Foolproof Family Road Trips in California
Pack up the car and bring the kids to these four California vacation destinations that offer boundless fun for all ages.
At La Jolla Cove, in San Diego, kids and their parents share the beach with sea lions and pelicans.
Photo by Lisa Field/Courtesy of SanDiego.org
What better way to spend spring break—or summer vacation—than by piling the whole family into the car for a good, old-fashioned road trip? But while our great state offers multitudes of world-class getaway destinations, it’s not always easy to find one that simultaneously delights fun-seeking kids, moody teens, and their sophisticated (and exhausted) parents. Diablo’s family-holiday experts have done plenty of research—and endured more than a few cries of “Are we there yet?”—to come up with three prime vacation spots within a three-hour drive of the East Bay, as well as one must-visit city that’s farther afield, that promise memorable adventures and bonding experiences for families of all shapes and sizes.
Explore science and nature—with plenty of playtime—in this cosmopolitan coastal paradise.
By Virginia Shannon
Why It's Great: The jaw-dropping shoreline—immortalized in the intro sequence to HBO’s Big Little Lies—draws travelers from across the globe. But a family-approved mix of renowned educational outposts, exhilarating outdoor adventures, and chic city amenities makes Monterey an ideal destination for kids and adults alike. seemonterey.com.
Where to Stay: The fantastically located Portola Hotel and Spa has been called the area’s most kid-friendly retreat, partly because it offers children pirate-themed activity bags and treats them to a treasure hunt around the property. Accommodations include two-room suites with a king bed and pullout sofa, as well as adjoining-room options. Kids can splash in the pool while parents grab a coffee at the new Peet’s outpost in the hotel’s lobby or indulge in a blissful massage at its highly regarded spa. portolahotel.com.
What to Do: The world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium should be on every family’s must-visit list. One of its most popular exhibits, the 28-foot-tall kelp forest gives visitors a diver’s-eye view of leopard sharks, wolf eels, and other ocean dwellers swimming through an underwater jungle. Toddlers can play on a waterbed of waves and explore coral reefs in the Splash Zone—a collection of 45 interactive exhibits, including open pools for older kids to get up close with sea creatures. Behind-the-scenes tours offer families with kids ages 6 and older a chance to learn the secrets of this sea-life sanctuary. And everyone will fall in love with the aquarium’s adorable otters and penguins. montereybayaquarium.org.
The Aquarium is located on Cannery Row—a series of old fish canneries made famous by John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel of the same name. The district boasts more than 25 eateries and loads of boutiques, including a magic shop selling toys, games, and trinkets, as well as multiple candy stores. Active families should stop by Adventures by the Sea to book kayak tours or rent bikes to explore the scenic waterfront. canneryrow.com, adventuresbythesea.com.
Younger kids go wild at Dennis the Menace Playground, in the El Estero Park Complex. The vast array of thrilling play structures range from zippy hillside slides, to a wood-pillar maze, to climbing opportunities galore. There’s also an adjacent skate park. (The playground is closed on Tuesdays between September and May.) monterey.org.
Head to the Monterey County Youth Museum (known as MY Museum) to spark your little one’s imagination. Highlights include a “restaurant” where tykes serve “food” to parents and other kids, a stage where young performers dress up in costumes and watch themselves on video screens, and a fire truck to play inside. mymuseum.org.
In neighboring Pacific Grove, budding scientists can dig for fossils in a sand pit and marvel over real predator skulls and more than 300 mounted birds at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. Ask for the scavenger-hunt kit when you arrive, and don’t miss the monarch butterfly gallery. pgmuseum.org.
Bonus For Parents: An abundance of fabulous restaurants—including the sustainable-seafood standout Passionfish in Pacific Grove and the local-favorite Montrio Bistro in Monterey—serve as ideal date-night spots. Nearby, Pebble Beach is a bucket-list destination for golf fans. Book a tee time at any of its three public courses, or catch a glimpse of PGA stars at the 2019 U.S. Open in June. Non-golfers will enjoy the dramatic scenery of the 17-Mile Drive, in Del Monte Forest, which encompasses Pebble Beach. passionfish.net, montrio.com, pebblebeach.com.
Driving Distance: Approximately 120 miles (that's two hours with no traffic)
How Long to Stay: At least three days
Best For: Lively little kids and budding biology majors
Russian River Valley
Drift the day away in this tranquil haven known for water sports, towering trees, and wineries.
By Dana Rebmann
Why It's Great: The Russian River Valley is where redwoods and Wine Country lovingly collide. A longtime mecca for nature-seeking city slickers, this slice of western Sonoma County experiences life at a slower pace. Here, families can hike in the shade of soaring trees or float the day away in the river, then sleep soundly in vintage digs, ideal for stargazing and s’mores making. sonomacounty.com/destinations/redwoods-rivers.
Where to Stay: Go glamping in a shiny Airstream at AutoCamp. Every trailer has a queen bed and a sleeper sofa that turns into a full bed, in addition to a kitchenette, bathroom, and patio with fire pit. S’mores are a gooey must. The open-air clubhouse attracts a crowd with its fire pit, comfy seating, and classic board games. Little red Radio Flyer wagons come in handy to cart luggage (or kids) around. autocamp.com.
What to Do: The Russian River runs through the city of Guerneville. Steps off downtown, Johnson’s Beach is the spot to make a splash. A concession stand serves hot dogs and ice cream alongside beer and wine, and families can rent an assortment of beach gear including inner tubes, paddle boats, beach chairs, and umbrellas. If you’d like to go deeper into the river, Burke’s Canoe Trips in Forestville offers self-guided, 10-mile canoe and kayak trips. When you’re finished floating, swimming, and soaking up some sun, buses shuttle you back to your car. Trips run late May through mid-October. johnsonsbeach.com, burkescanoetrips.com.
Being wet isn’t the only way to stay cool in the Russian River Valley. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve encompasses a serene—and mostly shady—805 acres. The Parson Jones Tree, the tallest in the grove, towers at 310 feet. (That’s almost the length of a football field.) The Colonel Armstrong Tree, the grove’s oldest, is estimated to date back more than 1,400 years. Both are an easy walk from the park’s entrance. The reserve also includes a visitor center and a number of self-guided nature trails for all fitness levels. If you’re traveling with older kids, book a tour with Segway of Healdsburg and roll through Armstrong Woods on high-tech scooters. (Kids must be 12 years old and weigh at least 100 pounds.) stewardscr.org, segwayofhealdsburg.com.
Picnic tables are plentiful in the reserve, so pick up a bag lunch from nearby Big Bottom Market. Its biscuits gained fame in 2016 when TV icon Oprah Winfrey picked them as one of her “favorite things.” bigbottommarket.com.
If you forgot anything—or even if you didn’t—swing by Guerneville 5 and 10 on Main Street. A neighborhood fixture since 1949, this classic and colorful dime store sells everything from river floats to craft supplies. guerneville5and10.com.
Bonus For Parents: The Russian River Valley is home to a number of notable wineries. Historic Korbel Champagne Cellars boasts vineyards that hug the river and a garden with more than 150 varieties of roses. Year-round winery tours and tastings are complimentary and typically last less than an hour. (Garden tours are also offered Tuesday through Sunday, from mid-April to mid-October.) korbel.com.
Driving Distance: Approximately 90 miles (under two hours by car)
How Long to Stay: Three nights, four days
Best For: Tweens and teens—but younger ones who like being outside (and wet) will be all smiles here too
From Gold Rush history to outdoor adventures—with and without snow—this rustic mountain region offers something for everyone.
By Dana Rebmann
Why It's Great: Calaveras County is home to numerous charming, Gold Rush–era towns, each with its own combination of family-friendly adventures. In between playing in spring snow and soaring through the air on tandem zip lines, families can hop aboard a stagecoach and strike it rich exploring Gold Country history. gocalaveras.com.
Where to Stay: Cabins and cottages that give groups room to spread out are a popular choice in and around Arnold, which makes an ideal base, thanks to its welcoming ambience and central location. Airbnb and VRBO are good spots to start your search. Alternatively, Calaveras Big Trees State Park offers four rental cabins, each with two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, and bathroom. The largest, Sugar Pine, sleeps up to nine; others comfortably fit four to seven people. The park also has two main campgrounds with 124 campsites. parks.ca.gov.
What to Do: If spring skiing (or just playing in the snow) is on the family’s wish list, both Bear Valley Resort and Bear Valley Cross Country typically stay open until mid-April, conditions permitting. With locations in Arnold, Murphys, and Sonora, Sierra Nevada Adventure Co. makes it easy to grab snowshoe rentals. No lessons are required; if you can walk, you can snowshoe. bearvalley.com, bearvalleyxc.com, snacattack.com.
Located on Highway 4, just a few miles northeast of Arnold, Calaveras Big Trees State Park features two groves of giant sequoias. The Louis Agassiz tree is the park’s tallest; it measures more than 250 feet high and over 25 feet in diameter. Activities at Big Trees range from cross-country skiing to hiking and biking, along with ranger talks and astronomy programs. Staff and volunteers at the park’s visitor center are happy to help families get the most out of their day. In addition to a bookstore, the building houses a museum with hands-on exhibits. bigtrees.org.
Fuel up at Giant Burger before or after exploring the park. Order milkshakes all around (you won’t want to share) and take a picture with the wooden bear statue out front. giantburger.net.
For more thrills, head to Moaning Caverns Adventure Park in Vallecito—about a half-hour drive south of Arnold. Kids can tour a cavern 165 feet underground or race their parents on twin quarter-mile zip lines. moaningcaverns.com.
Ride a stagecoach, pan for gold, and visit a working blacksmith shop at Columbia State Historic Park. The town of Columbia’s Gold Rush–era business district is well preserved, and many employees dress the part, so families get a feel for what life was like in this mining town during the 19th century. friendsofcolumbiashp.com.
Bonus For Parents: Just 12 miles from Arnold, the attractive town of Murphys features almost two dozen wine-tasting rooms on its Main Street (and more scattered throughout the community). The promise of a stop at Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen, also situated on the main drag, can help keep kids happy while the grown-ups indulge. visitmurphys.com, columbiacandykitchen.com.
Driving Distance: Approximately 130 miles (about two-and-a-half hours by car)
How Long to Stay: Three nights, four days
Best For: All ages (who doesn't love stagecoach rides and zip lining?)
A sunny city boasting gorgeous beaches, wild animals, and a wonderland of Legos? Sign us up.
By Travis Marshall
Why It's Great: Sure, it’s at the far end of the state, but with its year-round Mediterranean climate, beautiful beaches, and abundance of kid-friendly attractions, San Diego is arguably one of the best family destinations in the country. California’s second-largest city offers world-class theme parks, a spectacular coastline ideal for outdoor adventures and water sports, and a vibrant urban center studded with historic landmarks, engaging museums, and sprawling gardens. sandiego.org.
Where to Stay: If your family has set its sights on theme parks, consider a hotel in Carlsbad rather than downtown San Diego; the themed rooms at the Legoland Castle Hotel are a kid’s dream come true. If you’re keen to explore the heart of the city, the Omni San Diego Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter gives younger guests a backpack upon check-in filled with games, binoculars, and other activities, along with milk and cookies delivered to the room on the first night. legoland.com/california, omnihotels.com.
What to Do: The San Diego Zoo is among the largest zoos in the United States, and while it’s best known for its giant pandas, you could spend days exploring this 100-acre destination in Balboa Park that’s home to more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals. Kids will especially love getting a bird’s-eye view of the habitats while riding the Skyfari Aerial Tram. sandiegozoo.org.
For children (and adults) with a passion for Legos, the Legoland California theme park in Carlsbad offers thrilling rides, a toddler-friendly water park, and a driving school where kids ages 6 and up can earn their Legoland driver’s license.
Of course, no trip to San Diego is complete without a day at the beach—and the region brims with seaside spots to suit every taste. For wildlife viewing, head to La Jolla Cove, where seals and sea lions frolic. Adventurous kids can snorkel with orange garibaldi in the kelp forests, while the Children’s Pool beach provides a protected spot for smaller swimmers. For sun, sand, and shopping, head to Coronado Island, with its long stretches of white sand and laid-back beach-town vibe. And for family fun overlooking the bay, try Waterfront Park along Harbor Drive. This stunning public park in downtown San Diego has interactive water fountains for splashing, innovative play structures, and a native plants garden. (It’s also walking distance from the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the USS Midway aircraft carrier at the Navy Pier.) sandiego.gov, sdparks.org.
Bonus For Parents: If you’re craving a grown-up night out, head to the Gaslamp Quarter. The picturesque neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s filled with trendy boutiques, sidewalk cafes, and rooftop bars serving craft cocktails. Book a reservation up to a week in advance at Noble Experiment in the nearby East Village. This chic, speakeasy-style bar sits behind a false wall in the gastropub-heavy district. Tip: Order the Dealer’s Choice to have the bartender whip up a personalized libation just for you. gaslamp.org, nobleexperimentsd.com.
Driving Distance: Just under 500 miles—or roughly eight hours with no stops (Southwest Airlines offers direct flights between Oakland and San Diego too)
How Long to Stay: One week
Best For: Anyone seeking fun in the sun
Road Trip Survival Tips
Play games together. Verbal games—such as 20 Questions and Would You Rather—and visual games, wherein family members look for license plates from all 50 states or play bingo using cards that list common roadside sights, are time-honored travel traditions.
Pack plenty of snacks. Whether it’s fruit, chips, or even sweets, make sure you have enough food on hand to keep the kids (and adults) from getting grumpy. A good rule of thumb is one portion per person per hour of drive time. Don’t forget the napkins!
Pick the right podcasts. Tuning in to a great story or discussion can silence the entire family for a spell. Try such kid- and parent-approved podcast favorites as Story Pirates, Saturday Morning, or NPR's Wow in the World.
Don't forget the gadgets. Even if you limit screen time at home, it pays to give children a tablet or other device loaded up with apps or videos for a long car ride. It can occupy them for hours—and save you from constant cries of “I’m bored!”