Taking a road trip or vacationing in California is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. And if you have kids, that shouldn’t stop you from taking a vacation or exploring at all!
In fact, road tripping through California with kids is probably one of the most affordable types of vacations in this state, especially when you’re traveling with a group larger than four. It’s also extremely convenient, as you’ll be able to set your own itinerary, stop and go as you please, and travel as slow (or fast) as you want.
Of course, there’s the classic coastal California road trip along Highway 1 and the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) which stretches up and down the entire state, but you don’t need to go that big on your road trip (unless you want to, of course)!
There are so many family-friendly road trip destinations within California, and for every one destination city, there are about a dozen other cool towns or pit stops you should take while getting there.
Our recommendation? Once you pick the perfect California family vacation spot, research some fun things to do along the way. Or for ease, check out a few of our road trip itineraries! Trust us, you’ll find a ton of cool stuff in California perfect for the whole family.
These are the 20 most exciting and kid-friendly California vacation destinations you need to visit with your family this year! Travel by plane or on wheels, the choice is yours.
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20 BEST FAMILY VACATIONS IN CALIFORNIA
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
If you like coastal views, stunning architecture, shopping, museums, urban parks, and exceptional food in a bustling city with a laidback vibe, San Francisco is a must for families.
If you only have a few hours to a day to explore, get some good food, and see some of the iconic spots like Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Then, head to The Exploratorium, an immersive science museum with over 600 hands-on exhibits perfect for children and adults alike. Kids can walk through a pitch dark tactile dome, play in the tinkering studio, and use scientific tools to learn about living systems.
Check out Musée Mécanique, one of our favorite free museums in San Francisco. Here you’ll find more than 300 vintage and fully functional entertainment machines, ranging from orchestrions, coin-operated pianos, antique slot machines, crane games, and more from the past century.
Then make a stop at the Golden Gate Park, where you and your family can enjoy various museums and even the new SkyStar Ferris wheel!
Other ideas include riding the cable car, visiting Chinatown for a healthy dose of history and good eats, and feasting on clam chowder in a bread bowl at the wharf.
No matter what you decide to do in SF, you’re sure to have a wonderful time. Just be sure to bring layers and prepare for some unpredictable wind and fog!
LAKE TAHOE, CA
Lake Tahoe has got to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Some places don’t live up to the hype, but Lake Tahoe really is as awesome as everyone claims, and as awesome as it looks!
The abundance of outdoor family adventures to partake in is what makes Lake Tahoe one of California’s most popular family vacation destinations. Families can enjoy camping, hiking, kayaking, bike riding, fishing, river rafting, paddleboarding, and much more.
If you want pointers on where to start, Emerald Bay is a popular stop for families and a local favorite is the adventurous ropes course at the Treetop Adventure Park in Tahoe City.
If you’re looking for a fun multi-day road trip, consider starting in San Francisco and making your way to Lake Tahoe/Reno. This off-the-beaten-path Lake Tahoe/Reno road trip is all about blue lakes, the great outdoors, and a boatload of historical gold/silver mining towns that kids will surely love. If this sounds like your kind of road trip, then check out this San Francisco to Lake Tahoe/Reno road trip!
Consider this family-friendly excursion while you’re here: Wild West Day Trip from Lake Tahoe with Train Ride
And then there’s nearby Reno, NV! No matter what you’re searching for, whether it be zoos, museums, outdoor adventure, or a great food scene, Reno has it all.
Highlights include the National Automobile Museum, Animal Ark, The Discovery – Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, and the carnival midway located within Circus Circus Hotel and Casino.
There are plenty of things to do in Reno with kids, but if you’re still struggling, consider a visit to surrounding towns like Lake Tahoe, Virginia City and Sparks, NV.
What we recommend: Visit a gold mine, ride a steam train, take an old-timey portrait, or even take a ghost tour in Virginia City, NV!
If your family members like western towns, mining history, or enjoy feeling as if they’ve stepped right into the wild, wild west, then a trip through California’s Gold Country is warranted! That’s right, California has a massive variety of family-friendly gold rush adventures that shouldn’t be missed!
California Gold Country is technically quite large, running along the west side of the Sierra Nevada mountains all the way to Sacramento. Families will have a blast exploring old mining towns like Nevada City, Sonora, or Columbia, CA. Not only will you have many chances to tour abandoned mines in these towns, but you’ll also have plenty of opportunities to try your hand at gold panning (Jamestown, CA is great for this).
In Nevada City, be sure to check out the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum and simply stroll around the picturesque downtown.
At Columbia State Historic Park, a living gold rush town featuring the largest single collection of gold rush-era structures in the entire state, enjoy the many shops and eateries while costumed docents walking along the streets hosting historical tours you can partake in.
And of course, there are so many other fun mining towns in Gold Country! Check out some of our favorite gold rush towns in California in this post!
The city of Sacramento, also known as the capital of the state of California, deserves at least an entire weekend of exploration (and even then you’ll barely scratch the surface)!
Start at Old Town Sacramento (also known as Old Sacramento State Historic Park) where you and your family will be immediately be transported back into the Gold Rush era. Here, you’ll learn and experience the history of California beginning with the Gold Rush of 1849.
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.
If you’re traveling with the kids who enjoy animals, consider spending a few hours at the Sacramento Zoo, featuring 400 animals from all corners of the globe. Traveling with younger children? Fairytale Town is an ideal stop for toddlers where they can run around and enjoy 26 playsets based on nursery rhymes and fairytales, slide down the Old Woman’s shoe, and pet the docile farm animals.
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 on a self-guided tour.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA
You’ve probably heard of Yosemite National Park, known for its majestic rushing waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, and granite cliffs more massive than one could imagine. California is so lucky to be the home of this iconic National Park. On average, about four to five million people visit Yosemite each year, and most of them spend the majority of their time in Yosemite Valley.
It’s a no-brainer why this is. 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. This is also a great place to camp and allows your kids to roam free in the great outdoors.
Walking and hiking are among the most popular things to do at Yosemite National Park, but if your kids are young then they might not be willing to walk that much. No worries, bike riding is a great alternative for kids of all ages.
Visitors can also choose from a few different motorized forms of getting around/seeing the park, from free shuttles to guided tours. With some of the most impressive natural formations, sequoias, and waterfalls in the world, Yosemite is a must-visit destination for families.
A few guided tours to consider for your trip:
- Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoias Day Trip (from San Francisco) – Full-day tour, choose from a range of activities at Yosemite, including walking or exploring the Valley Visitor Center.
- Full-Day Small-Group Yosemite & Glacier Point Tour – includes hotel pickup from Fresno, Oakhurst, Fish Camp, Mariposa area, El Portal, and Yosemite.
- Yosemite Valley Private Hiking Tour– See Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and hike a variety of trails to see Mirror Lake and Spider Caves.
Pro Tip: Keep in mind that this is a very popular park. If you plan to camp or stay within the park overnight, you will need to book camping/lodging reservations up 6 months in advance. Yosemite National Park really is that popular!
SANTA CRUZ, CA
Santa Cruz doesn’t get nearly as much love as cities like San Francisco, CA or Monterey, CA do, but it equally deserves the attention of travelers. It’s one of the best California road trip destinations for families. With fresh coastal air, Mediterranean-like weather, and laidback surf culture, Santa Cruz equates to a wonderful weekend trip.
The city is best known for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, one of the best old-school amusement parks. Kids will love playing laser tag and miniature golf, riding coasters, and trying their hand at the arcade games. Best of all, it’s admission-free to enjoy the boardwalk (food and rides cost extra).
While in Santa Cruz, you and your family need to hit the beach at least once. The two most popular (and busiest) beaches in Santa Cruz are Main Beach and Cowell Beach. You might even embrace the surf culture and consider taking a surf lesson!
From there, head on over to a more hip part of town, downtown Santa Cruz. This is Pacific Avenue to be exact, and here you will find a variety of vintage shops as well as modern apparel and gift stores, eateries, bars, and coffee shops.
On your way out of Santa Cruz, check out The Mystery Spot, a kitschy roadside attraction that hosts a collection of strange phenomena from the last 70 years. And if there’s a train lover in your family, be sure to check out Roaring Camp Railroads.
For nature lovers, the surrounding parks near Santa Cruz has got some good stuff for you! The best hiking trails in Santa Cruz can be found at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Last but not least, stop by Natural Bridges State Beach to have a lunch picnic or watch the sun go down behind the iconic rock formation here.
Local Tip: The Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve at Natural Bridges State Beach is a must-see if you’re in town from late fall to winter. You can literally see thousands of monarch butterflies dangling among the trees here! It’s really an unforgettable sight to see.
Just an hour away from Santa Cruz, you’ll find Monterey Bay. This seaside town may look sleepy, but that might just be due to the overcast skies that frequent the area. Don’t fret because they’re actually a lot to do here!
Highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium (often considered as one of the best aquariums in the world), Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
While in Monterey, you definitely cannot miss walking down Cannery Row, the setting of two John Steinbeck novels. Here, you’ll notice many warehouses that used to be sardine canneries now serve as home to popular restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing, and biking are also popular activities to do here. We love Monterey so much that we created an entire Monterey travel guide to showcase some of the best things to do in town!
BIG SUR, CA
Just over two hours south of San Francisco is a 90-mile stretch of coastline boasting unforgettable experiences known as Big Sur, CA. Big Sur is an epic California destination with tons of things to do for families who particularly enjoy dramatic coastal views and spending time outdoors.
If you’d like to get the most out of Big Sur, consider spending the night so you can enjoy a whole day of exploring the various hidden beaches, vista points, and state parks. Notable spots include Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Keyhole Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach (an unmissable sunset spot).
Some other outdoor activities include hiking Manuel Peak at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, hunting for jade at Sand Dollar Beach, wandering through redwood groves at Limekiln State Park, and going for a horseback ride along the beach.
Looking to call it a night somewhere along the Big Sur? Many of the state parks such as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park have campgrounds you can book in advance. If you don’t have camping gear with you, there are various lodges, inns, motels and resort options as well. Search for Big Sur hotel availability and pricing here.
Sold? Check out our jam-packed 2-day itinerary for Big Sur, CA here!
Solvang is literally something out of a fairytale, or at least out of the United States anyway. Who knew you could find a Danish town smack dab in the middle of California?
For a taste of Europe, head on over to Solvang, where you’ll find Danish eateries, shops, and a refreshing, unique atmosphere. I know, you’re probably wondering how the charming city came to be. Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants who wanted a feeling of familiarity after immigrating to the USA.
Since this town is fairly small with the main attractions condensed across a few cross streets, allocating three to four hours to explore should be enough. On the way into town, you’ll pass an ostrich farm called Ostrichland USA, where you can pay to go in and feed these guys! Nearby is also Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch, literally the cutest things you’ll ever see on a road trip ever.
While you’re in the area, mosey on over to the tiny town of Los Olivos, CA. It’s tiny, but it’s a cute place to explore nonetheless.
SANTA BARBARA, CA
Santa Barbara! How can anyone not love the Mediterranean atmosphere of Santa Barbara, CA? After all, the city’s nickname is the “American Riviera”. Families love vacationing in Santa Barbara of the beaches, zoos, parks and museums here. The Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and Lotusland are all popular things to do in Santa Barbara.
Head over to State Street for top-notch shopping, great restaurant options, and lively nightlife as the sun sets on the town. If you’re looking for ice cream, you need to stop by McConnell’s. Our one and only recommendation is the Cookies and Cream (prepare to be mindblown by the power of the flavors).
When in Santa Barbara, don’t miss the opportunity to eat some fresh strawberries or uni (sea urchin)! Both strawberries and uni from Santa Barbara are world-famous. For the freshest uni, head to some of the seafood markets or restaurants in Santa Barbara. For strawberries, you’ll find produce stands selling them at many exits along the way as well as near the fields where they’re grown.
Local Tip: Head over to Leadbetter Beach if you’re looking to just float along merrily in the ocean. The lack of waves at this beach is absolutely perfect for families and children– and people who just don’t want to be dodging waves left and right.
Looking to call it a night in Santa Barbara? Really great choice, because the lodging options are endless. One of the best bang for your buck options is the oh-so-stylish La Playa Inn. Check for Santa Barbara hotel availability and pricing here!
CATALINA ISLAND, CA
Live out your island dreams for a few days on Catalina Island, located just west of the Southern California coast. Simply hop on a one-hour ferry ride from the mainland to get to the quaint seaside town of Avalon on the island. There are lots of great shops and restaurants to explore here, as well as child-friendly activities.
Catalina Island has a wonderful zipline eco-tour that boasts epic views of the island. Or, check out the Catalina Aerial Adventure ropes course, perfect for adventurous kids. If you’re looking to spend more time on the water, kids will love seeing marine life on a glass-bottom boat tour. These fun boat tours will allow you and your family to experience the many species of fish and marine life that dwell in the kelp forests along the island. Want to get underwater? Consider the Catalina Island Undersea Expedition.
Did you know that Catalina Island is also home to bison? These amazing animals were brought to the island during the 1920s for filming and they never left! Take a bison expedition eco-tour to view them and more of the wildlife on the island.
DISNEYLAND (ANAHEIM, CA)
Disneyland is the quintessential California family vacation. Any family that pays a visit to Disneyland and California Adventures is guaranteed a good time. You can visit Cars Land, Avengers Headquarters, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and many many more “worlds” that will transport you right into your favorite movies. Not only are the rides and shows nostalgic and entertaining at the same time, but the food at the park is an experience in itself.
There are even Disney resorts within the park to make your family vacation that much more convenient. In addition to the two Disney parks, you can also visit Knott’s Berry Farm, take a day trip to Los Angeles (kids can enjoy various museums and the Griffith Observatory), and visit the nearby Orange County beaches for some relaxing outdoor time together.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Joshua Tree National Park provides a nice contrast to California’s coastal destinations and is a wonderful family vacation in California. This park is famous for its otherworldly terrain, covered with whimsical Joshua Trees as well as its massive boulder formations.
You may have also heard that Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise, and with good reason. Once you lay your eyes on the jumbo rocks dotted across the park, you’ll easily understand why. Consider hiring a local guide to teach your family rock climbing basics and to keep them safe as they learn new skills.
Aside from climbing, there are many other features of the park to enjoy, including beautiful desert vistas, epic camping and stargazing, wildflowers in the springtime, educational walks, and family-friendly hiking. You can even explore the park on an adventurous half-day Joshua Tree jeep tour! With all there is to do, how do you prioritize it all?
If you only have one day to experience this park, follow my 1-day itinerary for an epic Joshua Tree day trip!
SAN DIEGO, CA
It doesn’t get much better than San Diego for a family vacation. This sunny beach city is home to the famous San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld. There are also a few vibrant San Diego neighborhoods to explore with your family too, including Mission Beach, the Historic Old Town area, the Gaslamp Quarter, and La Jolla.
From the historic Gaslamp Quarter to the waterfront of San Diego Bay, from beach towns to breweries, and hiking to kayaking– the sheer amount of things to do in San Diego is unreal. No matter what your interests are or what neighborhood you end up in, there is no shortage of things to do in San Diego.
Traveling to San Diego as part of an extended vacation or even just for a weekend? We’ve got you covered on your perfect San Diego itinerary. Here are some of the best things to do in San Diego, CA!
If you have more time, add on to your San Diego trip by paying a visit to Carlsbad, CA. Carlsbad is probably best known for being the home to the family-favorite amusement park of Legoland. Legoland is loved by families for its various rides, shows, aquarium, and water park.
After hanging at the amusement park, head to Carlsbad Village, offering local shopping and dining experiences the whole family will enjoy. And if you’re traveling during the springtime, the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch never disappoint and are filled with both flowers and visitors alike!
Idyllwild is an up-and-coming outdoor town nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains. Because of how much this town has to offer, it sure is growing in popularity, especially among people taking outdoor family vacations in California. So what can you expect upon arrival? A wonderful little mountain town, tons of local businesses, and fresh air that smells like Christmas all-year-round!
Idyllwild is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, hikers, and rock climbers, best known for the Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness. The popular Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail is a 5.2-mile leisurely trail perfect for a family outing. Another family-friendly spot to check out is Idyllwild Nature Center, located just one mile outside of town. The center provides a variety of environmental education programs, guided tours, and field study trips, all of which can be customized to meet any specific interests or needs.
The town itself also boasts many fun shops that the entire family will enjoy. To start your morning off, you can’t miss Tommy’s Kitchen (Idyllwild revolves around hiking and that means breakfast is the most important meal of the day). Later in the day, be sure to dine among the trees at Restaurant Gastrognome or head to Cafe Aroma for a comforting meal made with local ingredients.
In terms of lodging, Idyllwild provides many great glamping and bed and breakfast options that’ll help you unplug and truly get away from it all. Check out Idyllwild’s accommodation availability and pricing here.
LAKE ARROWHEAD, CA
Lake Arrowhead, nestled in the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest, has frequently been called the ‘Alps’ of Southern California. This cozy mountain community offers families a break from urban city life (or any fast-moving lifestyle). With a beautiful lake, growing food scene, and exciting entertainment for the entire family, Lake Arrowhead offers something fun for everyone.
At the lake, you’ll really be able to get in touch with your outdoor-loving side while you enjoy warm-weather adventures like swimming, paddling, hiking, biking, and fishing. In the wintertime, snow skiing here becomes one of the most popular things to do.
To get to know the lake a little bit better, take a ride on the Arrowhead Queen, a narrated boat tour of Lake Arrowhead. Then there’s Lake Arrowhead Village, the heart of Lake Arrowhead, filled with great shopping, dining and entertainment options. Want to spend some time with animals? Stop by Wildhaven Ranch, an animal sanctuary and rehabilitation center for animals indigenous to the San Bernardino Mountains.
Needless to say, Lake Arrowhead is a wonderful retreat perfect for any time of the year! No matter the time of year, Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa will be your best bet for the best Lake access.
BIG BEAR LAKE, CA
Nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest is the small town of Big Bear Lake, California. If you’ve never heard of it, Big Bear is a tranquil retreat for outdoor enthusiasts in California. While it is most well known for its snowy slopes in the winter, Big Bear has a fantastic summer scene as well. Sunny skies, mountains, hiking trails, year-round activities and a lot of fun places to stay make Big Bear Lake a family-friendly destination. Travelers will find endless activities here, including exploring the mountain resort, the lake, the forests, and the town.
If you’re the type of family who enjoys spending time in the water, well good news because Big Bear Lake has a lot of water activities. Rent a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddleboard, jet ski, or boat to get out and enjoy some time on the water.
In the heart of Big Bear Lake you’ll find a charming district known as The Village, which serves as the central hub for shopping, dining, and entertainment. There are lots of family-friendly attractions in The Village such as urban scavenger hunts, bowling, and arcade gaming rooms.
The Big Bear Alpine Zoo is another family-friendly attraction, serving as a rehabilitation facility for injured, orphaned and imprinted animals while they heal. You’ll see animals native to the area, including black bears, wolves, coyotes, bald eagles, arctic foxes, and snow leopards.
With its close proximity to Los Angeles, Big Bear is an incredible weekend trip option for travelers considering a California family vacation. Discover the many things to do in Big Bear, California in our Big Bear summer travel guide.