Turn those California Dreams into weekend warrior reality! California is not only the most populous state in the country, it’s the most geographically diverse. Hop in the car and you can drive to any of these spots (some may take more than a weekend, if you’re driving) and explore castles, wine country, majestic mountains, ski vacations, apple picking, desert delights and more. These are our top ten picks for family road trips you’ve simple got to take while the kids are little.
The Redwood Forest
From the Redwood Forest…this land was made for you and me! Kids must see our most famous tree sometime before you head off to college. Muir Woods National Monument is one of the last old-growth redwood forests on the planet and one of the only native salmon runs in California. Plus, there’s more than a few opportunities for your tiny treehugger to duck into a massive tree hollow and ham it up for your Instagram feed. Sequoia Sempervirens are the tallest—and one of the oldest—living things on earth. Fun fact: the tallest tree in Muir Woods is over 250 feet and most trees are between 600 to 800 years old. The oldest tree is thought to be about 1,200 years young, which is merely middle-age for redwoods. This outing may inspire your family to take your next trip to the Gulf Stream waters and really explore our whole country.
Find out more about visiting the redwoods with your kids in our family guide.
The Central Coast
A Central Coast adventure has many animals to delight young nature lovers. Start at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, which covers over 6 miles of beach near Point Piedras Blancas. The viewing areas are open daily, are wheelchair and stroller accessible and are free. You can see elephant seals mating and pupping and then see the (relatively) tiny babies. Don’t forget jackets, as the best time to see babies is January & February, and if you’re warm enough, you can spend all day here. Nearby is Hearst Castle with 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways. On the tram up to the castle, keep an eye out the window for zebras! Last stop is down to Pismo Beach (a great little beach town with many family and budget friendly hotels, not to mention amazing cinnamon buns) and the largest Monarch Butterfly Grove in the state. Docents are available for talks, as are telescopes to better spot the insects chilling in clusters in Eucalyptus trees. Look closely. At first glance, the butterfly tree clusters look like dried leaves, but then they start to move and you realize the trees are actually made of butterfly wings!
Renowned for being a righteous skiing & snowboarding destination in the winter, Big Bear is also beautiful (and a lot less crowded) during the fall, spring and summer. Nature fans and lovers of the great outdoors will be spoiled for choice in this scenic locale. Ride the Alpine Slide, or hop on the Miss Liberty for a boat tour of Big Bear Lake, get up close and personal with animals at the Big Bear Alpine Zoo or go ziplining or mountain biking. This small town has a ton to offer in way of adventurous fun.
More details on a fabulous family itinerary may be found here.
The twisty tree shapes, Cholla cactus forests, and blobby boulders in Joshua Tree make wonderful Dr. Suess-style memories for your kiddos on this desert adventure. For a quick day trip from the incredibly kid-friendly Palm Springs, stick to exhibitions along the main roads; for a hike, the one-mile loop trail through Hidden Valley is a good introduction for little ones. Start your adventure at the West entrance, then work your way along the road exiting the park at the South. The most scenic sections will be located close to the road at the beginning of the trip. If you really want to immerse yourself in the beauty of the place for several days, think about staying at these little private pods at the Bonita Domes.
This quaint, old-fashioned mountain town and historical district is as American as apple pie –– which it's famous for too. Julian was put on the map during the gold rush in the 1870's and the nostalgic vibe is what continues to make this locale a charming throwback to the simpler times of yesteryear. Families can pan for gold at Julian Mining Company, sip apple cider while exploring the many bakeries and shops that line Main St., or go off the beaten path to hike or go fishing. If you're in town during apple picking season, head to Apple Starr Orchard for bushels of fun. There are year-round festivities and festivals in this bucolic locale, from Grape Stomps and Apple Days to Country Christmas and Gold Rush Days––as well as impromptu entertainment that crops on Main St. like gunfight skits on Sundays! Don't leave without an apple pie or two to-go from Julian Pie Company and some candied or caramel apples from Candied Apple Pastry.
More details on what to do in Julian may be found here.
The Channel Islands
Cruise across the sunny sea through a shroud of fog to emerge on your own Galapagos-like sanctuary; one of the pristine Channel Islands. Santa Cruz is probably the best island for a first visit, as it’s the largest and offers the most amenities. But if you’re traveling with bigger kids, Anacapa is a beautiful and wild adventure. Either island turns into a pristine nature visit for kids of all ages where on the boat over you can see dolphins and whales and when you get to the island you can see the mice and dwarf fox that call the island home. When you get to Santa Cruz, which is the only island with running water and a visitor center, you can take a hike with the naturalist volunteer who takes the boat ride over with you, and learn all about the history of the island from the Chumash settlers to the ranchers who raised cattle here as well as the island’s new life as a National Park. If your family is adventurous or has been to the islands before, consider booking a kayak tour or camping on the island.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the oldest nature preserves in the US, and also one of the most majestic. If you’ve never been, it may be hard to know where to start your visit, but we know where to find the best trails for small hikers, which activities will thrill the most and which lodging is best for tired little toes. There are miles of valley to explore but the most kid-friendly paths are near the bottom. We recommend starting with the Sentinel Meadow Loop for amazing views of Half Dome reflected in the Merced River. It’s a 2.25 mile walk, great for strollers and offering lots of bathrooms, and a snap to stop off at Yosemite Valley Store for snacks before or after the trek. Looking for a little more of a challenge with a huge payoff? The Bridal Veil Falls hike may only be ½ mile out and back and stroller accessible but it is a little steep. A huge bonus is that the waterfall runs year round, unlike many others which dry out in mid to late summer months.
When you’re ready to rest your head, there are options for every price point and rugged-loving level. The splurge-worthy Ahwahnee Hotel is a world-renowned, four-diamond hotel, but for families, we love the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, which offers amenities like family rooms complete with private patios, refrigerators and bike rentals. Get rustic at Curry Village with a tent or enjoy a cabin or private room equipped with electricity, bathrooms and maid service.
Word is getting out about all the good things this up and coming sleepy town nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains has to offer, so plan a trip before the crowds get 'wild.' A go-to destination for hikers and rock climbers, visit the Idyllwild Nature Center to find the excursion that's best for your family. Idyllwild also offers great glamping and bed and breakfast options and respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. Be sure to dine amongst the trees at Gastrognome or head to Cafe Aroma for a sophisticated and comforting meal made with local ingredients and play a game of checkers on the checkerboard tables while fueling up at Higher Grounds Coffee. The town also boasts charming shops including Sky Island Organics local marketplace and Candy Cupboard.
Dubbed the ‘Danish Capital of America,’ Solvang (which means sunny field in Danish) is in the lush wine country of Santa Ynez Valley. Located just 125 miles north of Los Angeles, this quaint town has a vibe and aesthetic reminiscent of a European fairy tale. Kids will love the whimsical Danish heritage that infuses downtown—which is complete with Danish style architecture, thatched roofs, and windmills. Fans of Hans Christian Anderson may also want to visit the museum dedicated to him in The Book Loft Building. Just out of town, kids can get up close and personal with miniature horses at Quicksilver Ranch or take the tykes to feed ostriches and emus at Solvang’s Ostrichland USA. If you have time to stay, book a real cowboy vacation at nearby Alisal Ranch. Alisal is an old cowboy ranch where families can spend the weekend riding the range (or taking your first horseback lesson), eating at a campfire, catching fish, being pampered at the spa, listening to the roosters crow, reading a book by the pool, gathering eggs, playing an 18 hole private golf course, tasting local wines and hiking.
Learn more about what to do in Solvang in our guide.
Wine Country may sound like romantic parent getaway, but it also has loads to offer families. TrainTown in Sonoma and the Epicenter Sports and Entertainment Complex in Santa Rosa are two kid destinations that you can't miss in between the sips. Sign up for a safari and stay the night at Safari West. Grab some delicious grub at The Fremont Diner in Sonoma or Boon Fly Café in Napa. And oh, yeah, there are plenty of wineries that are ready with some grape juice, crayons and lawn games to keep their smallest patrons entertained. There are even kid-friendly eateries and lodging if you are looking to make it a long weekend or even week-long getaway. In other words, you don't have to wait until the wee ones are otherwise occupied for a wine getaway.
What’s your favorite California adventure? Let us know in the comment section!
—Beth Shea, Erin Feher & Meghan Rose