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California road trip through 5 national parks

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The best west coast vacation

For me, my most memorable road trip was to the West Coast during the summer of 1982, when I was just 8 years old.

Money was tight, so this was a big ordeal for our family.  I'm still amazed my parents carved out time and money to treat us four kids to this to two week adventure.  

Piling into our pick-up truck, my mom and dad rode shotgun while us four kids were conveniently separated by glass windows and a camper shell.  Sprawled out across the truck bed on top of foam mats and sleeping bags, when we needed a rest stop, we banged on the windows and flashed up a "BATHROOM PLEASE!" sign. 

Riding this way across I-70 was all perfectly legal back in the early 1980s.

My siblings and I blared our boom box or read or napped or fought or played games.  Meanwhile, my parents had uninterrupted adult conversation. 

We drove to Denver, Colorado like this from our hometown in northeastern Missouri.  We visited family near Denver, and then hopped on my first plane ride ever to visit family in Oregon and to see the sights in San Francisco and down the coast of California.  

Good times.  Fantastic memories.  

That 1982 trip bound our family together through new shared experiences and showed us kids that rest, play, and family time away together were important.


California road trip  

On a budget, driving all of the way, from Colorado to California.  

So I thought I would share the nitty gritty with you:  our budget and our intinerary.

Then, when it's all said and done, I'll circle back around and write a post-trip re-cap.

The overall plan

We've chosen 5 national parks our family really wants to see: Joshua Tree, Channel Islands, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite.  National parks are one of our favorite ways to unplug and play.  

Besides 5 national parks, we're adding in the 2 major cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where we'll visit good friends and hope to have inexpensive city adventures. Spending a day in San Diego is also an excellent alternative with kids.

If our budget allows, we would love to spend one day at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ | Universal Studios Hollywood OR book a snorkeling / kayaking excursion to the Channel Islands.

Before sharing our California trip budget, I thought I'd share our road trip itinerary so you can see how our expenses add up.  We're a spontaneous bunch, so our plans are subject to change, but here they are for the time being...

The itinerary

Our main goal is visiting 5 national parks, with cities on the side.  We have friends in Los Angeles, so we'll play a bit with them there.  We've been to San Francisco before, so we'll explore the city just a bit, and hang out more south of there with friends.  Before we go, we'll buy our National Park America the Beautiful pass online.

Day 1  Driving day

Leave 6 am and drive all the way towards Joshua Tree National Park.  Lodge in a hotel in Twenty-nine Palms, California since it will be late and we'll be dog-tired.


Day 2  Joshua Tree National Park  

In Joshua Tree we plan to camp one night inside the park at Hidden Valley Campground.  Hidden Valley is supposedly a favorite camp site for rock climbers, which my kids love!

Stop at Joshua Tree Visitor Center on the way in and inquire about junior ranger badges.

What's so great about Joshua Tree?*

According to Fodor's: The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West, Joshua Tree is know for rock climbing for all ability levels, simple peace and quiet, stargazing, gorgeous spring wildflowers and magical sunsets.  (Keep in mind it can be hot June through August.)

Hiking:  With kids, we'll try Hidden Valley trail (easy).  Would also like to try the favored Ryan Mountain Trail (moderate ) for which we'll need 2-3 hours for the 3 mile round trip.  The time sounds worth it as it boasts the best panaromic view of the park. 

Rock climbing:  Try with local outfitter Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School (for ages 10 and older).


Day 3 - 5  Los Angeles & Channel Islands National Park

From Joshua, we'll drive 2 hours to the Los Angeles area and try to camp at Leo Carrillo State Park in Malibu, CA. 

What’s so great about Los Angeles area?  Hollywood, theme parks like Disney Land and Universal Studios, and of course gorgeous beaches.  We'll check out 20 free things to do with kids in Los Angeles here.

We’re not huge Disney peeps, but our kids love Harry Potter and so we'd love to sneak in a day at Universal Studios Hollywood's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.


What’s so great about the Channel Islands?*

Channel Islands is like a mini-Galapagos Island, or so I've heard.  With 145 species of unique terrestrial plants and animals, this group of 8 islands gives a picture of what California looked like 100 years ago.  

Channel Islands is also one of the top diving and snorkeling spots on the planet.

Kelp forests, 30 species of seals, sea lions, whales, and more, making for unforgettable sea cave kayaking.  

We'll carve out one day to explore Anacapa or Santa Cruz island, most likely with and outfitter like Island Packers.  Bigger, longer, more adventurous excursions exist with Channel Islands Adventure Company.  

If we don't visit Universal Studios, we may splurge on an all day excursion on Channel Islands.  We'll see what our budget allows and consider what our family is up for. 


Day 6  Sequoia / Kings Canyon National Park

Driving from Los Angeles area to Sequoia/Kings Canyon will take about 5 hours.  We hope to camp at Atwell Mill (first-come, first-serve).

What’s so great about Sequoia / Kings Canyon?* 

"Gentle giants," Mt. Whitney, driving Generals Highway or the twisting Kings Canyon Scenic Byway down into the Kings River Canyon are all on our list.  Hope to pick a trailhead at Mineral King and hike.


Day 7 - 10  Yosemite National Park  

On to Yosemite, just a 4 hour drive north.  Would love to camp at Upper Pines or Lower Pines campgrounds, but we probably waited too long to make reservations.  Best to make reservations at the first of the year.

According to John Kaiser, these first-come, first-serve campsites are great as well: McCabe Flat, Railroad Flat, and Willow Placer.  Keeping our fingers crossed!

What’s so great about Yosemite?*

Super excited about this national park and its rock formations.

Must-sees are El Capitan, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls, Ahwahnee Hotel, and Tuolumne Meadows.  Unfortunately, Mariposa Grove of Trees is closed until Fall 2017 for restoration.

We are also aiming for Lower Yosemite Falls misty selfies and driving Wawona Road straight through a mountain.  Also planning a family hike (or two or three) on any of Yosemite’s 800 miles of trails (i.e. family friendly ones like the easy Yosemite Falls Trail or the moderate Mist Trail).

According to Fodor's, the Panorama Trail (8.5 mile) gives amazing views of Half Dome and 3 waterfalls up close and personal.  The trailhead starts at Glacier Point, with a great view of Yosemite valley before you hop on the trail.

*  Fodor's The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West helps us plan our trip.  Many of our ideas are taken from this very family friendly book.  We used this same worn book on our trips through Yellowstone, Arches, Zion, Bryce, and more.   


Day 11-14  San Francisco Bay area

The final leg of our epic California road trip will begin with a 4 hour drive to San Francisco.  We'll hang out near Pier 39, the Golden Gate bridgeLombard Street, or do other touristy things until we meet friends at Metlife Stadium to catch our favorite baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, play the San Francisco Giants.  Check out 20 Free things to with kids in San Francisco!

Crashing with friends for four nights in the suburb of Morgan Hill, California, we also plan to visit Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Carmel by the Sea.  We'll let them be our guides, and let you know what we see!


Day 15 - 16  Driving home

We are so thrilled about this road trip and we are counting down.  

Following our vacation, we'll let you know how it all turned out, budget-sticking and all.  

Speaking of budget, now that you know what we are doing, here's our trip cost projections...

Our budget:

$450  |  2-3 hotel nights while traveling (average $150/night)

$175  |  7-8 camping nights (approx. $12-$30 /night)

FREE |  4-5 nights crashing with friends (yay!)

$150-300  |  1-2 baseball games at MetLife Stadium in San Francisco

$900  |  Universal Studios Hollywood or Channel Islands kayaking & snorkeling excursion 

$400  |  Gasoline for the entire trip       

$600  |  Groceries while camping and traveling and picnicking 

$750  |  Meals out at restaurants - we love to try local flavors! (avg. $75 X 10 meals) 

$80|  America the Beautiful National Park pass 

$750  |  Misc fun money  (i.e. ice cream stops, small museum entrance fees, etc. )        

$4405  |  TOTAL 16 day trip cost for family of 6

It looks like this trip will cost our family of 6 about $4400.  This includes food, gas, lodging, fun excursions, everything.  If we cut out the above mentioned Universal or Channel Islands excursion, that knocks off $900. 

Initially, $4400 might sound expensive, but when you do the math for 6 people over 16 days, it breaks down to less than $46 per day per person for loads of fun and exploration in 5 national parks and 2 big cities.

Keep in mind, our regular family budgets $600 in grocery money for 2 weeks, and $200 in gas money for two weeks, so that shaves off $800 that we would need to save for this trip because we'd spend that money at home just the same.   

That leaves us about $3600, or $300 per month we need to save over one year for this epic road trip.  

In a nutshell, make a financial plan for your epic road trip and stick with it.

An experiment of sorts

Following our epic California road trip in June, we will write a new post and let you know how closely we stuck with our budget.  Can we do it?  I hope so!

UPDATE  (as of June 23, 2017)

Budgeted vs. actual cost report

Here is the link to our follow-up post:  The actual cost of our California road trip.  Did we stay on track with our budget?  See for yourself here.

Think creatively when it comes to saving up for a road trip  

Open up a savings account just for travel purposes only.  Every time you get paid, sock money away into it.  

Planning on a big federal tax refund?  Designate that for your trip costs.  

For Christmas and birthdays, ask parents/grandparents for donations towards the big trip in lieu of gifts.  Make sure your kids are in on this!  These gifts could add up quick in a special savings account as well.



However you do it, have a plan!  

And let us know just how you did it!  

See you on the flip side.

Have you road tripped through California or visited national parks there?  What is one thing you would add to our list of must-sees in the parks?  We would love to know, so please share below!

All pictures used in this post are courtesy of  Thank you Pixabay!