Road Trip! Eight Exciting California Family Summer Getaways
School will be out and summer will be here before we know it! California offers countless opportunities for fantastic family getaways; after all, that's why millions of tourists visit our state every year. You don't have to endure and hours-long plane ride to visit some of the world's most beloved vacation destinations—many of them are right in our own backyard. 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.
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 Savannah Grill, too. It's an experience you and your family won't forget. Read about our adventure at Safari West.
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. 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.
Our usual pick for a family-friendly place to stay is the Santa Cruz Dream Inn, a cool mid-century hotel located right on the beach. (They've recently undergone an ownership change and remodel.) Read about our visit to Santa Cruz and our stay at the Dream Inn.
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 caves.
In Sonora, we always 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 delicious breakfast every morning. It also has a nice pool and patio areas.
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.
The owners of Evergreen Lodge opened an an all new resort, Rush Creek Lodge, last summer, 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 in a Park Pass for free entry into Yosemite and all other federal parks and lands.
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 Tahoe Donner and Northstar California 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.
Other must-do activities for us in Tahoe are the Treetop Adventure Park ropes course at Granlibakken 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.
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, 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.
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 beautiful and relaxing Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds. Read our articles about visiting Monterey and Pacific Grove.
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. While you're there, head up Highway 1 to San Simeon for a tour of Hearst Castle, William Randolph Heart's amazing, opulent estate in the hills about the Pacific.
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 and Hollywood
If goes without saying that there's a lot for families to do in the LA area, one of everyone's favorite summer destinations. We always love to visit Disneyland, of course, even in the busy summer season—it's crowded all the time, so just go if you want that Disney experience! (Tip: Get there right when they open and you'll have the run of the park for a few hours before the crowds build up by late morning.)
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. Tour the legendary Warner Bros. back lot in Burbank on their studio tour (for families with kids 8 and up), and take a ride through a century of movie-making history at Universal Studios Hollywood, where you can also experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, meet the Simpsons at Springfield USA, and more.
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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