Road Trip! 8 Exciting California Family Summer Getaways
California offers countless opportunities for fantastic family getaways right in our own backyard. Plus, we're all ready to get out and explore a little after being cooped up at home during the pandemic. Here are eight of our favorite family summer road trip destinations, ranging from beach towns to the High Sierra to an African wildlife preserve right in Sonoma County.
Safari West, Santa Rosa
Santa Rosa's Safari West is close to home but feels a world away! This 400-acre wildlife preserve in the Sonoma County hills is home to giraffes, zebras, rhinos, water buffalo, monkeys, cheetahs, exotic birds, and more kinds of African antelope than you realized existed. Hop on a vintage Dodge Power Wagon for one of their fun and informative tours and you'll feel like you're on safari in Africa.
In addition to tours, Safari West offers overnight accommodations in the form of luxury "glamping" tent cabins. They even have family tents with bunk beds. You can dine at their on-site restaurant, the Savanna Grill, too. It's an experience you and your family won't forget. Read about our adventure at Safari West.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
This laid-back seaside town about two hours from Marin boasts beautiful beaches and the world-famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which has been delighting visitors since 1907. You'll also find a surfing museum housed in an old lighthouse, an interactive visitor center for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the nearby Roaring Camp Railroads, and even the Mystery Spot, a roadside attraction that seems to defy the very laws of physics.
The Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz
Due to the fact that Santa Cruz faces south on Monterey Bay, it can be warm and sunny here when other parts of the coast are socked in with fog. Advance tickets are recommended for the Mystery Spot, especially on weekends, and you can buy passes and wristbands for the Boardwalk online in advance, too.
The Gold Country
Columbia State Historic Park
California's Sierra Foothills are famous as the site of the Gold Rush in the 1800s. Many of the small towns up there retain their 19th-century charm, and families will find plenty to do, from riding a real steam train at Railtown 1897 to panning for gold in the historic town of Columbia. We usually stay to the town of Sonora, which has a great location with close proximity to Railtown and Columbia, as well as the cute town of Murphys and its nearby attractions like Moaning Caverns.
Gunn House Hotel, Sonora
In Sonora, we often stay at the Gunn House Hotel. Housed in a circa-1850 adobe that's the town's oldest building, it's affordable, furnished with antiques, and offers a free breakfast every morning. It also has a nice pool and patio areas.
Yosemite and the Evergreen Lodge
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park isn't exactly a hidden gem, expecially during the summer when the Valley bustles with tourists. Despite this, it's still a must-visit destination for that classic High Sierra summer vacation, and you can find plenty of places there that are far less crowded than Yosemite Valley itself. Right outside the park's west entrance is Evergreen Lodge, a fantastic rustic retreat with cool cabins, great food, a pool, a rec room with a cozy fireplace, games for everyone, and plenty of activities for the kids. Read about our stay at the Evergreen Lodge.
Evergreen Lodge, Yosemite
The owners of Evergreen Lodge recently opened another Yosemite resort, Rush Creek Lodge, located right off Highway 120 near the park entrance. Also, if you got a 4th grader in the family, make sure you get your Every Kid Outdoors Pass for free entry into Yosemite and all other federal parks and lands. Keep in mind Yosemite National Park is requiring advance reservations to drive into or through the park during peak hours (6 am–4 pm) through September 30, 2022. Learn more here.
Truckee & North Lake Tahoe
Another Sierra destination we love is the Truckee and North Lake Tahoe area, which is just a quick trip up Interstate 80 from the Bay Area. During the summer, ski resorts like Palisades Tahoe, Tahoe Donner, and Northstar California Resort become hot spots for outdoor family fun, with activities like mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, geocaching, boating, and more. You'll also find summer concerts in Truckee and Tahoe City, outdoor movies, farmer's markets, and more.
Treetop Adventure Park, Granlibakken
Other must-do activities for us in Tahoe are the Treetop Adventure Park ropes courses at Granlibakken, Tahoe Vista, or Squaw Valley and of couse kayaking on Lake Tahoe or Donner Lake — Emerald Bay is a favorite spot. Families with 4th-graders will want to visit Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee, where you can learn about California history first-hand.
Monterey & Pacific Grove
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Just south of Santa Cruz, at the opposite end of Monterey Bay, Monterey and adjacent Pacific Grove are worthwhile spring break destinations. Monterey offers the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium (advance tickets required), historic sites from early California, beaches, and Cannery Row. Pacific Grove, Monterey's homier next-door neighbor, has a small-town feel that seems far removed from the touristy bustle of nearby Cannery Row as well as its own unique attractions, including a cool natural history museum, an historic lighthouse, and a grove that's home to migrating Monarch butterflies every fall and winter.
Asilomar State Beach, Pacific Grove
In downtown Monterey, the Portola Hotel it has a convenient location, a delightful nautical atmosphere, and a fun Portola Pirates kids' program. In adjacent Pacific Grove, we love to stay at the Butterfly Grove Inn near the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary or the historic Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds. Read our articles about visiting Monterey and Pacific Grove.
Pismo Beach & Hearst Castle
Further down California's Coast is the seaside town of Pismo Beach, where you can explore the beach, paddle a kayak, and even ride an ATV across the sand dunes. Nearby San Luis Obispo, with its historic mission and college-town charm is worth a visit, too.
Hearst Castle State Monument, San Simeon
While you're there, head up Highway 1 to San Simeon for a tour of Hearst Castle, William Randolph Heart's amazing and opulent estate in the hills about the Pacific. Advance reservations for tours are highly recommended.
SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel, Pismo Beach
We love the family-friendly SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel. Perched on the bluffs right over the ocean, it offers spectacular views, spacious grounds with lawns, two swimming pools, fire pits, and a BBQ area, beach access, and family suites with separate bedrooms for the kids.
Los Angeles & Hollywood
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Hollywood
We also love to explore the Hollywood experience. Brave the craziness of Hollywood Boulevard to see a movie at the lavish El Capitan Theater, Disney's restored 1926 movie palace, equipped with state-of-the-art cinematic technology. No movie-themed visit to the Southland would be complete without a movie studio tour.
El Capitan Theater, Hollywood
Tour the legendary Warner Bros. back lot in Burbank on their studio tour (for families with kids 8 and up; re-opening this summer), and take a ride through a century of movie-making history at Universal Studios Hollywood (now open to California residents), where you can also experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, meet the Simpsons at Springfield USA, and more.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour, Burbank
Another favorite LA destination is the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, which gives you a unique look at prehistoric Southern California. Get up-close-and-personal with fossils of mammoths, ground sloths, saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, and other Ice Age creatures that once roamed the area.
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