Nothing says summer vacation like a family road trip camping adventure. Whether you’re all in for s’mores around the campfire or you prefer glamping with a few more creature comforts, we’re telling you about five of our fave SoCal locales in the great outdoors that will get you in that vacation state of mind––faster than your kids can ask ‘are we there yet?’ From soaking up serenity in the Sequoias to a Catalina island getaway, read on for our top spots for where to go camping with your kids this summer.

photo: Kerry Cushman

Big Time Mountain Fun in Big Bear

Kick summertime into high gear and head up the San Bernardino mountains to Big Bear, where winter-favorite Snow Summit turns into a playground for mountain biking, scenic chair lift rides and picturesque hiking. Take a chairlift ride to the top of the mountain, enjoy lunch with a view and make your way down the mountain by mountain bike, hike or chairlift. Check their calendar for family-friendly events, including Movies in the Meadow and Adventure Academy Summer Camps. When the weather heats up, it’s time to hit Big Bear Lake. Rent a pontoon boat at one of the local marinas and enjoy the cool lake breeze and awesome mountain views. When you need a refresh, stop in at The Copper Q cafe downtown for coffee, gourmet wraps and sandwiches and oogle over the delicious sweet treats, like homemade carrot cake and apple pie.

Ways to stay: We like Pine Knot Campground for its convenient location right next door to Snow Summit, and for $37/night, the price can’t be beat. Bring your tent or RV under 26 feet and don’t forget the s’mores! Or try Serrano Campground on the Fawnskin side of the lake for showers and RV hookups. Reservations for both can be made at Recreation.govWhile the hairpin mountain turns on the 330 provide some epic views, they are a bit intense for some. If that’s the case, try Highway 38 for a still-gorgeous scenic drive dotted with campgrounds and without the heart palpitations.

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photo: Kerry Cushman

Adventures in Avalon on Catalina Island

Part road trip and part awesome island adventure, this road/sea combo feels like you’ve traveled to the Mediterranean, a short jaunt from SoCal! To get there, ride in style via the Catalina Express' fleet of modern, fast boats from Long Beach, San Pedro or Dana Point. Opt for the Commodore Lounge tickets for VIP service, including a snack and a drink. Once you've arrived at this island paradise, get up close to fish and marine life at Undersea Expeditions. This semi-submarine takes passengers out to nearby Lover's Cove where fish swim by the portholes to the delight of passengers of all ages. Ticket booth is located on the big green pier. When you're back on land, get into a little friendly competition at Avalon's Golf Gardens, a mini-golf course located a short block from the beach with perfect pint-sized clubs for your little golfers. And to capture that beach-club vibe, head to Descanso Beach Club, where island time is in full effect. Opt for a frozen cocktail and lunch or hit the beach and rent cabana. While the little ones play at the beach, big kids up for an adventure can try the thrilling Zip Line Eco Tour, with stunning views of the island and sea.

Ways to stay: The Pavilion Hotel is steps from the sand, boardwalk and main pier. With a tropical vibe and daily made-to-order omelets at breakfast and nightly wine and gourmet cheese hour, it's the perfect home base for your Avalon island adventures. If you really want to getaway from city life, bring your tent and try one of the island campgrounds.

photo: Kerry Cushman

Serenity in the Sequoias

While big sister Yosemite gets up to four times as many visitors per year, a road trip to the equally awe-inspiring Sequoia National Park is a vacation your family will never forget. Majestic redwood trees soar through the sky on your drive through the Redwood Forest and hikes for all abilities lead to epic mountain-top views. Take the Sherman Tree Trail for an up-close view of Earth's largest living tree, the mighty General Sherman. Stop in at the Giant Forest Museum on Generals Highway for giant sequoia exhibits and interactive discovery. There's endless ways to explore this beautiful natural playground, including the stunning Moro Rock hike and a docent-lead tour through the Crystal Caves. Fun Fact: Sequoia National Park was California's first national park!

Ways to stay: There are over 1,200 campsites available and the majority are first-come, first-served, however some reservations can be made in advance at Recreation.gov. Or opt for the Sequoia's signature hotel, the striking Wuksachi Lodge in the heart of the park. The lodge has over 100 guest rooms and a restaurant with stunning views. 

Wild and Free in Idyllwild

Get out of the city and into stories around the campfire in less than two hours from San Diego. Located in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild has that small mountain town charm and is a perfect respite from urban dwelling. During the day, pack a picnic and try one of the many local hiking trails, like the Erine Maxwell Scenic Trail, which is great for families with shade and lots of nature to explore. After you’ve worked up an appetite, hit the artistic downtown and opt for grass-fed burgers at Mile High Cafe or if you’re feeling those plant-based vibes, try Plant Food Super Club Cafe, which boasts live music on weekends.

Ways to stay: Reserve a campsite at Recreation.gov (or try your luck for a walk-in) at one of the state parks like Idyllwild Park or Stone Creek campground. If you fancy a little more indoor comfort, try the Idyllwild Bunkhouse, a boutique motel with a continental breakfast delivered to your door every morning. If you really want to feel pampered, opt for the Grand Idyllwild Lodge. This luxurious mountain retreat has an on-site gym, sauna, spa, panoramic views and includes a gourmet breakfast.

Peaks and Pools in Palm Springs

Off-season in Palm Springs means posh hotels with epic swimming pools at deeply discounted prices. To handle the triple-digit temps like a local, splash in the pool in the morning and early evening when the weather is warm and beautiful. In the sizzling midday sun, head up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for a whole different climate! Summer temperatures are about 30-40 degrees cooler than the desert floor, which means you can spend the day hiking and exploring in cooler mountain temperatures. There's even a restaurant, gift shop, snack shop and state park visitors center. Once the midday heat cools off, head back down the mountain for margaritas and Mexican food under the cool-air misters at Las Casuelas. For other indoor kid fun during the peak heat times, hit the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert for hours of thoughtful STEAM fun.

Ways to stay: If you have older children and are up for a hardcore camping adventure, take the PS Aerial Tramway up to the mountain top (an elevation of 8,516 feet!) and hike-in to Round Valley Campground. While the 2.1 mile hike to the campground is fairly flat, it's not for the faint of heart. Campers must hike-in their own gear and bring their own water to one of the 28 primitive campsites. For something a little more luxe, check out the Omni Rancho Las Palmas with three pool settings including Splashtopia, featuring waterslides, a lazy river, sandy beach and tot splash pad. Or try the desert oasis at JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa and ride the indoor/outdoor gondola to dinner! 

––Kerry Cushman

featured photo via Unsplash

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This trip was partially paid for by Catalina Island Company, Catalina Express and Snow Summit, but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.