Baja Norte Family Road Trip: LA to Ensenada, Mexico with Kids
Considering a family road trip into Baja, Mexico? Driving into Baja Norte with kids is easy with a little preparation. We’ve put together all the details to help you plan a smooth itinerary for a Baja family road trip from Los Angeles down into Baja Norte, to enjoy the sun, fish tacos, and a bit of Mexican culture.
This Baja family road trip starts in Los Angeles, then heads down through San Diego, and into Mexico to explore two towns in Baja California Norte: Puerto Nuevo, and Ensenada.
You’ll then travel through the famous wine country of Valle Guadalupe, stop in Tecate, then cross back into the United States and head to the beautiful town of Palm Springs, CA before returning to Los Angeles.
Thisitinerary as we planned it takes about two weeks, though you can easily add additional stops in Mexico, or stay longer in any location. Use this route to get Baja California family road trip ideas, then modify it to fit your schedule and the age of your kids.
When possible, we’ll include alternate routes or additional stops that may be of interest.
We drove this Baja California loop in the fall of 2021 when our kids were 4 and 7. It was part of our Family Year Out (what’s that?)
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At the bottom of the post, Download a free License Plate Game for the kids to play on your Baja Norte family road trip!
Where is Baja Norte?
Baja Norte is the Northernmost state in Mexico, officially called Baja California Norte. Below Baja Norte is Baja Sur (Baja California Sur), which extends to the bottom of the Baja peninsula, where you’ll find the resort town of Cabo San Lucas. A lot of references to “Baja” or “Baja California” often are referring to the more southern towns of Baja Sur.
What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Baja Norte on a Family Road Trip?
Summer is the peak time to visit Ensenada and other towns in Baja Norte. Summer brings average temps in the high 80s, making for great beach weather.
Many people visit on weekends from California all year round, though temperatures are cooler. We visited in early December and found pleasant temps in the mid-60s, which are great for walking around, but not for sitting on the beach.
Is Mexico Safe for a Family Road Trip?
Like any place, you need to be aware of your surroundings, but we never felt unsafe driving or walking around Baja California. While there we saw distinct police and military presence but were never stopped at a checkpoint.
Is it Safe to Drive in Mexico with Kids?
Yes, it is generally safe to drive in Mexico. Check out Everything you need to know about Driving in Mexico to answer all of your questions about driving your own vehicle or renting a vehicle in Mexico, including what insurance you’ll need.
Check Prices: Discover Car Rentals
You should also be prepared to pay tolls along the main roads in Mexico, though you can pay these in either dollars or pesos. Tolls are generally about $2 USD/40 Pesos per toll plaza.
Baja Norte Family Road Trip Itinerary
This Baja California family road trip is the third leg of our Family Year Out. We started with a 60+ day cross-country road trip, and then spent over a month on a loop through Canada and the American Northwest.
We are traveling with our 4-year-old and our 7-year-old, so we try to limit our time in the car to 4-5 hours a day. All activities we recommend are appropriate for families with young kids. Due to the current environment, we are mostly focusing on outdoor activities, with a few exceptions.
On this road trip, we attempted to slow down and stay longer in fewer stops. Right now, we feel our ideal pace is at least three nights in each location- with exceptions for single nights where we are just passing through to break up a long drive. The longer we travel the less we want to pack up the car each day!
Need help keeping the kids entertained? Don’t miss 60+ Fun Road Trip Activities for Kids: How to Keep Kids Entertained on a Long Car Trip.
Start: Los Angeles, CA
We will officially start this loop in Los Angeles. We drove down from Northern California to spend Thanksgiving with family and then started our road trip from there.
Favorite Hotel: Rodeway Inn Melrose. We love this hotel- it’s modern, clean, with an interior courtyard, free basic breakfast, and easy gated parking at street level. It’s close to Hollywood, with a grocery store you can walk to.
Alternate Stop: Solvang, CA
If you are starting from Northern California, our two favorite stops to break up the drive to Los Angeles are Solvang and San Luis Obispo.
Solvang is a cute Danish-themed town with windmills, lots of gift shops selling clogs and other Danish memorabilia, and great sweet treats like Aebleskiver (a sort of donut) and Flodeboller (delicious chocolate-covered meringue treat).
Affordable Hotel: Atterdag Inn. This place has modern decor, and even has bunk beds in some rooms for the kids!
Alternate Stop: San Luis Obispo, CA
San Luis Obispo is approx 70 miles north of Solvang and is approx halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. There is a lovely strip of stores to browse downtown and plenty of restaurant options. You’ll find a farmer’s market downtown on Thursday nights. Make sure to check out the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Built in 1772, it is lovely inside with flowers and birds painted on the walls.
Affordable Hotel: Avenue Inn Downtown. An affordable hotel within walking distance of downtown San Luis Obispo.
San Diego, CA- 3 nights
There’s so much to do in San Diego! Explore Balboa Park, visit the USS Midway, lounge on the beach, eat delicious tacos, and more! We stayed downtown, close to Balboa Park, but drove to most of our activities. We enjoyed a day exploring La Jolla and took the ferry to Coronado for an afternoon.
Affordable Hotel on the Beach: Ocean Park Inn. If beach time is high on your to-do list, this hotel is located in Pacific Beach, the hotel has an outdoor pool, hot tub, and breakfast is included.
Affordable Hotel Close to Downtown: Best Western Plus Bayside. This hotel is close to downtown, walking distance to Little Italy and the harbor where you’ll find the Maritime Museum, USS Midway, and more.
Border Crossing: El Chaparral/Tijuana, Mexico
Driving across the border from the United States into Mexico at the El Chaparral crossing just south of San Diego is simple. We had our car automatically photographed but never had to stop to speak with anyone or show our passports. The actual border crossing took less than a minute.
Keep in mind that you will need an FMM form (Forma Migratoria Multiple) for each passenger ages 2 and up. This form can be filled out online and is free if you are driving across the border and staying in Mexico for 7 days or less.
If you are staying longer, there is a fee of approx. $30 USD per person. No one ever asked to see ours, but it is best to have a hard copy with you as well just in case it is requested.
We did not stop in Tijuana, although we hear that this town has had a bit of a renaissance, with craft breweries, and the hip Telefonica Gastro Park. Since this was our kids’ first experience in Mexico we opted for a calmer introduction.
Puerto Nuevo, Mexico- 2 nights
Puerto Nevo is a very small town that started as a fishing village but has grown around the tourist trade. The town consists of two streets heading off the main highway down toward the ocean, each with an arch proclaiming the town’s names. There are four cross streets packed with restaurants and vendors.
Puerto Nuevo is known for its local lobster preparation, you’ll see “langosta” on most menus. A lot of people stop for lunch or dinner here on their way to or from Ensenada. Cruise ships that stop in Ensenada also make excursions up here. We choose this small town as a quiet place to introduce our kids to Mexico.
Affordable Hotel: Puerto Neuvo Baja Hotel & Villas. This resort was pretty empty when we were there. The kids loved the playground but would have had more fun if there were other kids around. There is a lovely outdoor pool, and views of the ocean, though you need to go to town to actually get down onto the sand.
We could have relaxed more here if the weather was warmer. They also have an indoor pool but it was heavily under construction during our visit.
We had a junior suite with a queen bed and a living room/dining area with a pull-out sofa for the kids. It was great to have a table and four chairs for breakfast, as well as a terrace with a table and chairs for picnic lunches.
From this hotel, which is gated with security, you can easily walk just a few minutes into town. There is a sidewalk leading right to the arches at the top of town. You can also walk to the large Calimax grocery store in town.
Alternate Stop: Los Gaviotas
Los Gaviotas is 4 km north of Puerto Nuevo. This gated community has furnished rental houses suitable for families. A lot of families rent these for larger get-togethers, then drive to Puerto Neuvo when they want to go into town. Las Gaviotas is known to have clear, sunny beaches when the fog has rolled in just to the south.
We wanted to interact with locals as much as possible and be able to walk into a town, so we opted for Puerto Nuevo, but many families love their time at Los Gaviotas.
Ensenada, Mexico- 3 nights
After spending a few days in Puerto Neuvo, Ensenada will feel like a big city. There is Starbucks and McDonalds, and a Walmart and Costco on the outskirts of town.
For more details, see the full itinerary for Ensenada with Kids: 4 Days in Baja California Norte.
Downtown Ensenada is very walkable. The tourist shopping street is Av. Adolfo Lopez Mateos. On the weekends, the cross streets of Castillo to Alvarado are closed to pedestrians, and restaurants have more outdoor seating.
Continue up this street for lots of restaurants and vendors selling everything from pottery to T-shirts. The strip ends around Av. Ruiz. If you head away from the ocean on Av. Ruiz you’ll find a quieter area with a few coffee shops, restaurants, and shops that are a bit less tourist-focused.
You can also walk to the Malecon and other sites in downtown Ensenada. Plan to drive out to La Bufadora- a natural blowhole that is fun to watch. Be aware that the entrance to the site is lined with vendor stalls.
Affordable Hotel: Hotel Cortez. There was so much we loved about this hotel. It has a great location on the nicer end of the shopping strip, cute decor, and a small heated pool. They have covered parking beneath the hotel for easy in and out. Our only complaint was that the beds were uncomfortably hard.
Alternate Hotel: Hotel Casa del Sol. For our next visit, I’d love to stay here just down the block from Hotel Cortez. The outside is more blocky and modern but the inside looks adorable, and they get great reviews for comfort.
Valle de Guadalupe
From Ensenada, drive through the Valle de Guadalupe on your way back towards the US border at Tecate. This is an increasingly famous wine region of Baja, so you’ll find lots of wineries with tasting rooms, high-end restaurants, and modern architecture.
We drove this in one day on our way to Tecate, but you could easily make this a day trip from Ensenada, or stay at one of the wineries in the valley for a few days. Adults often spend a relaxing weekend in this area, but we didn’t find too many places that were inexpensive and family-friendly.
In the border town of Tecate head to the town square called Parque Miguel Hidalgo. There’s plenty of seating, blooming Bourgainvillia, a gazebo, and a lovely water fountain. Around the square, you’ll find multiple Michoacan-style dessert stores (Mexican fruit popsicles) and restaurants.
Don’t Miss This Bakery: El Mejor Pan de Tecate. This bakery has rows and rows of delicious baked goods from sweet empanadas to cookies to full pies. Just two blocks east of the main square one Tijuana-Mexicali (rt 2). There are a few seats in front of the store in the shade, or you can take your goodies back to the park.
Border Crossing: Tecate, Mexico
From the center of Tecate, the border is just a few blocks north. However, finding the line for the border can be a bit tricky. Head away from the border, south to Blvd. Defensores.
If you are leaving from the southeast corner of the park, head south on Blvd Universidad, then turn left onto Blvd. Defensores right after the McDonalds.
Stay on this heading east until you see signs for the border. Follow the signs until you reach the line for the border. You will then turn east to follow the line of cars until you reach the back of the line. Plan to be in line for several hours.
This border crossing has limited hours- it currently closes at 2 pm on weekdays. Alternately, drive to Tijuana to cross there where the border is open 24 hours.
Palm Springs, CA- 3 nights
Palm Springs is known for its sunshine and golf courses, and though we do not golf, we loved our stay there! The downtown is easy to stroll around- restaurants, shops, ice cream parlors, and lots of art installations. The fabulous desserts at the famous Sherman’s Deli and Bakery are worth the trip on their own.
Take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of Chino Canyon. The world’s largest rotating tramcar, the floor rotates as it ascends, taking you up over 6,000 feet! Make sure to dress warmly, it’s often 40 degrees cooler at the top than the bottom!
There’s so much more to do in Palm Springs, from desert tours to an air museum focused on WWII planes. Don’t forget to schedule in time to relax at the pool!
Affordable Hotel: Marquis Villas Resort. This hotel offers suites that are great for families at an affordable price. The rooms are not especially modern but they are comfortable and spacious. I’ve lived in New York apartments smaller than this suite. The kids ran around counting the sinks in our suite- I believe they found four!
This hotel is within easy walking of downtown, including lots of restaurants. Some hotels in Palm Springs are “Adults Only”, but this one is very family-friendly. They have a lovely outdoor pool (heated), a children’s pool (1-foot depth), and a hot tub. Bonus: They have free laundry on the premises.
Additional Stop: Disneyland, Anaheim, CA
We gifted our girls a few days at Disneyland for Christmas this year, so we headed from Palm Springs to Anaheim. We arrived, checked into our hotel, and explored Downtown Disney, then spent the next two days in the parks.
Affordable Hotel: Hotel Lulu. We loved this hotel, it has some of the most comfortable beds we’ve slept in! It has cute decor, a heated pool, and is only a ten-minute walk to the parks. The ART shuttle to the parks also stops right outside the hotel if you prefer to not walk.
Final Road Trip Stop: Los Angeles, CA
You’ll end this Baja family road trip back in sunny Los Angeles. There’s a ton to explore in Los Angles if you have a few days here..
We’ll be spending more time in Mexico, check out Exploring Mexico with Kids: 6 Week Itinerary
Can I Pay with US Dollars in Mexico? Do I Need Pesos?
Many places in Baja Norte will accept US dollars, but we highly recommend paying in the local currency of Mexican pesos. Those places that do accept US dollars often can only offer you change in pesos. Use an ATM in a supermarket or at a bank to get will pesos, which you will need. Many restaurants and vendor stalls do not accept credit cards.
Do I Need to Speak Spanish for a Road Trip in Baja Norte?
Of course, making an effort to speak Spanish will be appreciated, but you can get by without speaking Spanish. Make sure you have a translation app loaded onto your phone so you can type in words if communication is difficult. This is also a great way to learn new vocabulary- it’s how we learned how to order our coffees with skim milk- “leche desnatada”!
We have been learning Spanish as a family, with both learning apps and podcasts. We found that while the kids were a bit lackluster in their enthusiasm before entering Mexico, once they realized how useful it was, they were much more engaged in learning new vocabulary.
How Much Do I Have to Plan Ahead?
We always prefer to plan our itineraries ahead of time- with kids we find it less stressful to know our route and where we will be staying each night. You may feel differently, or have older kids who can roll with the changes more easily- if so, good for you!
We found that in early December, there was plenty of availability at most hotels, some were even offering us deals to stay an additional night.
Planning ahead is one of our top family travel tips- you can check out the other tips at 22 Family Travel Tips: Best Tips for Travel with Kids.
What Should I Pack for a Road Trip with Kids?
We always recommend not leaving home without travel insurance, and a safe car seat or booster seat for your kids.
We use SafetyWing Travel Insurance, it’s the easiest and most cost effective insurance for long-term travel. We love that one kid (under 10) per adult on the trip is included at no additional cost. Depending on the length of your trip, it may also cover any mandatory quarantines that you encounter.
Check Prices: SafetyWing Travel Insurance
For car seats, when we’re renting a car, or planning to use taxis or Ubers around town, we bring our Mifold Travel Car Seats. They fold up compactly, and at 1 1/2 pounds are much easier to carry than our standard car seats. These are perfect for kids 4 years and up, and 40+ pounds.
All the other details? We’ve got you covered! We drive a “not-so-huge” Subaru Outback, so space matters. Check out Road Trip Essentials: What to Pack for the Ultimate Road Trip.
There You Have It!
Our best itinerary for a fun family road trip into Baja, Mexico. Which stops are you most excited about? Any recommendations for alternate stops?
Want to know what this trip was like for us? Read Longing for Tourists: Traveling in Baja, Mexico with Kids in 2021
Planning a road trip with kids? Our best advice is here: A Road Trip with Kids and Toddlers: 20+ Tips to Survive and Thrive.