California with Kids: Ten Unforgettable Family Vacation Ideas

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

U.S.A., CALIFORNIA FAMILY VACATIONS – For many the phrase “California with kids” 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 massive sequoias and redwood trees awaiting in ancient forests. Classic cable cars climbing the hills of San Francisco and golf carts cruising the streets of Catalina Island.

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.

From sunny beaches to snowy slopes to a surprising safari, each recommendation here links to an additional feature filled with planning tips and details. And yes, you might find a mention of Legos along the way. (Be sure to pin this to your travel boards for future travel planning.)

California with kids family vacation ideas

 

1. Catalina Island with Kids

Catalina Island's Descano Beach Club as viewed from a kayak on a California family vacationFor 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 “The 411 on Catalina Island with Kids” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

 

2. A South Lake Tahoe Winter Family Vacation

south lake tahoe with kids in winterThe 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 great place to stay and 1 great place to eat while you’re there. >>> Continue reading “The 411 on South Lake Tahoe with Kids – Winter Edition” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

 

3. A San Francisco Family Vacation

Blue and Gold Fleet cruise San Francisco during California family vacationRiding 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 411 travel guide, with details and tips for our top-recommended activities for this California family vacation, including 1 great place to eat and 1 great place to stay.  >>> Read  more in “The 411 on San Francisco with Kids” contributed by Shelly Rivoli

 

4. The Santa Rosa Family Safari Vacation–with 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.

To find out more about our adventure among the giraffes, cape buffalo, ostriches, zebras and others, as well as our overnight stay in the luxury safari tent from Botswana, >>> 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 hiking and biking trails. Have I mentioned the year-round perfect climate for enjoying the outdoors?  >>> Continue reading “The 411 on Carlsbad with Kids” – contributed by Jennifer Fontaine

 

6. Sequoia National Park with Kids

Family at General Sherman Tree at Sequoia National ParkWant 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 411 guide. >>> Continue reading “The 411 on Sequoia National Park with Kids” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

7. A Morro Bay Family Vacation

Morro Bay on a calm morning with sailboats anchored and Morro Rock in the backgroundHarbor seals, sea otters, and egrets aplenty await where the land meets Morro Bay on California’s scenic Central Coast. Just under 4 hours south of San Francisco or north of Los Angeles by car, what was once a remote fishing village offers families an ideal combination of nature and recreation, and 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. When you get there, don’t miss these great ways to experience Morro Bay on your California vacation. >>> Continue reading “The 411 on Morro Bay with Kids” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

 

8. Los Angeles with Kids

The 411 on Los Angeles with kidsTake 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 visit Los Angeles with kids.

Yes, it is sprawling. But 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 “The 411 on Los Angeles with Kids” for our top priorities for family vacation in L.A.contributed by Veronique Autphenne

 

9. Yosemite National Park with Kids

Yosemite National Park with kids? It's better on bikes!A far cry from a theme park, Yosemite is one of the most popular destinations to visit in California with kids. 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. >>> Continue reading “The 411 on Yosemite National Park with Kids” – contributed by Shelly Rivoli

 

10. A Family Horseback Riding Vacation in Santa Barbara County

horseback riding at the alisal guest ranch in Solvang, CaliforniaTired of nose-to-tail, no-trot trail rides on your family vacation? When we visited The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, CA, this summer, 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

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