Road trip with kids: Driving the I5, part three

Part three of the Canada to California road trip has us heading from Valencia to Watsonville, then onto San Francisco.

There is just something about California that makes me feel at peace with the world. Prior to this road trip, I had never strayed from the I5, so I had no idea what the coastal roads were really like. Once we left Valencia, we began our drive toward the coast. The kids, at this point, were really mellow after a day at Six Flags, so it was a pleasant drive for about 3 hours.

Hour four of the cruise had us going through some mountain range of some kind. I couldn’t tell you where we were, only that it was dark, I could see the moon reflecting off of water occasionally, and that everyone was giddy from driving and exhaustion.

Although we had planned on getting to Santa Cruz, we ended up stopping in Watsonville, California. Watsonville is a cute little town that is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Santa Cruz. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express (again).

Funny thing about certain hotel rooms and certain hotels. Some of them come with a doorbell. For us, this is one of the oddest things we’ve ever come across in hotel rooms (and I’ve seen a lot of weird things in hotels). When my husband went back out to the car to get our luggage, he came back and decided to ring the doorbell. He was trying to be funny.

Turns out that doorbell sounds an awful lot like a fire alarm, and my 7 year old has a full on phobia of fire (I have no idea why, I blame television). When that door bell shrieked, he lost his mind. I think everyone on our floor heard him. I alternated between laughing and comforting him.

Bright and early the next morning, we headed toward San Francisco.

And here is where the road trip became an actual road trip. Sometimes you just want to go where the wind blows you, and there is literally no better place to do that than the California coastline. Because of the kids and their limited attention span, we didn’t stop at half the places I wanted to. You could literally crawl your way down the coast and discover something new every hour. One of the places I’m sorry I missed was Hearst Castle. The other was the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

But the thing about California? It’s not really about where you didn’t get to go, its more about where you do end up. And I ended up at a beach that was so beautiful that the thought of it makes me smile, even to this day. The best part? There are many, many beaches just like it up and down the coast line, so if you finish with one, there is another up the road.

After a few hours at the beach, we drove straight through to San Francisco. It was burning hot that day, and we had no plans to spend a lot of time in San Francisco other than seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and peeking over at Alcatraz. We did make a pit stop at Fisherman’s Wharf for what was probably a half hour, then drove over the bridge. My eyes were squeezed shut for the majority of the time.  It was big, scary, and felt like it would never end.

Once you drive out of San Francisco, you inch your way across the Napa Valley. We continued through there to Redding, California, home of not much and the place where I was finally finished with driving. The only problem? We were still about 10 hours from home.

There were a few memorable moments, when driving through the mountains, that my van’s thermostat inched higher and higher. Even with the windows open, it was a blast furnace. Temperatures outside were at least 110.

Automotive Tip! If your car is overheating, turn off the air conditioning and roll down your windows. Try to keep the thermostat at an even keel until you are finished climbing, then turn your air back on. Repeat as necessary.

The entire next day we drove, stopping here and there. When we finally entered the Portland area, we pulled over at a beautiful local park for dinner. I think a few of the parents who saw us arrive thought we were homeless, because when we opened the van doors stuff fell out into the parking lot.

After that it was drive, drive, drive, until we arrived at the border. The entire day was a blur. When we finally pulled up at our house, we had been gone from home for 2 weeks. Too bad we couldn’t find the house key and had to crawl though a window to get in.

The cost of the trip actually worked out to be slightly more than if we flew there.  I know, even I can’t believe that one, but when you factor in the cost of extra hotels and staying onsite at Disneyland, it really adds up.

Would I do a Canada to California road trip again?

Yes, but only in an RV or a huge bus of some kind. Something where you could pull over wherever you needed to and rest. A home away from home, with wheels and a bathroom.

Was it worth it? Definitely. That trip is full of memories with my kids that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

After all, what’s a little aggravation here and there. You only live once.

For even more Disneyland tips and secrets, visit the first installment in our guide to Disneyland



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  1. Really enjoyed reading about your trip. We live in victoria, bc and are planning the same road trip with a few more stops along the California coast. We were thinking about driving the i5 down and then going to visit San francisco for a few days. After that we plan on driving the coast and stopping off at a lot of small towns and then finally to L.A. Believe it or not we are not sure if we wil even go to Disneyland. My husband thinks it will be too busy and too hot. I am sitting on the fence right now about this. Anyways, my question to you is would it be better to just drive straight to LA and then up the coast or do as we had originally planned. Any thoughts? My kids are 5, 9, and 12.


    • I think it really depends on if LA is the ultimate final destination for you or if the ‘trip’ itself is more about the stops along the way. When we went, it helped to push through to get to LA, because our destination was Disneyland. Then, when we slowly made our way back, we were able to relax and take in everything on the way home.

      As far as kids are concerned (I have 10,9,6, and 3), I think they were excited to just get in the car and get there, so pushing through down the I5 made sense because they knew we were going straight through. It also made bringing them home easier, because they knew we were stopping a lot of the way back and seeing everything we missed by not driving the coast.

      We plan on doing this trip again this year, and we’ll be hitting the coast a lot more when we drive. It’s so beautiful that we didn’t think we saw enough of it. Just be prepared with beach stuff and stop anywhere you see. Most of those strips are completely empty of people and just off the side of the road. You should also have a big bucket of water in the car to rinse off the sand, because if you go to a non-populated beach, there won’t be showers or bathrooms.

      Also note that there is a lot of traffic through the Napa area heading out of San Fran on the way home (if you go that route). We were stuck around there for at least two hours before we managed to get out.

      As for Disneyland, if you are going in July it will be really busy and really hot. The nice thing about Disney is there are a lot of places to cool off (unlike Six Flags, where there is no shade to be found anywhere). But Disneyland just went through a major expansion, so most of the people will probably be headed to California Adventure this summer. You never know if it will be quiet on the Magic Kingdom side. Honestly, it’s so magical for kids your age, they won’t even notice the heat, and if you’re so close you just can’t beat the experience.

      Have fun!

  2. Thanks so much for the great advice. I think you are right about just heading straight to LA . I asked my 12 year old daughter this morning if she would prefer to do the long drive before or after LA and she agrees with exactly what you said. Without kids I have always taken the coastal route down and then i5 up, so that is what I am use to, but with kids it’s a whole lot different. As for Disneyland, I do think we should go, even if only 1 day. Hard to think that we are right there and not go. My kids have been to Disneyland 2 x but none of them remember it. Have you taken the kids to universal studios or sea world? Any thoughts on those two places for kids.

    Do you live in vancouver? If so, do you remember how far south you got on the first day?

    • I do live in Vancouver. I’ve done this trip twice. The first time we drove it, we left fairly early in the day and we made it to Weed, California before we stopped. The second time we left in the evening, and only made it to just outside Eugene, Oregon the first night before stopping. Then we drove straight through the next day and arrived in Anaheim around 10 pm. I actually found the first trip was better. Everyone was excited and in a good mood, so 12 hours wasn’t that big of a deal.

      I’ve been to Universal but not Sea World, and my kids have only been to Universal in Orlando but they don’t really remember it. If you have a Transformers fan in your family, Universal Studios Hollywood has a new Transformers ride that’s supposed to be unbelievable. We plan on going there this summer too.

      Your 12 year old will have a blast at Disneyland. There’s so much for older kids to see and do, even in the heat. And if it gets too hot, just go to the water park in California Adventure (by Bugs land) and they can cool off.

      I plan on writing an update on the expansion at California Adventure. There’s so much more to do now – We go every year but I still can’t wait to go back.

  3. Wow, can’t believe you got as far as you did. Good to hear, if your kids can do it then hopefully mine can too. We will definetely drive straight through to LA after hearing your experience. Thank you so much for all your advice as I was feeling very nervous about this road trip. Have a great trip this summer. Can’t wait to read all about it!!!

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