Is your family ready to hit the road this summer? Grab some snacks and take a short road trip that will keep both parents and kids happy. Here are 3 kid-size beach road trips with lots of play, learning, and of course, amazing California beaches.

Mini Road Trip #1: Let Them Play in San Diego

Have you ever searched your Maps app for a playground while traveling? You might have kids that need to be tired out at regular intervals. This play-focused beach road trip starts at Imperial Beach and ends at Oceanside Pier or Oceanside Harbor. Total drive time is about an hour.

Imperial Beach is so far south in California you can see Mexico. It’s not your typical tourist beach, but with a playground and newly built hotel on the sand, it’s a sorta-secret place to settle in for a night.

Run out your kids on the trails in the estuary and try to spot some of their 370 species of birds. If you can, come in summer for their famous Sandcastle Competition.

Cool rainbow arches at Imperial Beach Pier

Drive north through San Diego, making stops downtown in the Gaslamp District (try the Ghirardelli Ice Cream shop) and then at La Jolla Cove with its resident sea lions and scenic sea caves.

Your next destination is Solana Beach and Fletcher Cove Park. The beach has an oceanview playground and nice grass areas, and is more off-the-beaten-path than Del Mar’s Powerhouse Park. From the beach, walk to the nice row of shops along the 101 or to the Cedros Design District, home to ritzy furniture shops and a Sunday farmer’s market.

Fletcher Cove Beach looking north

Now that you’ve had a taste of luxury, head up the coast through Carlsbad State Beach. You can grab a drink at Pizza Port while the kids play arcade games, then make your final drive to Oceanside Harbor.

The harbor beach seems more pristine and relaxed than Oceanside Pier, while both have playgrounds on the sand. At the harbor, though, you can rent boats, eat at a retro ice cream shoppe, and try many different styles of dockside restaurants (Harbor Fish and Chips!).

A little surf culture at Oceanside Harbor

Mini Road Trip #2: Find Nature on the Central Coast

They say kids don’t develop a sense of appreciation for scenery until they are at least teens, but I say a Highway 1 road trip from Monterey to Cambria might soak into their brains. There are so many places along this route that will inspire and teach. Total drive time is about 3 hours.

You could also do this road trip in reverse, depending on if you start in SoCal or NorCal, and you’ll probably want to take a faster route like the 101 or the 5 home.

With the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and historic Cannery Row, Monterey will delight kids of all ages. On our last trip, we ate at the kitschy Italian restaurant Louie Linguinis, an affordable way to dine waterfront.

Many of the lower-priced hotels are closer to Carmel, so unless you want prime location for your trip, consider booking in the surrounding area. Be sure to take your children to Dennis the Menace Park before starting the drive toward Big Sur.

Clouds at Monterey Beach

There’s no better way to impress kids than by taking them to Pfeiffer Beach, a purple sand beach and popular stop just south of Big Sur. It’s marked only by a “narrow road” sign, yet unbelievably crowded before sunset. Large rock formations and colorful sand make for great photos as well talking points about our natural world.

California’s most beautiful secret beach

Interested in a little adventure? Have a cliffside picnic somewhere along Highway 1 after you leave the Big Sur area on the way to San Simeon. Rarely do you see California coastline so untouched.

It’s about a 2-hour drive from Pfeiffer Beach to Piedras Blanca Light Station, where large, loud elephant seals lounge and sometimes fight on the beach. You can schedule a tour of the light house, too.

Of course, once in San Simeon, families with older children can visit Hearst Castle. Kids will love the Neptune and Roman pools, but only take them if they can stay civilized for the tour.

Recover from the harrowing drive down Highway 1 at your final stop, Moonstone Beach in Cambria. It’s pretty much the definition of a sleepy town, with only a small downtown village and quiet hotels overlooking the black-sand beach. In Cambria you can rejuvenate and enjoy family time together searching for driftwood along the shoreline.

Always something to find on Moonstone Beach

Mini Road Trip #3: Busy in the City to Basking in the Sun

Spending a few days in San Francisco? Escape the Exploratorium crowds with a kid-size road trip from Ocean Beach to Stinson Beach. This road trip takes a little less than an hour, but you could extend it by continuing on to Bodega Bay or making a epic coastal drive to Mendocino and Ft. Bragg’s Glass Beach.

Start the day at Ocean Beach with some kid races along the wide beach and maybe some kite-flying. This beach isn’t for swimming, but it’s so flat that you can push any kind of stroller on it with no problem.

Head over to Golden Gate Park to feed the ducks, then start the winding 30-minute drive through the woods to Muir Beach.

Expansive outlooks at Ocean Beach

Muir Beach represents all that is right with Northern California beaches. There is a deep sense of peace you get at Muir Beach, shrouded from traffic noise by the tree-covered hillside.

Coming from SoCal, I’m not really sure if anyone actually gets in the water here. There are plenty of shells and plants to explore anyway. Lunch is great at the Pelican Inn, a British restaurant with an authentic feel and a comfortable patio.

Tree-lined mountains at the edge of Muir Beach

From here you can head up Highway 1 to Slide Ranch, a working farm that hosts Family Days throughout the year. You’re free to hike or picnic on the overlook, but you’ll need to contact them ahead of time to actually get up close to the animals.

It’s only 10 minutes or so to the next stop, Stinson Beach. One of my favorite beaches in Northern California, the wide, flat beach makes up for all the rocky ones. Stinson’s “seashore” lends itself to sandcastle building, relaxing, or roadside shopping for pinwheels and wind chimes.

Gentle waves and plenty of sand to explore at Stinson Beach

For more information about lodging, dining or kid-friendly amenities, click on the beach names that appear as links above to see my detailed beach review.

Thanks for a few Flickr photos: Port of San Diego, dony31, Roman Konigshofer, Scott Shrantz, Tours Departing Daily and Sarahluv