Northern California is home to so many fun coastal towns, scenic wonders, and opportunities for adventure. From the beaches to the mountains, urban cities to redwood forests, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the entire family.
Today, we’re diving headfirst into the realm of family day trips, exploring the 20+ absolute best destinations that this picturesque region has to offer.
Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “Oh, I’ve heard it all before. Monterey and Yosemite National Park, right?” Well, hold onto your hats, because we’re not stopping there. While we’ll definitely cover those iconic hotspots that everyone raves about, we’re also shining a spotlight on some lesser-known gems that will surprise and delight you.
Ever dreamt of strolling along the enchanting waterfront of Sausalito, California? Or maybe you’ve fantasized about riding the thrilling roller coasters of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk? And hey, have you ever considered venturing into the wonders of El Dorado County, where history comes alive and nature reveals its secrets?
We’ve carefully curated this list to ensure that both the young and the young at heart will find something to tickle their fancy. From engaging museums and thrilling outdoor adventures to hole-in-the-wall eats and hidden gems only the locals know, we’ve got your family covered.
Whether you’re a local looking for things to do in Northern California with your kids/parents or an out-of-state traveler planning out your California road trip, this list can help inspire your next trip!
So without further ado, below are a handful of my favorite family day trip ideas in Northern California.
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22 Best Family Day Trips In Northern California
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Table of Contents
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
If your family members like nature, stunning architecture, shopping, museums, marine animals, or exceptional food in a bustling city with a laidback vibe, San Francisco is a must.
If you only have a few hours to a day to explore, get some good food and see some iconic spots like Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and The Golden Gate Bridge.
If you have a weekend to spare, you can slow down a bit and really get to know some of our iconic neighborhoods such as The Mission District, Haight-Ashbury District, or North Beach / Chinatown. Plan for a visit to the ferry building (houses a bunch of artisan shops and restaurants, as well as an awesome farmer’s market on Saturday mornings), a trip to Alcatraz or a sunset bay cruise, and a visit to Golden Gate Park and Sutro Baths.
Looking for more family-friendly activities? Consider the San Francisco Zoo, Aquarium of the Bay, Exploratorium, Walt Disney Family Museum, or the Cal Academy of Sciences.
No matter what you decide to do here, you’re sure to have a wonderful time. Just be sure to bring layers and prepare for some unpredictable wind and fog!
POINT REYES, CA
Point Reyes, CA is the perfect spot to take a family day trip, especially if you’re traveling with parents or kids who love coastal views, animals, or the outdoors in general! Hiking, horseback riding, kayaking and clamming are just some of the family-friendly activities that attract local day-trippers, as well as checking out restaurants and browsing bookstores in the sleepy town center.
Start your day trip to Point Reyes National Seashore at Point Reyes Lighthouse, perched on the western headlands. If you want to get up close and personal, climb down a few hundred steps to check it out, then climb right back up.
Next, catch a glimpse of the many California elephant seals over the sea cliffs anywhere along the seashore. Want to see herds of elk in their natural habitat? Take a hike to the Tule Elk Reserve beginning at the Tomales Point Trailhead.
In the summer to early fall, you can catch the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market, running on Saturdays from 9 am to 1 pm at Toby’s Feed Barn. It’s not the largest farmer’s market, but it sure is a great opportunity to check out the local artisans, dairy farm products (cheeses and butters), and bakeries.
BODEGA BAY, CA
Bodega Bay is jam-packed with hiking and biking trails that offer those stunning Pacific Coast views. It’s also one of the West Coast’s premier whale-watching spots. The whales can be spotted almost all year long, but the best chances will be during primary migrations (October through April). Interested in horseback riding? Well no-brainer, the coastal views of Bodega Bay make for a wonderful backdrop.
Bodega Bay and the surrounding area is also a foodie’s paradise — fresh oysters and seafood are not to be missed here. Make sure to stop at Bodega Bay Oyster Company on your way in/out of town to try some of the freshest oysters in the area. If you’re not looking for anything fancy or fishy, check out Drakes Sonoma Coast Kitchen for breakfast, or head to Spud Point Crab Company for their famous crab chowder.
Situated in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley lies a little town named Guerneville. Guerneville is a rustic and quirky town, popular for summer getaways and river activities. It’s had a long history, beginning as a logging town to now a family-friendly summer resort destination.
Plus, it’s got a growing dining scene. If you’re able to spend time in this casual and funky town, be prepared to have a great time outdoors and indoors alike.
Spend the afternoon relaxing next to the river at Johnson’s Beach (a local favorite). There you’ll find a spacious stretch of pebble beach surrounded by those majestic redwoods this region is famous for. Don’t forget your pool floaties– hanging out on the river is a million times more fun with one than without one.
If you do forget, don’t fret, there’s more to do here. There are rentable beach chairs, canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats. There’s really an activity fit for every member of the family!
As for food, Boon Eat + Drink is a must-try, near Big Bottom Market (they have the best biscuits ever, so go there too if you can).
In terms of accommodation, see if you can snag a night or two at Autocamp, hosting a stylish and fun collection of hipster Airstream trailers and glamping tents.
FORT BRAGG, CA
Fort Bragg is a classic Northern California seaside town that’s meant for family fun. Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach is a great place to start your exploration.
Seemingly covered in gems, the beach floor is the result of decades of broken bottles, windows, and car taillights littering the area. These useless particles have naturally transformed into beachcombing treasures covering the beach. Hike down the smaller cliffs to the main parts of Glass Beach to check out the sea life and tidepools that exist here. It’s quite a sight to see and the kids will love it!
The downtown area by Main Street is the best spot to grab breakfast/lunch. We love Eggheads Restaurant, a fun family-owned restaurant adorned in Wizard of Oz photos and murals. Follow up your meal with a stroll through town, popping into the various gift shops, boutiques, and general stores.
Explore MacKerricher State Park if you want to see seals and migrating whales. Stop at photo-worthy Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park and the sprawling Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens as you head north.
If you’re in need of a place to stay in Mendocino County, the iconic Inn at Newport Ranch should be your first option if it’s within budget. Set on a 2000-acre coastal cattle ranch, the Inn is your ultimate escape from reality. Surrounded by epic ocean views and redwood trees, the property consists of over 20 miles of private trails perfect for strolling, hiking, or horseback riding for all ages.
SANTA CRUZ, CA
Santa Cruz, California is no doubt one of the best beach/surf towns in the USA. With fresh coastal air, Mediterranean-like weather, and a killer surf culture, Santa Cruz equate to a wonderful weekend trip. Kids and adults alike will love Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, one of the best old-school amusement parks.
The city of Santa Cruz is not only home to the boardwalk, but it’s also the epitome of laidback vibes, featuring surf, redwood forests, mountains, and all-around happy outdoor culture. In fact, one of the coolest outdoor things to do with your family is ride the Roaring Camp steam train through the towering redwoods.
With so many terrains to explore all in one place, it’s no wonder there are so many cool things to do in Santa Cruz. Discover the 30+ best things to do in Santa Cruz in this post!
You really can’t get more family-friendly than Monterey, CA. Travelers of all ages will love what Monterey has to offer, from the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium to the ample tidepooling opportunities.
Visitors can learn all about John Steinbeck and the town’s historical significance or enjoy various beaches and scenic walking trails. The region also has one of the most diverse marine environments in the world! Monterey is famous for its year-round whale watching, adorable sea otters, and of course the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Whether it’s just the town of Monterey you plan to see, or the entire Monterey Peninsula, get ready for a jam-packed itinerary of fun, food, and flora, and fauna. This is truly an ideal California destination perfect for families.
HALF MOON BAY, CA
The quaint little seaside town of Half Moon Bay, CA may sit only a few miles from San Francisco, yet has a completely different feel from what the big city offers. Once you get past the winding two-lane road, you’ll be greeted by a variety of nurseries, charming shops, restaurants, world-class golf courses, and quaint bed-and-breakfasts.
When in HMB, you can’t ignore the pristine beaches. The Half Moon Bay coastline is made up of multiple state beaches, including Surfers’ Beach, Dunes Beach, Venice Beach, and Francis Beach. Perfect for sunbathing, picnicking, frolicking, or building sandcastles!
For dining and shopping, Main Street is where it’s at. Take a few moments to browse through all the local gift shops, clothing boutiques, bookstores, and home decor shops. Then, get in line for Barbara’s Fishtrap (serving up the freshest fish in the area) or Sam’s Chowder House (known for their lobster rolls and creamy clam chowder). For another great meal, head to Pasta Moon Ristorante, serving up delicious Italian fare.
If you’re traveling with younger children, Lemos Farm in Half Moon Bay, CA is a popular attraction that families can’t miss. Lemos Farm is a family-run farm featuring resident pigs, goats, sheep, and bunnies, which kids can meet and greet in the petting zoo. There are also little ponies here, serving up fun pony rides to small children. Families can also enjoy train rides through the farm’s small ‘western town’.
Pro Tip: Got more time? Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, CA is an epic, local-favorite spot to go tide pooling!
NAPA VALLEY, CA
Despite the fact that Napa Valley is a world-class wine region, there are actually a ton of other things to do here other than wine taste. The sunny weather, relaxed atmosphere, foodie culture, and extremely friendly people are what keeps families and non-drinkers coming back year after year.
Families traveling with kids can also enjoy activities such as the Safari West wildlife compound and catching California’s Old Faithful Geyser spray its waters high up in the sky. To see Napa from a different perspective, you can hop onto horseback, hop on a wine train, or hop aboard a hot air balloon!
As you can see, there are so many exciting things to do in Napa Valley other than wine tasting. Check out our Napa Valley travel guide to discover all that Napa Valley has to offer!
SONOMA VALLEY, CA
Sonoma Valley is another excellent choice for a family day trip in Northern California, offering a delightful blend of scenic beauty, family-friendly attractions, and delicious culinary experiences.
Similar to Napa, this region is famous for wine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not family-friendly! Families can enjoy a picnic at one of the picturesque vineyards or take a leisurely bike ride along the scenic trails.
Kids will love visiting TrainTown, a miniature railroad park with train rides, petting zoos, and amusement rides. The Children’s Museum of Sonoma County is another must-visit, providing interactive exhibits and educational activities for young minds.
Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the historic Sonoma Plaza, where you can discover boutique shops, art galleries, and exceptional dining options. The picturesque surroundings and charming atmosphere make it a perfect destination for a relaxing day trip.
SANTA ROSA, CA
Santa Rosa is a vibrant hidden gem of a city with plenty of attractions for the whole family! Kids will enjoy a visit to Safari West, an African wildlife preserve where they can observe giraffes, zebras, and other exotic animals up close.
The Charles M. Schulz Museum is a must-visit for Snoopy lovers, showcasing the beloved Peanuts comic strip with interactive exhibits and activities. Families can also spend a fun-filled day at Scandia Funland, enjoying go-karts, mini-golf, and arcade games!
Meanwhile, adults can explore Santa Rosa’s rich cultural scene and indulge in wine tasting at local vineyards. For those of you looking to breathe in some fresh air, the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens offer a serene setting for a leisurely stroll, showcasing the renowned horticulturist’s work.
For a unique dining experience, be sure to visit the Russian River Brewing Company, known for its award-winning craft beers and delicious pub fare.
Don’t forget to check out the local events and festivals happening during your visit, such as the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic or the Wine Country Winter Festival!
Ah, Sacramento, CA, also known as the capital of California! This wonderful family-friendly town features Old Town Sacramento, The California State Railroad Museum, and Sacramento Zoo. Trust us, with the sheer amount of things to do in this city, a day trip to Sacramento may not be enough! The city of Sacramento deserves at least an entire weekend of exploration (and even then you’ll barely scratch the surface).
Start at Old Town Sacramento (Old Sacramento State Historic Park) where you’ll immediately be transported back into the Gold Rush era, then continue your trip back in time at The California State Railroad Museum, one of the most popular museums in Sacramento.
To continue learning about the rich history of California, check out the California State Indian Museum. This museum’s mission is to showcase three different themes important to Native American life–Nature, Spirit, and Family. The museum is full of photographs and items that exhibit how the Indians prospered in California for thousands of years.
To get a taste of art, head for the Crocker Art Museum, where you can find works of art in the museum dating from the Gold Rush to today. If you’re traveling with the kids, consider spending a few hours at the Sacramento Zoo, featuring 400 animals from all corners of the globe.
And sitting right in the heart of Sacramento is the California State Capitol Museum, where you can learn all about California’s history! Not only is it a museum, but it also acts as an active government building. You can opt for a guided tour around the museum (there’s so much you can learn on a tour) or explore the building in a self-guided manner.
During the Gold Rush in the 1850s, Columbia grew to become the second-largest city in California behind San Francisco. Lucky for us, unlike most mining towns that flourished in the era and then evolved into ghost towns, this one is still a fully functional town. It’s brimming with tons of fun, family-friendly things to do!
Columbia State Historic Park is the main landmark to visit here. Not only is admission to the park free, but there are also free guided tours led by docents dressed up in period costumes. There are also free booklets for you to lead your own self-guided tour of the town.
Upon laying your eyes on your surroundings, you’ll notice this town is living history. It hosts a collection of mid-19th-century buildings that now house restaurants, saloons, various shops (leather goods, candles, books), an ice cream parlor, and even a theater.
Of course, what would a historic western town be without a gold-panning shack and stagecoach rides? Yes, you and your family can enjoy these activities at Columbia State Historic Park!
Columbia is located four miles north of Sonora, so it’s a no-brainer to stop by after visiting Sonora. Read more about all the things you can do at Columbia State Historic Park.
Local Tip: Not many people know that you can also stay the night at one of the few historic hotels here. This could be really fun for kids who like being transported back in time!
A few miles southwest of Sonora and Columbia lies Jamestown, CA, another historic California gold rush town. Jamestown features a few blocks of historic buildings strung along their main street, which is now home to various shops, restaurants, and attractions. While you’re here, try your hand at gold panning at California Gold Company and Jamestown Gold Panning.
By far, the best attraction here is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, which is the perfect place to spend a part of your day if you love trains and locomotives. At Railtown, you absolutely cannot miss Sierra No. 3, a circa 1891 steam locomotive that’s made appearances in big-time movies such as Back to the Future Part III, Little House on the Prairie, and High Noon.
You can also Stroll along the local Walk of Fame, a walkway stretching between Rocca Park, downtown, and Railtown 1897, dotted with medallions featuring artists of many of the movies and TV shows filmed in the area. When you need an afternoon pick-me-up coffee or ice cream, make sure to stop by the half-coffeeshop, half-antique shop on the main street!
LAKE TAHOE, CA
Lake Tahoe is a gorgeous place that you must see for yourself. It’s one of California’s most family-friendly destinations, and we’d even go as far as to say it ranks in our list of top 5 family-friendly towns in CA!
Lake Tahoe has a lot of really great beaches, which is something a lot of lakes lack. That means not only can you partake in a bunch of usual watersports, but you can even beach, picnic and sunbathe.
No matter the season, Lake Tahoe offers up a ton of fun. During the warmer seasons, you and your family can get your fill of swimming, water sports, golfing, cycling, mountain biking, and hiking. During the winter season, there’s snowshoeing, snowboarding, cross country skiing, and world-class downhill skiing.
All year round, visitors can enjoy several touristy, fun towns dotted all around the lake, perfect for exploring after a day of outdoor recreation. Check out our latest Lake Tahoe/Reno road trip from San Francisco. This itinerary is packed with many other fun family-friendly stops as well!
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA
California is so lucky to be the home of this iconic National Park. You’ve probably already heard of Yosemite, known for its majestic rushing waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, and granite cliffs more massive than one could imagine. This is a very family-friendly park, with tons of activities to do, including hiking, rock-climbing, biking, and swimming.
Yosemite holds many natural wonders such as Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Half Dome, and El Capitan. Here, you can take a hike among ancient sequoia trees, ride bikes with incredible rock formations as your backdrop, soak in the Merced River, and even catch glimpses of baby bear cubs.
I’ve been going to Yosemite since I was a kid myself and to this day I keep going back, so I know you and your family are going to have a wonderful time here. Check out our 1-day Yosemite National Park itinerary here!
Sausalito is a picturesque waterfront town just a hop and a skip away from San Francisco that offers a charming time and a quick getaway for families.
Kids will enjoy a visit to the Bay Area Discovery Museum, featuring interactive exhibits and outdoor play areas overlooking the San Francisco Bay. A ferry ride to Angel Island State Park is a fantastic boat and land adventure, where families can hike, bike, and explore the island’s rich history.
And if you’re looking for some time in the water? Sausalito also boasts beautiful beaches, perfect for sandcastle building and picnicking!
From there, you can explore the waterfront shops and art galleries, or simply relax at a waterfront cafe while enjoying the picturesque scenery. The town is known for its excellent dining options, and one local favorite is Scoma’s, serving fresh seafood and offering awesome views of the bay.
Be sure to round out the night with a visit to Lappert’s Ice Cream — they’ve got all kinds of yummy Asian and Hawaiian-inspired flavors like Manila mango, macadamia nut, Nuku Hiva, lychee, and more!
SHASTA CASCADE AREA
Shasta Cascade is a region of breathtaking natural beauty, making it an ideal family day trip destination for outdoor-loving families! Everyone will love exploring McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, known for its spectacular 129-foot waterfall and family-friendly hiking trails.
Shasta Caverns is another exciting attraction, offering guided tours through limestone caves filled with stunning rock formations. Families can also enjoy swimming, boating, and fishing in the pristine lakes of the region.
One of the prettiest trails to check out is the 2-mile path along the McCloud River which leads to a trio of spectacular waterfalls (lower, middle, and upper falls). This one’s definitely worth checking out if you love chasing waterfalls!
And while a lesser-known state park in Northern California, Castle Crags State Park is such a lovely recreation area with an array of different terrain to enjoy, as well as some breathtaking views of Mount Shasta and the beautiful Shasta Valley right behind it!
LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a hidden gem that offers a fascinating experience for families. Kids and adults alike will marvel at the volcanic landscapes, bubbling mud pots, and colorful hydrothermal features!
And despite its name, Lassen doesn’t only feature bubbling pits of lava and volcanos—it has some awesome water attractions, too. This park has everything from volcanic summits to geothermal areas and stellar waterfalls.
It is a must-visit when passing through the upper part of Northern California, especially if you happen to be planning your trip during the season when everything is more accessible from the lack of snow and ice (usually June/July to October/November, depending on the snowfall that year).
While Lassen is open year-round, 24 hours a day, many facilities are only open for the summer season and road access is limited in the winter months. Notable landmarks worth stopping by here are Bumpass Hell (3-4 mile roundtrip hike), Kings Creek Falls (2.4-mile roundtrip hike), and Sulphur Works.
The park also offers exceptional stargazing opportunities with minimal light pollution and designated dark sky areas. What better way to end the night than with some quality time learning about the stars?
EL DORADO COUNTY
El Dorado County is certainly one of the lesser talked about destinations for a family day trip, but that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in fun! This region of Northern California offers an eclectic mix of outdoor adventures, historical sites, and charming small towns.
Kids will enjoy a visit to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where they can learn about the California Gold Rush and try their hand at gold panning. El Dorado County is also home to several beautiful lakes, such as Lake Tahoe and Jenkinson Lake, where families can swim, kayak, and have fun by the water.
For adults, El Dorado County boasts numerous wineries and vineyards, offering lots of wine-tasting experiences and scenic views. Explore the charming town of Placerville, known for its historic Main Street filled with cute little shops and unique restaurants.
For a special dining experience, head to The Independent Restaurant and Bar, a local favorite serving delicious farm-to-fork cuisine.
If you happen to visit during the summer, don’t miss the El Dorado County Fair, a lively annual event that takes place in mid-June and features all kinds of live music, carnival rides, and agricultural exhibits.
Gilroy, known as the “Garlic Capital of the World”, is an ideal family day trip destination because of all the family-friendly attractions you can find here.
For the kiddos, there’s the Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, featuring thrilling rides, beautiful gardens, and interactive attractions. This in itself is a great way to spend a full day away from home!
There’s also the Back-To-Eden Ranch, where children get to walk the goats, feed the animals (chicken, ducks, goose, turkeys, rabbits, cows), and play on a trampoline and playground!
For a unique experience, visit the Garlic World Museum, where you can learn about the history and cultural significance of garlic through exhibits and demonstrations.
Families can also enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and picnicking at Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch County Park. Want to bring the whole family fruit picking? There are tons of U-pick farms in the Gilroy area where you can pick your own strawberries, cherries, boysenberries, and more (season dependent).
And if your family consists of mostly adults, you can explore the Gilroy Wine Trail, which encompasses several wineries offering wine tasting and vineyard tours.
Last but not least, if you visit during August — Gilroy is also famous for its annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, an event that celebrates all things garlic with delicious food, live entertainment, and fun activities for the whole family!
What are some of your favorite family day trips in Northern California?