Home Destinations Ten Unforgettable California Family Vacation Ideas

Ten Unforgettable California Family Vacation Ideas

by Shelly Rivoli
California with kids vacation ideas, Yosemite Sentinal Dome view

For many, the phrase California family vacations conjures images of roller coasters, princesses, and perhaps a Lego or two million. Yet California has so much more to offer families than theme park vacations.

Consider its giant sequoias and world’s tallest redwood trees awaiting in ancient forests. Classic cable cars climbing the hills of San Francisco and golf carts cruising the streets of Catalina Island. And some of California’s best vacation spots may still be off the radars of many families!

California with kids family vacation ideas

The unique vacation experiences to be had in the Golden State are too many to number. That’s why I’ve rounded up ten California vacation ideas from our contributors your family will never forget — with more fun family trip ideas linked below.

From sunny beaches to snowy slopes to a surprising safari and island escape, each recommendation here links to an additional feature filled with planning tips and details for some of the best California family vacation spots. (Be sure to pin this to your travel boards for future family getaways in California!)

1. The Catalina Island Family Getaway

Catalina Island's Descano Beach Club as viewed from a kayak on a California family vacation

For the parent whose days feel like an endless shuffle of get-in-the-car-and-out-again en route to school, soccer, dance lessons, sports camps, play dates and the like, Catalina offers the perfect respite: a family vacation of car-free bliss.

On Catalina Island, cars are not allowed except for those already ‘grandfathered in’ or operating as taxis to whisk you from ferry port to port cochère of your hotel. Once there, walking in Avalon is perfectly lovely and can get you anywhere your happy feet may want to go, from lodgings to restaurants and from bakery to beach.

But there’s no need to wander aimlessly. Read our 411 on Catalina Island with Kids travel guide for our recommended activities, dining and lodging on the island for families considering this California vacation.  >>> Read more in “Catalina Island with Kids” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

2. A South Lake Tahoe Winter Family Vacation

south lake tahoe with kids in winter

The kids shrieked with joy and screamed in delight as the first snow-clad Sierra pines came into sight, and the cacophony of, “Oh, my gosh! Oh, my GOSH!” and “Guys, over there!” and “Oh! It’s like…like… giant mushrooms!” continued with increasing volume  as we ventured on over the mountain toward our favorite summer playground–now transformed into a winter wonderland they only recognized from holiday greeting cards.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area and on the heels of years of drought, there is one thing my kids will tell you they have NOT had enough of. But with the glorious “snowpocolypse” blanketing Tahoe with impressive snowfall, this is clearly the year for families to get out there and seize the snow.

That’s exactly what we did on our recent trip to uncover the best of South Tahoe with kids. If you’re headed that way, here are 4 great family-friendly activities, along with recommendations of 1 amazing winter California family resort and 1 great place to eat while you’re there. >>> Continue reading “South Lake Tahoe with Kids – Winter Edition” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

3. A San Francisco Urban Family Adventure

Blue and Gold Fleet cruise San Francisco during California family vacation

Riding cable cars, sampling Ghirardelli chocolates, getting that Golden Gate family photo op, savoring clam chowder served in a sourdough bowl, and souvenir shopping in Chinatown? The first-timer’s San Francisco Travel Bucket List is long to say the least.

And don’t even get me started on all of the great neighborhoods to explore across the city, each with its own brilliant cafes, bakeries, small restaurants, and intriguing shops.

Yet if you’re like many traveling families I know, you’ll have to pack all your San Francisco fun into just a handful of days. So you’ll be especially glad to make use of our travel guide, with details and tips for our top-recommended activities for this classic California family vacation spot, including 1 great place to eat and 1 great place to stay.  >>> Read  more in San Francisco with Kids – Northern California family vacation guide.” contributed by Shelly Rivoli

4. A California Family Safari Vacation–staying in real African Tents!

safari jeep used at Safari West Wildlife Preserve in Santa Rosa

The first question any child of three years or seventy-five will likely ask is, “Who gets to ride on the top?” Indeed, everyone in our group of ten safari goers would have liked a turn to enjoy the view from the top deck of the jeep.

Especially when we happened upon certain curious and, later, potentially deadly inhabitants of the “Sonoma Serengeti.” However, this privilege is only bestowed upon those measuring at least 45 inches in height.

Having confirmed these qualifications where necessary–and that everyone who needed to use the facilities one last time had, we boarded our safari jeep, settling into its three tiered bench rows on the lower level and solitary bench above (the only seating with safety belts).

With water bottles, cameras, and wide eyes, we set out on our 2-hour exploration of Safari West Wildlife Preserve, set on 400 acres of rolling hills just an hour and a half north of San Francisco. Our safari adventure took us among the giraffes, cape buffalo, ostriches, zebras and others. But all the more fun: our overnight stay in the luxury safari tent from Botswana

Find out more about one of the most memorable family trips in California >>> Read more in “On Safari in Sonoma: Our Tour of Safari West Wildlife Preserve,” and also “One Night in the African Tent Camp: Our Review of Safari West, Santa Rosa” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

5. A Carlsbad Family Vacation

Kayaking Carlsbad Lagoon.

The captivating shimmer of rescued treasures and inviting smell of old books permeate from antique shop entryways as visitors soak up this uniquely “European” city center situated on the beautiful Southern California coast.

Just 87 miles south of Los Angeles and 35 miles north of San Diego, Carlsbad has discovered its inner-glam and is not afraid to show it. Visitors revel in its world-class dining, shopping and cultural events with friendly, small-town charm.

Carlsbad is also know as the Village By the Sea. Lucky visitors can explore nearly 7 miles of pristine coastline and 50 miles of biking and hiking trails. Have I mentioned the year-round perfect climate for enjoying the outdoors?  >>> Continue reading “Carlsbad with Kids – Southern California family vacation guide.” – contributed by Jennifer Fontaine

6. A Sequoia National Park Family Vacation

Family at General Sherman Tree at Sequoia National Park

Want to show your kids some seriously big trees this year? Then pack your bags and make way for Sequoia National Park in southern California. Sequoia is not simply home to some of the largest living organisms on earth; it’s also home to “the world’s largest tree” based on volume.

Yet Sequoia has more to offer than just spectacular trees. To get the most from your visit to Sequoia National Park, take a look at our guide to see why Sequoia National Park is one of the most beloved family vacation spots in California. >>> Continue reading “Sequoia National Park with Kids – Southern California family vacation guide.” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

Three kids hiking in desert with guidebook promotion for Hiking with Kids Southern California by Shelly Rivoli
Hiking with Kids Southern California includes hikes in Sequoia NP, Kings Canyon NP, Joshua Tree NP, Death Valley NP, and Channel Islands NP — and many more great hikes for families. (And yes, those are MY kids!) Thank you for your support! – Shelly

7. A Morro Bay Family Vacation on California’s Central Coast

Morro Bay on a calm morning with sailboats anchored and Morro Rock in the background

Harbor seals, sea otters, and egrets aplenty await where the land meets Morro Bay on California’s scenic Central Coast. This once remote fishing village offers families an ideal combination of nature and recreation. And better still, you can enjoy Morro Bay without the crowds and exorbitant price tags that come with many California beach towns (shhhh).

Granted, the scenery is hard to top and dock-to-dish dining options abound. Yet Morro Bay also registers high on my family-friendliness-ometer for some very practical reasons. Among them: available free street parking, abundant public restrooms, and great walkability.

All together, it’s what a great coastal family destination should be. And given its Central Coast location, Morro Bay makes a great weekend family getaway for families driving in from north or south.

Morro Bay is just under 4 hours south of San Francisco or north of Los Angeles by car.

When you get there, dive into these great family-friendly activities, including hiking trails, kayaking tours, sea otter viewing, and more. >>> Continue reading “Morro Bay with Kids – Central Coast family vacation guide” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

8. A Los Angeles Family Urban Vacation

The 411 on Los Angeles with kids

Take a sip of a cool fruit smoothie, your feet buried in warm golden sand. As you watch your children make sand castles, thoughts of your afternoon plans sleepily buzz in your head. Old Hollywood? Ancient Rome? Natural history? It’s all possible when you plan a family vacation in Los Angeles.

Yes, it is sprawling. Yet in spite of the driving, you’ll find that Los Angeles is well worth the trip for families. The key is to plan no more than one big activity a day. Play the rest of your day by ear, you know, in that laid-back California-style you perfected on the beach. >>> Continue reading “Los Angeles with Kids – Southern California family vacation guide” for our top priorities for family vacation in L.A.contributed by Veronique Autphenne

9. The Bucket-List Yosemite National Park Family Vacation

Yosemite National Park with kids? It's better on bikes!

Yosemite is one of the most popular destinations to visit in California with kids and with good reason. Granite domes, sheer cliffs, waterfalls, ancient and enormous trees, alpine meadows, and a lush river valley all come together in one of America’s most famous and beloved national parks.

Yosemite is just a few hours’ drive from the Bay Area, so it may be tempting to add a few days to your San Francisco itinerary to go visit the park (or make a side trip to San Francisco if you’re already visiting Yosemite).

Living in such close proximity to Yosemite, we’ve been lucky enough to visit nearly every year since becoming parents. And what’s as much a treat as seeing the park in different seasons? Seeing the different “seasons” of our kids experiencing Yosemite in new and changing ways.

Ready to check Yosemite off your family’s National Park bucket list? Here are some of our favorite ways we’ve found to experience Yosemite National Park with kids, including hiking trails, biking recommendations, and more. >>> Continue reading “Yosemite National Park with Kids – Northern California family vacation guide” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

10. A Family Horseback Riding Vacation in Santa Barbara County

horseback riding at the alisal guest ranch in Solvang, California

The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, CA (just north of Santa Barbara) offers a fun, western twist on traditional California family resorts. What’s more, in addition to all the fun outdoor activities, swimming pool, and activities club, the riding experiences here are perfect for beginners through accomplished equestrians.

Tired of nose-to-tail, no-trot trail rides on your family vacation? When we visited, the riding experiences proved to be anything but, making for an enjoyable family horseback riding vacation for all three generations of our family, and all level of riders (and levels of horseback enthusiasts) among us.

Set on 10,000 acres outside of Santa Barbara, the active cattle ranch is home to a herd of 100+ geldings. Among them are horses suitable for the youngest beginning riders through advanced riders. Suffice to say I wasted no time getting over to the barn to see what it’s all about. >>> Continue reading “A Family Horseback Riding Vacation at The Alisal Guest Ranch” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

Traveling with a child under 5 years? Don’t miss “How to Travel with a Car Seat (Without Losing Your Mind)” and my ultimate index to Flying with a Baby or Toddler advice at TravelswithBaby.com.

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