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 FASTPASS) 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. 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.