California offers so much in terms of adventurous traveling. You can change landscapes within hours, and be on the beach and in the snow the same day. Best family vacation spots in California include some of the most beautiful resorts, beaches, lakes, and natural wonders.
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1. San Diego
In a city like San Diego, everyone will find an attraction for themself. This is why it’s number one on our list of best family vacation spots in California. From picturesque neighborhoods to museums, beaches, and sailing, your family will love the visit to this amazing city.
San Diego has about 70 miles of long sandy beaches that offer activities year-round. In summertime you can swim, surf, make sandcastles with little ones, or simply have a picnic and relax in the afternoon.
Spring and autumn are a little bit colder, but you can still enjoy long walks, sit on the beach, surf, or play with your children. Winter is a lot colder, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the beach. Get a wet suit and sign up for surfing lessons.
San Diego Zoo
Known as one of the best zoos in the world, San Diego Zoo is a popular destination for everyone, especially families with kids. There are over 800 species of animals in the zoo, with about 4000 individual animals. You can spend the entire day walking around and still have a lot to see.
Except for exotic animals like kangaroos, tigers, koalas, etc, children can visit a petting zoo with sheep, goats, and rabbits. You can also try SkyFari Aerial Tram which allows you to see the animals from above.
A visit to San Diego would not be complete without seeing the first-ever World Fair location. Spend a day by enjoying nature, visiting museums, and taking photos in front of landmarks like the Old Globe Theater.
The attractions in the park include Cabrillo bridge, miniature train, California tower, and more. There are also museums like Comic-Con Museum, Fleet Science Center, and Institute of Contemporary Art. When you get tired of walking, stop by one of the excellent cafes and restaurants or go to watch performing arts shows.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
This incredible place is a sister property with San Diego Zoo. It covers 1800 acres of land, and it is home to rhinos, giraffes, buffalos, lions, and other African animals. You will be transported through the park on an open vehicle that allows you to enjoy the impressive landscape and take photos of animals.
Other activities in the park include the Savannah Cool Zone, where you can swim in animal-shaped fountains. Sign up for an overnight camping trip, or see the park from a zipline that goes over the heads of gorgeous wild animals.
The New Children’s Museum
This children’s museum has unique creative ways to engage your kid’s imagination, creativity, and critical thinking. Kids ages 2 and older will play with interactive exhibits that include science, art, and social skills.
They teach children how to express themselves, and how to interact with other children from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Sign up for workshops a few days in advance to ensure your spot. There are camps available for kids 4 to 12 years old, where they can play games and enjoy art-making activities.
2. San Francisco
San Francisco has some of the most stunning landscapes in California. From Victorian houses to skyscrapers and the Golden Gate bridge. There is so much to see and do here, and your visit can last from two days to a week.
Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory Tour
Ghirardelli was founded before the Gold Rush came to California, and it operates to this day. It is the oldest still working chocolate factory in the United States, and you must have tried some of their tasty chocolates, like the one with caramel, or coconut.
The Ghirardelli Square is the original location of the factory, although the chocolates are not produced there anymore. You can still see original equipment, methods of creating tasty snacks, and listen to a guide explaining the history of chocolate.
Ride a Cable Car
Visiting San Francisco has to include riding on a cable car. Kids love this experience because it reminds them of toy cars, just in giant size. The view from the car is beautiful, and the cable car drives very slowly so it is a tour of the city.
You will see the bay in the distance, streets with authentic San Francisco homes, and a financial district in the distance. The cable cars were created in 1873 by businessman Andrew Halldie. It began as horse-drawn carriages, later replaced with electricity.
Walt Disney Family Museum
Kids are not the only ones fascinated by Disney, many adults find Walt Disney’s story very inspirational. In this 40 000 square feet museum, you will discover the life of Walt Disney, from early childhood to his animation works.
The exhibits include original drawings from the early period, from 1923 to 1928. You will also see drawings of Bambi, Snow White, Pinocchio, and other characters. The highlight of the exhibit is the first-ever drawing of Mickey Mouse.
Aquarium of the Bay
Pier 39 is a historic waterfront where you can see sea lions sunbathing, try fresh seafood in local restaurants, enjoy incredible bay views, see attractions, and do the best shopping in the city. One of the attractions here is the Aquarium of the Bay.
In the exhibits of the aquarium, kids will see plants and animals native to San Francisco bay. They will walk through the tunnels surrounded by underwater life. Huge octopuses and jellyfish will float around, and this experience will spark their interest in marine biology.
Golden Gate Bridge
If it’s your family’s first visit to San Francisco, a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge is a must. There are few places from where you can see the bridge in all of its beauty. You can go to Baker Beach, Fort Point National Historic Site, or Battery East Vista.
This iconic construction connects two shores, on one side is San Francisco, and on the other is Marin county. It is about two miles long, and crossing it in an open bus, like Hop on Hop off is an excellent experience. Just be aware that on the bridge and at the viewpoints it can get very windy.
3. The Redwoods
One of the best family vacation spots in California that shouldn’t be skipped is The Redwood National and State Parks. There are a total of 31 national and state parks in California that include redwood trees. You can even drive through three of them. You will feel like Lilliputians when looking at these biggest in the world trees.
Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail
Among the most popular trails to see Redwoods is this 0.8 miles long hiking trail. Rangers often recommend this trail because it is scenic, easy to hike, and very short. It is a great trail if you have smaller kids that don’t like long hikes.
The trail is located 1200 feet above sea level in Redwood National Park. It can be reached from Kuchel Visitor Center if you drive north on highway 101. When you pass Orick you will see a large sign marking the trail. You can park there and start your hike.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
The oldest state park in California is only 65 miles south of San Francisco. The park includes 80 miles of trails going through the redwood forest. You can choose to camp out for a few days here, do backpacking through the forest, or just take a shorter one-day hike.
Hidden gems of the park are numerous waterfalls you will pass by. The park terrain is on different sea levels, going over 2000 feet above sea level. Highlights of the park are ancient trees, Waddell Creek, and Hoover Natural Preserve.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
This park is located south of Basin, and it is much smaller, with only about 15 miles of hiking trails. You can join guided walks, or have a hike on your own through the redwood forest. There are also biking, and camping options, if you want more adventure.
A unique experience here is the Roaring Camp Railroads Tour, which will take you on a train ride through the scenic forest. This is the original train with a steam engine from the 1800s that used to run from Beach Trains to Santa Cruz.
4. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a coastal city that can be enjoyed year-round. You can go to the beach, take surfing lessons, swim, go on whale watching tours, or have a learning experience in harbor seal sanctuaries.
Whale Watching Cruise
The East Coast of the US is the best place for whale watching, especially southern California where you can see whales from May to November while they are migrating to warmer climates in search of food.
Humpback whales are among the largest sea creatures that are incredibly friendly. They often swim close to the ship, like they are playing with the visitors. They breach and make their own unique spectacle.
Cabrillo Bike Path
If you like an active vacation you can take your family on a biking tour of the coast. You will find bike rental shops in Cabrillo Boulevard, opposite Stearns Wharf. Here, you can rent bikes of your preference, including go-karts, mountain bikes, scooters, electric bikes, and more.
So you can bike for miles in both directions, and when you get tired you can rest on the beach, or find a good local seafood restaurant. The terrain is flat and easy to navigate, so don’t worry about directions.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
For your little explorers, this museum will be more than enough to make their day. They will see a huge blue whale skeleton, grizzly bears, different kinds of birds, reptiles, and mammals. They will learn about natural history and evolution.
Galwin Planetarium is where you can look at the planets, Milky Way, and different constellations. There are several multimedia shows with educational purposes. Another incredible attraction is Butterflies Alive, where you can see hundreds of playful butterflies in an enclosed garden.
5. Yosemite National Park
The stunning natural beauty of Yosemite is well known. You will see giant sequoias, tall waterfalls, glaciers, and valleys. Every corner of this national park is picturesque. The most popular locations in the park are all family-friendly, and with good planning, you can visit every corner of the park with your little ones.
Spectacular Glacier Point is located 3000 feet above the Yosemite valley. You can observe incredible landmarks like Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Yosemite Falls from an ideal viewpoint. From late May to November, this viewpoint is accessible by car.
Lower Yosemite Fall Hike
On this beautiful short hike, you will come across the most spectacular Yosemite falls. If you visit in spring or at the beginning of summer, the waterfalls are at their peak. This 1 mile-long hike will take you about half an hour, and you can get there by car or a shuttle bus.
Merced River Whitewater Rafting
Merced River is one of the most popular bodies of water in Yosemite, and people of any ability or experience can enjoy the day-long rafting here. Seeing scenery from a water perspective is the best way to experience the river and surrounding nature. Kids will enjoy this adventure too.
6. Joshua Tree National Park
The alien planet-like landscape is incredibly interesting to adults and kids. Twisted trees you can see only here in the entire world are surrounded by a park so interesting to explore. You can go on a 4×4 ride, hike, bike, or camp out here. Explore the rocks and guess shapes with your kiddos, while looking out for the desert wildlife.
Wear sun hats, comfy shoes, and a lot of sunscreens while exploring the desert. Go over to Hidden Valley for a fun 1-mile hike where kids can try climbing, and you can have a picnic. It is one of the locations with the most breathtaking views in the park.
Barker Dram Trail
If you take a Barker Dram Trail you will walk through the old Keys Ranch lands. Take a guided tour of the 19th-century farmhouse, and observe weirdly shaped rocks along the way. From there you can go to the highest viewpoint in the park, San Andreas Fault.
7. Los Angeles
Los Angeles is the second-largest urban region in the US, with miles-long sandy beaches, and a lot of opportunities for spending fun time with your family. You can visit different museums, gardens, art collections, and even Disneyland. Stop by Venice beach for unforgettable sunset, great food, and fun on the beach.
In Universal Studios you can enjoy age-appropriate rides and explore this fun park for the entire day. You will probably not see everything in a day, and staying here longer is a great option for a family vacation. Some of the most fun attractions here are The Simpsons Ride, Harry Potter World, and Jurassic World.
The happiest place on Earth for many kids, Disneyland is best visited in a few days. You can watch shows, go on rides, and meet characters. When you get tired stop by one of the many eateries and cafes and have a snack. The most famous rides in Disneyland that you should not miss are Space Mountain, Indiana Jones Adventure, and Peter Pan’s Flight.
8. Palm Springs
Palm Springs is the favorite getaway for many people living in California, especially Los Angeles which is two hours away. The city is located in the Sonoran Desert, surrounded by mountains, and only a short drive from here you can experience all kinds of landscapes and climates.
Explore the ancestral lands of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Here you will see beautiful Washingtonia Filifera palm trees, waterfalls, mountain springs, and so much more. There are approximately 60 miles of trails you can explore.
Cabazon Dinosaur Museum
Especially for smaller kids, dinosaurs are unbelievably fascinating. While driving around town stop by these two enormous dinosaurs by the names Dinny and Mr. Rex. walk the trail and dig dinosaur fossils, before climbing up inside Mr. Rex.
Choosing the best family vacation spots in California is not hard, you just have to listen to everyone’s wishes, and make an itinerary accordingly. The best part is that you don’t have to stay in the same place for the entire vacation, and you can mix and match destinations for a perfect family holiday. You can even find a great resort in California if you just want to spend time here and have everything in one place.