Question: We're driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles over the Fourth of July. When we head south we'll take I-5 and when we return north we'll travel Highway 101. We're taking our 2-year-old daughter so we hope to stop frequently and break up the trip with overnight stays. Advice?
—Bao-Tran, San Francisco, Calif.
Answer: I'll start with a question for you. On which days do you plan to drive? This year the Fourth falls on a Friday and roads will be jam-packed on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. Skip the traffic by leaving early in the week and returning the following Monday or Tuesday.
As for stops along the way, I-5 may be the world's most boring, barren road. The best spot for an overnight and fun is Harris Ranch, the midway point between SF and LA. The 100-year-old cattle farm is the main attraction here and it offers an elegant restaurant and a Hacienda-style inn. My advice is to splurge at the Steakhouse, where a rib-eye goes for $40, and stay at the nearby, more affordable Best Western Big Country Inn.
You'll find more attractions when you're heading north on 101. My first bit of advice is to take the I-5 to Santa Clarita, north of LA, and drive Highway 126 to Ventura, where you can pick up Highway 101. The scenic route passes through orange groves and small farming towns, before ending at the coast. North on 101, pull off the freeway in Santa Barbara and head for Chase Palm Park, right across the street from the beach. Here, your little one will enjoy an antique carousel and Shipwreck Playground where she can climb around on a boat and sea creatures.
Hungry? Try La Super-Rica, blessed with an endorsement by the Late Julia Child. The colorful shack, dishing up Mexican food on Milpas Street, is know for its tacos with spicy meat piled on top of fresh, grainy corn tortillas.
A hundred miles north on 101, make another stop in San Luis Obispo, where a clear, cold creek runs right through the college town. Your daughter will enjoy running along the path that skirts the river. She'll probably even be happier with a cone of berry yogurt from the Country Culture Yogurt Bar on the main drag, Higuera Street.
Paso Robles, the midway point, is a good stop for an overnight. In the past decade, wineries have opened up around this former ranching community, and now gourmet restaurants, boutique shops, and fancy hotels sit on the town square. The Best Western Black Oak Motor Lodge has an outdoor heated pool, hot tub, free Internet, and a swing set for kids. Rooms start at $109. For something fancier, try the Summerwood Winery & Inn, a luxurious Victorian-style mansion with nine rooms featuring fireplaces and balconies overlooking the estate vineyards. Rooms start at $225.
Before hitting the road the next morning, drop by the Cowgirl Cafe for warm cinnamon rolls drizzled with cream cheese frosting. Happy trails!
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