Colorado & California: Denver, San Francisco, Monterey, Carmel

Colorado and California: Denver, San Francisco, Monterey and Carmel

All-American Summer Cities

Fly in/out: Denver/San Jose

Recommended ages: 6 and up

Ball Park Price: $2,000+/person (airfare or train fare not included)

Best Season: March thru November

Pace: Moderate


DAY ONE: Fly into Denver International Airport (DEN) and take readily available taxi to Brown Palace Hotel located in downtown Denver. Enjoy Italian dinner at family friendly restaurant down the street at Maggiano’s Little Italy.

Colorado White Water Rafting
Colorado White Water Rafting

DAY TWO: Pick up rental car in a.m. near hotel and take a beautiful drive to Raft Echo Adventures and take the “Family and First Time Rafters” half-day adventure in Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Minimum age is 6 years old. Eat at Raft Echo restaurant, 8 Mile Bar, and drive back to hotel.

DAY THREE: Leave early in the morning to board the Amtrak California Zephyr, in the Superliner Bedroom Suite from Denver to San Francisco. This 30 hour overnight journey is one of the most beautiful train trips exploring the heart of the rockies and further west to snow-capped Sierra Nevada.

DAY FOUR: Spend the day in the sightseeing lounge and dining car of the California Zephyr and soak in the beautiful views. Arrive in San Francisco in the afternoon at the Amtrak station and take a taxi to the Palace Hotel. Walk and explore the area.

Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf

DAY FIVE: Spend the full day in San Francisco exploring San Fran’s best features: Chinatown, Ferry Building Market, Fisherman’s Wharf, taxi down Lombard Street, visit Pier 39, ride a classic cable car, and walk across San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.

DAY SIX: Leave San Francisco right after breakfast, pick up rental car and head to Marin County and check into Hotel Mill Valley Inn. Drive to Muir Woods and explore the “Tree Lover’s” National Monument in the afternoon.

DAY SEVEN: Check out in the a.m. and take a scenic road trip down Highway 1 along the Californian coast 2.5 hours and check into Carmel Valley Ranch. Spend the afternoon exploring the resort.

DAY EIGHT: Take a Princess Monterey Whale Watching tour and see incredible humback whales. During the summer, Monterey Bay is the feeding ground for multiple whale and dolphin species. Spend the afternoon exploring Monterey Bay and take one of the most scenic drives south to the Big Sur often dubbed the 17 mile drive.

California Highway 1
California Highway 1

DAY NINE: Spend the morning at Monterey Mirror & Lazer Challenge for a very fun indoor adventure for the kids. In the afternoon, visit Cannery Row in Monterey, California, the most popular vacation destination on California’s Central Coast featuring a waterfront shopping district, beach and restaurants. Stop and see the Monterey Bay Aquarium a beautiful and top rated aquarium. Purchase tickets in advance and sign up for “feed the fish” tour.

DAY TEN: About a 30 minute drive north, take an exhilarating horse back ride on Monterey beach through Monterey Bay Equestrian Center. Sign up for the very unique Bee experience at Carmel Valley Ranch in the afternoon.

DAY ELEVEN: For an easier flight and cheaper airfare out of the area, take 1.5 drive to San Jose International Airport (SJC) and fly home.

Denver Map

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San Francisco and Carmel Map

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Vacation Highlights

  • Our first day in Denver was really beautiful on a half-day white water rafting adventure. Although there are closer and more mild whitewater adventures options in the Denver area, we enjoyed the Bighorn Canyon despite the longer drive.
  • Our 30 hour overnight journey on the California Zephyr was an incredibly relaxing and beautiful way to see the Colorado Rockies and Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although the kids did hang out in the sleeper car some of the time doing arts and crafts, we found ourselves in the viewing lounge almost during the whole trip.
  • We visited some of the classic sightseeing spots in San Francisco and enjoyed all of them touring on our own. Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and driving the zigzagged criss cross of Lombard street (in a taxi) were among the most memorable.
  • We changed our scenery from urban San Francisco to Muir Woods National Monument and stayed in the Mill Valley area. The Muir woods is a great outdoor experience especially if kids like hiking trails and giant Redwood trees. From the raised boardwalk, you can see enormous Redwoods and on a good day, views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • We loved the Carmel and Monterey area for the warm climate, beautiful beaches and great outdoor experiences. Horseback riding, whale watching, waterfront markets and beaches provided a perfect spot for the last few days of our summer vacation.

Coastal California

Great Excursions

  • The California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco makes a wonderful memory for the kids. An overnight trip on an Amtrak is not for everybody, but we felt we picked the ideal train route. We had unbelievable scenery as the train traversed through the country’s two highest mountain ranges, the Colorado Rockies and the California’s Sierra Nevada. We were in the closest quarters we’ve ever been before, but you spend very little time together in the sleeper car. Make dinner reservations as soon as you get on board to get your first dinner pick. The dining car was great!
  • Whale Watching in Monterey with the views of the California Coastline was better than expected. We saw many humpback whales including ones breeching. A very fortunate experience! Bring warm layers for the chillier mornings.
  • Another memorable experience was walking across the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It’s an easy walk for kids and only mildly concerning for those who have some fear of heights but a worthwhile ½ hour. For details on the bridge review this information.

Explore The American West

Places to stay

  • The Brown Palace is a luxury Victorian hotel with a beautiful lobby, three restaurants and with most of downtown Denver within walking distance. This is a Marriott hotel and Marriott points can be used for the stay. A breakfast buffet can be included.
  • The Palace has been part of San Francisco history since it’s opening in 1875, rich in history and old world charm. It is situated in the heart of San Francisco’s dining, shopping and entertainment area. The Palace Hotel is a full-service destination that offers elegant rooms, restaurants and a pool.
  • Brown PalacePalace Hotel San Francisco
  • The Mill Valley Inn is a great starting point for exploring the Bay Area in Northern California. Only a few minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Mill Valley Inn is situated at the base of majestic Mount Tamalpais and is within walking distance to narrow streets dotted with cafes, unique shops and galleries.
  • Our last stop was at the Carmel Valley Ranch. A four star family friendly luxury ranch on a 500 acre property with two pools. The suites are suitable for four and the ranch provides lots of family friendly options including the unique “bee experience”.
Mill Valley InnCarmel Valley Ranch



  • Book events online and in advance for some additional savings. The Monterey Aquarium offers some unique tours that can be purchased and reserved in advance.
  • If your stay at Carmel Valley Ranch is longer than 3 nights, be sure to get the 4th night free and breakfast included package.
  • Leave early for Muir Woods National Park in case parking at the entrance is limited.
  • Even though the views from the California Zephyr were mesmerizing most of time, the kids weren’t entirely smitten with the idea the entire 30 hour journey. Prepare ahead with the necessary arts and crafts or tech gadgets. Bring a sturdy overnight carry-on with you on the Amtrak because the luggage might not be able to stay with you in the sleeper car.
  • There are a few tourist traps in San Francisco and we found these two sites useful for our planning: San Francisco Travel Guide and SFGate Travel
  • Bring warm layers for the trip. It can be chilly in the mornings along the coast.

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