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Thanks to my father's military status, I was very fortunate to be able to travel the world when I was growing up. No place I've been, however, compares to Northern California. Friendly folks who feel like neighbors, the influence of many diverse cultures, and a chill vibe make it easy for anyone to feel comfortable here. Five years ago, when I first visited the region, I dreamed that I could one day call it home. Three years ago, that dream became a reality, and I'm so proud to raise my daughter here and call Oakland, California my forever home!
There's nothing to not love about where I live. From the awesome weather year round to the abundance of fun family activities, it's no wonder that my friends and family all start concocting plans to relocate after vacationing here. It doesn't hurt that I know all of the best places to take them to make them fall in love with our neck of the woods (or beach, or city...more on that later!). Northern California, the Bay Area in particular, is the ultimate family playground. Whether you have one child like I do, or a whole group of them, there's plenty to keep your entire family happy.
Because there's so much to do here, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the choices. Don't worry, Mama Knows It All has you covered! If you're visiting the area for the first time, or you live here but want to get out and explore more, here's a three-day itinerary that will help you cover the most ground...and have the most fun in Northern California!
My best piece of advice, for your entire trip, is to start early. There are so many hidden treasures in Northern California that it's likely you'll discover something that will get you off schedule, so our family has learned to stay flexible and get out as soon as we can after the sun rises. Trust me, you'll appreciate this tip when you find a cool park that you want to hang out in for an hour or so!
I know, I know, everyone loves San Francisco. I do, too! You don't have to rush into the city during your Northern California visit, though. In fact, it's a good idea to pace yourself, especially if you're traveling with children. Starting in San Francisco's neighboring cities, Oakland and Berkeley, is a great way to start your vacation, and set the tone for the trip. Besides, they're both extraordinarily family-friendly, with plenty to do and lots to keep the kiddos occupied and engaged.
Our family first fell in love with Children's Fairyland on our first visit to Oakland. Super-duper kid-friendly, this fairytale-themed amusement park will be loved by children of all ages. Ride the Jolly Trolly train, sit in on a puppet show, or meet new animal friends in the menagerie. You can experience the entire park in just a couple of hours, which leaves plenty of time for you to keep exploring.
After Children's Fairyland, take a short ride to Jack London Square for lunch, and you're sure to find something interesting going on, too. It might be the day of the Farmers Market, there could be a dance party happening, or maybe your favorite movie is playing on the big screen. We never know what to expect when we go to Jack London Square! The one thing we can be sure of, though, is a great assortment of delicious restaurants!
Once you finish lunch, it's time to head over to Tilden Park in Berkeley. There's a farm with a petting zoo, a carousel, botanic garden, and a steam train! Make sure you bring a blanket, because the acres of lush grass are perfect for a quick nap to refuel after you experience all the park has to offer.
When you get your second wind, take the family to Shorebird Park Nature Center and Adventure Playground for another interesting experience. A quintessentially Berkeley attraction, this park is unlike any playground you've ever been to. There's a zip line that kids and adults can ride on, and opportunities for children to build things with real hammers and nails, and to use paint to decorate their very own fort. The Shorebird Park Nature Center and Adventure Playground might be your kiddo's favorite part of the entire day!
The starlet of Northern California is obviously San Francisco. It's one of the most famous cities in the world. If you're in the region, you absolutely cannot miss it. If you start in Oakland, you can take the ferry from Jack London Square over to Fisherman's Wharf for an exciting beginning to a day in the city. Even if you don't take the ferry, BART is a super affordable way to get into San Francisco, or you can leave the car at one of the many parking garages that are available.
No matter what your plans are, Fisherman's Wharf has to be on your agenda. There's so much to do there! You can see some ships, get a glimpse of Alcatraz, and watch the sea lions sunbathe or play. I have to warn you, though: It might be hard to drag the family to the next attraction after they see the sea lions! They're just so darn interesting to watch!
San Francisco's Chinatown neighborhood is one of my favorite places in the city. It's so full of color, and there are tons of little surprises in every single shop you go into. The best part of Chinatown is that you get to experience the slopes and hills that San Francisco is known for!
Since it's one of the most iconic bridges in the country, you have to go over the Golden Gate Bridge if you're in Northern California. Every few weeks I try to sweet-talk my husband into driving me over the bridge because I absolutely love the views! Not only will your kids be impressed by the sheer size and beauty of the bridge, but it takes you to one of the most lovely little cities in our area.
After you drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, make your way to the Bay Area Discovery Museum. With its focus on imagination, creativity, and STEM activities, even the adults in the family will be engaged at the museum. There are often special events going on, so make sure you check the museum calendar before you go. After you leave, check out some of the shops in downtown Sausalito, and sit down for lunch at one of the many family-friendly restaurants in the area.
To end your day, head over to Treasure Island, right off the end of the Bay Bridge, to watch the sunset. You won't find a better view of San Francisco anywhere else. It'll be the perfect close to a fun-filled day, and a memory that you'll never, ever forget!
For your third day in our lovely region, I have several recommendations for day trips. Don't forget my earlier advice to stay flexible and be open to the adventure you might find.
If you are coming to Northern California and you only have a few days, you MUST go to Yosemite National Park. It's about a 2.5-hour drive from Oakland, so if you start early in the morning, you'll have plenty of time to explore. One of the greatest parks in our country, Yosemite is absolutely breathtaking. When you and your family experience the amazing valley and beautiful waterfalls, you'll be reminded of how beautiful our country truly is.
When I lived on the East Coast, one of my favorite things to do with my daughter was take a bus to the shore and hang out at the beach. Our version of that is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its classic amusements, rides, and attractions. There's a Ferris wheel, games, miniature golf, and great beach-themed foods. Your family will have the best time at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk!
If you want to experience the majesty of the beautiful redwood trees, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton is the place to be. Make sure to bring your camera to take tons of pictures of the family in this amazingly beautiful setting!
Before you leave the Santa Cruz area, make a stop at Natural Bridges State Beach to see the sun set. My husband and I had engagement photos taken here, and I can guarantee you one of the most gorgeous sunsets you'll ever see in your life.
You may know San Jose as the tech center of Northern California, but there's plenty for families to do there, too! Just about an hour away from Oakland, San Jose makes a fun and easy day trip. Start your morning at Happy Hollow Park and Zoo for a close up look at some really sweet animals. After that, head over to the Children's Discovery Museum for lunch and to play. You and your kiddos will love the gardens, imaginative exhibits, and opportunities to engage with science.
Now do you see why it was so easy for me to fall in love with Northern California? It's the very best of everything our great country has to offer, and there's no place I'd rather live, love, and have fun!
Whether you want to sleep at the feet of giants in Redwoods National Park or wake up at the water's edge in Lake Tahoe, adventure seekers will marvel at Northern California's options. From off-the-grid rustic sites to the ultimate glamping experience, here are six options for planning your next camping excursion.
Although it's a mere 45 minutes away from San Francisco, Steep Ravine feels incredibly remote. On a clear day, you can see the city's skyline in the distance, as well as the Farallon Islands 25 miles off the coast. Pitch a tent or stay in a rustic cabin—sites for both look out on expansive ocean views perfect for watching the sunset.
What to do: Hike or drive to nearby Stinson Beach, where lifeguards are on duty from May through mid-September. On weekends, head to the mountain's Gravity Car Barn to learn about the sloping, winding railroad that once carried passengers down by gravity alone.
Three miles up the coast from Fort Bragg, MacKerricher State Park showcases multiple habitats—forest, beach, dunes, bluffs, wetlands, and a collection of tide pools at the shore—around its 140-plus campsites. During whale migration season (winter and spring), MacKerricher boasts nine miles of uninterrupted coastline for spotting spouts.
What to do: Take a ride on the historic Skunk Train, a 131-year-old engine that has chugged along the coastal "Redwood Route" since 1885. Horse lovers can get saddle time in at Ten Mile Beach or in Jackson State Forest. If the kiddos need a break from "all that nature," take a swing at mini golf at the Emerald Dolphin Inn, and stop for a cone at Cowlick's Ice Cream Café on the way back to camp.
It's no wonder these lakeside campgrounds are so highly coveted given their proximity to the crystal-clear waters of Lake Tahoe. The water and all of its activities wait mere feet away from your tent. Pack warm clothes for the evenings, which tend to be chilly even during the summer months.
What to do: Waterbugs will enjoy swimming, diving, or paddleboarding on the lake's clear water. Or stay on land to lounge on the beach or explore miles of nearby trails—don't miss the opportunity to snap a picture at Balancing Rock in the northwest section of the park. At the end of the day, join fellow campers at the campfire center to swap adventure stories.
Up for an adventure? First, buy some fresh oysters at the Marshall Store, rent a kayak at Blue Waters Kayaking, and load up your gear for a one-hour paddle to the boat-in only Tomales Bay campsites. After you set up camp on the beach, hike the steep hill for a breathtaking view of Tomales Bay.
What to do: Check out Pierce Point Ranch, where you can catch a glimpse of the many tule elk in residence at the Tule Elk Reserve.
If the words "luxury" and "camping" ever belonged in the same sentence, it would be to describe this glamping experience. The camp outfits its 330-square-foot canvas tents with plush mattresses, down feather pillows and comforters, and luxe wool area rugs.
What to do: Bring a fly rod to cast out over nearby creeks and lakes (the camp has limited supplies available for borrowing). Book a horseback-riding excursion before you arrive. Make a checklist of local wildlife, including deer, chipmunks, hummingbirds, and marmots, and see who can spot the most!
Not only does Big Basin feature an incredible collection of gigantic redwoods, but the area is also home to 80 miles of trails sprinkled with gorgeous waterfalls (take the 10-mile Berry Creek Loop for a look at the cascading Berry Creek Falls). If your crew prefers a tent upgrade, you can rent a spacious "tent cabin" that sleeps four and comes with mattress pads and a wood stove.
What to do: Enjoy the park's 80 miles of trails, punctuated by the towering trees. For a high-flying adventure, head south to Mount Hermon Adventures Redwood Canopy Tours, where explorers ages 10+ can fly through the trees on a zip-line adventure. A lower course is available for kids as young as five.
Check out eight more spots for adventurous kids here.
This 129-foot-tall waterfall is one of the most jaw-dropping sights in North America. Located about 60 miles northeast of Redding, Burney Falls makes a delightful day trip. Take a hike around the falls to reach the optimum viewpoint, the overlook at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, and you'll see why President Teddy Roosevelt referred to the falls as the "eighth wonder of the world."
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The largest lake in California, Shasta, is awash in watery family fun. With a whopping 370 miles of shoreline, it makes it easy to find an activity that involves your favorite watersport—from jet skiing to boating to just plain ol' swimming. And one not-to-miss landmark is the Shasta Dam; at 602 feet high, it's the second largest of its kind in the country and the perfect spot for a group photo. If you're staying overnight, dine right on the water on a dinner cruise.
Three hours north of San Francisco is the coastal cool town of Mendocino. Kids will love exploring Glass Beach, located about 10 miles north of the town of Mendocino, where deposits of colorful sea glass rest along the coves. One theory for the washed up treasure is that the sea glass is "mermaid tears," shed every time a sailor is lost at sea. Just be sure not to take any of the glass with you—it's best left on the beach for other visitors. On the way back to town, visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens to snap some pictures of its expansive collection of blooms, including its famous rhododendrons. Thirty miles south of town, check out the B. Bryan Preserve, where you can capture snaps of exotic animals like antelopes, kudus, zebras, and giraffes.
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After a drive north through towering redwood forests, you'll most definitely know when you've stumbled upon this Victorian-architecture-laden town along the coast. Eureka, 280 miles north of San Francisco, is not only worth a visit in and of itself—stroll along the seaside boardwalk and on the streets of old town, stopping at the intriguing Clarke Historical Museum. About an hour from Eureka on Highway 299 go hunting for Bigfoot at the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum. You'll find footprint casts, Bigfoot pictures, and a collection of other odds and ends.
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For a slice of Americana, complete with trees you can drive right through, take the family on a road trip along Highway 101. The route, starting from Phillipsville (roughly 225 miles north of San Francisco on the 101) and going north to Stafford, cuts through California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the densest concentration of old-growth redwoods in the world. Here's a guide for where to roam along this iconic stretch of road. It's a drive so spectacular you may not hear an "Are we there yet?" the whole time.
Before you set out, fuel up on grass-fed-beef burgers, fresh baked goods, and soft-serve ice cream at the whimsical Chimney Tree Grill in the town of Phillipsville. The restaurant is next to the Living Chimney Tree, which was hollowed by a fire in 1914. Visitors can walk into the room-like space, entering through a front door, to check out the tree's interior.
There are three redwoods you can drive a car through in California. The Shrine Drive-Through Tree has the distinction of being the only one hollowed out by nature. Goose pens, as these interior spaces are known, are caused by fires, which burn out the interior of the tree but leave the exterior intact and alive. You'll pay a small fee to pass through this privately owned redwood. Stop off in Myers Flat for the locally lauded Daily Grind espresso house or a visit to Riverbend Cellars for a laid back local wine tasting. If you have young kids, venture a mile farther to the Williams Grove day use area where you'll access the Children's Forest trail. This quiet, pretty 2-mile loop has plenty of fun exploration opportunities for little ones.
This retro, 1930s visitor's center near the town of Weott is both kitschy and educational. Three of the world's remaining redwood species have been planted out front. Inside there's a substantial history museum, as well as the world's first RV, carved from a redwood trunk, which the owner drove around the country from 1917 to 1921 to raise awareness of the forests.
Stop to explore the Dyerville Giant—estimated to be the world's tallest tree when it toppled 25 years ago. When it crashed, people in the area thought there had been a train accident because of the explosive reverberation. It's now a great opportunity to see a redwood root system, and there's plenty of signage to learn about the forest.
Fairytale lovers will marvel at this grove, most famous for the redwood sorrel ground cover. The dense, bright green foliage resembles four-leaf clovers, and it blankets the forest floor, rising and falling with the terrain. Pathways twist and turn among the trees in an incredible enchanted setting.
About eight miles south of the Stafford end of the Avenue of the Giants sits the Eternal Tree House, a rustic roadside stop with a gift shop, restaurant, and a 20-square foot room located in the stump of one of the giants. Visitors to the house can leave their name in the guestbook before going back on the road.
This park features 53 rides, live entertainment, and a water park—certain to please everyone from pint-sized adventurers to older thrill-seekers. Spine-tingling rides include the Xtreme Skyflyer that re-creates the experience of skydiving, while tamer pursuits, such as bumper cars, are also plentiful. A dynamic new 4-D attraction, developed in partnership with Electronic Arts based on the game series Mass Effect™ and featuring customized technology for the park, will take guests on an adventure through the galaxy. After the thrills, the park's regularly scheduled fireworks displays will end your day with a bang.
Courtesy of Great America
Think traditional amusement park for younger kids with an earth-friendly twist. Each of the park's 40 rides and attractions, including a Ferris wheel and carousels, are built around six lush gardens. There are also learning sheds showing vignettes on conservation and the park's greenery. Gilroy is also home to the Circus Trees, which are trees shaped and woven together to create complex designs, such as a basket, arch, and zig-zag. The park's water-filled play areas will let you make a splash on even the hottest of days.
Courtesy of Gilroy Gardens
Your kids can get up close and personal with wildlife at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Throughout the park, there are opportunities to experience exotic wildlife, such as observing dolphins at play through an underwater viewing window, or tigers relaxing by their pool. You can also feed a giraffe, seal, or sea lion, see penguins and walruses swim or touch a stingray. Check out animal shows, exhibits, and demonstrations, or the 42 rides including The Joker, the newest and most thrilling coaster, and Medusa, Northern California's tallest, longest, and fastest roller coaster.
Courtesy of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Children's Fairyland first debuted its 10 acres of gardens and themed sets for children ages eight and under on the shores of Lake Merritt in 1950. The park was Walt Disney's major inspiration for the theme park he created five years later. Here, tots can interact with life-size sets depicting scenes from classic storybooks, such as Pinocchio's castle, as well as meet ponies, goats, and sheep. There are also child-size rides like carousels and a mini Ferris wheel. Make sure to catch a show at the Storybook Puppet Theater, which launched the careers of many famous puppeteers.
Courtesy of Children's Fairyland
With more than 400 acres of wildlife preserve and 900 different animals representing 90 species, Safari West re-creates a day in the wild—in the heart of California wine country. Safari tours in a double-decker Korean War Vintage Power Wagons run three hours and bring you into contact with gazelles, giraffes, zebras, antelope, and other fauna and flora indigenous to Northern Tanzania. You can even "camp" in a luxury safari tent complete with hardwood floors, beds, and full bathrooms, falling asleep to the calls of exotic birds.
Courtesy of Safari West
Built in 1959 inside William Land Park, Fairytale Town boasts 25 playsets based on different nursery rhymes, and fairytales, including Farmer Brown's Barn that is home to three blind mice, a schoolhouse with Mary's Little Lambs, which has real sheep grazing, and an Old Woman in the Shoe slide. Little ones can also meet a miniature Sicilian donkey named Eeyore, as well as Charlotte the spider and Daisy the cow, a miniature Hereford heifer.
Courtesy of Fairytale Town
Wear comfortable walking shoes when you visit, because the Sacramento Zoo spans 14.5 acres, and you'll want to see all of it. The zoo is home to over 500 animals of more than 140 different species, including red pandas, snow leopards, eagles, and various reptiles. If you're looking for more than a leisurely stroll and casual viewing, you can sign up for educational classes and day camps. And if you want to see the animals in action at all hours, you can bring a tent and sleeping bags for a back-to-nature overnighter.
Courtesy of Sacramento Zoo
Perfect for peewee adventurers, this small-scale amusement park is adjacent to the Sacramento Zoo and Fairytale Town, and features nine child-sized rides, seven of which can accommodate two-year-olds. Knee-high daredevils can ride the Flying Dragon Roller Coaster, spin in the Crazy Cups, and fly in a swinging log on the Squirrelly Whirl. There are also scaled-down boats, cars, trains, and planes for climbing on and exploring. You can also all pile into one of the Backroads Buggies, Funderland's classic cars that let little drivers zoom around the park.
Courtesy of Funderland
We love visiting Central California because it gives us a beautiful mix of the ocean, the mountains, and farm life. It offers some of the best wineries on the West Coast, has little-known towns, and features fun little eateries sprinkled throughout the coast. Now that summer is coming up, we've started planning our next family road trip up to Central California, and it includes a handful of adventure-filled stops. The Central Valley and the Central Coast are where we'll be spending the majority of our time because they're both just a short drive away from Los Angeles. Want to plan your own Central California road trip and need ideas? Read on for our three-day family road trip itinerary!
Closest to Los Angeles is the beautiful city of Santa Barbara. You'll find this historic spot about an hour and a half north of L.A. Santa Barbara is known for its shopping, dining, and gorgeous scenery. This city is a big hit for multi-generational groups because it offers a lot of activities, including the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Zoo, and museums with a heavy emphasis on nature and history. And of course, the beach is always a hit too.
The Farmers Market in Downtown Santa Barbara on Tuesdays and Saturdays. There's plenty of locally grown produce, along with an array of restaurants offering everything from pizza to tacos, served alongside some of the best wine in the state of California.
About an hour away from Santa Barbara is a quaint little town called Solvang. Driving into Solvang will make you feel as though you're stepping back in time. You will immediately get the small-town feel (it has a population of about 5,500) as you drive down its one major road and past its mom-and-pop shops and well-known bakeries. Founded by a group of Danes in 1911, the town gives you the feeling that it hasn't changed much since then.
Solvang is still home to bakeries, restaurants, and merchants who have continued to offer a taste of Denmark through its food, landscape, and museums.
The shoe store trying on a pair of clogs, the local bookstore peeking into the Hans Christian Andersen museum upstairs, and, of course, around Copenhagen replicas like the Little Mermaid statue and the Round Tower, taking family pictures. We'll also be stopping by Old Mission Santa Inés near the center of town. Just outside of Solvang, we'll stop by OstrichLand USA—a ranch where visitors can see ostriches, feed them, and even buy their eggs!
Covering a large piece of California is the Central Valley. This area is known for producing an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, and greenery, coupled with its small-town feel and country atmosphere. Highway 99 will take you where you need to go, but your family will enjoy discovering off-the-beaten-path destinations the most.
The produce stands, stocking up on in-season fruits. We'd like to visit UC Davis and rent bikes to discover the campus, and maybe take some time for some much-needed water play at The Delta. There, you can do everything from waterskiing to fishing to wildlife watching.
Central California is a wonderful region of the Golden State, with the ocean and mountains surrounding the family-owned farms and quaint towns that you'll run into simply by driving down the scenic highways. Families can always find something that they enjoy doing. Whether we choose a day at the beach, a tour of historic missions, or fruit picking at a farm, Central California will give us three days of fun, great meals, and bonding moments that will carry us into our future California travels.
Ready for an out-of-this-world adventure? Head to Oakland to take a trip through outer space via Chabot's state-of-the-art planetarium, or see if you have the right stuff on a simulated space mission in the Challenger Learning Center. The center is great for all ages, including the littlest astronauts, who can enroll in the Tyke Explorers Workshop, which teaches children three to five years old about space, dinosaurs, the human body, and other science topics. Chabot is home to three telescopes open for public viewing—visit after sunset for a spectacular view of the night sky.
Courtesy of Chabot Space & Science Center
One of the most renowned aquariums on the planet, the Monterey Bay Aquarium will stun and amaze everyone from infants to the elderly. Located right on Cannery Row in historic Monterey, the aquarium features nearly 200 exhibits in 34 major galleries. Go for the eye-to-fins views of colorful sea creatures, and be sure to check out daily feedings of playful penguins and otters. Underwater enthusiast in the family? Schedule a family tour for a behind-the-scenes look at life at the aquarium.
© Monterey Bay Aquarium
Housing nearly 46 million specimens, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is one of the biggest attractions of its kind in the world. Between the planetarium, aquarium, and natural history museum, it's hard to know where to go first (and you can't go wrong). Don't miss the Osher Rainforest, a four-story neo-tropical rainforest where you'll encounter exotic birds and reptiles, amphibians, spiders, and Amazonian fish. Also, be sure to buy your tickets online in advance so you can skip the line when you arrive.
© 2012 California Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
A public learning laboratory, this San Francisco institution sits at the intersection of science and art. Often described as a mad scientist's penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one, the center boasts more than 600 hands-on exhibits and displays—a tinkerer's paradise. You can also explore a dark maze using only your hands (discovering some interesting textures along the way), or channel your inner caveman (or cavewoman) and make your own cave petroglyph. A travel tip: Schedule your visit on a weekday, as weekends are very popular with locals and tourists alike.
It seems perfectly fitting that Silicon Valley would have its own state-of-the-art, technology-centric museum that San Jose locals call "The Tech." Going beyond the usual science museum, The Tech empowers guests to explore biotech, cyber security, design and build their own robots, and play with hundreds of interactive exhibits and displays. When your brain is tuckered, sit back and enjoy films on 9,000-plus square feet of wraparound IMAX screen (the largest IMAX dome theater in the western United States), or check out one of the most geektacular gift shops around.
Courtesy of The Tech Museum of Innovation
Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, the museum encourages adults and kids alike to reconnect with nature. Wear comfortable walking shoes on your visit—after gawking at the 74-foot blue whale skeleton, you can remind yourself that you're in subtropical California and head to the museum's backyard to play on the water course, build a fort, and search for critters. From there you can also hike the Nature Trail along Mission Creek.
Gary Robinson/Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
While San Francisco is considered a technology hub and Los Angeles boasts a booming entertainment industry, there's a lot to be seen between the two major cities. Central California has charming towns dotting the coastline, and destinations like Yosemite National Park farther inland. The valley yields a quarter of all produce and 40% of nuts, fruits and other foods in the U.S., and from crops to coastline, Central California is a friendly and relaxed swath of the Golden State to explore.
For an iconic road trip, cruise up the Central California coastline. Start in Santa Barbara, a friendly town full of family fun. Don't miss the zoo and botanic garden.
Hop back in the car and snake up the coast, passing historic and charming San Luis Obispo, stopping for a California history lesson at the Old Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Then veer onto The Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1, or PCH as locals call it). Designate a family member as a photographer to capture the views.
Just before reaching Monterey Bay, stretch your legs in Carmel-by-the-Sea. This enchanting coastal town just south of Monterey is like a California-set fairytale. Stroll the quaint streets of downtown and wander into shops and restaurants, or head to the water for a day at the beach (Carmel Beach is dog-friendly, so furry friends can get in on the fun). Golfers should make a pilgrimage to The Golf Links at the Pebble Beach Resorts, rated the number one public course in the U.S., and kids will find ample amounts of fun, including horseback riding on the beach and story time and crafts at the local library.
One cannot cruise up the PCH without stopping in Santa Cruz. Kids will love a trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an amusement park (complete with the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster, which first rolled out in 1924).
Attractions east of the coastline are just as dazzling as their oceanfront counterparts. Some of the coolest adventures might be right under your nose, as in way underground. Start with a tour of the massive underground chamber at Moaning Caverns Adventure Park—the vertical chamber is large enough to fit the Statue of Liberty. Families can go on guided walking tours into the cave, or opt to rappel down 165 feet into the cavern (best for older adventurers). Back above ground, take flight on zip lines that run above the foothills.
Continue heading inland to awe-inspiring Yosemite National Park. Book a room at the historic Tenaya Lodge, nicely situated as a base for exploring, and then go hiking or to attend one of the many nature talks that take place in the Yosemite Valley. Kids can participate in ranger programs, learning about the geological history of the area, or partake in an art class (all ages welcome) focused on nature.
Forty miles east of Yosemite Valley sits Mono Lake ("Mono" rhymes with "yoyo," FYI), with its otherworldly landscape of strange rock forms. The visitor center, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass, offers a wealth of information and scientific exploration.
Yosemite, considered one of the crown jewels of the national park system, lies 200 miles east of historic San Francisco. Best known for its immense granite cliff faces, crashing waterfalls, and unmatched parkland, the expansive grounds should be seen on foot over several days. Hikes range from short strolls (Glacier Point and Tuolumne Meadows) to more demanding treks, like the 7.2-mile walk to the top of Yosemite Falls (not recommended for young children). Science-minded little ones can visit the Nature Center or Yosemite Valley Visitor Center to learn about life in the park through interactive exhibits, and can even study to become Junior Rangers (ages 7-13) or Little Cubs (ages 3-6).
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This area in the Eastern Sierra offers mountain biking, boating, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and world-renowned fishing. If you prefer to perfect your swing, there are two public golf courses with forest-lined fairways and expansive views. Let the kids go wild at the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center, which includes a climbing wall, zip line, and bungee trampoline. Or take a break from the outdoors at Mammoth Rock ‘n' Bowl, which features 12 state-of-the-art bowling lanes, a game area, and three indoor golf simulators. There are also plentiful historic sites curious little explorers—including the historic Hayden Cabin museum and the Mammoth Consolidated Mine.
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These two parks sit side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley, and boast dramatic landscapes, huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep caverns, and caves to explore. But it's the immense sequoias, considered the world's most majestic trees, that will grab the family's undivided attention. Kids will love exploring on day hikes (look for paved trails for younger ones), adventuring on an overnight wilderness trip, or learning about the park via a ranger-led program, like the Kids' Campfire Talks. And a bonus for any family with a fourth-grade student: You can earn a free pass through the Every Kid in a Park program.
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Don't let its name fool you. This famed spread of 3.4 million acres of desert and mountains is one of the most uniquely beautiful places on earth. Hikes will reveal vivid flood-carved caverns, gigantic sand dunes, crystalized salt flats, or lush oases that harbor tiny fish. Golf enthusiasts can play a morning round at 214 feet below sea level at the Furnace Creek Resort. Several air-conditioned lodges and a visitor's center showing educational films offer respite from the legendary desert heat. Take the kids for a walk in the moonlight to spot a full spectrum of the desert, stars, and planets that comes to life at night, or cool off with a dip in the pool at Stovepipe Wells Village. They'll also love hopping on a horse at Furnace Creek Ranch or having their photo taken at Badwater Basin (major bragging rights—it's the lowest-elevation spot in North America)!
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Unwind after a day of exploring at one of these family-friendly wineries and craft breweries.
Pint-size picky eater in the back seat? Fret not. Families driving through the Central Valley can take full advantage of the region's fresh, local ingredients. As you make your way to Yosemite, the Sequoias, or the Monterey Peninsula, pull over to find hidden gems that will ensure no one in your crew goes hungry on vacation.
With a double-decker Venetian carousel and a train dubbed Casa de Choo Choo, Casa de Fruta in Hollister (roughly 50 miles inland from Santa Cruz) is a dream pit stop for kids. Visit the roadside stand for just-picked produce, and load up on fruits and vegetables before hopping back in the car—they'll be the perfect road-trip snack.
Harry Snyder couldn't possibly have known what he was creating when he opened California's first drive-thru burger stand in 1948. Fast-forward to 2015, and the 300th In-N-Out Burger restaurant—now operating in six states—opens, a testament to the cult-like following. Go for the classic burgers, and stay for the famous shakes (choose from classic chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavors, or order one of each!). For an insider experience, ask about the not-so-secret secret menu.
Adventurers headed to the Sierra National Forest or the southern end of Yosemite National Park should make a pit stop in Fresno at Castillo's. The family-run restaurant has been serving up enchiladas, tamales, and tacos since 1955, and it's famous for warm service, and raved-about house made tortillas and salsa (aka, crowd pleasers).
If you're driving along Highway 101 and notice a 40-foot-tall wooden cowboy, you've reached F. McLintock's Saloon and Dining House, a Pismo Beach (13 miles south of San Luis Obispo) restaurant that's been attracting tourists and locals alike for more than four decades. Inside, servers pour water from three feet above the glass, and kid-friendly fare includes skillet potatoes (drenched in cheese and bacon), nachos, and a variety of steaks and ribs.
No family vacation is complete without indulging in something sweet. After sights like Sequoia National Park, home to some of the largest trees in the world, make a pit stop in Hanford at Superior Dairy. Settle into the charming vinyl booths and enjoy freshly made, classic and seasonal scoops. Bon appetite!
I have lived in California almost my entire life, and I couldn't imagine raising my kids anywhere else! Southern California is unique because you can visit the beach, go to Disneyland, or play in the snow, usually within a two hour drive….you really can't find that anywhere else! If you haven't visited the Golden State yet, let us show you around. Here are 25 of our favorite spots with a lot of hidden gems in between!
Let's start with the fabulous amusement parks you will find here in Southern California. You can't pass these by:
Knott's really has something for everyone, with lots of live entertainment too, which we love. There are smaller rides in Camp Snoopy, classics like the Log Ride, and roller coasters for the more daring. Throughout the year they have special events during Christmas, their Boysenberry Festival, and more, which keep it fresh.
A really fun place for rides and live entertainment featuring your favorite movie characters, and their studio tour is amazing. We love seeing where some of our favorite movies were filmed!
A fun place for younger kids, especially those who love building! There are not only fun rides at LEGOLAND but building stations, a great waterpark, and Sea Life Aquarium adjacent to the park as well. It's fascinating what they've made out of LEGO® bricks!
Let's move on to a few water locations we love in Southern California! Some of them you may have heard of, and others are hidden gems that are must-sees during your visit here.
This park has changed a lot over the years and even has a few roller coasters too! Our favorite attractions are still the shows (with seasonal offerings as well), and the hands-on exhibits are always a hit.
This floating hotel in Long Beach offers tours. Even my kids thought it was fascinating to see the artifacts and the exhibits on the ship. In the winter months there's the Queen Mary CHILL with ice sculptures, tubing, skating, and more (this has become our annual tradition).
This is quite a large aquarium, located in Long Beach, with a lot of outside exhibits, such as a penguin habitat and shark-touch pools that we haven't seen anywhere else!
Located in La Jolla, this aquarium offers a lot of hands-on exhibits for kids, and half of the facility is outdoors, which we love! Featuring interactive exhibits and exciting science displays, it's great for little hands and in an absolutely gorgeous location overlooking the beach.
We love visiting the many tide pools in Southern California! One of our favorite spots is in La Jolla, called Children's Pool. There's a beach where you can look for small sea creatures and get up close and personal with the harbor seals and sea lions, who love to sun themselves!
If you're coming to Southern California to visit the ocean and all it has to offer, this is a great place to visit in Dana Point! They offer hands-on exploration, and taking a whale-watching trip is a must, too…it's amazing!
This is a hidden gem! If your childhood included playing in mud puddles, sliding down slippery slopes with your friends, and not caring about how dirty you got….your kids will get to experience that kind of down-home fun here too!
There are so many great waterparks in Southern California, and since it is warm basically year round here you can visit them often!
I'd be here all day if I listed all of the beaches we love, and since there are so many, we like visiting a new one each time we head out for some sun and sand. Two of our favorites are Carlsbad State Beach and San Clemente State Beach, because we lived there for many years. There is a playground, and lots of parking.
If you're an animal lover and you're looking for fun places in Southern California to visit them, there are several locations, both big and small.
Probably one of our favorite places to go and see animals roaming the acres and acres of land. Their Africa Tram is like nothing you've ever been on, as it takes you on a half hour tour that allows you to see the animals up close.
A true hidden gem! This is a great zoological garden with rescued animals that can no longer live in the wild for a variety of reasons. You can get up close with unique animals and take a tour of the facility, which is nestled in the small city of Silverado. It's pretty neat.
Our favorite hidden gem!! My kids love feeding animals, seasonal festivals, and large fields where we can have a picnic and run free. Bates offers all of these things! Each season offers something new with a small-town feel, and it's become our tradition each October to pick pumpkins right off the vine!
Now we're moving right along to several fun children's museums we have here in Southern California that we visit quite often and are a must-see!
One of our all-time favorite hands-on museums for children in Orange County is called Discovery Cube. Throughout the year they offer different exhibits and incredible events like Bubblefest. Children can pretend they're hockey players, shop at a grocery store meant just for them, learn all about hurricanes and much more. It's three stories full of fun, and you can easily spend the whole day there!
Another hidden gem! We love visiting small places like this one and sharing them with others. Although it's on a smaller scale, this children's museum is very interactive and is located in a quaint area of Old Town Temecula, which is fun to walk around after your visit there.
If you're a train enthusiast, this is a great place to visit! There are different events year round, and they even have Thomas the Tank Engine visit each year!
Now let's get back outdoors, shall we! There are so many great places to camp and hike in Southern California and we have visited many of them, so let me share a few of our favorites.
We visit Idyllwild often because it isn't too far from our home in Temecula and it's such a gorgeous area to take a walk, have a picnic, and just unplug as a family. It reminds us of a smaller version of Yosemite, offering small campgrounds as well as a lake just outside of town, called Lake Hemet, where sometimes we just skip rocks and chat.
Our all-time favorite place to hike! Gorgeous isn't a big enough word to describe this area. There are many trails to choose from and it's fairly flat, so it's easy for children to join the fun! We pack a picnic and head out for an afternoon together often, and we always see something new.
Another hidden gem! We love finding small quaint towns like this one and just making a day trip of it. It's a great little place to stay at a bed-and-breakfast, explore the beautiful woody area, visit their underground candy mine, and have a slice of their noteworthy apple pie!
To round out our list of 25 reasons to visit California, we want to share a few great places where you can pick your own veggies and fruit….so much fun with kids!
Not only can you pick your own fruits and vegetables, but you can take a CookOut Tour, where they will help grill what you've picked right then and there! Very educational and fun for adults and kids!
This is a fantastic hidden gem! There are many strawberry fields here and there, but it's rare to find a blueberry field where you can gather your own fruit right off the bush and bring it home that day. Offering movie nights during the summer, story time, and a few farm animals, it's a fun experience for little hands and delicious for everyone!
From The Typical Mom family to yours, I hope you find several activities you love among our suggestions here and make memories with each other this year that will last a lifetime!
Spanning 190 acres, SeaWorld is all about bringing you and your kids on a wild journey under the sea. You can watch sea lions perform, get face-to-face with sharks that swim in a mammoth underwater tunnel, check out giant turtles at Turtle Reef, and hang out with more than 300 penguins at the Penguin Encounter. SeaWorld also features several adrenaline-pumping rides, including the Manta high-speed roller coaster. Meanwhile, tinier tots can visit the Sesame Street Bay of Play to ride Elmo's Flying Fish and meet their favorite Sesame Street pals.
Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld® San Diego
Immerse yourself in the thrills of the California gold rush at Knott's Berry Farm's authentic Ghost Town, featuring buildings from actual mining and ghost towns and other Old West attractions. In the town of Calico, hang at the Calico Saloon and catch a cowboy-themed show on the Calico stage. Meanwhile you can descend into the depths of the farm's "gold mine" to see the famed Calico Glory Hole. But Knott's Berry Farm is definitely not stuck in the past. The park also features numerous thrill rides, a water park, and roller coasters. And this summer it will unveil Voyage to the Iron Reef, a new 4-D interactive ride—definitely of the 21st Century.
Courtesy of Knott's Berry Farm
Boasting 19 hair-raising roller coasters, this park is perfect for teenage thrill-seekers. New high-octane attractions include The New Revolution Virtual Reality Roller Coaster, a ride created in partnership with Samsung Gear VR and Oculus, where riders enter a virtual world with high-resolution imagery and 360-degree views synchronized to the action of the coaster. There's also the newly renovated Twisted Colossus, the park's famed wood/steel hybrid roller coaster that now has even more thrills. Later, cool down with a variety of tamer rides, catch a Looney Tunes show, or dine at one of more than 20 eateries.
Courtesy of Six Flags Magic Mountain
With over 60 rides, shows, a miniature golf course, hotel, and two water parks, LEGOLAND is hardly a vacation spot solely dedicated to plastic bricks. LEGO® fans can take in "The LEGO Movie 4D A New Adventure," scoot around in mini LEGO® cars, and even tour a LEGO® factory. Recently LEGOLAND unveiled LEGO® Ninjago Ride, an interactive attraction where you launch fireballs, shockwaves, and lightning bolts with your hands to defeat the Great Devourer and earn ninja status. Also be sure to check out Miniland USA, which recreates entire U.S. cities using millions of LEGO® bricks.
Courtesy of LEGOLAND® California Resort
This classic amusement park offers 28 rides geared toward younger children, including bumper cars, the Antique Car ride, and the Whip, a centrifugal ride scaled down for kids. Pint-size thrill seekers will get their adrenaline fix on the Screamin' Demon and the Fireball. New this summer is Castle Park's five-level water playground, Buccaneer Cove, which features water slides, water tunnels, and water spray cannons. But perhaps the park's biggest claims to fame are its four 18-hole championship miniature-golf courses and its Castle Arcade that offers 200 state-of-the-art video games.
Courtesy of Castle Park
Raging Waters is California's largest water theme park and features gallons of rides, slides, children's activity pools, and obstacle courses. The park's latest attraction is the Aqua Rocket, the country's first hydro-magnetic coaster that takes four people at a time on a high-thrills water ride. There's also Neptune's Fury, a 600-foot ride that plunges a four-man raft into total darkness down a 60-foot drop at 30 mph. When you want to unwind from an action-packed day, grab a raft and float lazily down the Amazon Adventure River.
Courtesy of Raging Waters
Discover the excitement of movie-making magic at one of Southern California's most legendary theme parks, set on the grounds of an active film and television studio. In addition to spine-tingling rides that land you in the center of scenes from movies, you can see where those films were made on Universal's famed Studio Tour. The new Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ lets you explore the magic of Hogwarts™ Castle, peruse the shops in Hogsmeade™, and experience heart-pounding Harry Potter–themed rides. Meanwhile, Springfield, which opened last year, lets you visit the town made famous in the hit animated series The Simpsons™. Grab a bite at Krusty Burger, and rocket through Krustyland on the popular Simpsons™ ride.
HARRY POTTER characters, names and related indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR. (s16) © 2016 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.
Boards of all shapes and sizes dominate communities in Southern California—the region serving as the perfect backdrop to learn the quintessential Californian activities of surfing and skating. These camps are in locations that provide plenty for parents to do while the kids are away.
In The Water
The small waves and lack of rocks at Bolsa Chica State Beach make the Huntington Beach Surf Camp a safe, kid-friendly option for learning how to catch a wave. With a four-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, your son or daughter will get personalized attention during a week of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. full-day sessions (half days also available). Head over to Main Street for the grilled fish taco from Wahoo's Fish Taco and wander through the surf shops and boutiques before picking your camper up at the end of the day.
Choose your ideal vacation location when signing your kids up for the Perfect Day Surf Camp at Santa Monica, Manhattan, Redondo, or Torrance Beaches. The camps offer flexible times and keep things fun by integrating beach dodgeball, capture the flag, and sandcastle time for the little ones. Each camp is located near the coastal bike path for riding or walking to beachfront restaurants. Or you could take a stand-up paddleboarding or surfing class while the kids catch waves.
Menehune Surf in La Jolla or Del Mar serves up half- or full-day instruction. Youngsters (ages five to seven) start by playing in the shallow water and learning about the marine life, while the eight- to twelve-year-olds develop skills and learn about ocean ecosystems, and the teens focus on skills, etiquette, and learning about surf culture and how boards are designed. While the kids catch waves, parents can treat themselves to a sea stone massage or deep cleansing facial at L'Auberge in Del Mar.
Pick a Southern California destination from Irvine to Long Beach and it's likely that Skatedog has a camp location there. Summer camp sessions, run through the local Parks and Recreation Departments, teach kids ages six to 13 how to skate using ramps and rails from Skatedog's mobile skate park. Camp spots are located near attractions like the historic Queen Mary in Long Beach or the upscale, open-air Fashion Island in Newport Beach.
The legendary skate park at the Magdalena Ecke YMCA in Encinitas features a combination of street course, kidney-shaped bowl, and mix of ramp styles. It hosts three camps based on ability level: Technique for beginners, a tricks-focused intermediate/advanced camp, and a travel camp that takes skaters to other parks around San Diego. Parents can stay entertained in the quaint beachside town of Encinitas—simply relax on Moonlight Beach or grab a cup of house-roasted coffee at Lofty Coffee Co. and walk south down the 101 to browse gift shops and boutiques.
If you mastered tricks at skateboard camp but don't have it on video, did it really happen? For kids 10 and up, the Etnies Video Production Skate Camp in Lake Forest combines videography and photography with skateboarding during a weeklong camp. Etnies also offers a preschool skate camp for 4- and 5-year-olds. Lake Forest is just inland of Laguna Beach, where there are more than 100 galleries, sculpture gardens, and art studios within walking distance.
This beach, just south of San Diego's downtown, boasts expansive white sand, easy ocean access, and quaint small-town feel. The waves are gentle enough for boogie boarding, and the spacious beach allows for games and sandcastle building. Parents will appreciate the iconic Hotel del Coronado for its history, architecture, and cocktails with a view; the kids will love the Del's activities—dinosaur digs, scavenger hunts, and cooking classes using herbs from the hotel's garden. After a beach day, you can't beat MooTime Creamery for handmade waffle cones and ice cream.
The unique combination of inlets and channels in Mission Bay make up the largest aquatic park of its kind in the country, with more than 27 miles of shoreline access along the protected lagoon. The calm waters are ideal for kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and sailing; grass parks are filled with playgrounds and picnic tables, and the flat sidewalks are perfect for riding a bike.
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The beaches around the posh neighborhood of La Jolla give the adventurous family an abundance of options. Take the kids kayaking into sea caves, snorkel amid the marine life of La Jolla Shores, watch the seals jump on top of rocks at Children's Pool Beach, and end your day by roasting s'mores in one of the fire pits at La Jolla Shores. For convenient beach access (and free breakfast for kids!), La Jolla Shores Hotel is located right on the water and provides complimentary chairs and umbrellas.
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Want to enjoy a stunning sunset as you start the campfire? Spend the weekend camping on a bluff above the ocean in South Carlsbad, where the beach is just a set of stairs away. You can rent boogie boards and chairs at the local Offshore Surf Shop, which also offers surfing lessons. Although waves can get bigger here, there are lifeguards on watch from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer. If you prefer the comfort of an RV, you can rent one and have it ready at your campsite when you arrive.
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Crystal Cove has striking cliffs, rolling surf, tide pools, and miles of hiking trails. Kids will love exploring the tide pools, where they can find colorful shells or various species of starfish at low tide. Check out the historic district along the water, where 46 beach cottages built in the 1930s and '40s still stand. If you can score a reservation, stay overnight in one of the 16 available rentals, or just grab a meal at the Beachcomber Café, a converted cottage which serves food and signature cocktails all day.
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There are more than three miles of sandy beach around the famous Santa Monica Pier (just 13 miles from downtown Los Angeles), plus countless land activities for kids nearby. Take a ride on the solar-powered Pacific Park Ferris Wheel, stop by the aquarium, or rent bikes or rollerblades to cruise along the 22-mile long beachfront path. For an L.A. movie star experience, treat yourself to a "beach butler" from Perry's Beach Café—he will set up your beach chair, table, and umbrella, deliver you lunch and drinks, and clean everything up when you leave.
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After a day of fun in the sun, rest up at one of these kid-friendly places to stay.
Some photographs in this content are used for illustrative purposes only.