Experience national parks, natural gems, and other cultural icons in one of the most expansive states in the United States.
1. Lounge in La Jolla
Once home to Dr. Seuss, (the trees in Ellen Browning Scripps Park are thought to have influenced his Truffula trees in The Lorax, La Jolla feels tailor-made for families. Kids of all ages won’t tire of pointing out the seals and sea lions lazing on the sands at the children’s pool or the shadows of Garibaldi fish in the waters. Set up camp at La Jolla Shores Beach for the day: Waters are calm enough to swim in and beginners have just enough of a wave to learn to surf. (Try Surf Diva for lessons.) A snorkel outing at San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park offers a chance to see leopard sharks and rays. Plus, nearby Kellogg Park has grassy areas for Frisbee-tossing and picnics, as well as swings and slides.
Tip: Head to Scripps Pier (a short walk north) for sunset shots of the family.
2. Explore the National Parks
With eight national parks across the state, families can choose the topography that is best suited for their young explorers. From the boulders and dusty brush of Joshua Tree to the giant trees in Redwood to the historic hikes and biking trails in Yosemite, families will find opportunities for all ages and skill levels. This year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, which means even more activities for families to enjoy. Have the kids try their hand at becoming a junior ranger or sign up for guided hikes, including dark sky talks, throughout the summer months.
Tip: Starting September 1, if you have a child in fourth grade, you can grab them a free park entry pass through the new Every Kid in a Park initiative.
3. Go Horseback Riding at Point Reyes National Seashore
With more than 70,000 acres of preserved parkland and some 150 miles of trails, the Point Reyes National Seashore has plenty for your family to explore. How you do so is completely up to you. Hike along the trails, peek out at gray whales as they migrate past the 1870 lighthouse, or gaze down at elephant seals from a lookout above the sandy headlands. Or elevate your viewpoint and take to the hillsides and forested pathways on horseback.
The six-hour trip over Inverness Ridge and down to Wildcat Beach includes a view of the Alamere Falls. Before you leave make sure to visit Kule Loklo, the re-created village of the Coast Miwok people who were the area’s first inhabitants. Ranger-led walks (check with the visitor center for times) help to put the area into historical context.
Tip: Be prepared for cooler temperatures as you explore. The point is the windiest place on the Pacific coast and the second foggiest on the continent.
4. Get Tween Spirit in Los Angeles
The kids will want celebrities. Get them close with tours of the studios where the magic happens: Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Sony Pictures for starters. Check the fine print for age restrictions (most allow ages 12 and up). You can also book tickets to show tapings (Ellen, Jimmy Kimmel Live) and game shows (The Price Is Right) ahead of time online. Spend an afternoon comparing handprints to those of famous folks you know in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Then put the celebs behind you at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (free youth memberships and family activities mean you can try your hand at painting something at the Boone Children’s Gallery). Book a horseback ride up near the Hollywood sign to impress. Then, cap the day with a visit to the Griffith Observatory for an explanation of the other stars in the universe.
Tip: Take a drive out to Pasadena on the weekend for a free, new-to-all-of-you experience. The Pasadena Roving Archers offer a free class for first-timers every Saturday.
5. Dive Deep at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Your hometown aquarium isn’t nearly this cool. While there are serious efforts at work behind the scenes of this research center dedicated to California ocean health, thriving ocean wildlife, and sustainable fisheries, the learning is all fun. Make the most of your time here with a guided family-focused tour. If your kids have a specific animal they’re excited about (sharks or sea otters, for example), special tours can be tailored. Extend the excitement by booking a sleepover stay (you’ll sleep next to your favorite exhibit) or send the kids off on an Underwater Explorer excursion (kids ages eight through 13 can dive alongside staff in the Great Tide Pool and no experience is necessary.).
Tip: Plan to come for the day and to explore Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Big Sur while you’re there.
6. Have Two-Wheeled Fun in Sacramento
With its gold rush history and capital city luster, there is plenty about Sacramento to keep families busy. But if what you’re after is the opposite of busy, rent two wheels and head over to the American River Parkway. The 32-mile-long Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail is paved, making it easy for families to do as much or as little as they like. Plaques along the route offer historical information about the area, and you’ll also spot birds, including egrets and herons, as you go. If your brood includes more accomplished bikers, you can take advantage of bike lanes on city streets to get a different view of the capital. (Sacramento was awarded a silver award for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists).
Tip: At the trail’s head you’ll find Discovery Park, perfect for a pre-ride picnic.
7. Take a Trip Back in Time in Gold Country
When gold was first discovered in California in 1848, it changed the course of history. And while the era of simply dipping your pan into a riverbed and coming up a millionaire is over, your family can still get a kick out of trying.
Little ones will love Columbia State Historic Park, where the re-created Gold Rush town’s costumed docents bring history to life and saloons offer a cold drink to beat the heat. Or explore Old Sacramento—a 28-acre national historic landmark—where you’ll find restored buildings housing modern museums, the chance to explore a restored riverboat, and a one-room schoolhouse to tour.
Tip: If your family is looking for more adrenaline-pumping options, consider a white-water rafting experience on the American River (rapids range from calm Class II to scream-worthy Class V) or a rappelling adventure into California’s largest vertical chamber in a public cavern in Vallecito.
8. Catch Air
If your kids’ skateboarding usually happens on poorly paved streets and a makeshift plywood ramp, showing them California’s skate park offerings will likely blow their minds. This is where skateboarding was born (when surfers decided they should figure out a way to “surf concrete”) and where it grew to stratospheric heights with parks to match.
Start them off with a lesson in history at the Skateboarding Hall of Fame Museum in San Jose. Then take your pick of skate parks across the state. Want to see the biggest? You’ll need to get to Lake Cunningham Regional Skate Park near Los Angeles. Its 68,000 square feet includes features that will enthuse every skill level at affordable prices.
Tip: Even those who aren’t keen to try out the 70-foot-long full-pipe, the world’s largest cradle, or the world’s tallest vertical wall will be happy enough to watch those that do.
9. Hit the Theme Parks
Chances are slim that you’ll be able to come and go from California with kids and not be tempted to visit a theme park. From the colossal offerings at Disneyland to the laser-like focus of Legoland, you can easily get lost in the imaginary worlds your kids love.
For smaller kids—or if you just want a change of pace—consider outings to places like the Santa Monica Pier, where coasters and boardwalks make for a great evening out. Or head up to the classic rides at Knott’s Berry Farm, where a Calico Mine ride and Old West ghost town offer a distinctive California feel.
Tip: If you want to hit the parks but save some cash, consider purchasing the Southern California CityPASS booklet. It offers multiday access to many of the most popular parks at a fraction of the cost.
10. Ride the Rails
The single-unit, self-propelled motorcar that ran as the California Western Railroad when it launched in 1885 is best known by the nickname it got for the pungent smell it gave off as it passed. Today the “Skunk Train” remains one of Northern California’s most popular family outings. Choose between the one-hour Pudding Creek Express or a longer four-hour route that takes you deeper into the redwoods. Get kids engaged by having them keep an eye out for local wildlife as you listen to engineers providing information about the train and your surroundings.
Tip: Although reservations aren’t required, they are encouraged, especially in the summer months when the train is most popular. It’s not uncommon to arrive to find it’s completely sold out.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO CALIFORNIA