Whether you dream of carving a wave for the first time, relaxing at a wine country estate, taking a spin on an iconic theme park ride or walking through soaring redwoods, you will find your perfect getaway in California. What you will find here are ways to make that dream holiday happen without a hitch.
The tips and information here help you know the ins and outs of travel in the Golden State, with tips on best times to travel, transportation, accommodation and camping, even good-sense guides for bicycle fans. Details here can help plan your trip and tell you where to turn for more useful information and insider tips once you get here. Happy planning.
Enjoying the outdoors is more popular than ever, according to visitation numbers at California parks. Joshua Tree National Park hit a record high of roughly three million visitors in 2018, doubling its numbers since 2013. More than four million people have vacationed in Yosemite National Park every year since 2015. Muir Woods instituted a reservation system to manage its one million redwood-loving visitors, and managers at Carmel’s Point Lobos State Natural Reserve will soon follow suit.
All this nature time is great for visitors’ physical and mental well-being, but the recent uptick in numbers has led to an oft-repeated storyline: More people equals more pressure on the fragile environment.
Wilderness expert John Kleinfelter, who operates Yosemite Guide Service, says, “Our overwhelming love of the outdoors sometimes clashes with our need to protect it.”
Fortunately, it’s incredibly easy to be a responsible outdoor recreationist. The national organization Leave No Trace distills it into seven core principles based on respect for nature and other people. These include traveling only on trails or other durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, being considerate of other visitors, and leaving nature exactly as you found it.
Nature fans across the state are taking action. In Big Sur, residents launched a campaign urging visitors to take the Big Sur Pledge. It’s a promise to enjoy the region’s beauty without harming it, with guidelines for respecting property, protecting natural resources, camping only where permitted, and driving safely on coastal roads.
The iconic Bixby Bridge at Big Sur’s northern gateway is what land managers call a “hot spot,” a photogenic attraction that has seen an exponential surge in smartphone-carrying visitors. The bridge’s graceful arch, which spans a dramatic canyon opening to the Pacific’s roiling waves, has been in place since 1931. But only recently has it gone viral.
“Instagram and social media have highlighted spots that were much less visited in the past, inspiring thousands of people to get outdoors,” Kleinfelter says. “That’s a good thing, but many newcomers don’t understand outdoor ethics.”
Travel photographer Megan Hayes says that many visitors don’t realize their impact on the environment. “When people rush to get a photo, they can inadvertently crush fragile plants, cause erosion, or damage the natural scenery they came to enjoy.”
Hayes says that Instagram influencers can use their power for good. “Don’t post images that glorify bad behavior, like camping too close to a lake or stepping on plants. Instead, show people enjoying nature respectfully.”
Kleinfelter recommends that nature lovers set a good example and speak up when necessary. “There aren’t enough rangers around to educate people and enforce rules. If you see someone picking wildflowers or disturbing wildlife, say something in a non-confrontational way. Remind them that they want to protect these beautiful places so the next person can appreciate them.”
Visitors can also take small actions that have a big impact, like picking up litter. “Litter has no owner,” Kleinfelter says. “These parks and public lands belong to all of us, and it’s up to us to take care of them.”
Are there currently wildfires in California?
Recent critical wildfires in California are fully contained and pose no safety risk.
A vast majority of the Golden State is currently unaffected by fires.
For the latest information on wildfires in the state, visit www.Calfire.ca.gov.
Anyone sensitive to air quality impacts should consult real-time resources to determine if smoke levels will affect their experience in the state.
For more information about travel in Butte County, visit https://www.explorebuttecounty.com.
For more information about travel in Los Angeles County, visit ttps://www.discoverlosangeles.com/blog/info.
For more information about travel in Ventura County, visit https://visitventuraca.com.
Is it safe for visitors to travel to California during wildfire season?
California is a large state and wildfires in one location typically have no impact outside a limited area. Visit California’s first concern is always the safety and well-being of California residents and visitors, so we recommend that visitors who are planning a trip to California check out visitcalifornia.com and contact their hotel and local convention and visitors bureau for all pertinent updates.
Are there any areas of the state travelers should avoid, or alternative routes to consider when traveling across the state?
Visit the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) website for current information on travel and safety conditions.
By early March 2019, more than 50 feet of snow had fallen at the summit of Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra and at Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley (which received a record-setting 26 feet in February alone). Even down in warmer and drier Southern California, barely two hours from Los Angeles, Big Bear Mountain Resort had been hit by 11 feet of snow.
Although big snowstorms are great for extending California’s ski season—all the way to July in some cases—they also create potential weather-related challenges for drivers heading to the mountains.
"If people are coming up from Sacramento or the Bay Area, it may be raining down there, but when you get up to the summit, it’s a completely different situation,” says Raquel Borrayo, a public information officer for Caltrans District 3, which encompasses 11 Northern California counties, including areas in the Sierra Nevada. “The weather changes very quickly. It can be nice and barely snowing one minute, then in the next hour it’s whiteout conditions. We like to make sure that people understand what conditions are like before they begin their travels and that they are prepared for it.”
Commonsense preparation and a healthy respect for the realities of winter mountain driving can make all the difference in the world. Both Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol have prepared lengthy lists of tips that you should check as you plan your trip to the snow country. Here are a few highlights:
Before You Go
Monitor weather conditions. While you should still always expect the unexpected, we live in a golden age of weather forecasting. Websites for the National Weather Service, Weather Channel, and Accuweather offer a variety of forecasts, from conditions by the hour to as far as 10 days out. Visitor bureaus for such major winter destinations as Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, Big Bear Lake, and Mt. Shasta all include local weather information on their websites, as do most individual ski resorts.
Check on road status. The road information page on the Caltrans website lists updated road conditions and allows you to search specific routes by highway number. Current conditions are also available by calling 800/427-7623. A link to social media sites for Caltrans districts around the state is another excellent resource for localized information. While on the highway, look for signs showing the frequency for Caltrans Highway Advisory Radio (HAR), which provides regular updates.
Prepare your car. Good tires that are properly inflated and have adequate tread life will greatly enhance handling on slick roads. You may not need antifreeze at sea level but in the mountains, temperatures can quickly plunge, so check levels before leaving home. Visibility is always challenging in the high country, but it is especially so if your windshield wipers are worn or your defroster doesn’t work.
Chains, chains, chains. Depending on snow conditions and chain requirements, which change with the weather, you may not be able to proceed past checkpoints unless you have chains, even if you’re in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. “If you come up unprepared and don’t have chains, you might get stuck overnight,” says Borrayo. “We will not allow you to get back on the highway and endanger yourself or other people.”
Chain installers are not allowed to sell chains, so don’t count on buying any traction devices on your way up to the mountains. But auto parts stores, including Pep Boys and Auto Zone, carry a selection of tire chains, so purchase chains before reaching the mountains.
Speaking of which, practice putting on your chains while still at home. Your learning curve will be much more pleasant in the comfort of your driveway or garage than along a freezing, soggy highway in the middle of a winter storm.
If you’re renting a car, keep in mind that major rental agencies, including Enterprise, Hertz, and Avis, do not provide chains, nor do they allow customers to put chains on their vehicles. When renting, inquire about the availability of all-wheel-drive vehicles and autos with snow tires, which are available at some locations. But remember: Under the strictest chain requirements, even all-wheel-drive and snow tires won’t get you through checkpoints.
For more information about using tire chains, Yosemite National Park has a helpful guide.
Gear up. Buy or bring an ice scraper to clear windows and a broom to sweep snow off your car. If you get stuck, a shovel will make it much easier to dig your vehicle out. And kitty litter isn’t just for cats: It can help provide added traction if you get stuck.
Pack a few extras. Additional clothing, blankets, and extra food and water will provide a measure of comfort if you end up experiencing lengthy delays.
On the Road
Chill out in winter. Sure, you’re eager to get up to the slopes but speeding in snowy conditions can be deadly. Reduce your stress by leaving early and giving yourself extra time to get up to the mountains.
Don’t play gas roulette. Make sure you have a full tank of gas before you start climbing. Traffic delays and closed highways might mean that you won’t be able to reach the next gas station when your fuel light comes on.
Stay in control. Turn off cruise control and always drive defensively, keeping an eye out for other drivers.
Don’t rely on navigational devices. Tempting as it may be to find shortcuts around slow traffic by using Waze and Google Maps, these apps might direct you onto secondary roads that aren’t plowed and where you could easily get stranded.
Taking your crew on a family vacation can feel a little daunting under any circumstances—but when a member of your family has special needs, you already know that a fun trip calls for a little extra planning. Happily, family-friendly attractions in California cater well to guests with disabilities—from playgrounds that feature plenty of wheelchair ramps to theme parks that accommodate guests with cognitive disabilities who might be affected by loud noises or long lines.
Before a trip, it’s always wise to check the accessibility section of an attraction’s website, which will detail any available amenities like wheelchair rentals, listening devices, special events, or the policies regarding service animals. Or, sometimes you can find deals: California state parks, for instance, offer a 50 percent discount for visitors with disabilities.
Many attractions now also offer “social narratives” that help visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorder know what to expect on a visit—like the guide offered by The Broad, a crowd-pleasing contemporary art museum located in downtown L.A., or the app made by Santa Barbara’s science-oriented MOXI Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation. “From the beginning, we have been intentional in trying to make sure our museum is inclusive and reflective of our community,” says MOXI’s director of education Ron Skinner. The app, he says, “helps families better understand what a visit to MOXI might be like, so that they can make informed decisions about their visit.”
Here are 20-plus more attractions—including theme parks, playgrounds, and museums—that have been especially proactive in welcoming families with special needs.
Enroll in the Guest Accessibility program, at Guest Services by the front gate, and you get your “RAP Sheet” (Ride Accessibility Program) that lets a guest get scheduled times at rides and attractions, accompanied by up to five listed people in their party. The online guide gives the physical demands for each ride—say, that one must be able to grip a railing with at least one hand, etc. If you’d like a sign language interpreter for shows and tours, contact Guest Services two weeks before the visit.
LEGOLAND California, Carlsbad
Playing with LEGO bricks has long been considered a good way for kids on the spectrum (or kids dealing with other issues) to develop social and communication skills—and the LEGO-celebrating park accommodates such guests too. Ask for an Assisted Access Pass at Guest Services to get on rides (no documentation is needed): The pass allows the guest to board his or her first choice ride with no wait, and then get scheduled times for other rides during the day. The park also has designated quiet areas and a downloaded guide for wheelchair access. Ask for a tag to use your stroller as a wheelchair, or rent either a wheelchair or stroller, too, near the front gate. Send an email to [email protected] at least two weeks ahead of your visit and the park can also arrange for sign language interpreters for shows.
Disneyland Resort, Anaheim
The Orange County mecca has a wide array of offerings for guests with mobility, vision, and cognitive disabilities. Start your visit at the Guest Relations Center where you can discuss any needs you might have during your stay. While Disneyland Resort already has the FASTPASS program, which lets anyone schedule out certain rides to avoid the longest lines, the Disability Access Service offers even more options for setting up “return times,” scheduled one at a time at Guest Relations kiosks. Before you go, download the Attraction Details for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities and the Special Dietary Requests Guide.
Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park
Gilroy Gardens, Gilroy
California’s Great America, Santa Clara
These three parks—Knott’s in Orange County's Buena Park, Gilroy Gardens in the Central Coast garlic capital, and Great America in Silicon Valley's Santa Clara—are all part of the Cedar Fair chain and offer the same programs. Guests with mobility issues or ASD can request a Ride Boarding Pass at the Guest Services office near the front gates. Use your pass (obtained after just answering a few questions) to get scheduled boarding times from the attendant at any ride’s alternate entrance (usually the exit); the pass works for the guest and up to four companions. The Guest Assistance guides for Knott’s, Gilroy Gardens, and Great America each list specific features of all rides and attractions, and details which rides feature strobes or other lights that might affect anyone with photosensitivity.
The L.A. County movie-themed park offers a variety of accommodations for different situations: Its Family Center has a quiet room—helpful for ASD guests who are ready for some downtime—while the Guest Relations office can lend visitors assistive listening devices or Braille or large-font scripts; call a week ahead of time to arrange interpretation services. Check out the Rider’s Guide for a preview of the speed, sensations, or special effects of the rides and attractions, and the Dietary Food Guide for dining options compatible with gluten-free, peanut-free, or dairy-free diets.
Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo
Request an Attraction Access Pass at Guest Services at either of the two Six Flags theme parks in California, located in L.A. County’s Valencia and in Vallejo, east of San Francisco. The pass lets the guest and up to three companions board their chosen rides on a fairly set schedule, with set time intervals in between (at each ride, the attendant marks the time once the ride has been completed). You will need a doctor’s note, attesting that there is some kind of disability, to receive an Attraction Access Pass, but once you have received a pass at any Six Flag park, you won’t need to present a note again at any Six Flags—your information will be stored in the parks’ overall system.
Ask at Guest Relations about assisted listening devices for any shows; American Sign Language Interpreters are available if requested at least seven days in advance. Licensed Personal Care Attendants, meanwhile, can accompany a disabled guest for free.
Balboa Park Museums, San Diego
Seven museums around Balboa Park—including the Museum of Man, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Museum of Photographic Arts—offer Social Stories that you can download ahead of time; these visual previews to the museums were created by high-functioning young adults with an ASD.
Two of the park’s most kid-friendly museums also have special days for ASD families. The Fleet Science Center offers Autism Accessibility Mornings on the third Saturday of each month. On such days, the museum opens early, for quieter explorations; has a designated cool-off space; and features a special, lowered-volume (and lights-on) IMAX screening. Nearby, The San Diego Natural History Museum offers ASD mornings every second Saturday of every month. Admission on those days includes a private, sensory-friendly showing of “Ocean Oasis” in the giant IMAX theater, and access to a quiet room from 9 a.m. to noon. Every day at the two museums, you can request assistive listening devices for use with the museum’s IMAX films, or closed-captioning devices for the Fleet’s Dome Theater.
San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, Escondido
This museum in San Diego’s North County offers Sensory-Friendly Museum Mornings on the first Sunday of the month, from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., and then every Monday from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Visitors on the spectrum or with sensory sensitivities can make use of quiet places and a designated break space. On any day, ask at the front desk for noise-cancelling headphones.
Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach
Every few months, this huge aquarium in L.A. County hosts an Autism Night, when most of the aquarium is open for special needs families, offering a quieter atmosphere (and a nicely discounted admission price). Year-round, ask at the front desk for audio tours for the sight-impaired or listening devices for the hearing-impaired, or check the calendar for other special needs evenings such as Abilities Night.
MOXI Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation, Santa Barbara
This museum in Santa Barbara is lined with hands-on, STEAM-related exhibits (science, tech, engineering, arts, and math). It also offers a free, sensory-friendly app, Access MOXI, created so that visitors with autism and sensory processing disorders can preview the museum. Or, check out sensory backpack kits from the front desk, which include noise reduction headphones, fidget toys, sunglasses, and “if lost please call” wristbands.
This kids’ museum in Silicon Valley hosts Afternoons for All Abilities on the second Tuesday afternoon of the month, featuring a special story time and sensory activity. Check the calendar for autism-friendly Saturday sessions called Play Your Way for ages 2–15. Every day, check out the museum’s Social Story, ask for sound-reducing headsets at Admissions, and take note of the Quiet Room on the first floor.
The Tech, San Jose
The Bay Area museum offers Sensory Friendly Hours on specific evenings every few months. That means a lower capacity for admission for fewer crowds, quiet rooms, and well-lit (and lowered volume) exhibits and IMAX screenings. The Tech also offers a variety of other themed days, too, like Girls Days for ages 7–14.
Universally Accessible Playgrounds, Los Angeles
Los Angeles County has 38 special needs-friendly playgrounds, which were either created or adapted to accommodate kids of all abilities. Some notable ones include Shane’s Inspiration in Griffith Park, designed to welcome kids with Autism, Down Syndrome, and Cerebral Palsy, and Aidan’s Place at Westwood Recreation Center, which offers adjustments like an elevated sand-castle-building station.
Fairmount Carousel Playground, Riverside
Set inside the city’s 250-acre Fairmount Park, the merry-go-round-themed playground has musical equipment, a splash pad, a carousel, and special noise-making panels.
Tatum’s Garden, Salinas
Stop at this 20,000-square-foot play space in the Central Coast town that was inspired by a young resident with spina bifida. It’s lined with wheelchair-friendly ramps, dotted with adaptive swings, and covered with cushioning rubber.
Helen Diller Playground, San Francisco
Open since 2012, this playground in Mission Dolores Park has accessible pathways leading to a 45-foot-long slide and two wheelchair-friendly play boats.
California attracts more than 250 million tourists each year, many of whom are eager to swim, ski, hike, and of course, sample local wines. Others map out memorable road trips that lead them from ocean breezes in the morning to snowy trails by nightfall. “California is such a varied state, with many different climates,” says Los Angeles stylist Morgan Simonds of Better Off Dressed, “so it’s important to pack one key item to address each: everything from a fleece to a bikini, hiking shoes to stilettos.”
Whether you’re visiting from Florida or France, you’ll want to be strategic about what you bring with you. “As a New Yorker who visits California four times a year, I am always struck by how unexpectedly cold I get,” says Lori Bergamotto, Style Director for Good Housekeeping. “I learned quickly that layering is the only solution if you desire comfort at any temperature. Denim jackets, lightweight knit cardigans, capes, ponchos—even a swingy trench—can all be dressed up or dressed down and will prepare you for whatever the weather may be.”
Of course, no one wants to traverse the state weighed down by gigantic suitcases. The trick is to pack smart—whether you’re visiting a big city or tasting Pinots—and to wear more than one layer when you travel. Before you pack your bags, review our recommendations below.
Channel California cool
“You often hear that California style is laid-back,’” says Bay Area blogger Stephanie Nguyen of Sunkissed Steph, “and that's because it’s true! Whether you're down the coast in L.A., the land of denim shorts, or in the Bay Area, where hoodies reign supreme, the style here is definitely on the casual and comfortable side.” Plus, California style is highly individual. “You can totally wear a blazer and jeans here,” says Simonds, “but we would pair it with a rocker tee and a cool pair of sneakers to give the look more of an edge.”
Pick versatile pieces
“Stick with neutral colors—a white tee, or a white button-down shirt if you need to look polished, along with dark denim jeans, black or navy pants, etc.,” says Bergamotto. “You can get so much more mileage out of simple styles. That said, know your agenda,” she advises. “Let your itinerary determine if you go more practical and polished, or more bohemian and beachy.”
If setting sail in San Diego, you’ll want a scarf for when the wind picks up. When visiting a vineyard in Napa Valley or Santa Ynez Valley, be sure to pack a pair of dark-colored flats that can absorb spills and grass stains. Headed to the desert? Pack tank tops and plenty of sunscreen. In San Francisco, where rain is more frequent, an umbrella is a good idea. And if you’re going out to nice dinners in L.A., take a neutral pair of wedges you can wear again and again.
Bergamotto considers the slip dress “a traveler's best companion,” saying, “Wear it alone with sandals for a sweltering day; throw a white tee under it—or a cropped top over it—with a pair of sneakers if the temps are in the low 70s; add a denim jacket to that if the temps dip into the 60s, and for cool nights add an oversize cardigan or cape with a heeled bootie.”
Streamline your accessories
In terms of accessories, don’t forget essentials, like a hat and sunglasses, but try to simplify what you bring on the jewelry front. Basic studs and a stack of bracelets that can be worn day in and day out without standing out too much are ideal. “For a little sparkle, layer a colorful jeweled necklace with a charm necklace,” suggest Simonds.
You’ll want a versatile handbag that can fit boarding passes, lip balm, and more, without putting stress on your shoulders. Both Cuyana and Everlane are San Francisco–based brands with beautiful bags that fit the bill.
For something kid-friendly, consider a classic coat tote from L.L. Bean, which can handle everything from sand toys to diapers. Bergamotto is also a firm believer in large Ziploc bags because you can see the contents while keeping things separated. “If there is a spill, such as toothpaste, sunscreen, or hand sanitizer, it will be contained,” she explains.
Don't forget your feet
Streamlining your shoes can be tricky, especially if you have a formal event, such as a wedding, in your travel plans. If that’s the case, plan to repeat the same pair of heels at the rehearsal dinner and ceremony, and then bring one (or two) other adaptable styles that can go from day to night. “The most transitional shoe in California is a flat lace-up sandal,” says Simonds. “It can get you from the beach to a fun brunch, to a casual dinner with ease.”
A functional but cool pair of sneakers or espadrilles works well while shopping, museum hopping, or taking in a ball game. If you’re planning to swim, you’ll want a water-resistant flip-flop or sandal; if you’re hiking, a sneaker or boot; and if you’re skiing, wear a warm, closed-toe style while traveling, then rent boots when you get to the mountains. Even the most basic packages include skis, poles, and boots.
Consider the kids
Versatility is just as important when packing for your children. Select items that they can wear more than once, such as shorts, pants, and leggings in colors that work with multiple tops, since shirts are harder to repeat. (Ice-cream stains, anyone?)
In terms of their footwear, try to keep it simple. “With our kids, we opt for sneakers for both, plus one actual shoe, like Mary Janes or flats for our daughter,” says Bergamotto. “If we know we’ll be spending lots of time at the beach, then skip the ‘shoe’ and opt for water shoes, which also double nicely as casual stroll-around-town shoes.”
Shop when you arrive
Lastly, if your suitcases are nearly impossible to zip, think about what you can buy once you reach your destination—and use up before you head home—such as sunscreen, snacks, and wipes. Also consider what kinds of things you’re likely to pick up along the way, such as a sweatshirt or hat, so that you don’t end up with duplicates. Got all that? Alright. Ready, set, pack!
Sun, surf, mountains, and roller coasters: The Golden State is big and beautiful, whether you want to play at the beach, ride your way across California theme parks, or camp at one of California’s national parks. The state’s size and variety of offerings mean that a California family vacation will call for some solid preparation. Here are 11 tips and family-friendly travel hacks to help you build your family’s trip, with an eye toward keeping the fun quotient high and missed opportunities to a minimum.
Planning a Golden State road trip? Check out our special road trip tips for that too.
1. Pack and dress in layers. In Southern California, a sunny 70-degree day can feel like 80 or hotter to people from other parts of the country, while a cloudy 60-degree day can feel much chillier, thanks to ocean breezes. In Northern California—especially San Francisco—summer can mean a lot of morning fog and temperatures in the 50s that turn into warmer temps in the afternoon. All over the state, it’s a safe bet to dress in layers and keep a sweater, sweatshirt, or light jacket in your day pack.
2. Don’t pack beach gear. Your hotel may have toys and gear on hand to borrow or rent. You can also buy boogie boards—an easy-to-learn way to play in the surf—for as little as $10 at any drug store or discount store near the beach. That’s also a budget-friendly way to pick up sandcastle-making toys, sunscreen, hats, and flip-flops.
3. Maximize your time at the theme parks. Staying at one of the on-site hotels can get you early entry—usually an hour earlier than the scheduled opening time—but sometimes just buying your tickets online (like at Universal Studios Hollywood) can get you an extra hour with shorter lines. Also, check the park’s website for express-lane services (like Disneyland Resort’s Fastpasses) so that you can make the most of your time all day.
4. Expect (some) admission discounts. Kids and teens often get in free, or at a discount, at most museums and other attractions around the Golden State. San Diego has a "Kids Free October" program that is valid at many museums and other attractions, including SeaWorld and LEGOLAND. That said, don’t expect much of a break at other theme parks, or at other times. Full-price admission may start as low as age 10.
5. Measure your kids. Before you commit to a theme park for the day, check out the rides page on its website to see the height minimums, to make sure there are enough rides that your children will be able to enjoy. Also, get the lay of the land from the theme park’s online map, to plot your day’s path efficiently and delay the onset of tired feet.
6. Book ahead for camping. National parks such as Yosemite have well-established schedules for opening up camp sites for reservations, and good spots can go fast—up to six months ahead of time. For last-minute spots, check a park’s campgrounds online to find availability.
7. Don’t miss the Junior Ranger programs at state and national parks. The free handouts and activities available at California national parks and state parks give kids a fun, hands-on way to explore the park. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, for instance, the activity booklet lists different hot springs and volcanic rocks for kids to look for and check off. At Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve, meanwhile, a nature-oriented bingo card motivates kids to keep an eye out for lizards, meadowlarks, and beetles, as well as California’s state flower. Ask for any handouts at the park’s visitors center, or download them from its website.
8. Plan a ski trip that moves at everyone’s pace. California ski resorts offer a wide range of age-specific lessons and activities—some with kids’ clubs that last half or full days, so that everyone gets plenty of time to ski or board at their own skill level. At Squaw Valley, for instance, about 65 percent of the trails are suitable for beginner and intermediate skiers, and Sierra-at-Tahoe has an 11-acre learning terrain called Easy Street. Off-the-slope activities abound as well, like Mammoth’s beloved Woolly’s Tube Park, or the 30-foot climbing wall at Big Bear and Snow Summit’s Basecamp. Meanwhile, even if your kids’ spring break falls as late as April, you’ll still find plenty of California snow.
9. Bring lots of sunscreen. Beach days certainly call for solid SPF, but you’ll also need sunscreen while skiing. California’s ski resorts are known for their wealth of blue bird snow days, which results in plenty of reflection off the slopes.
10. Don’t assume that wine-tasting is off the table. Not all wineries and craft breweries welcome kids, but many do—offering games, play areas, and kids’ dining menus so that the family can enjoy a visit together. Check the individual wineries’ or breweries’ websites before you go to make sure kids will be welcome and happily occupied.
11. Don’t be afraid to take the kids to a nice dinner. In California, cutting-edge restaurants are often not white-tablecloth–type places, and many even have good kids’ menus—like the tamales and quesadillas at L.A.’s acclaimed Border Grill, or the prix fixe kids’ menu at San Francisco’s Rintaro, which Bon Appétit named one of the best restaurants of 2015. When in doubt, call ahead and ask when making a reservation; most hotels keep lists of reputable babysitting services at the front desk, and can help you hire a great sitter to come to your hotel room.
Need to reset your watch? Call for help? Find out details for disabled access? Here’s a roundup of basic information to help you plan your trip, and to know what to expect and where to turn for help when you get here.
California is in the Pacific Time Zone (Greenwich Mean Time minus 8 hours). The state observes daylight savings time from early March to early November.
State and Local Taxes
The statewide sales tax is 7.25%. Local taxes may add up to 1.5% to your total bill.
A general rule of thumb is to tip servers in restaurants between 15% and 20%, depending on level of service, and bartenders a dollar for each drink (beer, glass of wine, simple cocktail, etc.), unless it’s a more complicated specialty cocktail. Include 15% to 20% for a taxi or limo driver, and a few dollars for an Uber or Lyft driver.
For local numbers, dial 411; for long distance, dial 1 plus the area code plus 555-1212; for toll-free numbers, call (800) 555-1212.
You can call 911 toll-free from any public telephone to obtain emergency police, fire, or medical assistance.
Alcohol is sold throughout California to people age 21 and older. The legal drinking age is 21.
You must be age 18 or older to purchase tobacco products in the state. Smoking and e-cigarette use is prohibited in all public buildings (including restaurants, bars, and casinos) and enclosed spaces throughout California. It is illegal to smoke within 20 feet of doorways or windows of government buildings. Most large hotels have designated smoking rooms; if you smoke, request one—most hotels will fine guests who smoke inside a non-smoking room. Many cities in California have passed ordinances prohibiting smoking in public areas such as on sidewalks and at beaches, and smoking is prohibited in some national and state park buildings and areas.
State Size & Drive Times
California is big—really big. If you were to drive the length of the state on Interstate 5, it would take you an estimated 15 hours, with little or no traffic, to get from Oregon to Mexico. At the end of your road trip, you’d have driven nearly 900 miles.
Downtown San Diego is less than 20 miles north of the Mexican border and about 130 miles south of Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, it’s 385 miles north to San Francisco and from there, another 90 miles northeast to Sacramento. You’d put about 190 miles on your car driving from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, and about 600 miles driving from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta in Northern California. Needless to say, California is ideal for road trips.
Traveling with Disabilities
Visitors who have physical or other challenges can still have a fantastic time in California. Special services are widely available, and access to trails, buildings, and attractions is continually being improved. Here are some helpful resources.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that all public buildings must be wheelchair accessible and have accessible restrooms. Most hotels and attractions are now outfitted with wide doorways and wheelchair ramps. City streets now feature a growing number of sidewalk corners with dropped curbs, and some public transit vehicles are equipped with lifts. Many state and national parks now have fully accessible ADA trails. If you need details, call destinations and services in advance.
Help for Hearing & Memory Impaired
If you have limitations seeing, hearing, speaking, remembering, or moving which affects your ability to make or receive phone calls, dial 711 to have a specially trained communications assistant relay telephone conversations for all of your calls while you are in California.
Many movie theaters and performance spaces have special headsets to help you hear; ask when you purchase or pick up your tickets.
Transportation & Rental Cars
Major airports can provide on-site assistance to and from flights, including wheelchairs; call your airline in advance for details. Some rental car companies offer specially outfitted vehicles with hand controls, wheelchair accessibility, and other assistive devices. Amtrak train service provides added services for passengers with disabilities, as well as a 15% discount on regular travel fares.
California is a year-round destination, with weather that has something for everyone, from sun worshippers to snow bunnies. The best time to visit really comes down to what you want to see and do. Here’s some general information to help you know what to expect statewide.
Weather & Seasons
Much of California has a Mediterranean-like climate with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. On the coast, the average daily high temperature hovers around 70°F and up, but can occasionally spike to 80°F or more on hottest summer days; freezing temperatures are rare, even in winter. The state’s legendary fog often hugs the coast from roughly Monterey north, usually during summer months; it often burns off by midday before rolling in again at dusk. Farther inland, summers are hot and dry, winters cool and wet, with occasional brilliant blue days and temperatures cold enough to freeze puddles on the ground, but not much more than that. At higher altitudes, the weather reflects more of a four-season cycle, with beautiful summers, striking fall color, and cold, snowy winters followed by snowmelt springs (waterfall season!).
As you cruise this site, check out the average temperature by season for the regions and destinations you are considering.
Timing Your Visit
Most vacationers head to California during the peak summer months (June through August); that’s when you can expect the biggest crowds at top attractions, and high-season rates at lodgings and resorts. But even in the midst of summer it’s possible to hop off the beaten path and have forests, fields, and even beaches almost to yourself.
If you love the high country, you might need to wait until summer to access the highest roads and trails through the Sierra Nevada, as well routes into wilderness areas around Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, the state’s tallest volcanoes.
Springtime (typically March through early May) is one of California’s most beautiful times of year. Although it can still be cold at higher elevations, temperatures are comfortable and fresh throughout much of the state. Hillsides are blanketed with lush green grass and wildflowers. California’s deserts, awash with poppies, paintbrush, and other desert blooms, are much more pleasant during the spring than during the scorching heat of summer. During these months, you’ll also encounter shorter lines and better deals: Many of the state’s top tourist attractions are still operating at a slower pace, and hotels often charge low-season rates until June.
Autumn (September through November) brings mild weather and, in some parts of the state, spectacular foliage (especially the High Sierra). This is a great time to visit California’s beautiful wine regions during grape harvest time, known as “the crush” (generally August to October). The San Francisco and North Coast regions, often shrouded in fog during summer, typically see some of their sunniest days during “Indian summer,” (September through October).
If you plan to ski, snow usually coats the mountains November to March, with some resorts staying open into April or beyond. (If Mother Nature is fickle, snow-making equipment often supplements with amazingly good manmade snow.) Look for downhill runs for skiers and boarders, terrain parks, cross-country and snowshoe trails, and ice-skating rinks.
Anyone who’s traveled to an unfamiliar area with the intention of experiencing as much as possible knows how invaluable the knowledge of a local can be. There is no better resource, and having it can make the difference between a ho-hum trip and a truly memorable one.
It’s the mission of each of the 16 California Welcome Centers scattered throughout the state to enable all visitors to have the best experience possible, and they take that local-is-best approach to heart. Each one is staffed with personal travel concierges, knowledgeable experts who are ready to provide information that will enhance and enrich your visit no matter what your focus is—the arts, local culture, family activities, sports, the great outdoors, shopping, or all of the above. They’ll have advice on what and where to eat, where to stay, and how to get there. Welcome Centers also offer free maps and brochures on local attractions, state and national parks in the area, and things to see and do.
From the North Coast to the Deserts, California’s Welcome Centers will help you discover the best the Golden State has to offer. See below for more information on all of them, organized by region.
Shasta Cascade (Anderson)
Gold Country (Auburn, El Dorado Hills)
San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco, Santa Rosa)
High Sierra (Truckee, Mammoth Lakes)
High Sierra (Mammoth Lakes)
Central Valley (Merced)
Central Coast (Gilroy, Pismo Beach, Salinas)
Deserts (Barstow, Yucca Valley)
San Diego County (Oceanside)
Inland Empire (Ontario)
Coming in 2019:
Los Angeles County (Los Angeles, 100 Citadel Drive, 323-888-1724)
San Diego County (San Diego Cross Border Express, 2745 Otay Pacific Drive)
Orange County (San Clemente, 101 West Avenida Vista Hermosa, 949-535-2323)
California is big—nearly 800 miles from the Oregon border to the north all the way to the Mexican border just south of San Diego, and an average of roughly 200 miles wide. Fortunately, California also has a lot of airports, so flying is relatively easy, and a great way to get around the state, especially if your time is limited. Easy airport access also makes fly/drive vacations an attractive option.
We've highlighted 13 of the state’s airports, 10 of which have flights that travel nonstop to international locations. Some rank as destinations in themselves with museum-quality artwork installations—see what’s going on at the LAX Art Program, the Arts Program at John Wayne International Airport in Orange County, and the Public Art Program at San Francisco International Airport. Many also feature outstanding shopping, fine dining, and even spoil-yourself spas (because getting a massage really is better than sitting in a plastic chair while you wait for your flight).
If flying into Los Angeles, one should know: LAX is the biggest and most well-known airport in the area, but depending on where you plan to be spending time in the city, it may not be the best choice. Burbank, Long Beach, John Wayne, and Ontario international airports also serve the region.
Whether you dream of a posh suite overlooking the ocean, a boutique hotel in the heart of a city, a full-service resort, or a serene campsite under the stars, California has the perfect place to spend the night. Book a stay at a major chain almost anywhere in the state, or consider accommodations as distinctive as California itself—handsome stone-and-timber mountain lodges, restored Gold Rush hotels, snug inns, and ultra-exclusive retreats in one-of-a-kind settings. There are also millions of acres of unforgettable parkland where all you need is a tent, a sleeping bag, marshmallows, and a few good campfire stories. (And, maybe, a reservation.)
California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies can offer good suggestions for all types of lodging, including resorts, hotels, and motels.
Hotels & Motels
Hotels and motels are the tried-and-true standard for most vacations—providing a safe, clean, and comfortable place to go to sleep at night. They’re important here. Remember, California invented the motel back in the 1920s. Top chains are well represented statewide, and are often located in larger metropolitan areas and near tourist attractions and travel routes. Boutique hotels tend to offer a more intimate and luxuriously stylish environment for travelers. In more rural areas, consider independently owned lodgings, some in historic buildings.
Bed & Breakfasts
California has hundreds of B&Bs, many in historic homes or hotels and a growing number at family-run (and family-friendly) farms, ranches, and vineyards. B&Bs can give a sense of the region's local character, with helpful innkeepers happy to share insider travel tips. Your stay also includes breakfast—imagine, just-baked scones, fresh eggs, or strawberries from the garden. To reserve a stay at one of the nearly 200 B&Bs and inns listed with it statewide, visit the California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns (CABBI).
Certain parts of the state—the Deserts region, coastal communities, mountain resort towns—are renowned for five-star retreats, with many championship golf courses and tennis complexes, spectacular swimming pools, destination restaurants, and elegant spas (often open to the public). California’s celebrated wine regions also have ultra-luxe retreats, with romantic settings, unparalleled farm-to-table cuisine, and, of course, incredible wine lists. Many resorts also offer special activities for kids, like movie-and-popcorn nights, so parents can enjoy time alone while their children have experienced childcare. Weddings and reunions can book private event spaces and exclusive catering services. For top resorts statewide, check California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies.
In California, camping is everything it should be—pitch your tent under the stars at campgrounds scented with pine trees, next to alpine lakes and desert oases, or on a spectacular stretch of coastline. If “roughing it” isn't your style, try “glamping,” or glamorous camping, in outdoor settings with fully equipped tents or rustic cabins or even Mongolian-style yurts.
Or, consider renting a ready-to-roll RV; check individual campsites in advance for any RV restrictions.
You can also backpack deep into California's expansive wilderness areas—just be sure you have a permit before you head out (check individual locations for permit requirements).
Many state and national parks permit camping. Some popular locations such as Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon tend to fill up months in advance, so reserve as early as possible. Federal lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, also have thousands of campsites, which are often uncrowded, even during the summer months. There are also many outstanding private campgrounds statewide.
California is made for road trips. An easy-to-navigate network of more than 50,000 miles of good-quality highways and freeways link just about every corner of the state, with secondary routes leading to even more under-the-radar finds. Some of these roads are famous—Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast, legendary Route 66, and Avenue of the Giants (Highway 101 winding through towering redwoods). Some are workhorses—most notably Interstates 5 and 80—getting drivers (and truckers) up and across the state as quickly as possible. But even these heavy-lifters can lead you to surprising destinations.
No matter where you drive, remember the basic rules of the road. Below is a rundown of the laws everyone should know before getting behind a wheel in California, along with a few resources to get the road information you need.
Mandatory Personal Safety Measures
California law states that everyone in a vehicle must wear a seatbelt, and motorcyclists must wear a helmet.
Speed limits are posted in miles per hour (mph). Generally, the speed limit on multilane freeways is 65 mph, though in some areas it is 70 mph. On two-lane highways, the limit is generally 55 mph. The speed limit on city streets is usually 35 mph, though in residential areas and near schools, the limit is generally 25 mph.
Speed Limit Enforcement
In many area of California, speed limits are enforced by aircraft, meaning excessive speeds are detected from the air by an aircraft you can’t see, then radioed in to a police car which will pull you over. There are also speed-detecting roadside cameras. The best policy is to maintain a speed within the speed limit.
It is against the law in California to write, send, or read text-based messages while driving, and drivers must use a hands-free device when speaking on a mobile phone.
Along freeways with heavy traffic, carpool lanes (also called “diamond lanes” for the diamond-shape pattern painted on the lane’s surfaces) are identified by black-and-white signs that include details on times and days of enforcement (usually during peak rush hour periods on weekdays). To drive in most carpool lanes, you must have at least two people (including the driver) in the car (some lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area have a three-person minimum). Tempted to use the lane when you don’t have the required number of riders? Don’t—fines are staggeringly high, close to $400 in some areas. In the Los Angeles area, carpool lanes may have specific entry and exit zones; adhere to them or you could get a hefty fine for that as well.
Report an accident, crime, or unsafe driver by calling 911 from any phone.
Get ready to roll. With its mild climate, outstanding highway system, and nonstop-gorgeous scenery, California stands out as the perfect place for a road trip. And renting a car here is about as easy as it gets. Whether your trip itinerary is a statewide tour of California’s greatest hits, an all-in-the-family visit to iconic theme parks, or an off-the-beaten-track adventure, there’s a vehicle to match your mood and style—snazzy convertibles, family-friendly vans, rugged SUVs and pickups that can handle all types of conditions (including snow), even campers and RVs. All with good road assistance and optional insurance policies.
Car rentals are available throughout the state; most major companies have locations at the larger airports and in convenient city locations. To rent a car in California, you must be at least 25 years old (in most cases) and have a valid driver's license and credit card (used as a security deposit). Non-U.S. citizens must have passports. Rates may vary, with factors including location, car size and style, accessories (a child safety seat or in-car GPS, for example, may be extra), and the day of the week that you rent. Picking up and dropping off a vehicle at different locations can also increase rates. For the best deal, try booking a car at the same time you reserve your flights.
We've compiled a list of reputable companies with rental outlets statewide. Check charges in advance; there are lots of options including insurance coverage and extras, so be sure you get what you need and know what you’re paying for before you drive away. Companies may also offer a pre-pay fuel plan with discounted prices, worth considering if you know you’re likely to use up at least one full tank of gas.
If you’ve never driven in the state, you may want to read through this brief overview of statewide laws and rules of the road before getting behind the wheel. To find out about any road closures, travel alerts or updates on conditions, visit Caltrans.
Another fun way to explore California is to travel by train—a great way to enjoy the scenery instead of focusing on the road ahead. Amtrak’s legendary Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner trains follow ultra-scenic routes up and down the coast. The Capitol Corridor provides an easy east-west route across Northern California, while the San Joaquin slices through the broad and sunny Central Valley with connections to Yosemite National Park and other destinations. Along the way, there are options to link to Amtrak Thruway buses, which serve more than 90 destinations statewide. (Plus, you can disembark and rent a car at major stops to do additional exploring.) Depending on the route, you may be able to book a space in a special sleeping car, with access to an exclusive parlor car.
Local & Scenic Railways
Though Amtrak is the largest train service in the state, it’s not the only way to roll. In Northern California, Caltrain has regular service between San Francisco and San Jose. In Southern California, Metrolink offers service on seven regional lines that connect L.A., Ventura County, Antelope Valley, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County, and the Inland Empire. Trains dedicated to certain themes and in specific locales, such as the Napa Valley Wine Train, also provide a unique way to see some of California’s premier destinations.
For an easy and often fun way to get around California’s larger cities and communities, do what an increasing number of locals do and hitch a ride on a bus, subway, ferry, or light rail system. Using public transportation can be an efficient, affordable, safe, and eco-friendly option, particularly in areas where roads, parking, and urban traffic can be confusing and frustrating. Some transit systems let you buy multi-day passes; check ticket options online before you arrive to get the best deals. Two companies, CityPass and Go, also offer deals on local transportation options in San Francisco and Southern California.
True to the spirit of nature conservation that inspired its founding, Yosemite National Park has its own public transportation: Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System. YARTS buses travel from Merced, Mammoth Lakes, Sonora, and Fresno, as well as many smaller towns along the way, into the park. There are also shuttles from Visalia to Sequoia National Park and a free in-park shuttle that makes several stops, including all the campgrounds.
Buses are ideal for longer trips around the state too. Greyhound is the nation’s primary long-distance bus company, offering routes linking big cities and rural destinations statewide (and heading out of state too).
Amtrak’s extensive network of rails and thruway buses is another easy and efficient way to see the Golden State without your own vehicle. Particularly notable lines for visitors include the San Joaquin line, which will take you straight into Yosemite, the Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner trains that roll along scenic routes up and down the coast, and the Capitol Corridor which travels east-west in the northern part of the state. Though it’s the most extensive, the Amtrak isn’t the only rail service. Caltrain operates in the Bay area and Metrolink connects much of Southern California.
Below are links to California’s major regional transit organizations; most offer a variety of travel options, such as buses, subways, and light rail, trains, and in some cases, ferry boats. For more local information on transit options in Northern California, visit 511.org.
Buses & Subways; Northern California
Buses and Subways, Southern California
1. Learn the basic road laws. Ride in the direction of traffic and use the bicycle lanes when available. California law says you must ride as close to the right side as possible, unless the road is too narrow to be shared—in which case you are allowed to “take the lane.” (Not all motorists understand this, though, so always take precaution in this situation.) The California Bicycle Coalition outlines all the bike laws to know before you ride.
2. Wear this, not that. Cyclists under 18 must wear a helmet, but realistically it’s a good idea for everyone. And if you need to hear your playlist while you ride, keep it to one ear—a law passed in 2016 does not allow for headphones in both ears.
3. Nervous on the road? Find protected trails. Road riding isn’t for everyone, and California has miles upon miles of protected road. Go to traillink.com and type in a specific city and it will show you the distance, surface type, and mileage of routes in the area. Or start by reading Bicycling magazine’s list of the best bike paths in California.
4. Research your route. Check out bike mobile app Strava’s city guides for routes in Bakersfield, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and more—coffee shops and photo ops included. Also, the California Bike Coalition has a solid list of free online maps for routes from Humboldt County down to San Diego. Check out routes in the Central Coast at CycleCalCoast. You can also get turn-by-turn directions using Google maps: Dark green lines denote protected bike trails (read: no cars), light green lines show dedicated bike lanes, and dashed green lines indicate bicycle-friendly roads.
5. Consider a cycling event. Start by choosing an enticing ride and let that inspire your trip planning. On any given weekend, you’ll find dozens of cycling events throughout California. Want to tackle a century (100 miles) in wine country? Attend a mountain biking clinic? Check the event calendars on SoCalCycling.com, Raceplace.com, or Active.com for ideas.
6. Try a cycling tour. An organized bike tour can be a simplified, luxurious way to see new parts of California. Dozens of companies—including Backroads, Trek Travel, Bicycle Adventures, DuVine, and many more—offer trips everywhere from Joshua Tree to wine country to the northern coast, and they often include gourmet local cuisine and overnight stays at high-end resorts.
7. Find a group. Local cycling clubs often have group rides for all levels, either through a local shop or otherwise. USA Cycling has a fairly comprehensive list of clubs, but sometimes just walking into the local bike shop and asking is the easiest way to get info.
8. Watch the Amgen Tour of California in person. If there’s one way to get inspired, watching a world-class bike event is it. With Tour de France-level riders cycling throughout California every May, the Amgen Tour of California presents a rare opportunity to see a pro peloton up close.