The latest “Welcome to Kidifornia” commercial offers a quick peek at some trip-of-a-lifetime family vacations in the Golden State—filled with beaches, national parks, theme parks, and more. But where, exactly, is that cool campground with an awesome view of the Golden Gate Bridge? And how can you get that close to the giraffes at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? Check out our tips below on how you and your crew can experience all of these wonders and enjoy a truly magical family vacation.
Stay at this oceanfront resort on 30 acres of Orange County coastline, and you may feel like you’ve landed at the ultimate beach cottage. With its Craftsman-style architecture and museum-quality art collection, the 250-room Montage creates an effortless kind of indulgence—every room has an ocean view—but it also welcomes families with a range of fun for all ages.
While parents wander Laguna Beach’s art galleries or take advantage of the resort’s sumptuous spa, kids can hang at the supervised Paintbox kids club, which offers sessions lasting from a few hours to a full day. One level targets ages 2 to 5 with crafts, games, and dramatic play, and the other is for ages 5 to12, with activities like tidepooling on the beach, along with plenty of time for swimming.
Get the family back together, too, to hike along the resort’s trails, go paddleboarding or kayaking out on the ocean, or take selfies by the resort’s colourfully tiled Mosaic Pool. (You can also make use of the resort photographer and take home holiday-card-ready pics of you and your crew.) And while this is the kind of place that is hard to extract yourself from for even part of the day, this is prime location for some iconic Southern California attractions: Disneyland Resort and Knotts Berry Farm are only about 30 minutes away (along with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center with its rescued seals and sea lions, or the whale-watching at Dana Point Harbor), while Legoland California, SeaWorld San Diego, and Universal Studios Hollywood are all roughly within an hour’s drive.
Mammoth Lakes embodies great California snow play: lots of snow (about 30 feet a season) plus reliable sunshine, bring some springtime magic to this winter wonderland. And, the High Sierra resort makes a great place for kids to learn to ski or snowboard. After all, this is where X Games champion snowboarder Chloe Kim, an L.A. native, first honed her skills—and now trains alongside her dad.
At Mammoth Mountain, the kids’ group ski lessons are segmented into comfortable age brackets—ages 3 to 4, 5 to 7, and 8 to12—and make use of carpet lifts, creative play areas, and a mellow, at-our-own-pace teaching style. Ski or board at neighbouring June Mountain (overseen by the elk mascot Bucky, the counterpart to Mammoth’s prehistoric-looking Woolly), and kids 12 and younger even ski free.
Downhill is not the only way to go either. Take a snowcat tour in the backcountry with Minaret Vista Tours, or play at Woolly’s Tube Park and Play Zone, with six groomed lanes, and an après-ski deck for both hot cocoa and grown-up beverages. On select dates during the season, take advantage of the park’s Electric Tubing nights under the moon, stars, and some lights. For indoor downtime, check out Mammoth Rock ’n’ Bowl, with its restaurant and 12 bowling lanes, a golf simulator, foosball, and arcade games.
Less than 10 miles from the surfer’s paradise at Santa Cruz, another classic California experience awaits: towering redwood trees. Set in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is one of the most southern redwood parks along California’s coastline—home to a 4,600-acre, old-growth forest of the giant arbours, along with Douglas fir, madrone, oak, and even a stand of Ponderosa pine. The king of the forest here, though, is a particular stately redwood: 277 feet tall, 16 feet wide, and about 1,500 years old.
Explore the park’s 15 miles of hiking and riding trails, and imagine what life was like for the Zayante tribe who once called this area home. Today, the permanent residents include black-tailed deer, bobcats, coyotes, and banana slugs, the yellow mollusk that is the mascot for nearby U.C. Santa Cruz.
Stay the night in the park’s campground, which neighbours the ancient marine deposits of the Santa Cruz Sandhills. You’re not far from slightly more contemporary attractions, like the 19th-century steam engine at Roaring Camp Railroad, which offers a glimpse at the area’s logging past, and the six ziplines that soar through the redwoods at Mount Hermon Adventures (smaller kids can play on the mini zipline and a ropes course). Or check out the films, footprints, and dioramas featuring the elusive Sasquatch at Felton’s Big Foot Discovery Museum.
Big, climbable rocks are like catnip to active kids, and Joshua Tree National Park offers a natural playground full of them, with more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 established climbing routes. Plenty of those are friendly enough for kids and first-timers, too, including the appropriately named Wonderland of Rocks.
To get started, join a group class—like those from Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School—to learn fundamentals such as handling ropes, rappelling, and “belaying” (getting back down) on beginner slabs and boulders. You can rent pads, helmets, and camp gear at shops like Nomad Ventures or Joshua Tree Outfitters.
A good place to get the lay of the land and try some easy boulders: the 1.5-mile, fairly flat loop trail by Barker Dam, which is also a good place to see the park’s unique, namesake trees and even some Native American petroglyphs. Set up a picnic lunch near Skull Rock in White Tank Campground, or stay overnight at one of the park’s nine campgrounds. For the best choice of sites, look at weeknights during the high season, between October and May.
It could be the perfect camping trip for anyone who also loves a big fabulous city. Set at San Francisco’s former Army airfield, the Presidio, Crissy Field offers a campground as well as a beach, music, and sweeping views.
The four-acre Rob Hill campground is actually the only campground within the city limits, so summer weekend spots can be tough to come by. The sites are best for big groups—each can hold up to 30 people—and include use of restrooms, fire pits, and plenty of ambience, from the ocean breeze to foghorns, hooting owls, and city lights. (Need gear? Rent some at the Crissy Field’s Sports Basement.)
Crissy Field is fun for day-trippers too. Rent bikes to ride the trails between Marina Green and Fort Point or along the promenade, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Play on the mile-long Baker Beach, go looking for egrets and herons at Crissy Marsh, or get some elevation at the House of Air trampoline park, set inside a former biplane hangar. Recharge at the Warming Hut, which offers sandwiches, hot cocoa, fair-trade coffee, and other snacks in the 1909 building that used to be a U.S. Engineer Storehouse. Or come on Sundays, from May through October, when food trucks set up shop to make impromptu picnics easy.
Grab a tube or a raft for one of the easiest ways to enjoy the Lake Tahoe area: Floating along the Truckee River, with its mellow pace, idyllic places to stop, and views of the mountains.
Start the day in Tahoe City, on the west side of Lake Tahoe, and rent gear from outfitters like Truckee River Rafting or Truckee River Raft Company. With both of these operators, you park at one end of the route, get rafts and life vests, and ride a free shuttle either before or after you’ve traversed the blissful stretch of water. The classic, self-guided route runs between a Tahoe City pullout and the River Ranch Lodge, roughly five miles (or two-to-four hours) away.
Along the way, you’ll likely experience some rapids just strong enough to bob you around on the water—but if anyone goes overboard, the water is typically only 3- to 4- feet deep. You can stop for a picnic on a sand bar or take a dip in occasional, deeper swimming holes (which can reach depths of up to 20 feet). On either end, share some wings, nachos, or a drink on the patio at The River Ranch Lodge, the stone-and-timber inn and tavern that has been around since 1888.
Tucked between the exhibitionists on Venice’s Muscle Beach and the elegant beachfront hotels of Santa Monica, this pier sits at what was once the western end of the iconic Route 66—a paradise-like finale for the great American road trip.
Today, the pier still exudes an endless summer ambience. Pacific Park’s carnival games and rides are classic crowd-pleasers, like the Pacific Wheel, which twinkles colourfully at night and basically acts as the beach town’s skyline. During the daytime, you can rent bikes and pedal along the pier’s wide beachside paths, or take a free tour and learn about the pier’s Old Hollywood connections, from Charlie Chaplin to Marilyn Monroe. Leave some time to browse the jewelry, crystals, and trinkets at the 1960s-era Oatman Rock Shop.
The pier isn’t just a time capsule, though. Join locals for live music or outdoor movie screenings throughout the year, or catch dinner at Rusty’s Surf Ranch, a beach bar that pairs burgers and crowd-friendly fare with up-and-coming bands.
Stop for a smooch or a silly pose in front of this statue inspired by the famous photo of a soldier and nurse at the end of World War II. The Unconditional Surrender statue stands along San Diego’s Embarcadero—which means “landing place” in Spanish—and no doubt this waterfront area of downtown underscores the city’s love affair with the sea.
Check out, for instance, the 35 exhibits at the USS Midway Museum, set on a historic aircraft carrier, and the Maritime Museum of San Diego, home of the 150-year-old Star of India (the world’s oldest sailing ship). Walk farther along the waterfront and you’ll see more artwork that salutes San Diego’s military community, like the bust of Admiral Sprague at the Battle of Leyte Gulf Memorial and the Military Tribute to Bob Hope, honouring the movie star’s long stint entertaining troops.
To get your own sea legs, take a spin around the harbour on a whale-watching excursion or dinner cruise from Hornblower Cruises or Flagship Cruises. Or, stick to dry land and explore Seaport Village, which has shops, eateries, and a beautifully carved carousel that dates back to 1895.
With its theme-park tributes to Disney movies like Cars and Toy Story, it’s easy to assume that California Adventure takes all of its inspiration from Hollywood. But the theme park next to Disneyland also offers a few shout-outs to Golden State history and culture.
Cars Land, after all—home of the free-wheeling Radiator Springs ride—embraces its Route 66 connections, with its rugged Southwestern terrain and road trip spots (like the Cozy Cone Motel eatery), while the park’s Carthay Circle Restaurant is a replica of the 1920s L.A. movie theater. And this is the prime area of Disneyland Resort where you can enjoy a glass of California wine (like the sommelier-guided tastings at Mendocino Terrace).
For a Golden State-themed thrill, ride the Grizzly River Run, which re-creates a rafting trip in the High Sierra. Or stay the night at the Grand Californian Hotel, where you can bask in the woodsy, Arts-&-Crafts-style architecture that pays homage to the famous Greene & Greene-designed homes of Pasadena. Staying here also grants your family access to the hotel’s private entrance to the park, which makes it that much easier to make use of those early, Extra Magic Hours at the park for hotel guests.
About 30 minutes northeast of the San Diego Zoo, you’ll find this rambling branch of the famed zoo. Located in Escondido, the 1,800-acre park lets you see animals—more than 3,500 live here— in natural expanses, which you can experience over walkways or park trams.
You can also have a number of close-up encounters, like at the Animal Ambassador Stage, where trainers are on hand as you interact with gators, or Tiger Talk, where you can hobnob with the resident Sumatran tigers. For another exotic feline experience, don’t miss the daily Cheetah Run, when a spotted resident sprints up to 70 mph along a 330-foot track.
Or take one of the behind-the-scenes tours to see the conservation centre for white rhinos or the zoo’s Veterinary Medical Center. For a fully immersive experience, spend the night at one of the park’s Roar & Snore Safaris, which includes an after-hours exploration of the park, campfires, meals, and lodging in a tent. You’ll sleep within view of the animals and hear the sounds of lions and elephants wafting through the night air.
Located in the Hollywood Hills, this L.A. theme park celebrates the art of the blockbuster through all of its flourishes—from the high-speed chase in the Fast & Furious–Supercharged ride to the spectacle of the Minions-themed Super Silly Fun Land area and the explosive stunts at the WaterWorld show.
For another kind of magic, leave plenty of time for the park’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, faithfully based on the popular franchise. Get an aerial view of Harry’s alma mater, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and put yourself into a Quidditch match on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, or take the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster ride to catch a glimpse of the home of Harry’s half-giant friend Hagrid. Then, explore the neighbouring village of Hogsmeade, from the butter beer at the Three Broomsticks tavern to the magical wands at Ollivanders. To experience the park’s version of a red carpet, book a VIP experience that gives you exclusive backlot access on the Universal Studio Tour, as well as priority access to the Harry Potter rides.
Right outside the park, check out the expanding options along the Universal CityWalk, like the recliners-and-IMAX-equipped Universal Cinemas movie theatre and the A-list fried chicken at chef Ludo Lefebvre’s LudoBird.
One of the best ways to experience Big Sur’s 90-mile stretch of dramatic, rugged coastline is to eat, sleep, and breathe that scenery from a campground.
Choose from a wealth of state park and private campground options—such as Ventana Campground, located 30 miles south of Carmel in an idyllic, 40-acre redwood canyon. At Limekiln State Park, you can hike to waterfalls from your campsite and see the big views of the coastline. For a distinctly un-rough experience, go to Fernwood Campground, where you can choose from forest cabins with kitchens or tent-cabins along the river, and you can hike trails, toss horseshoes, and check out the resident albino redwood trees. Or check in at Treebones Resort, where the yurts have ocean views and guests have access to two restaurants, including the Sunset Sushi Bar.
Wherever you camp, stock up on provisions at Big Sur Deli, which offers good local wine as well as kid-friendly offerings, including sandwiches, burritos, and corn dogs.