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Exploring California - West Coast Adventures!

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

San Francisco ----> San Diego on a budget. The Road trip we would never get sick of.

We are a family who loves road trips. We had definitely perfected the art of getting in the car to go. And then one day I decided to fly across the Country and go to California!

The Backstory:

We were invited. Our cousins who lived in the San Francisco area have been trying to get us to come for years. I had actually gone when my oldest was a year and a half, and truly had a great visit! I was introduced to the trolley and Fisherman’s wharf, as well as the Haight Ashbury. We’d been to Alcatraz. My son took his first baby art class at the Golden Gate Park. I was broke. Everything we did was free or close to it. But just having that memory was perfect in my brain. Until my children got older and they saw the pictures in the photo albums of Baby Westley living his best baby life and wondered why we never went back.

Our cousin Nollie came to visit us every year whether we were living in New York or Florida. She has two children and so the cousins always got to play together and make some memories. Although she invited us out every year I knew five airline tickets was out of the budget. Until two of those kids had jobs and could afford to buy their own tickets, and I had completed my Masters degree and gotten a raise. And just then I decided to do something crazy. Take her up on her offer. She just caught me on the right day, "Melis, bring these kids to California they are going to love it" and I thought, "why not?"

The good thing here is Nollie has been a part of some of our day adventures and knows how we roll. Theme park? We are the first ones in the last ones out and we bring all our own food (when possible). City day? We are seeing it all. Beach day? Committed to our cooler and the fun at hand completely.

So here we go - to California. For one week in The Summer of 2017.

** Anything blue bold and underlined will link to that accompanying page. Click if you'd like more info on that specific place ***

Prepare for landing Landing....

Just the excitement of parking the car at the extended off site parking at the Orlando Airport and shuttling was exciting. Walking through the airport, each kid responsible for their own belongings was exciting. Boarding the flight was, you guessed it - exciting. We didn’t sit together because I was budgeting. Cheapest tickets don’t let you pick your seats. I did end up sitting next to a boy who was also traveling separate from his family and he had just come from Universal so we talked all about Harry Potter and his trip the whole flight (I was very impressed with his wand). That is until he fell asleep on my shoulder LOL. Good thing I am not a weirdo!!

It was a pretty big deal for us flying out to California from Orlando, since all of our previous family trips were road trips. Sometimes very long road trips, so everything about this was new!

When we landed in San Francisco our cousins were waiting outside and we met them at the curb.

San Fran Day 1:

Our first stop was an Italian restaurant family favorite: Giorgio’s Pizza. We had gained three hours in traveling and we were happy to land at 2:30 in the afternoon with time to see the area. We were two carloads. We took up two huge tables in the middle of the place and just laughed and talked about everything making up for lost time. And the food was delicious too! We were starving.

When my oldest was 1 1/2, we flew out to San Francisco to visit, and ate here. Yuuuuum.

Giogio's Pizza, San Francisco

Our next stop was Pier 39. We walked through the shopping area and boardwalk, strolling and enjoying the best of everything. Taking in the sights. There were some pretty framed box gardens lining the walkways with great big sunflowers and lots of vegetables growing. I loved the sights and smells. I followed where they led us and the next thing I knew we were overlooking the water and a mountain of seals below who were all talking to each other while they played in the water! They were jumping on and off these huge docks and some were sunning. Prior to this I had never seen sea lions in the wild. How impressive! Of course I did not want to leave. Eventually the kids wanted ice cream and insisted so we keep walking. We looked across the bay at Alcatraz and the mountains. We knew we were fortunate to explore a new place, and so grateful to be there!

Pics from Pier 39:

We drove down the famous steepest street in America: Lombard Street. Actually the kids got out and walked down! Traffic is moving slowly enough that you have no problem walking as fast as you’re driving! The Crookedest Street in the World does not disappoint with its hair pin back and fourth switch turns.

Although I wanted to stay in the San Francisco area longer and explore more, our younger cousin had to go to work so we needed to get back home where we only needed one car. The drive to El Sobrino was a little more than an hour, we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge happy to be in our new environment for the week!

Day 2:

The next day we were off to Muir Woods! This National Monument is actually a Redwoods Forest you can wander through for miles. On our way we were joined by more cousins! Camie and her family drove behind us to make 3 cars full of people excited to see each other. We have never seen anything like the huge trees towering overhead. But that’s not all. Some of the trees have cave like entrances making you feel like you are at home. Others are roots up knocked down and the natural process becomes alive while you are a part of their world. To say the least: we were tree huggers that day! Trying to hug trees we could barely fit our arms around even as an entire family and laughing our way through the peacefulness of the forest while catching up was priceless. They were not many people there that day which was probably a good thing. We had seven kids between our three families and they were not quiet!

The beautiful trails of Muir Woods were exactly what we needed! Lots of deep breathe of the freshly made oxygen, welcomed by these old and wise redwoods.

After Muir Woods, Camie suggested to head into San Francisco and get some Chinese food for dinner. We drove into Chinatown and Camie took us to a beautiful gourmet Chinese restaurant. While the food was absolutely delicious - the portions were small and the bill was high! The people who live there were quite alright with that. I was a little shocked! But went with the flow. Appreciative and still wide eyed and looking at everything with magnificence. We are used to bigger portions and even left overs. This was really more about a great food experience.

We were planning this trip for a couple of months and trying to think of some awesome things we could do together as a family.

Way back when I was in fifth grade at Theodore Roosevelt elementary school we did a research project to describe our perfect place to live. What would the climate be like? How would it look? What kinds of things could you do there? It was extensive. Part two of that project was to find the place in America that most closely resembled your preferences. Mine was San Diego.

Day 3: We are going down to San Diego.

The Drive:

It's a 7 hour drive from The Richmond area down to San Diego. It is known for being a congested drive. At that time the Pacific Coast Highway was closed due to wild fires and reconstruction in the area... So we knew this would be a highway ride all the way, boooo. And rather than just get there, we opted to stop in LA and stay! Nollie has some life long friends living in that area and we could have some fun with them. She was happy to fulfill my dream to travel down the coast to SoCal but had her own recommendations - Mind you at this point I was going with the flow and not the one making the arrangements :-) I was just happy to be there and see everything California had to offer.

We rented a car because of the number of people traveling. We grabbed the jeep from the Oakland Airport Fox rental for a reasonable price and got on the road. This took longer than expected and slowed out morning down a bit.

On our way south we stopped at the Tejon Outlets, really just to use the restroom but ultimately my cousin is a shopaholic and wants to see what kind of deals they have everywhere we go LOL. But... My philosophy is - if you stop there - Enjoy being there. We wandered and explored enjoying the backdrop of the mountains at every turn. My son said he felt like he was baking in the oven! It was hot!!

We checked into the Comfort Inn where we had a nice suite for all of us to stay for a few nights. My cousin had stayed there before and knew this was a safe and clean spot for us to have enough space at a good price. It was literally 100 degrees at this point and feeling the heat wave was slowing some of us down! For the rest of the day the big kids went to Magic Mountain for some roller coaster riding and thrill park type of fun while we took the littler kids to Lake Balboa Park in LA. This was awesome. At Balboa Park we rented a buggy and drove around exploring and having a great time. There may have been some ducks that got chased but it was all harmless fun :-).

I had a list of places I wanted to see... and we were able to see them all!

Day 4: San Diego


We woke up early, grabbed some free breakfast from the lobby and drove down to the San Diego Zoo. Nollie had decided to go to the beach last minute and not to join us for the day. I think they did not want to leave the hotel as early as we had to and face the two hours of traffic down to San Diego. But we were determined to stick to this part of our plan and made it happen. Up and out early we mentally prepared for the traffic and having never been to LA before, still found the roads and scenery awesome. Yes there was traffic! But we had planned to arrive at 10 o’clock and that is exactly when we were pulling into the parking lot. The San Diego Zoo is hard to find discounted passes for and it cost me $250 to walk in there with five people. I was just praying that amount of money would be worth it. And I can honestly say that it was. The lay out of this Zoo takes you over hills and through scenic walk ways. The animal displays are all conducive to the animal. We wandered and enjoyed every creature we saw.

We enjoyed polar bears, panda bears, big black bears, we even got to see baby koalas awake (they sleep 22 hours a day). We loved watching the sea otters play and enjoyed the landscape of the zoo as well as all of the environments set up for the animals. Up until that point our favorite zoo was the National Zoo in Washington DC. Because the animals are so easy to view and their habitats are so well done. I have to say San Diego claimed that number one spot in that day because the animals were active and happy and we were walking up and down mountains to see them which really made you feel like you were somewhere else. I knew we were not in Florida! We still talk about this day many years later - meaning it was a great investment of our time.

The polar bear exhibit can be viewed live every day on the Zoo's website and we often pull it up in my classroom and just watch to see what they are up to.

We left the zoo at 4 PM just before closing time and stopped at In-N-Out Burger for dinner. This is my kids favorite spot to eat now. We had gotten some when we stopped for the rental car, and now this was our second time with this place. Yummy burgers!

From there we went to the most wonderful place: La Jolla Cove and had our first time walking down the side of the cliff to see the sea lions up close and personal. Parking was a bit tricky but we drove around the streets and I parallel parked along a hill, grateful for those drivers education days insisting we learn this skill. The walk down to the water was phenomenal. A few vendors were set up, but I couldn't take my eyes off the water and cliffs.

This is a place the seals come to nurse their young, and the baby seals are just the most curious fun loving creatures! You are not allowed to touch them however they will just about walked right up to you. It was so much fun! The kids walked out on the rocks where the water was exploding behind them and soaking people who were too close to the end. I of course was afraid someone was going to get washed into the water. The Pacific Ocean is chilly and powerful!! The sea lions wash back-and-forth with the waves playing and enjoying their best times right there for you to witness. We stayed a couple of hours and walked up and down the coast line exploring the jagged rocks and cave like features of the land. I took a ton of pictures. My kids were smiling and willing which made me the most satisfied mama ever.

National geographic had nothing on me on this day! I made friends with all the sea lions, and they posed for pictures and videos while I just marveled.

Getting gas before the ride back up to LA we made friends with a man parked next to us driving a Lamborghini. My boys knew all about his vehicle down to how much it cost and the driver was humoring them to show off his cool ride. My point: Even just getting gas is an event! I was sold on the area. I was wondering how much I would make teaching at a local school and if I could afford to stay here on that salary. I looked around and realized this really is heaven. I love it here. My fifth grade research project turned out to be a success after all!

The drive back to LA was not as crazy as the ride down to San Diego. It seemed like we were there in no time but we were exhausted. We went to sleep early because we had our next day already planned out. Yes, that's a lot for one day. One WELL PLANNED DAY!



The drive to Griffith was up a steep side of a mountain reminding us again that you we're not living on a flat planet. At the top of the mountain we took pictures of the Hollywood sign which is easiest to view from this point. Apparently people come here just to photograph that sign.

My son Josh is completely interested in space and was in heaven all day from this encounter. The observatory is extremely hands-on and there is much to see do and explore. I was not sure how much the other kids would enjoy this. But we stayed a little longer than planned as it was so much fun. At this time there was a debate about earth being flat and my daughter was leaning toward believing we’ve been lied to our entire lives. The conversations that the kids had that day were priceless because you can just never explain gravity and physics as well without all of these visuals and displays. We made a round earth believer of her that day. Great exhibits of the galaxy and a model to scale on the lower level certainly helped.

2nd stop: Hollywood Blvd.

We’ve grown up seeing the stars on the side of the street and feeling like Hollywood was the ultimate stop! I thought it would be like Time Square in my mind. But it isn’t. Aside from a bunch of movie characters dressed up trying to convince you to take pictures and tip them it is completely different.

We learned that the Scientology Church is huge out there and own much of the land. You see people at work or representing that as you walk around. It’s also not a very big area. The Hollywood strip is only a couple of blocks and we zipped through pretty quickly. We took some pictures with our favorite stars and even got a few with Spider-man proposing to my daughter LOL.

I don't know why I expected more - there is a big mall and lots of shopping along the streets.

Wow! Talk about an amazing day. Arriving here was definitely a highlight. We’ve never seen a beach like this before. Huge climbing apparatuses and lots of exercise throughout this huge beach side park alongside a boardwalk filled with rides and her variety of places to shop or eat. Santa Monica wins the best beach ever award. I secretly felt like a character in the Lost Boys movie. And was looking around for vampires LOL we weren’t planning to stop for dinner but we absolutely got caught up in the moment and decided to stop and eat. We ate at Rusty's where the wait was not as long as other establishments. Great food, and great environment. The girls rode the Ferris wheel and the boys rode the roller coaster. Us moms sat for a few minutes and just talked while the kids ran around.

We walked all the way down to the end of the pier and took some pictures of the fishermen and the ocean before heading back to the car. Cousins having fun is the whole hope of my heart and my heart was overflowing. ❤

We were making priceless family memories. In my mind we were going to also go to Venice Beach this day. It looks close enough on the map! However I greatly underestimated the crowds, the traffic, and the allure of wanting to stay a while. I’m glad we enjoyed where we were at and just took it a little slower at that point. *Flexibiity for the win!!

Day 6: Los Angeles

Sunday we are joined by Dee, Nollie's friend who was a resident of LA and wanted to make sure we saw the whole area correctly. It was like having a personal tour guide. She drove around pointing out all of the spots we needed to know the way only a resident can.

1st stop: Ventura Boulevard

Here we stopped for some gourmet ice cream freshly made right in front of us.

Dee guided us through the neighborhoods explaining the significance in history of Skid Row, Bel Air, and the Hollywood strip.

Mostly because they were happy to appease me :-) we stopped and walked the strip and down to the Ocean. Another wow! First of all the art in the area is larger than life. Huge murals on the sides of the buildings let you know this is all about creativity. Music is bumping from everywhere. Many sidewalk sellers feature different designs and creations. Similar to Santa Monica there are huge exercise equipment areas set up where you can climb, swing, balance, or pull up. The kids enjoyed the equipment. The shops in Gardens lining the strip are welcoming. There are also basketball courts, handball walls and weightlifting along with a yoga center and a dog park all back to back. We saw surfers and admired the skateboarders with their truly magnificent skate park! State of the art!! We took a few pictures and reluctantly got ready to leave.

We had a 5 hour drive back up to EL Sobrino ahead of us. And we were dropping off Dee. How sad we were to say goodbye to Southern California. When we arrived back a Nollie's house it was 2 am and we were all anxious to stretch out and get some sleep! We left pretty late... we knew it would be a 2 am arrival. But again, we made the most of an awesome day!

Day 7: Monday, July 24 was my son's 23rd birthday! It was 68° and a beautiful day to stay close to the home, eat some birthday cake and have a home cooked meal. There is something to be said about downtime :-) Enjoying a slower pace and hanging at the house, just being.

Sadly we were flying out on Tuesday, July 26. Not until the evening however so we were not going to waste any time. We rode bikes around the neighborhood with our cousins loving the landscape! We explored some of the foothills of Richmond and checked out the reservoir there in town. We went by the Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley California. Cousin Camie came back for some family pictures and wanted to take us to eat tacos in Alameda before we had to fly out. We drove out and got some awesome food. she definitely knows where to feed people!