From Best Beaches to National Parks: Best California Vacation Spots for Families

One of the highlights of Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay State Park. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

California is a top vacation destination for families; travelers flock for a wide array of activities, both outdoor and indoor. Families can see world-class museums and then splash at the beach in the afternoon. They can visit a national park to stand under the towering redwood trees. Kids can learn to surf, hike through a mountain meadow or stare at dinosaurs. There’s lots to see in California. Here are the best California Vacation Spots for Families.

Why Visit California 

This is one of my favorite states, and I have visited it countless times. California offers so many options, from the beaches to the forests to the lakes and even volcanoes. Depending on what you have planned, the weather is good for the majority of the year.

One of the best things I love about California is the versatility of activities. In winter (and sometimes in summer, too), you can literally go skiing and then walk on the beach in shorts within a 4-hour drive.

Ideal for outdoor activities, the cities also offer top museums, especially Los Angeles. For those who love theme parks, California offers several, including Disneyland, SeaWorld and Legoland.

Best Beaches in California

California Beaches have created a whole culture, and teens want to see it. With an immense shoreline, there is a beach for everyone, from shelling to surfing to castle making. Some of the best beaches are state parks.

The best beaches for swimming and splashing are in Southern California due to the warmer water temperature. Check out the tide times for tide pooling opportunities.

Beaches farther north offer some of the best wildlife watching. These beaches are also less crowded.  You can even camp on the beach since several are state parks, both with developed campsites and cabins available.

Best Beaches in California

Best National Park Trips 

Load up, especially if you are in Southern California for a National Park Road Trip. The national parks of California offer a diverse landscape, from the driest deserts to the lushest forests.

Southern California National Parks offers deserts with an interesting array of cacti. As you travel north, the mountain parks are top destinations. In Northern California, visitors will find volcanoes and towering redwood trees in California’s national parks.

National Parks Road Trips in California
Take a hike. What to do in Lassen National Park with kids.
Take a hike when visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park to enjoy the mountain scenery. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Top Places to Explore in Northern California 

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Yosemite National Park is as stunning as it is crowded. Sequoia National Park is a little better. However, it is still congested. Both are located in the Sierra Nevada mountains and offer snow-capped mountains with evergreen trees and glistening lakes. a

To visit the same type of scenery with fewer visitors, I recommend Lassen Volcanic National Park. Located in the Cascade Mountains, it is just as scenic with the power of volcanoes. Located in Northern California, it is east of Redding.

Top Things to Do in Lassen Volcanic National Park 
Hike though the Humbolt Toiyabe National Forest at North Lake Tahoe. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Lake Tahoe

Frequently topping lists for the most picturesque lakes in the U.S., Lake Tahoe is equally a summer and winter destination. Winter offers nearly a dozen mountain resorts for skiing, snowboarding, ice skating and more

The summer season is glorious, with water sports on Lake Tahoe. There is lots of hiking, from easy walks to multi-day trips. Visitors will also find mountain biking, kayaking, SUP and more.

The Best of Lake Tahoe in the Summer


Sacramento is the state capitol, located between the San Francisco Bay and Lake Tahoe. It offers several historical sites dedicated to the Gold Rush.

The California capital is a top site, and the capitol grounds are easy to explore. The Old Sacramento Waterfront is another top thing to do, as are the farmers markets.

Top Things to Do in Sacramento
Hike a trail as one of the things to do in the Redwoods with kids.
The redwood groves offer family-friendly hikes. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Redwood National and State Parks

The redwoods are a top thing to see in California. Lucky for travelers, there are several places where they live. One of the best (and least crowded) places is the Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California.

These redwoods are Coastal Redwoods of California, a different species of redwood than Sequoias. This park offers hiking trails, biking paths, and stretches of beach to explore. Visitors can easily explore this park with short hikes and scenic drives.

Redwood National and State Parks
Tour Alcatraz with kids during your trip to San Francisco.
The hospital ward creeps out adults, and younger kids might want to skip it. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Alcatraz Island

It’s one of the top destinations in San Francisco. Located in San Francisco Bay,  the island was once a notorious prison.

During my visit, I went on the last tour of the day. In the fading light, it was an eerie experience. The park rangers even opened and closed the doors like the prison used to do each night.

Only one tour operator lands on the island, and tickets sell out months in advance.

How to Visit Alcatraz

Top Places to Explore in Southern California

Cabrillo National Monument. Where to go in San Diego with kids.
Learn about the explorer Cabrillo and when he landed in San Diego. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

San Diego

It’s a top family travel destination with amusement parks, beaches, and one of the top zoos in the U.S. San Diego also offers a national park site where visitors will find whale watch and tide pools.

One of the best things about San Diego is the perfect weather. It hardly rains, and temperatures stay mild most of the year.

Top Things to Do in San Diego with Kids

Joshua Tree National Park

The deserts of Southern California offer a varied landscape to explore. However, during the summer, watch those temperatures; they exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit for months.

Joshua Tree National Park is conveniently located close to Palm Springs. I have visited several times in the summer and limited my outdoor time. This park offers interesting rock formations, the Joshua Trees along with hiking and camping.

Joshua Tree National Park Planning Guide

Death Valley National Park

It’s home to the lowest place on earth, and during the summer, it’s a furnace. The most developed area is called Furnace Creek.

Death Valley is best explored from fall to spring. It offers a luxury hotel, a golf course, and spring-fed pools along with star-gazing, hiking and more.

Top Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
A trip to see the redwoods of California is a must for the family. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

This is the closest place to find redwoods in South California. Sequoia trees are a type of redwood in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

This is a popular national park, so travelers will find lodges, dining and outdoor activities. Hiking and scenic drives are the top things to do in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It is also a great escape from the heat of Southern California.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Santa Barbara

Named the American Riviera, Santa Barbara offers an oceanside community with a blend of outdoor fun and museums. With several straw-colored beaches to explore, Santa Barbara is one of the best California vacation spots for families.

Beach time is one of the top things to do. However, families will find a children’s museum and a zoo.

Top Things to Do in Santa Barbara with Kids 
What to do in Solvang with kids.
Escape to a Danish hamlet in Central California, a train ride from LA. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker


Originally settled by Danes escaping the cold winters of the Midwest, Solvang has quaint streets with thatched roofs and replicas of Danish landmarks. The downtown area is highly walkable, and the weather is pleasant most of the year.

Solvang is close to California’s Santa Ynez wine-producing region. You’ll find many tasting rooms to enjoy, and many offer kids’ activities. One of my favorite things was the European-inspired bakeries,

Top Things to Do in Solvang
Explore the Mojave Desert with a drive to the visitor center at Kelso, California. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Mojave Desert

The deserts of Southern California are more diverse than most realize. Several national parks protect this vital environment from Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Mojave National Preserve.

The Mojave Desert offers Joshua Trees and some unique rock formations, including a lava tube. It’s also a top off-roading destination.

How to See the Mojave National Preserve

Palm Springs

Palm Springs is a top destination for families because of its mid-century modern architecture. It sports a laid-back desert vibe too

Palm Springs also offers some top spas in California. For golfers, there are lots of options in Palm Springs as well.

Top Things to Do in Palm Springs

California is a top vacation destination for families with good reason. It offers a diverse array of attractions and scenery to explore. From the lowest point in the U.S. to the largest trees there's lots to see in California. With miles of beaches in its urban hubs, you can enjoy both on the same day. Here's the best California Vacation Spots for Families. Best Desinations in California for Families | Where to go with Kids in California | Best California Vacation Spots for kids #California #FamilyTravel


Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

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