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Beaches? Mountains? Desert? How about all three for your next family vacation? Families can enjoy sun, surf, sand and celebrities in Southern California (SoCal). Or maybe the redwoods of NorCal and hip urban vibe of San Francisco are more your style. Or perhaps your family prefers a desert adventure in Joshua Tree National Park or Palm Springs. Whatever type of family vacation you seek, chances are California has it.
When tourists think of California, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Or the magic of Disneyland. But there’s so much more to this state! And it’s California, so it’s all about driving. These California vacation ideas make great road trip destinations too.
In fact, the most amazing thing about the Golden State is its variety with so many vacation destinations to choose from. Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) is gritty and very walkable with fantastic eats and small ethnic pockets like Olvera Street and Little Tokyo. Drive 25 miles west and you are at the beach for surfing, swimming, walking and biking. Or head two hours east to breathe the fresh air of Big Bear Lake. Or take a California road trip from tony Tiburon near San Francisco, through the agricultural heartland of California’s central coast.
And, of course, there’s wine. From south to north, California wineries abound and many, like McGrail Vineyards in Livermore Valley near San Francisco, are family friendly.
As a California native (who still finds places to explore), I always encourage out-of-town family and friends to visit more than once. Go several times, once to explore the beaches and theme parks of southern California, another time to visit the charming central coast towns like Carmel and Big Sur and another time to take in the natural wonder of northern California.
TravelingMom Tip: Opening hours and days can change without notice. Always check the website before heading to any attraction or destination.
California Vacation for Families: Southern California
This southern California city where the weather is nearly perfect year-round is definitely worth a visit. We’ve got a 2-day itinerary and a 3-day itinerary for families. But you’ll want to have plenty of time to visit San Diego’s beautiful beaches, Balboa Park, the children’s museum, the San Diego Zoo, and check out of of the free things to do in San Diego.
Within Los Angeles and Los Angeles County’s 88 incorporated cities are numerous museums, nature centers, botanical gardens, and movie/TV studios. In fact, Warner Bros. in Burbank offers a really cool behind-the-scenes studio tour that’s customized for each group. For outdoor fun, I love biking the beach, and hiking the abundant trails in the Santa Monica mountains (there’s even a winery there). Not to be missed is Griffith Park, home to the L.A. Zoo and the iconic Griffith Observatory. In addition, golfers give a thumbs up to California’s many golf courses.
TravelingMom Tip: Parking anywhere in southern California is expensive. The public transportation system- buses and trains can take you to several of the beach towns and downtown. My son is a student downtown and takes the Commuter Express bus directly from USC campus to Manhattan Beach for $2.50.
Beach Towns of Southern California
San Diego Beaches
Carlsbad (home to LEGOLAND)has several beaches. Among them is family-friendly Tamarack-State Beach, ideal for swimming, surfing, kayaking, fishing and more. Amenities include picnic tables, restrooms, and showers. The north end of the beach on a bluff is a popular spot to watch sunsets.
Coronado South has one of the widest, white sand beaches in the county. The beaches have lifeguards, and a set of ramps for wheelchairs part way out to the beach at the main lifeguard station.
La Jolla: This is the place to find those smelly, noisy and oh-so-cute sea lions. It’s just one of the fun things to do in La Jolla with kids. My husband loves the Torrey Pines public golf course. I can usually find parking near the Torrey Pines Gliderport and take the stairs to the beach. My daughter and I hiked the challenging Ho Chi Minh Trail (before we knew what it was). Probably would not do that again but glad to do it once. Adventurous travelers might [not] want to check out the northern part of Black’s Beach, where clothing is optional.
Oceanside: Bordering Camp Pendleton has not always been good for Oceanside tourism. But it has always been good for surfing. And now it is known for its culinary scene and casual bar scene. For context: I will return for the black and blue Brussel sprouts at Local Tap House.
Del Mar, situated in San Diego’s North Coastal region, is known for its dog-friendly beaches, the Del Mar Fairgrounds and the Del Mar Racetrack. The seaside village is a happening place in summer when fans gather to wager on their favorite horses at the historic racetrack. In addition, the Del Mar Fairgrounds is home to the annual San Diego County Fair.
Orange County Beaches
Laguna Beach: Upscale and picturesque, the infamous PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) winds between the beach and touristy shops. Laguna Beach is famous for its art galleries and should be known for its 20,000 acres of protected wilderness.
Huntington Beach: This popular beach is known around the world as Surf City USA. But don’t miss the whale watching and 10 miles of beaches!
Los Angeles County Beaches
Marina Del Rey: This beach town has turned into a tourist spot.
Manhattan Beach: Swanky Manhattan Beach is an upscale family-oriented beach town. There are paths for walking and bike riding along the beach and on the south side of the pier, thousands of spectators gather every year for the Manhattan Beach Open- a volleyball tournament for amateurs and pros. Roundhouse Aquarium, at the end of the pier, is a sweet spot for kids and spectacular sunset views.
Hermosa Beach: Lots of surf shops and a little divey-er vibe than its neighbor, Manhattan, Hermosa tends to attract more singles than families. Surf stores like Becker and Spyder and beachfront beach body breakfasts at Good Stuff keep Hermosa beachy.
Redondo Beach: Larger than its neighbors, Manhattan and Hermosa, and bordering both, this town is huge in comparison. Beachfront offers the Strand for biking and walking and Redondo Village offers great food coffee shops. Check out these things to do in Redondo Beach with kids.
Torrance: This is where you’ll find the Costco to stock up for a week-long family getaway at the beach. It’s also probably the most affordable beach town in SoCal.
Long Beach: If you’ve taken a cruise out of southern California, you likely went to Long Beach. It’s the home of the Port of LA. It’s also where the Queen Mary is moored. If you are ghost hunting, you can spend the night on the haunted ship. In town, head to Retro Row for vintage clothing shops, including ones that sell clothes worn by the stars in movies. You also can ride a high-speed catamaran to Catalina Island from Long Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point and San Pedro. The boat ride takes about an hour. Watch for dolphins along the way!
Venice: This is the hip spot that my now young adult kids like to visit. It is quite the people-watching place, especially on Venice Beach, where you can watch weightlifters work out at the infamous Muscle Beach Venice. I stayed at the funky and charming Kinney Hotel and used the hotel bikes to tool around town. It’s about 1 mile inland from the beach but it’s got a fun aesthetic, the rooms are comfortable and stays include breakfast. You will know it by the humongous Robert Vargas mural of Robert Downey Jr. cannonballing.
Santa Monica. The Santa Monica Pier, where Route 66 ends, is well known for family fun. Pacific Park is the amusement park on the pier with a solar-powered Ferris wheel, lots of fried food and great views. Santa Monica beaches are pristine and are outlined by The Bike Path. Nearby Third Street Promenade is pedestrian-only with big chain stores, restaurants and street performers throughout.
Malibu: If you watch enough TV or follow the antics of Hollywood elites, Malibu sounds like the place to be. I love Malibu for its fantastic hiking trails through the Santa Monica mountains like Mishe Mokwa (I just like saying that!).
Southern California Theme Parks
Southern California is a theme park bacchanalia! Disneyland and Disney California Adventure in Anaheim are the stars, but there’s also Universal Studios Hollywood in L.A., the charming Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, and SeaWorld San Diego. In addition, roller coaster fans will find thrilling attractions at Six Flags Magic Magic Mountain in Valencia, in northern L.A. County.
With a theme park, aquarium and water park, LEGOLAND in Carlsbad (near San Diego) is more than just a day trip. Check out our tips for visiting LEGOLAND. And plan to spend some time setting up those irresistible Instagram shots of the kids posing with the colorful and incredible LEGO creations through the park.
SeaWorld San Diego
Here you’ll find kiddie rides, family rides, thrill rides and get-really-wet rides, along with animal encounters and aquarium exhibits. Here are some of our SeaWorld favorites.
Knott’s Berry Farm
It’s possible to do the thrill rides and let the little ones spend time in Camp Snoopy in just one day at this amusement park that started as a road side berry stand in the 1920s. And don’t miss a chance to eat at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. The yummy chicken dinner is still made with Mrs. Knott’s original fried chicken recipe. Share the meal and save room for boysenberry pie!
This is the Disney original, the place where Walt first brought to life his theme park dream. It’s much smaller that the gigantic Walt Disney World in Orlando and tends to attract a mostly local crowd. However, if you’re on a Southern California family vacation, expect the kids to ask to spend a day at Disneyland, especially if you have any Star Wars fans in the group! You’ll need at least two days if you want to hit both Disneyland and California Adventure.
Universal Studios Hollywood
This is the home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As every Muggle knows, it’s just about the coolest themed land at any amusement park. One of our writers, a die-hard Disneyland fan, says that’s just one reason she thinks Universal is better than Disneyland.
TravelingMom Tip: Universal is better for bigger kids. Most rides have height requirements that put them off-limits to little ones.
Six Flags Magic Mountain
Thrill seekers will find some of the world’s fastest and tallest rides at this 262-acre theme park in Valencia, located 35 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. But even if you’re not the coaster type, the park has many family rides and entertainment. The adjacent Hurricane Harbor Water Park is a tropical retreat in summer.
California Vacation for Families
Just north of L.A. are the laid-back beach towns of Oxnard and Ventura. Eat as many strawberries as you can in Oxnard during the annual California Strawberry Festival in May.
Ventura is also the gateway to Channel Islands National Park. Composed of five rustic islands, Channel Islands National Park is a true SoCal gem. A boat ride brings visitors to the islands for off-the-beaten-path hiking, kayaking and camping. The closest island, Santa Cruz, is ideal for a day outing. One of our best adventures ever was a guided kayaking tour through several diverse sea caves around the island. We saw many orange Garibaldi fish (California’s state fish) and sea lions.
Carpinteria, 20 minutes south of Santa Barbara, has great beaches, nature preserves, tar pits, and camping. There’s also a sandy play area for kids steps from the beach. Enjoy burgers and shakes at The Spot, and tacos at Padaro Beach Grill. And don’t miss the annual Avocado Festival in October, featuring creative avocado dishes, a guacamole contest, and entertainment.
With sunny beaches, farm-to-table goodness, a bounty of natural attractions, laid-back seaside towns, and the iconic Highway 1, the central coast of California is the unsung wonder of the state. It stretches from Santa Barbara (the American Riviera) to Big Sur.
One of my favorite cities is Santa Barbara. If you’re driving through, stop for lunch and ocean views at Stearns Wharf. Spending the night? Santa Barbara has a variety of accommodations from cozy inns to posh resorts. Inland, within Santa Barbara County, are Solvang (a Danish town) and the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort (an upscale dude ranch).
About 95 miles north of Santa Barbara is San Luis Obispo County – SloCal, a play on its laid-back vibe. Play at Pismo or Avila Beaches, and hike or kayak alongside sea otters in quaint Morro Bay, a small fishing village home to Morro Rock. Or go big and tour the historic Hearst Castle near San Simeon with its 38 bedrooms. Another fun stop is Paso Robles, a small agricultural town with excellent wineries, breweries, and mineral hot springs.
Continuing the drive, Highway 1 hugs the rocky coastline, offering those breathtaking, Instagrammable views of the Pacific Ocean waves crashing ashore in Carmel. Don’t miss a stop along the way to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
California Vacation for Families: Northern California
San Francisco is the main attraction. Yes, it’s expensive. But the City by the Bay is Oh. So. Worth. It. Stop first to take in the view of the world-renowned Golden Gate Bridge (or bike over it), then spend the day exploring this list of things to do in San Francisco. It’s a foodie town, so you’ll want to try some of these 25 San Francisco treats. Take a ferry to Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the west. And when you get home, use this recipe to make your own San Fran-style sour dough bread!
Bay Area Wine Country
Napa Valley gets all the glory – and it is wonderful – but there are less pricey and equally good wineries in Sonoma County. One of my favorite towns is Healdsburg, a sustainable wine region with a rural lifestyle. The charming downtown has tasting rooms, mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, art galleries, and boutique hotels. If you visit, I recommend the elegant Jordan Vineyard & Winery, which produces one of the top Cabernet Sauvignon brands in California. Also worth a visit is nearby Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a hidden forest with hiking trails.
Another option is to head 90 minutes northeast of San Francisco to the state capital of Sacramento. There are plenty of fun things to do in Sacramento as well as plenty of free things to do in this historic town. This is the place where gold was first discovered in California, launching the famous gold rush of 1849. Learn about that history at Sutter’s Fort and let the kids pan for their own golden nuggets.
Continue another two hours inland from Sacramento, almost to the Nevada state line, and you’ll be in Lake Tahoe, California’s premier skiing destination in the winter and lake playground in the summer.
My family enjoys the serenity of Truckee, an authentic Old West town that’s a short drive from Tahoe’s North Shore. We rent cabins on Donner Lake and take leisurely floats along the Truckee River. History buffs may be interested to know that the Donner Party – a group of American pioneers on their way to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento – were snowbound in Truckee in 1846–1847. Only half survived, including eight-year-old Patty Reed, who carried a small doll with her. Visitors can see that doll today at Sutter’s Fort.
Upstate California (upper half of northern California)
This NorCal region represents 20 rural counties, including the Shasta Cascade Region. Home to Redding, the largest city in the region, Shasta County is an outdoor lover’s paradise. An area highlight is Shasta Caverns. A catamaran cruise brings you to the historic limestone caves for guided tours.
Further north is Trinity in Humboldt County, a secluded getaway with rugged beaches and coves. Explore lesser known (and typically uncrowded) national and state parks including McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Castle Crags State Park, and Lava Beds National Monument.
More California State and National Parks
It’s no surprise that a state as large as California has nine national parks, and many state parks as well as national forests. You can even do an epic national parks road trip that would encompass Yosemite, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley National Park, the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park (in southern California).
Southern California State Parks and National Forests
Angeles National Forest. While in the L.A. area, take a drive along Angeles Crest Highway. This scenic route leads to several picnic places and hiking trails. Our favorites are Charlton Flats and Switzer Falls. But get there early to find parking. Also, an Adventure Pass is required to park. The Clear Creek Information Center on the highway sells day ($5) and annual passes ($30). You can also find them at 7-11 stores.
Topanga State Park offers several hiking trails. Enjoy views from the Temescal Canyon trail. It’s a 3 mile loop that occasionally includes a waterfall and is accessible to all levels. Every Sunday, from January 1 through June 30, the Topanga Canyon Docents offer a free guided hike at Trippet Ranch.
Central California National Parks
Yosemite National park is perhaps the best known. And no wonder. Majestic granite domes, numerous waterfalls, and meadows attract families, hikers and rock climbers. One of my family’s favorite hikes is Vernal Falls. And my son insists that one day he’ll climb Half Dome. Visitors should know the importance of staying on trails. Accidents happen when hikers stray off trails to catch that perfect Instagram shot. This national treasure is less than 5 hours from Los Angeles by car.
TravelingMom tip: Bass Lake is a gateway to Yosemite National Park. Situated in the Sierra National Forest, Bass Lake is about 14 miles from the park’s south entrance. A destination in itself, Bass Lake has cabins and campgrounds for enjoying water activities.