Spring and summer travel planning is on the horizon and it’s time to turn your California Dreams into weekend warrior reality! We have a massive list of California road trip ideas that will have you exploring National Parks, castles, wine country, the gorgeous Highway 1 coastline, the redwoods, desert delights and more. Read on for our top picks for California family road trips you’ve simply got to take with your kids NOW.

Northern California

photo: Mendocino Grove

Mendocino

Miles of gorgeous coastline, redwood forests galore and even some wine tasting for the grown ups make Mendocino the ideal spot for your next long weekend. Ride a horse along the shore or feed some giraffes at B. Bryan Preserve. Beaches like Bowling Ball Beach and Glass Beach are unlike anything you've seen before. Be sure to stop by Frankie's Ice Cream and Pizza for a slice of mushroom pizza followed by a cone topped with candy cap mushroom ice cream when you are in downtown Mendocino. Reserve a cottage at the Point Arena Lighthouse to hear the waves crashing or go for glamping at Mendocino Grove

Read all about this gorgeous area of CA coastline here

photo: Josh Wray Photography

Mammoth Lakes

The Eastern Sierra is an epic family destination any time of year. Get a bird's eye view of this gorgeous area via SkyTime Helicopter Air Tours. Or, pack the snacks and hike one of these trails (Heart Lake is particularly kid-friendly). Ride the scenic gondola to the top and enjoy lunch on the summit (bonus: kids ride free!). The Sierra Nevada Resort offers a quintessential mountain town lodging experience or stay in the Village at the Westin where you can easily access all the shops and restaurants in the area. 

For more area information you can read our winter guide to Mammoth or head here: visitmammoth.com

Sacramento

If visiting the state capital was on your bucket list, now you have good reason to go. Sacramento offers lots of family friendly adventures for folks who’ve got train lovers, plane flyers and fairy catchers in the family. The Sacramento History Museum walking tour takes you back in time to the mid 1800s when gold was plentiful and women were scarce. Fairytale Town is the ideal stop for toddlers where they can run the crooked mile, slide down the Old Woman’s shoe, sit on King Arthur’s throne and pet the farm animals. And the perfect way to end the day? At one of the many confectioner’s shops. Aww, sweet Sacramento.

For more information on what to do and where to stay, click here.

Nevada City, CA

Our Managing Editor grew up in this quaint little town in the foothills of Northern California, located only about an hour and a half from Sacramento. A true Gold Rush town, Nevada City still maintains its Victorian-era charm thanks to the entire downtown being zoned a historic district. This keeps chain restaurants and shops away creating a diverse array of food, sweets and artisanal wares. Don't miss Mountain Pastimes, just off the main drag, a toy store that has been in operation since our editor was a kid, and the gift shop at Bonanza, the local market's gift shop stocked with colorful Chinese merchandise including tea, lanterns and more. Wander up one side of Broad St. and down the other, sampling wares along the way. Nevada CIty hosts scores of events, including the annual Victorian Christmas and the Nevada City Classic Bicycle Race—closing off the streets for cars and allowing pedestrians a European-worthy promenade. In the summer, you'll find purple skies full of stars, farmers markets, camping spots and swimming. Autumn brings radiant colors and countless trails to explore. All year round, you'll find a town full of artists, aging hippies rubbing elbows with conservatives, great coffee and a new generation of forward-thinking artisans and entrepreneurs. Look for the National Hotel's grand reopening in 2020. 

Learn more at: nevadacitychamber

photo: Rachid Dahnoun / Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority

Lake Tahoe

Whether you live in the Bay Area and are looking for some time in the snow, or you head there in summer for some gorgeous hikes and lake time, Lake Tahoe is definitely a destination that all CA kids need to check out. Summer brings bike rides along the East Short Trail at Incline Village that just opened last year, as well as loads of live music opportunities on both the North and South Shore. When winter is here it's all about snow sports with Tahoe Donner a favorite for tubing and sledding. The Ritz-Carlton and Resort at Squaw Creek are some of our North Shore favorites for lodging, while the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel provides a prime location on the South Shore. 

Check out our Tahoe summer guide here and winter guide here

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.

photo: Kate Loweth

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Gorgeous views, hikes galore, dark skies for stargazing and tons of interesting history await your visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Stop at the Visitor Center when you enter the park to watch the short video about the area's volcanic history and to learn what trails are open for business. Then make your way farther into the park to stop at the bubbling mud pots with the very distinct (and horrible) smell of sulfur. Don't forget that all fourth graders get free access to the national parks for a whole year through the Every Kid in a Park program.

If you want a cabin camping experience inside the park, book a spot at Drakesbad Guest Ranch. Here you can go horseback riding, hiking and swimming in the hot spring-fed swimming pool as the sun goes down. 

Read our guide to Drakesbad and Lassen here

photo: Kate Loweth

Siskiyou County

Head north past Redding and you'll make your way to the tranquil county of Siskiyou that extends to the California-Oregon border. Here you'll find gorgeous hikes like the Hedge Creek Falls Trail in Dunsmuir and the McCloud Falls Trail. Spend some time fishing for trout and exploring all of the outdoor adventure that the area has to offer. When you want to stay the night, we love the vintage cabooses turned into sleeping compartments at Railroad Park in Dunsmuir. 

Read all our Siskiyou area recs here

photo: Kate Loweth

San Francisco

San Francisco is unlike any other California city you'll come across. You'll find a densely-populated metropolis full of amazing dining experiences, parks around every turn, the epic Golden Gate Bridges, beaches for exploring and so much more. Head to PIER 39 to see the sea lions and eat some chowder, ride the Cable Cars to Chinatown for dim sum and then cross the bridge to the Marin Headlands to see the city from the other side. 

Find more San Francisco ideas here

photo: Wine Institute

Wine Country

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.

For kid-friendly winery options and other must-do activities, read our guide.

photo: Kate Loweth

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 Tenaya Lodge, located just outside the park's Mariposa Grove South Entrance. Get rustic at Curry Village with a tent or enjoy a cabin or private room equipped with electricity, bathrooms and maid service.

Get the scoop on a family adventure to Yosemite National Park, here.

Central California

photo: Kate Loweth

Big Sur

This mesmerizing stretch of the California coast is the perfect addition to your California road trip. Camping spots along here have epic views and you can wake to the sounds of the crashing waves without having to turn on your sound machine. Julia Pheiffer Burns State Park is a great destination for a picnic and some hiking to waterfalls. As long as you don't have any car sickness-prone kids, Highway 1 is a gorgeous drive and an excellent choice for CA road trips. 

Online: visitcalifornia.com

photo: Kate Loweth

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 six 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!

For more Central Coast adventures check out our guide.

Solvang

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.

While the town still has plenty of kitschy charm worth checking out (like Paula's Pancake House and a Viking-themed playground), there are also plenty of top-notch restaurants, boutique hotels, tucked-away tasting rooms and carefully curated shops to explore. On your way in or out of town, you'll also want to squeeze in a stop at Ostrichland USA, where kids can feed the big birds.

Learn more about the top spots to visit in Solvang with kids and other nearby spots in the Santa Ynez Valley

Southern California

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, also known as 'The American Riviera,' is a gorgeous locale that makes you feel like you're a world away in paradise. From the pristine beaches to the serene mountains and lush vineyards, there's plenty to explore. Families can have the best of both worlds relaxing and unwinding as well as taking in city life. Book a stay at the oceanfront Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara for first class accommodations. Visit MOXI,: The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation to inspire and educate kids. Don't miss the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden to delve deeper into the flora and fauna that make Santa Barbara so special. You'll also find plenty of delicious dining options throughout the city. We like Helena Avenue Bakery for lunch and Monkeyshine for a delightful dessert. Save time to bask in the sun at Butterfly Beach and to enjoy some water activities like whale watching or kayaking.

Check out our story on taking an epic car-free train trip to Santa Barbara and our story on treating your family to a luxurious stay at Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara.

Online: santabarbaraca.com

photo: Andie Huber

Lake Arrowhead

Called the 'Alps' of Southern California, Lake Arrowhead is perfectly poised in the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest. This idyllic mountain locale offers families respite from big city life, via a return to nature complete with adventures like water and snow skiing, hiking, biking and fishing amidst glorious scenery. Stay at Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa for the best Lake access. It's the perfect retreat in any weather. You'll find Lake Arrowhead to be a wonderful escape during all seasons, depending on your preference of snow skiing or enjoying water activities.

Check out our family guide on where to eat, stay and play with your kids in Lake Arrowhead.

Online: lakearrowhead.com

Carlsbad 

Carlsbad has it all when it comes to a family-friendly vacation destination. LEGOLAND is poised to open LEGO Movie World this spring, which will make the beloved theme park even more awesome! You can't beat South Carlsbad State Beach for swimming, surfing, picnicking and picturesque views. The Flower Fields come alive with rainbow blooms as far as the eye can see from Mar. 1-May 10 and Carlsbad Village offers local shopping and dining experiences the whole fam will love.

Read our family guide on where to eat and play in Carlsbad Village and about why we think Carlsbad is a dream family getaway.

Online: visitcarlsbad.com

Sequoia National Park

There's nothing like roaming among sky high, towering trees to give you a new perspective on life. And isn't that what traveling is all about? Take your little sprouts to explore Sequoia National Park for the ultimate immersion into nature. Book a stay at Wuksachi Lodge in the heart of the Park and you'll enjoy easy access to all of the area's attractions including the Giant Forest Grove of the Big Trees and Giant Forest Museum, Big Trees Trail and Wolverton Recreation Area. Walk among the world's largest trees and spy the creatures that call this forest home. You can also opt to camp among them at Bearpaw High Sierra Camp®.

Online: visitsequoia.com

photo: Kerry Cushman

Ojai

Ojai is a quaint and charming town set in a valley in the Topatopa Mountains 75 miles north of Los Angeles. It's just a quick car trip, but you'll feel you've left city life far behind. Unplug and bask in nature with all the creature comforts by staying in one of the modern bohemian Airstreams at Caravan Outpost. Grab lunch at Hip Vegan Cafe and bike along the car-free Ojai Valley Trail. Let kids be kids at Libbey Park located in the center of town, and then browse the cute local boutiques and galleries. You can also visit Ojai for the day and go a little further north to stay in Santa Barbara.

Read our guide on how to go off-grid in Ojai for a family getaway in nature.

Online: ojaivisitors.com

San Diego

From the world famous San Diego Zoo and Safari Park to the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, USS Midway, miles of gorgeous beaches dotting the coastline, Balboa Park, amazing restaurants, LEGOLAND, Old Town, Birch Aquarium, and endless activities for kids, San Diego, a.k.a. America's Finest City is one of the best places on earth for a family vacation. Visit anytime to enjoy the city's year-round pristine weather––just be sure to plan your itinerary, because there are so many wonderful things to do, you'll want to make the most of your stay!

Online: sandiego.org

photo: Beth Shea

Big Bear

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.

Online: bigbear.com

Joshua Tree

The twisty tree shapes, Cholla cactus forests, and blobby boulders in Joshua Tree make wonderful Dr. Seuss-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.

Learn more about staying and playing in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree here.

Online: joshuatree.org

Julian

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.

Get even more details on what to do in Julian here.

photo: Meghan Rose

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.

Learn more about visiting Ventura County, with trips to Santa Cruz and Anacapa Island.

Idyllwild

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.

Online: idyllwild.com

Los Angeles

With its slew awesome kid-friendly museums (including favorites like Kidspace, The California Science Center, LACMA and Getty), plus miles of beaches, iconic restaurants, and can't-miss tourist spots (we're looking at you Rodeo Dr.), Los Angeles is the kind of city you could spend a few days in and still only scratch the surface. It's a city you can keep coming back to again and agin—which is why we've got a long list of things to do with kids in LA that you can start making your way through, one unforgettable experience at a time!

Palm Springs

A true oasis in the desert, the celebrity playground of the '60s has become a popular destination for families seeking sunshine and stunning hotel pools, plus natural beauty (hello, Joshua Tree and the can't-miss Living Desert Zoo and Gardens), and a dose of mid-century style. During the winter months, you can also experience snow by way of the Palm Spring Aerial Tram that climbs 2.5 miles up into the San Jacinto Mountains. Throughout the year, you can also visit the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert and the Palm Springs Air Museum. These air-conditioned spots are the perfect place to beat the heat in the afternoon.  

Looking for more ideas on where to play, eat and stay in Palm Springs? Get the full kid-friendly Palm Spring guide.

 

—Beth Shea, Kate Loweth, Erin Feher, Shannan Rouss & Meghan Rose

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California road trips