Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cruisin' the Coast: Toddler X's Guide to Driving Highway 101 with Kids

Playing by the Pacific in Pismo Beach
This is a post I've been meaning to write for years now, ever since Mr. X and I first embarked on a road trip down the coast with Toddler X in tow. We've now driven up and down Highway 101 many times, to and from Southern California and the Central Coast. With an active child, we've never been straight-through drivers -- we plan our road trips with plenty of stops and diversions, and fortunately, we (okay, I) take notes for the benefit of my SV Toddler readers. And now, finally, I'm taking the time to pull them together into a blog post.

This post is NOT just for families with toddlers or preschoolers -- kids of any age get antsy on road trips, and many of these stops would be enjoyed by older kids as well. Feel free to share with your friends who live anywhere along the coast and find themselves making the drive up or down.

I'll cover stops from outside the southern tip of the Bay Area (hopefully you won't find yourself needing road trip stops before you've even left Silicon Valley!) to the point where 101 ends in the south. Eventually, I plan to add some northerly stops to the post to get you from top to bottom. [Note: This post is a work in progress -- right now, I've made it as far south as Pismo Beach, but there's more to come regarding Buellton/Solvang, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. I'll add additional stops asap.]

Here's to many happy and safe road trips with your kids!

** Caveat: I don't profess to be an expert on any of the towns listed in this post. We've stopped at each two to five times and have found some kid-friendly spots, but I fully recognize that my many readers who attended Cal Poly or UCSB will have more tips than I could come up with. I would absolutely welcome any additional ideas to add to the post! **

Before you hit the road...

Please check out some of our Road Trip favorites! (These are Amazon Affiliate links.) Thank you!

For toddler/preschooler fun:

For toddler/preschooler...um, needs:

And finally...

And now, let's head south on 101!


In driving up or down 101, many of us routinely pass Salinas without a second glance. If you're heading south from San Jose, you've only traveled about an hour, and it's unlikely that most road-trippers are planning a stop that soon. And if you're heading back north -- well, you're almost home, and who wants to plan a stop then?

But if you're traveling with young kids, the concept of planning stops reads like an oxymoron -- you'll stop when somebody needs to stop, and no later than that. And fortunately for us, one such stop on a return drive from San Luis Obispo took place in Salinas. Here's what I found:

Tatum's Garden -- incredible!!
Check Out: Tatum's Garden (Exit 330, Bernal Drive -- 2 miles from the freeway). I discovered this incredible playground just through doing internet searches during a drive up the coast, and wow! This is one of the most amazing play areas I've ever seen, tucked right off Highway 101 in Salinas. A local family spearheaded its construction so that their daughter with special needs could play alongside her siblings, and they did a masterful job combining the region's agricultural roots with fun play areas for kids of all ages and abilities.

I won't do a full review here, but suffice it to say that if your child needs a break and you're anywhere near Salinas, this is worth a stop.

Paso Robles

Paso is very popular among my friends for wine tasting fun, but my only experiences there have been with Toddler X in tow, which, for the purposes of this blog post, works out just fine. If you plan to make a road trip pit stop here, you'll find plenty of tasty restaurants and good parks for energy burning. Here are some ideas:

Sherwood Park -- Medieval fun!

Check Out: Sherwood Park (Exit 231A -- 3 miles off the freeway). Again, I found this park via an internet search in the midst of a long drive, and it is awesome! Lots of space to run around, a cool medieval theme (complete with a dragon and a sword in the stone to tug on), nice new structures (for big kids and little), an attempt at shade, well-maintained -- all around a winner.

We found a yummy deli just a few blocks away, and with some playtime and a tasty sandwich in our bellies, we were able to finish the trip home in peace.

The old Downtown City Park -- thankfully a thing of the past!
Check Out: Downtown City Park (Exit 231A -- 1/2 mile off the freeway). When we last visited this main square in Paso Robles (May 2014), the playground here was a disgrace -- so bad that I posted about its sorry state. While the park as a whole is very pleasant, with lots of big lawns for running about, shady picnic tables, and a bevy of inviting restaurants around the perimeter (we couldn't pass up Cold Stone), the big kids' play structure was embarrassing -- literally one of the most dilapidated structures I've ever seen, with plywood barricades and peeling paint. (The little kids' structure was small, but passable, and pleasantly shady).

Fortunately, it appears that Paso recognized that a dilapidated playground didn't do much for the town's central park, and they've now completely renovated/replaced the play area. It re-opened last summer, and since new usually means pretty cool when it comes to playgrounds, I can't wait to check this one out. It's convenient to the freeway and worth a stop as you pass through town.

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo is one of our favorite, easy, inexpensive family vacation spots, and we've definitely made some great finds there over the past several years. While this college town is great for a long weekend, it also has a lot to offer if you're just stopping by for an hour or three. Here are several things you can enjoy within just a few miles of Highway 101:


Check out: Emerson Park (Exit 202A -- 1/2 mile off the freeway.)

We've visited Emerson Park on two different trips to SLO, and both times Toddler X really enjoyed it. The park features a flower garden/insect theme that plays out in a cute manner through the main structure and the various features around it (a little hive, a dragonfly seesaw, etc.). The features are well-spaced over a large tanbark area, and there's a grassy lawn nearby for kids who need to burn more energy.

Note that this playground is primarily designed for little kids -- toddlers and preschoolers will enjoy it, but there's not much for older kids to do. That being said, the main structure is one of the cutest (and most fun) compact toddler play structures I've seen, so if you have an 18 month - 3 year old, it's worth the detour/stop. If you have an older child, skip Emerson Park and hit nearby Mitchell Park instead.

I can't recall if this park has bathrooms or not, though I do remember a community building of sorts that may have restrooms for park patrons. You're very close to downtown SLO here, though, so if you grab food there, you'll find restrooms.

Emerson Park also has a bocce court (where Toddler X burned some energy running up and back) and a neat community garden to explore. Whether you're staying in SLO or just passing through on 101, this is a great stop for young kids.

Community garden at Emerson Park

Check out: Mitchell Park (Exit 203A -- 1 mile off the freeway.)

The big kid structure at Mitchell Park
While Emerson Park is a favorite for young kids, Mitchell Park has something for everyone, with a fun toddler/preschooler area and a larger, more challenging structure for big kids. The design isn't as cute -- and you know me, I love a cute playground theme -- but it's a very functional park, with big and little kid areas close to each other (allowing you to supervise kids of multiple ages) and convenient bathrooms.

The little kids' area
Toddler X's favorite part of the park: this cute hopscotch design, painted onto the sidewalk near the big kids' area. He would have been happy to hop back and forth along the route all day long!

Hopscotch fun at Mitchell Park
Check out: Cuesta Canyon County Park (Exit 204 -- 1/2 mile off the freeway.)

Cuesta Canyon Park is easy to access from the freeway, and is the first SLO stop on 101 heading south, so if you're in dire need of a break after driving all the way from the South Bay (as we did on our trip down to San Diego), this is a good spot. Unfortunately, we've only visited Cuesta Canyon once, when Toddler X was 15 months old, three months before I started this blog. As a result, we were there just for fun, not to document the adventure for posterity, and I didn't take many pictures or any notes at all. 

What I do remember is that the park features the large grassy field pictured above (we picnicked in the shade of a tree and watched college kids play frisbee), convenient bathrooms, and a big but antiquated playground area (which I recall having zero shade). I found a couple of pictures showing the equipment, which includes swings, a big structure, and few peripheral features, all of which were showing their age.

What I remember fondly, though, is the cool creek you traverse to get from the parking area to the actual park -- Toddler X really enjoyed watching the water, and if he were a bit older and we weren't in the midst of a drive (and therefore not wanting to get wet), we definitely would have stayed to splash a while.

I don't know why we haven't returned to this park in our later visits to SLO, but next time we go, I'll be sure to make a stop there and share some pictures with you.


Check out: The SLO Children's Museum (Exit 202B -- 3/4 mile off the freeway)

I can't speak highly enough of the San Luis Obispo Children's Museum, which is located in downtown SLO, close to restaurants, shops, and the mission. While it's smaller in footprint that places like the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose or the Bay Area Discovery Museum, there is plenty of fun packed into its three stories and small outdoor courtyard.

I have dozens of pictures from our adventure there, but I'll just share a few here to give you an idea of the creative, educational, physical (there's even an indoor climbing structure!), and fun activities that await your family.

This is a great spot to visit with any age from toddler through early elementary. Since you'll likely want to spent several hours here, it's probably not as much an on-the-road stop as a place to visit during a longer SLO stay, but if you are in town, I definitely recommend it.

The museum is generally open Tuesday - Sunday, and is closed on Mondays. Ages 2 and under are free; older kids and adults are $8. The museum is part of the Association of Children's Museums, so if you are a higher level member (membership value of $125 and up) of the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose or the Bay Area Discovery Museum (or one of the more than 200 other children's museums in the association), you'll get 50% off admission for up to six people.

One thing to note in that strollers are not allowed inside (it's a tight squeeze), so people leave them in a designated area outside.

Check out: The Thursday night Farmers' Market

The (locally) famous San Luis Obispo Farmers' Market, which takes place every Thursday night on Higuera Street downtown, is a great stop for families, whether you're passing through or staying for a longer SLO visit.

Higuera is closed off for the festivities, and lots of local farmers are there with fresh produce. Meal options from various vendors are available, with a whole host of cultural flavors (and desserts -- check out the booth below!) represented.

There are also booths for everyone ranging from craftspeople and artisans to the local police department (Toddler X got a pretty sweet badge sticker.)

Finally, at the far end of the street, they set up bounce houses and slides to wear your kids out so that they become compliant and willing to hold your hand as you walk through the crowded market. They were a bit pricey for a short play time, but it was a small price to pay for peace.

Overall, the Farmers' Market is a fun family outing, whether you're staying in SLO or passing through on a Thursday evening. Our last trip there resulted in some tasty produce, cheeses, and fresh breads to take back to our room and enjoy with our free wine (see below for a description of the Happy Hour at the Quality Suites) the next night, but it would also be a great place to grab picnic goodies for a beach or park stop on the road the following day.

Dining (All of the suggestions below are located in or very close to Downtown SLO, less than a mile off the freeway.)

Check out: Splash CafeSplash Cafe is a small chain of restaurants (there are three, two in SLO and one in Pismo) that are well-known for tasty cafe dishes (clam chowder, fish and chips, salads, sandwiches, etc.) and delicious baked goods. While the Pismo Beach location is also known for long lines, we found the SLO location on Monterey Street (right next to the Quality Suites, reviewed below) to be busy, but not crazy, and definitely worth a visit. Toddler X found a few little toddler friends to hang out with on the outdoor patio (above), and there were enough high chairs for all of them. (We haven't yet stopped in at the Downtown SLO location, in the plaza next to Barnes & Noble.)

Check out: Mo's Smokehouse BBQ. We discovered Mo's on a walk to downtown SLO from our room at the Quality Suites -- it's on Monterey Street, just a few blocks from the hotel. We're big BBQ fans, and the wait looked far shorter than what we'd seen at Firestone earlier in the evening, so we stopped in. We ordered WAY too much food (why we even both ordering something for Toddler X, I don't know), but it was all very tasty. I can't remember exactly what choices we made, only that they were good and that I walked out thinking that I'd like to stop in again. I also remember having a great local beer (or two...which is perhaps why I don't remember what I ate). If you're a bbq fan, enjoy pig decor (it's everywhere), and are hoping for a shorter wait than at other local restaurants, this is a good stop. (Note: I read somewhere that it's closed for a break until later this month, so it might be worth a call before you stop by.)

Check out: Doc Burnstein's Ice Cream Lab

This. Place. Is. Awesome. If you like frozen treats and especially if you like them served in a fun and creative space, the Ice Cream Lab is for you. We've made three trips to SLO, and all of them have featured a visit here. There's a great variety of flavors, toppings, and special ice cream treats, with cool ice cream decor all around.

There are just a few tables outside, so if you can't grab one, you may find yourself eating a somewhat drippy cone on a bench -- grab extra napkins just in case.

Check out: Firestone Grill. Firestone has to be one of the most popular restaurants in SLO (I swear, everyone who heard we were visiting said we had to stop there), and we definitely enjoyed our visit. The beers, burgers, and fries were all tasty, though the very crowded evening led to a long line and a delay in getting our food (never ideal with a toddler). The outdoor patio (above) is fantastic, though, and a great place to kick off or finish an exploration of the downtown area (it's situated at the far end). Worth a stop for BBQ and burgers if you're in town for more than a few hours.

Check out: California Pizza Kitchen. No, I'm not joking. In a town full of great restaurants, we've actually eaten at CPK on two of our three visits. Yes, it's a chain, and yes, it's exactly the same food that you can get at home, but it's yummy and consistent and (here's the biggie) super kid-friendly, with one of the best children's menus around. They offer bread immediately (huge if you have a hungry kiddo!), and have a fun placemat for coloring. Toddler X has always enjoyed his meal, whether it be pizza or pasta, and honestly, I've always enjoyed mine too! So while it's not particularly creative, it's a good option if you have a kid who does better with familiar food at familiar places.

It's also worth noting that the restaurant's entrance is via a large courtyard with steps and a fun glass elevator (I think there's a glass elevator -- I'm writing this from memory, and we were last there two years ago), so if your kid needs to get some wiggles out, there are options. And finally, if you sit near a window facing the street, there is a crosswalk just outside the restaurant that lights up when people want to cross. Toddler X loved that and wanted to watch it even after we were done eating.


Rear courtyard at the Quality Suites
Check Out: Quality Suites Central Coast (Exit 204 -- 1/2 mile off the freeway.) I'm almost reluctant to share this reasonably-priced gem of a hotel because I worry that if everyone knows how pleasant it is, it might be tough for us to get a room on our next trip! But my desire to help other families has won out, so here you go.

I discovered the Quality Suites via an internet search, and based on the name, I assumed it was just another chain motel. The online reviews begged to differ, however, so I took a leap of faith and went ahead and booked it for a three night stay in March 2014. I'm so glad I did!

While the Quality Suites is like a motel in some ways, with outdoor hallways and clean but not luxurious accommodations, the experience as a whole is delightful. From the very pleasant lobby, to the courteous service, to the 24 hour/day individually brewed coffee and tea, to the borrowing library of books and videos, to the small, relaxing lounge with a wine bar, it far exceeds what one would consider a motel.

The rooms are on three floors centered around two courtyards -- the front one with the pool in the middle, and a rear courtyard with a gazebo, fountain, and large lawn. The pool courtyard also has a hot tub, a great firepit with comfortable lounge chairs, and an outdoor kitchen where they hold a BBQ every evening, complete with complimentary beer and wine.

Yep, there's a free happy hour every evening. That feature in itself makes this hotel a winner!

Pool area with fire pit
Significant for families is that the rooms are true suites, with a door separating the front room (with tv, fridge, and fold-out couch) from the rear one (with the bed(s)). You can put the kids to bed in the rear bedroom, then enjoy adult time in the front room (perhaps with some of those free drinks!). The only drawback is that the restroom is only accessible through the bedroom, so plan ahead for that.

Another benefit for families is the complimentary made-to-order breakfast, which we've been impressed with every time. The large lawn, fountain and gazebo in the rear courtyard are a great place for kids to burn some energy, and when Toddler X was napping, we just propped open the door and placed lawn chairs near the room to enjoy the outdoor environment.
Relaxing in the gazebo
But perhaps the most wonderful aspect of the hotel is its location. It's a short distance off the freeway and an easy walk to Cal Poly (we enjoyed exploring the campus), but most importantly, it's a very easy walk (about 3/4 mile) to downtown SLO and all it has to offer. When we visit, we stroll down there several times a day for meals, shopping, a playground, or the children's museum. Downtown offers a lot of fun for families, and easy access from the hotel takes away the need to worry about parking. If you don't want to walk all the way down, there's even a branch of the delicious Splash Cafe just a hundred yards or so from the hotel's front door. Can't beat that!

A few tips before you book: Check out Cal Poly's schedule (I think they're on the quarter system) to make sure to avoid move-in, graduation, parents' weekend and the like. If you can go during a vacation time (our most recent trip was in early September, before school started), it's very low key. Also, when booking, think about whether you want a room in the front or rear courtyard, and perhaps request one on the first floor. We've stayed in both the front and the rear, and found the front (next to the pool and the BBQ area) to be much louder but very convenient to everything (like the bar for Happy Hour), while the back courtyard was much quieter and featured the nice lawn for running about. Being on the first floor was convenient because Toddler X didn't have to navigate concrete stairs and we could sit outside the room while he napped.

While the Quality Suites is definitely not the Four Seasons, it's also not a Motel 6, and for the price, it makes for a great family getaway.

Avila Beach (Exit 196 off Highway 101)

Avila Beach is a really neat little beach town that is located a short drive from SLO. It's a great side adventure during a vacation in SLO, but can also be a nice diversion in the midst of a road trip. I have a couple of friends who actually make a stay in Avila a trip unto itself, and I can see how that would be fun.

A convenient aspect of Avila, if you're traveling with kids, is that it's very compact. You can park once, then it's an easy walk between playground, beach, pier, and shopping/restaurant promenade. If you're just passing through as part of a bigger road trip, you probably won't want wet, sandy beach clothes in the car, but you can still have plenty of fun here with the playground, pier, and promenade.

Here are some options if you stop by:

Check out: Avila Park. This is the main attraction for kids in Avila Beach. It's a fun, sea-themed playground located just yards from the sandy beach. There's a typical play structure, swings, and spring toys, but there's also a sunken pirate ship as part of the sand play area, which makes for lots of pretend play fun.

Picnic tables and restrooms are located right next to the playground.

Check out: The Beach Swings and Slide

One of my favorite things about many Southern California beaches is the inclusion of on-sand entertainment -- swings, a play structure, something to add variety to a day at the beach. Avila Beach brought this concept to the Central Coast with a fun swing set for adults and kids
at the top of the beach. There's something so "California" about swinging on the sand!

Next to the swings in a simple slide -- no big deal at a playground, but on the beach, it's quite an attraction!

Check out: The Beach Itself

Well, duh. The town's name is Avila Beach, and that's the centerpiece of a day here. The main (only?) beach in town is wide, long, and sandy. The sand is not pristine and powdery white, but it works just fine. Toddler X had fun playing on it, and I had fun sitting on it.

It is kind of a long walk from the street area down to the water, so perhaps consider a beach wagon if you're hauling lots of gear. Restrooms are located at the top of the beach near the playground.

Check out: The Pier

If there's one thing Toddler X loves, it's running down a pier. Seriously, I have more pictures of him running toward me on a pier, with a look of pure, unadulterated joy on his face, than any other subject. He loves them.

Some piers can be tricky for little feet, though, and this is one of them. The slats are kind of far apart, to the point that one could lose a flip flop. You can imagine how I felt about Toddler X charging along in Crocs. Fortunately we made it to the end unscathed, and enjoyed the view for a bit before making the harrowing walk back. It's very pretty out there, but if you have an unsteady toddler, beware of the slats!

Check out: Shops and Restaurants

Located at the foot of the pier is the start of a little promenade area, with restaurants and shops and a beachfront walk closed off to cars. We've strolled through the shops a bit (I found a great pair of flip flops there, actually!), but the only one I remember enough to comment on here is Little Fishy, an adorable kids' store located in a cute courtyard near a wine bar. There's a little table for kids to color at while their parents browse, and lots of fun (though pricey) clothes and toys (including the Melissa and Doug beach toys that we love). If you like kids' boutiques, stop in here.

We haven't eaten at any of the actual restaurants in the promenade area, but not surprisingly, we found our way around the back of a building (seriously, this place is hidden) to discover a tasty frozen yogurt place -- and if there's one thing our family agrees on, it's frozen desserts. Yum!

Maybe Check Out: The Central Coast Aquarium 

I spotted this place during our first visit to Avila Beach while Toddler X was playing at the adjacent playground (described above), and I strolled over, thinking that it was a small, perhaps city-run, spot that would let visitors in for a few dollars donation.

Um, no. While kids 2 and under are free, older kids and adults are $8 apiece. We hadn't planned to spend time in an aquarium that day, and I really didn't want to commit $24 to a quick stroll around, so we didn't visit. However, from looking at the website, it seems like a very pleasant spot. If you have free time to spend in Avila Beach, this may be worth checking out. Just note that the hours are limited (from their site, it looks to be just Saturday - Monday), so if you're passing through on a road trip, you'd have to time it just right to be able to visit.

Pismo Beach

Pismo is a very popular Central Coast beach town and is no doubt a favorite stop for many road-trippers. We haven't spent a lot of time there, however, and our most recent visit was marred by the fact that it was ridiculously crowded and parking was impossible to find, so I don't have as many suggestions as I do for SLO and Avila. Here are a few things we did enjoy:

Check out: Dinosaur Caves Park (Exit 191-B from 101 -- about 3/4 mile from the freeway). This cool, dinosaur-themed park is located right off the freeway, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. While the playground itself is pretty so-so, the view is incredible.

Toddler X's favorite part was not in the playground proper, but in the little amphitheater, where we ran around and burned energy for almost an hour. We also tried the bluff-top walking trail, but I was constantly terrified about him getting too near to the edge (he was just over three years old at the time -- these days I wouldn't worry so much).

If you have a little runner, stick to the playground/park area.

There are picnic tables and a restroom.

Check out: Pier Beach. While I know there are some better beaches in Pismo -- beaches surrounded by beautiful bluffs, with cool tidepools and surfers offshore -- this is the one we stopped at on our visit, as we wanted to check out the little "town" area too. As mentioned above, it was extremely crowded when we arrived and parking was hard to find (very frustrating with an antsy kid -- or an antsy husband). The Splash Cafe line was around the corner -- we joked that we could probably drive up to SLO, go to the Splash Cafe near our hotel, and still get our clam chowder before the folks in that line did.

All that being said, it was a Saturday in the spring, and it's likely that if you stopped in on a weekday (best time to roadtrip!), the crowds would be far more bearable. The beach is easily accessible, and the shops and restaurants are right nearby, so if some time on the sand would wear your kids out and make for a nicer car trip, and you'd like to grab a meal too, this may be your place.

Toddler X loved running around on the long, wide, gently sloped beach, and enjoyed playing with the fine, white sand. The swings are also a nice touch. Like at the main Boardwalk beach in Santa Cruz, there are a bunch of volleyball nets set up, and beach volleyball is always fun to watch. And the pier was much more kid-friendly than that at Avila -- wide and with close-together slats -- so Pismo has that going for it.

What it comes down to is that I'm not familiar enough with Pismo Beach as a whole to give any great, insider tips, but it is a popular destination alongside 101, so if anyone has good kid-friendly ideas, please let me know.

Solvang/Buellton/Los Olivos/Santa Ynez

Solvang, Buellton, Santa Ynez, and Los Olivos are four small towns set among vineyards, pastures, and lavender farms in the Santa Barbara Wine Country. I’ve had the pleasure of exploring this area on foot twice during the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon (a fantastic race, for all you runners out there), and by car at other times, and it’s just gorgeous. Those familiar with the movie Sideways will recognize the backgdrops for many of its scenes.

With kids in the car, you’re probably not going to stop for Pinot Noir tastings or stroll in lavender fields, but there are several other family-friendly diversions. Here are a few that I came up with. Some of these I’ve visited myself – others are adventures that I’ve researched to plan for our next visit (now that Toddler X is older, we have many more options). For all of these, you’ll take either Exit 140A (Highway 246) or Exit 146 (Highway 154).

Animal Adventures

The farms in this area don’t just grow grapes – they grow random animals as well, from ostriches and alpacas to miniature horses and donkeys. Alongside the half marathon course, I even saw – and stopped to take a picture of – a bison. Several of these farms are less than 10 minutes off the freeway and are open to the public, so if you have antsy animal-lovers in your car, these are worth checking out (be sure to check websites or call ahead for hours).

West Ranch Alpaca Farm (In Los Olivos – take Exit 146 off of Highway 101 – 5-10 minutes from the freeway): This is one that Mr. X and I discovered on our own, before Toddler X came along – we saw a sign for an alpaca-shearing event, and hey, how could you pass that up? Alpacas are just funny animals to begin with, and the owners here are super friendly, knowledgeable, and proud of their animals. If you can catch the farm during a special event, definitely check it out. If not, I believe the farmers are still willing to welcome visitors and give tours; just give them a call to get specific directions and make an appointment. The farm is located in the Firestone Winery property in Los Olivos at 5009 West Zaca Road.

Ostrichland, USA (In Solvang – take Exit 140A off Highway 101 – 5 or so minutes from the freeway): I have driven by this ostrich/emu farm a bunch of times, and each time thought that its very existence was hilarious. Though we’ve never stopped, we likely will on our next trip. My parents, sister, and niece just visited last weekend, and they reported that the farm is just as funny as you’d expect, that admission is really reasonable (I think $5-6), that you can buy buckets of food to feed the birds for $2 (definitely let an adult hold the bucket – these birds are tough!), and that you want to wear closed toe shoes. Given that it’s such a short distance from the freeway and such a unique experience, you might as well check it out, provided your kids (or you!) aren’t terrified of 6 foot tall birds. They’re open daily, 7 a.m. – dusk.

Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch (In Solvang – take Exit 146 off 101 – about 6 miles from the freeway): I am so excited to visit this place the next time we find ourselves on the Central Coast. What could be better than a miniature horse farm that is open to the public for free?! You apparently can peek at the cute little horses any time, but during open hours (I believe 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday), they actually offer tours as well. Reviews say that it’s a great place to stretch your legs and lots of fun for kids. Check out their Facebook page for a hint of the adorableness that awaits.

Seein’ Spots Miniature Donkey Farm (In Solvang – take Exit 146 off Highway 101 – about 7 miles from the freeway): Seriously? Solvang has a miniature horse farm and a miniature donkey farm, both open to the public? Is this heaven or what? Really, though, this place looks really neat – in addition to their donkeys, they are a rescue farm with numerous other animals for visitors to meet, and they even offer donkey rides to young kids. They’re usually open on weekend from 10-4, or call the number on their website to ask about a weekday visit. If you visit their site, click on the For Sale tab (even if you’re not in the market for a donkey) – you won’t be able to stop smiling as you scroll through the pictures of baby donkeys!

Parks and Playgrounds

Sunny Fields Park (In Solvang – take Exit 140A off Highway 101 – about 10 minutes from the freeway): This park, a short distance from downtown Solvang, has extremely positive reviews on every site I’ve seen (TripAdvisor/Yelp), and is definitely on our to-do list for our next trip south. The photos show a large, wooden, castle-themed structure with lots of nooks and crannies to explore -- something that kids of all ages will appreciate. The reviews also mention fields for running, a path for walking, and clean bathrooms.

Nojoqui Falls Park (Take Alisal Road south from Solvang, or take the Old Coast Road from Highway 101 1 ½ miles east to get to the park): This park receives very positive reviews as a nature oasis that is convenient and close to civilization (under two miles off the highway!). As the name suggests, the park features a waterfall, which apparently is very dependent on rainy weather and doesn’t flow when it’s dry. The reviews still say that it’s a lovely place for outdoor time with a family, with fields, a playground, and picnic facilities where you can enjoy a meal.

Other Diversions or Pit Stops

Downtown Solvang (Exit 140A from 101 – about 10 minutes to town). Solvang is a hilarious little Scandinavian (mostly Danish) village, with cute architecture, hotels with names like the Viking Inn, and Danish flags everywhere you look. Hilariously, though (perhaps presuming that tourists don’t know the difference?), there’s a bunch of random Dutch stuff thrown in – clogs and tulips and whatnot. Regardless, the effect is funny and the experience fun. The effect can also be overdone, and the experience crowded and touristy. You’ll either love it or hate it.

The two main activities in Downtown Solvang are browsing in stores and stopping in tasting rooms – not exactly kid-friendly fare. But the third main activity is a kid (and adult) pleaser: buying and eating delicious pastries.

Seriously, Solvang is known for several Danish pastry shops, where you can look at a whole display case full of goodies and order a variety to be packed up to go in the ubiquitous boxes you’ll see people carrying all over town (the one we go to is Mortensen’s, but we’ve heard the others are excellent too). There are also kid-friendly restaurants, including caf├ęs that serve some pretty incredible ebleskiver (Danish pancake balls with jam – yum!), though most are very touristy and get very crowded on weekends. So while you probably don’t want to make downtown Solvang your sole focus during a road trip break, it’s a great place to grab food in conjunction with a trip to a park or an animal adventure.

Buellton Restaurants/Hotels

Buellton is the town located right at the intersection of Highway 101 and Highway 246 – the Exit 140A that I keep referencing above. If you’re not up for driving into Solvang, there are plenty of food options right here. In addition to the ones mentioned below, you can also check out the favorites from Sideways, The Hitching Post and AJ Spurs (both real names).

Not Toddler X's best picture -- but hey, he liked the soup!
Pea Soup Anderson’s (Exit 140A from Highway 101 – like 50 feet from the exit): PSAs (as we fondly call it) is a Highway 101 institution, which the restaurant will proudly advertise on roadside signs stretching for miles in both directions. My parents remember stopping here on drives south when they were kids, and I’m pretty sure that the only time we’ve skipped it was when Toddler X was sleeping – as you all know, you just don’t mess with a sleeping kid on a road trip.

PSAs, not surprisingly, is famous for its all-you-can-eat pea soup (“The Traveler’s Special”), served (if you choose to order them) with various toppings. The pea soup is tasty (if you enjoy pea soup) and will definitely fill you up until another stop. It can also be really messy if you have a small kid, so pay attention or else you’ll be making some clothing changes in the car.

PSA has lot to explore, with funny decorations and photo ops, but not a ton of space to run around. Also know that you’ll be funneled through the gift shop and bakery, so expect the kids to beg for just about everything they see. 

For energy-burning at a PSA’s stop, we’ve crossed the street to the little park of sorts, with a lot of flags down the center, and that offered a bit of running space – though not much excitement.

So my advice would be to stop at PSAs if you’re one of those people who enjoy funny historical roadside attractions (we do) or if you really like pea soup. Otherwise, maybe it’s best to hit another Buellton restaurant (there are several), make the drive into Solvang, or push on to Santa Barbara.

Ellen’s Danish Pancake House (Exit 140A from Highway 101 – just a few blocks from the highway). This place is fantastic. The food was delicious (we were there for breakfast), and the service was so friendly. They were great with Toddler X (who was about 15 months old at the time), and the bustling, family-like atmosphere made us feel very comfortable. We haven’t been there for lunch or dinner, but it looks like they serve breakfast all day too, so you’ll probably be happy with your experience.

The Santa Ynez Valley Marriott/The Windmill (Days Inn Buellton): Here’s my hotel recommendation for Buellton: Stay at the Marriott. Do not stay at The Windmill. 

The former is really nice – nice rooms, nice pool, nice sliding glass door that opened onto a courtyard where Toddler X enjoyed running around. It was the race hotel for the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon, and they were super friendly and accommodating of all the runners. It can be pricey, and if you’re in the midst of a road trip, it may not be an investment you want to make, but if you can find a good deal, it’s a really pleasant stay.

The latter was horrendous – like, “we considered checking out immediately after seeing our room” horrendous. We had chosen the hotel almost as a joke based on the fact that they stayed there in Sideways. But while the windmill outside is just as pictured, the room was like the lowest of a low budget motel, the pool was practically green, it was just all around very unpleasant. Don’t stay there.

Coming up soon: We continue to head south on 101, with stops in Santa Barbara, and Ventura!

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