Driving to Santa Barbara from the Bay Area

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Taking a toddler on road trip to Santa Barbara

Nov 2013

Hello all! I'm planning to do a road trip with a toddler to Santa Barbara over Winter Break. Are there fun, kid-friendly restaurants and attractions on the way down? Any recommendations for clean and safe stops off the freeway? I'm hoping my little one will nap as much as possible but I'd also like to take breaks and do some interesting sightseeing on the way down to SoCal. Thanks! Anonymous

On our way back from SD, we stopped briefly in SB with our three children for some quick refreshment and a peek at Mission Santa Barbara. I believe the cafe was called The Daily Grind Coffee & Tea Station since, checking maps, it was right off 101 on the way to the Mission. Check out dailygrindsb.com and then take in the Queen of the Missions, not much of a drive farther up W. Mission St., to walk off your goodies. Bon voyage, Sean

I like to stop at SLO going to SB, and at Pismo Beach going back. The beach breaks it up nicely. We always play there, and then have fish and chips or clam chowder. This way it is still a bit of a vacation day and doesn't feel like you are only traveling all day without any fun. Enjoy the trip.

We do the road trip to Santa Barbara very often, since our daughter is at UCSB.

Here are the things I have discovered:

If you take 880 to 101 and San Jose, and just stay on 101 southbound, the only potentially unpleasant driving is the stretch along 880 and through Silicon Valley, until about Morgan Hill. Thus, my favorite times to to go are departing southbound fairly early on Sunday, when the traffic is minimal through San Jose.

IMHO there are not a lot of good places to stop until you get to Salinas. The historic town of Salinas itself is a couple of miles from 101, but there are many restaurants and places to look at stuff. The Steinbeck Museum is well worth a visit, but it is not a particularly appealing place for a toddler.

The point about halfway on the trip is in the middle of the Salinas Valley by a place called the Wild Horse Cafe. This is a surprisingly good country-style restaurant in a truck-stop style plaza. it is good to know about since it is right in the middle of nowhere.

The city of Paso Robles is spread out. The downtown area is picturesque, but it is kind of hard to find any specific place to eat, or things that would be appealing to a toddler.

South of Paso Robles is Atascadero. For some reason, everything is cheaper in Atascadero - food, gasoline, motels. I found a funky old motel called 'Golf Links' or 'Golf Tee' or some such think on the main drag that was clean, inexpensive, and on a pretty creek. There is a historic downtown area with a large, grassy plaza that would make a good toddler-run area.

Highway 101 drops down a steep grade, several miles long, south of the Santa Inez valley, to the town of San Luis Obispo. SLO town is the home of CSU Polytechnic SLO. There are restaurants and places to visit, but I can't provide specifics. There is a restaurant on the north side of town, east side of 101, called something like Grandma's Apple Pan, with kitschy-country decor and immense portions. it is kind of hard to find. But if you want to eat before tacking the uphill grade going north, it is well situated.

South of SLO the highway comes in sight of the ocean at Pismo Beach. The first or second offramp is Spy Glass Road, where the Spy Glass Inn has seafood meals with indoor or outdoor seating above the ocean. It could be nice for a toddler.

South of Pismo Beach, the highway goes through the beautiful Santa Maria Valley. You will pass Pea Soup Anderson's restaurant in the town of Buellton - a classic California experience. Good meals, with toddler-sized milkshakes and pea soup. This is also close to the Danish touristy town of Solvang, which is just far enough east of 101 that my husband never wants to make the side trip.

Continue south and you will pass the beautiful beaches of Gaviota, Nipomo, and Refugio State Beach, with its towering palm trees. The latter might make a good pit stop, depending on how many surfers, bicyclists, retirees with RVs, etc. are congregating. There are many opportunities to see surfers.

The last hour or so of driving into Santa Barbara goes along the ocean. Beautiful!

In Santa Barbara, the Old Yacht Club bed and breakfast is inexpensive. With a toddler, you might be happy to get the cottage in the back of this B&B. It is located toward the south end of Santa Barbara close to the freeway.

At the foot of State Street, Sterns Wharf is a fun place to go with a toddler. You can simply walk about, or get a seafood meal on the wharf.

There is a cluster of fancier and more expensive hotels on the beach, near the foot of State Street too.

Enjoy your trip. UCSB Gaucho Mom

We *just* made the trip to Santa Barbara with our 2-yr-old. We had planned to stop at The Farm http://thefarm-salinasvalley.com which looks super fun, but my non-car-sleeper nodded off for a few minutes so we powered through instead. We went to the zoo - fun, get there for giraffe feeding if you can (ends at 2:30), has a train, easy parking. Ate dinner at Cava - upscale-ish Mexican, very friendly to our little guy even when he was giggling & hiding under the table, fabulous guac & margaritas. There were TONS of cops on the highway, so be careful. Have fun!

Road trip from Oakland to Santa Barbara with 2 little kids

March 2010

Hello, We're planning a road trip from Oakland to Santa Barbara next month with our two boys: age 3 and age 16 months. We'd like to break up the trip with a few stops to run them around. Does anyone have recommendations for kid-friendly pit- stops along the way? Thanks! Road Trip Novice

Try the Dennis the Menace playground in Monterey. It's easy to get there and has a parking lot and bathrooms. We live in Berkeley and find that by the time we get to that point, we all need a run-around break. Nic

Santa Barbara is a 6 hour drive from Oakland, and I go about 4 times per year. I would recommend looking to stop at Pismo Beach, CA since it is about 2 hours north of Santa Barbara, and it has easy access from 101. Beautiful beach, parks, and places to eat. This is if you take the coastal drive down 101. I stop at Madonna Inn for a bathroom break, and to fill up my tank. It's a pleasant enough place, and safe for the kids to run around, maybe get a bite to eat (the food reviews are good). I haven't eaten there, but again it has easy access from Hwy 101. It's about halfway between Oakland, and SB, so it's always my first stop. Here is the website: http://www.madonnainn.com/index.php Additionally, for the adults, but still kid friendly, I would highly recommend taking Hwy 154 toward Santa Ynez to stop at Los Olivos Cafe. http://www.losolivoscafe.com/. It's been around forever, great food, and a lovely place where I think the kids would be ok if you sat outdoors. It is a beautiful drive through the Santa Ynez Valley, and again, right off the highway. More off the highway, is Solvang. It is a cute touristy town, so it's worth a mention. I usually only visit now for the outdoor theatre if I am staying in SB. But if you like kitchy, this is the place! Do not take this drive if there is fog; the coastal drive is pretty as an alternative, but no real stops along 101, other than Pismo Beach. I recently took the HWY 154 drive in January (it doesn't add any more driving time), but offers more choices for eateries, etc. when you're 1 hour from Santa Barbara. Enjoy. anon

My parents live in SB, so we do the Oakland to Santa Barbara trip quite often. We always take 101. Our new favorite place to stop with our 17 month old is Paso Robles. They have a great town square with lots of green grass for picnics and a play area for the kids to run. There are lots of restaurants around the square for a meal break. There is also a deli for picnic food. There are even wine tasting and olive shops. It sure beats fast food in some of the other pit stops. SB or bust!

This is a trip we make fairly regularly. Paso Robles is a nice stop. There's a kid-style candy store that sells madlibs and old fashioned candy on the square as well as and more 'see's candies' type store. We've eaten at a burger/chili type place, the thai place on the square. The square has a play ground and restrooms and hosts a weekend farmers' market. Atascadero is a nice stop and it has a ZOO. There is a small little 'dive' type taqueria that is quite good en route to the zoo. The zoo park also has a play ground and picnic tables if you don't feel like paying admission to the zoo. Oakland zoo membership gets you a discount. But on warm days we always find the zoo a shady relaxing stop--the park tends to get more sun. Pismo beach has view restaurants and a beach etc. In a bit from the freeway, Solvang is a sweet 'old time' town w/ Danish flavor, but you have to want to drive inland a while. The mall right off the freeway at the solvang exit has ice cream, fro-yo etc. I think this description goes north to south. Jessica

a few off the top of my head from when i grew up in sb county: nojoqui falls is a nice park, play area and a civilized path to a waterfall. about an hour no of sb, old coast hwy exit just before hwy 1 to lompoc. and speaking of lompoc, surf beach, about 10 miles west, is amazing. not a swimming beach and because of its location, usually fogged in, but lots of strange plants and critters to dig out of the sand, the mouth of the santa ynez river to wade in. guadalupe dunes park is kinda cool, w/ a boardwalk through a wetlands to the dunes. i forget how old your kids are but la purisima mission (lompoc) is well done. i think the one at san miguel (no. of paso robles) is good too. there's the union hotel in los alamos, so. of santa maria. it has one of those hedge mazes in the back. fun place for a snack and a beer. these are all off the standard beaten path. pismo and avila used to be great, but they're all built up now, sad to say. if you're interested you should check them out first, because it's been a while since i 've been to some of these places. nostaligic for central coast

We do this trip 3-4x year. Warning, it takes about 8 hours with a toddler. Our stops have included Fry's in San Jose (convenient bathroom break), Gilroy outlets (not much other than some mechanical rides for kids), a family friendly restaurant in downtown Salinas called Sufficient Grounds or something like that, Starbucks/Subway in King City (they share a little plaza, which always has kids and dogs stretching their legs), and downtown SLO, which has a nice park with a creek. I suspect there must be nice playgrounds in Morgan Hill and SLO; we just haven't looked hard for them yet. Oh, and I must recommend the bathroom at Albertson's in Atascadero which is spotless and has changing tables in BOTH the men's and women's room! Have fun in SB! Tired of 101

Stop for a bathroom break at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Your three-year-old will love the men's room urinal--it's a waterfall that turns on automatically when you get in position. And the whole place is just ridiculous and fun. Also, if you're looking to stretch your legs as you get close to SB, stop at the Gaviota Hot Springs. They're a half-mile hike (uphill) from 101, and are a great spot to unwind before driving the final half-hour. (Or, on the way back, might be a good way to relax the kids before the long haul.) Lara

Hi Road Trip Novice, I have made that same trip a few times over the past few years and honestly have found that with the young children it was best for us to travel either at night or really early in the morning because there are a few long stretches along the way to S.B. where its pretty rural.Until you get within two hours of S.B., there is the city of San Luis Obispo which is growing,about a half hour away is Morro Bay, a small community which is nice to visit, they do have a cute little museum that is very child friendly. But heading toward S.B. there are several more beaches to check out, Gaviota,Avila,Pismo Beach to name a few.We usually enjoy the sites of these beaches along the way and head to the various beaches in Santa Barbara.Such as Hendry's beach,Ledbetter or East beach which has a baby pool for the public.Anyway you look at it, heading to beautiful Santa Barbara is always a fun adventure when you have kids, whether you are spontaneous or make plans. Enjoy and have a safe trip! Denise

SF to Santa Barbara on the Pacific Coast Hwy

March 2007

Hi, We would like to take a 4-5 day trip driving down the coast from Sf to Santa Barbara. I'm hoping to get recommendations for activities we can do along the way that will be fun for our 2.5 year old daughter. We're definitely going to the aquarium in Monterey, but I'm pretty sure we'll need more things to do. Also, any recomendations for places to stay and eat will also be appreciated. Thanks again vesta

Subsea Tours in Morro Bay (http://www.subseatours.com/subsea.html). Sort of contrived, but 50 minutes that can keep a toddler entertained. You go out in the harbor in a boat with underwater windows and look at the fish when food is thrown over the side. The captain was marvelously nice to our 2.5-year-old who wanted to steer the boat and toss the food. Cathy


Driving to Santa Barbara with a 1-year-old

May 2004

We will be driving to Santa Barbara in June for a family function. Our daughter will just have turned one the week before. She's almost walking, very active, in short, doesn't like staying in her car seat for very long. I'm wondering if people have any recommendations for places to stop along the way so we can let her out to crawl around and play? We will be taking 101 all the way down. My husband likes to drive without stopping other than short gas/bathroom breaks. I've told him this is no longer possible with a little one who needs to move around. To appease him, I need places that aren't too far off the main highway. He won't put up with hour long detours. mdel

There is a rest area around Paso Robles (after King City on the way down, about 2/3rds of the way) which has restrooms and a grass area and is very easily accessible from 101. michael

We drove to SB last summer on 101 with our 1.5 yo and 3.5 yo. There were zillions of construction delays and few good places to stop. Or it seemed that evry time we needed a bathroom break, we were stopped by construction or close to a vile rest stop. If you can't fly, I strongly suggest driving at night. Traffic around San Jose was also bad. We left at 1 p.m. to take advantage of nap time, but it wasn't enough! SB airport looked good

I didn't see the original post, but I wanted to add my two cents. We just got back from a trip down south that included Santa Barbara. That part was my favorite of the trip. Gorgeous weather, good food. Beautiful scenery. 101 is the only way down of course, and I was surprised to see how beautiful the drive was (I went to UCSB 20 yrs ago and had forgotten) the speed limit is up to 65 so it doesn't take as long as it used to and there are LOTS of places to stop on the way. We left @ 1pm to take advanage of nap time but I would recommend leaving earlier to avoid traffic in San Jose, which is the only traffic we experienced.(Your child will probably fall asleep at nap time mid trip anyway!) We had no problems with construcion. The part between Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara is particularly beautiful, so don't drive at night or you will miss it all!

BTW, don't miss the Zoo there...it's beautiful and small so can be done in a couple of hours. Also, we rented a bicycle while there...a ''surry'' that my husband and I rode side by side while our toddler sat in front of us to see the sights...that was the highlight of our trip! Have fun. anon