you into both. Make sure you have four-wheel drive, or your car won't get farther than this point.
And don't miss the Butterfly Trees of Pismo Beach. You'll see hundreds of thousands of migrating Monarch butterflies clustered high up in eucalyptus trees, where they return each November through February.
About 12 miles north of Pismo Beach, in the City of San Luis Obispo, get back onto Hwy 1 and head to Morro Bay. The town is best known for its "Rock of Gibraltar," a distinctive 576-foot-high massive, volcanic rock that the Spanish explorers used as a landmark.
This is a good place for a half-day break. Start with a nature walk or puppet show about local animals at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History. Hands-on activities for children are offered Sundays.
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was one rich dude who built himself a big fancy house on 127-acres, 30 miles north of Morro Bay. Unparalleled in its opulence and excess, the state turned Hearst Castle into a national monument after his death in the 1950s.
Now one of the most popular attractions in California, this mega-mansion is truly a sight to behold (your sleepiest passengers will want to wake up for this one -- it's not just another boring house tour). Besides the mosaic floors, tapestries, and Greco-Roman pools, there are 58 bedrooms, where Harpo Marx, Greta Garbo, H.G. Wells, and other Hollywood stars once slept. From its windows, you'll get 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia mountains.
The drive slows down significantly along this twisty, mountainous two-laner that hugs one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world. Keep your camera handy. From December to February and March to May -- and in summer if you're lucky -- you may see California's gray whales migrating up along the coast.
Along this scenic highway, 52 miles north of Hearst Castle, you'll arrive at your next stop: Big Sur. This park is legendary for its coastal views and spectacular stands of California Redwoods. It's also a great place to picnic, swim, and hike.
Home to Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, the region offers some of the most spectacular vistas in all of California and the nation.
Located 72 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is a perfect last stop before reaching the City by the Bay. Much of this small city still thinks it's in the 1960s. You'll see hippies, tie-dye shops, surfers and more.
It's also a typical California beach town, complete with pier, shops, amusements, and rides. Spend a few hours checking it all out, then head for the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. The world's first surfing museum displays more than 100 years of surfing history, from giant, old-fashioned boards made of redwood to today's high-tech surf vehicles.
Type of trip: Outdoor
Best ages: 5 and up
Ideal trip length: 3-5 days
Distance (from Los Angeles): Santa Barbara (96 miles), San Luis Obispo (200 miles), Santa Cruz (380 miles), San Francisco (435 miles)
Best time to go: Year-round. (Avoid winter's rainy season. Bad weather can obscure views and make driving treacherous.)
Weather: California is a state of microclimates, so temperatures vary up and down the coast. It generally gets colder and foggier as you go north. Average July temperatures: 84/64 degrees in Los Angeles, 75/59 in Ventura, 76/56 in Santa Barbara, 64/53 in San Francisco. Pack warm clothes for California's wintry summers.
Lodging: Pismo Beach is a great halfway point to spend the night. Hotel rates average $80/night for a family of four, year-round. Camping on Pismo State Beach is gorgeous -- and dirt-cheap, but it gets prety crowded in summer.
Squirm factor: A lot, while you're on the road, so pack plenty of games.
Gull Wings Children's Museum 418 West Fourth St., Oxnard Phone: 805-483-3005
Ventura Harbor Village Spinnaker Dr. off Harbor Blvd., VenturaBoat rentals and cruises:
Bay Queen Harbor Cruises Ventura Harbor Village, Ventura Phone: 805-642-7753
Dunes Discovery Center 1055 Guadalupe St., Guadalupe, 9 miles west of Santa Maria Phone: 805-343-2455
Pismo State Beach (and Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area) 581 Doliver St., Pismo Beach Note: The dunes are adjacent to Pismo Beach, about 1.5 miles south of Pismo State Beach entrance
Butterfly Trees of Pismo Beach On Hwy 1 at the city limits
Morro Bay Museum of Natural History Morro Bay State Park, State Park Rd., Morro Bay Phone: 805-772-2694
Hearst Castle 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon Phone: 800-444-4445 (reservations) Note: Tickets available at the door, but reservations strongly recommended.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park On Hwy 1, 26 miles south of Carmel Phone: 800-444-7275
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum At the Mark Abbot Memorial Lighthouse on West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz Phone: 831-420-6289
Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau Phone: 800-2-OXNARD
Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau Phone: 800-333-2989
Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau Phone: 800-549-5133
Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau Phone: 800-468-6765
Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce Santa Maria Phone: 800-331-3779
Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce Phone: 805-773-4382
Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce Phone: 800-231-0592
Big Sur Chamber of Commerce Phone: 831-667-2100
Monterey Convention & Visitor's Bureau Phone: 831-649-1770
Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council Phone: 800-833-3494
Pfeiffer Falls Trail in Big Sur Just inside the park entrance Phone: 800-444-7275 You can: Stretch your legs on a 1.4-mile round-trip hike through redwoods to the 60-foot high Pfeiffer waterfall.
Best souvenir: Your own photo of a California Gray Whale migrating south (December to February) or north (March to May); Viking hats with horns from Solvang.Annual events:
Traffic Alert: During heavy rains, portions of Hwy 101 and Hwy 1 may be closed due to mudslides. For road conditions, call 800-427-ROAD (inside California). Outside the state, call 916-445-7623.
Some 14 miles off Ventura's shoreline sits Channel Islands National Park. This nature preserve, aptly nicknamed the "American Galapagos," is home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals -- 145 of which are unique to the islands. Even the surrounding waters are teeming with sea life; you'll probably see a few whales, dolphins, and seals on the boat ride over.
Five of the eight islands off Southern California's coast are considered park territory. They include: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and in the far-off distance, Santa Barbara Island. Once there, you can hike, boat and kayak, snorkel, and surf. Tours are operated by Island Packers in Ventura and Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara, (both official concessionaires for the national park).