Hiking, surfing, paddleboarding, canoeing, biking, skiing, camping, diving – and more! Get outside inspiration around the Golden State with this list of ROAM’s favorite outdoor family vacations.
By Christine Watridge
Have you been itching to explore more of what California has to offer? Well, look no further: Here are ROAM’s favorite reports about active California family vacations. From classics like Yosemite and Tahoe, to lesser-known beaches and retreats, up and down the coasts, deserts and mountains, this list will keep you busy. Plan away!
1. High on the PCT
There are father-son hikes—and then there are father-son hikes. Belgian dad Jo Maeck and his eleven-year-old son Abel completed the Pacific Crest Trail in August 2020. Starting at the Mexican border, the team backpacked for 2,650 miles past the PCT’s “greatest hits” of California, Oregon, and Washington, before arriving at the Canadian border 163 days later. Read about their story, and get inspired!
2. Yosemite 2021: Half Capacity, Full Beauty
It may not be as empty as last year, but the pandemic precautions have opened up a once-a-generation opportunity to visit iconic Yosemite National Park. Hike the Valley, visit Mariposa Grove, horseback ride, and more—all with limited crowds!
3. Still in the Saddle
The horses of Aspen Meadow Pack Station have moved generations of wide-eyed flat-landers through the High Sierras since the station opened in 1929. Owner Seth Diemel cheerfully shrugs off the challenges his team faces in running an Old West business in 21st century California. Riders of all ages can get a taste of the Wild West!
4. 3 Days Away: Hiking Big Sur
In the past year, Big Sur has survived tourist onslaughts, a pandemic shutdown, a devastating wildfire, and a highway washout. Celebrate the legendary coastline’s reopening with a three-day itinerary of easy hikes that show off its diverse grandeur and please the littles, the grandparents, and everyone in between.
5. Big Bird Watching in Central California
The wildlife refuges of the San Joaquin Valley put on a blockbuster show of cranes, geese, and other migratory birds every winter. Numerous national and state wildlife refuges were established to provide habitat for migratory birds moving along the Pacific Flyway after agriculture replaced more than 90 percent of the historical wetlands in Central California. Put this on your California bucket list now!
6. Living Coastside in Dillon Beach
Ever wonder where those California beaches of your childhood—or your dreamed-of childhood—have gone? You know, the funky places with sandy two-bedroom cottages and no heat? For all the lack of luxuries and glitz, these are the beaches that we really miss. That life still survives in far northern Marin County. It’s a village that has only a general store, a post office, a restaurant, and a few tiny cottages overlooking the cliffs. Go back in time to Dillon Beach!
7. Escaping to Sea Ranch
After searching for months, Ronnie and her family found the perfect oceanfront spot: Sea Ranch! Settled on the rugged Sonoma County coast, they unplugged and played outside all day long, filling the days with hiking, biking, beachcombing, sketching, and more. The area is the perfect combo of ocean, forest, and mountains with magnificent sunsets and dark skies. Check out these insider tips for unwinding and making the most of Sonoma County’s famous coastal retreat.
8. Boutique Retreats in the Wine Country
A trip to the Wine Country is arguably one of Northern California’s most quintessential experiences; Napa Valley alone boasted almost 4 million visitors in 2018 and Sonoma County reported a whopping 10 million. For good reason—the combination of classic vineyards, culinary landscape, and relaxed atmosphere make for unforgettable solo, couple, or family vacations. Book your stay now, and get ready to relax and enjoy the view.
9. An Insider’s Guide to San Diego with Kids
Perfect weather and 70 miles of usable coastline … what’s not to like? Follow two native daughters on a Covid-safe, family-friendly tour of their hometown’s beaches, neighborhoods, eateries, and sights. There’s so much to do, you won’t even miss the zoo.
10. SF in the Outdoors
San Francisco welcomes you back with 21 spots to explore in 2021. The city is one of the most touristed cities in the world, but who says there’s nothing left to discover? Check out these 21 ideas for Covid-safe, mostly free, outdoor activities around the City by the Bay. Hike the cliffs of Sutro Bath, the urban canyon in Glen Canyon park, and much, much more.
11. Planning Summertime in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe has been impressing world travelers like Mark Twain for hundreds of years. The color of the water is breathtaking. And there are so many ways to enjoy Tahoe—if you haven’t taken the family to see the largest alpine lake in North America when it’s NOT covered in ice and snow, this is the year to pack the car and go! Here is Carolyn’s complete guide to the family-friendliest shores of California’s most beautiful lake.
12. U-Pick California Fruit
Throughout the year, there are “u-pick” fruit opportunities within just a two- to three-hour drive from the Bay Area. Each farm offers different varieties of fruit and ambiance. And timing is everything—just a week can make the difference between bounty and bust. Pack your bucket for a day of sticky fingers and faces!
13. California’s Great Lakes That Aren’t Tahoe
A splashy spot on a rocky beach shaded by pine trees in the crisp mountain air? Some fishing maybe? Kayaking? We’re all in! Tahoe tends to monopolize the lake story in California. But there’s much more out there. Heading from north to south, here are the lakes that local California families return to year after year. Whether for the scenery, the weather, the water, or the activities, one of these spots might just become your new favorite.
13. Nature Bathing in Lassen
Summit Lake has the most beautiful, most swimmable water you can imagine. Perched in the 7,000-foot sun, the shallow lake is warm by August. You can wade out and stand in the middle. Paddleboard across. Gaze at Mt. Lassen in the distance. Laze on the green grassy banks. Even Disney couldn’t reproduce this natural magic.
15. Local Families’ Favorite California Beaches
It’s no secret visiting California’s famed beaches are at the top of many bucket lists. Though SoCal may be the most raved about, with millions flocking to San Diego, Huntington Beach, and Santa Monica, Northern California has some of the most picturesque coastlines and lots of wildlife. Here are the Golden State strands that attract California’s family vacationers for the same scenery as popular spots but with more value and fewer crowds.
16. Horsing Around on the NorCal Coast
There’s something magical about horseback riding. Mounting a horse, grabbing the reins, and maybe even tipping your cowboy hat as you ride up and down rolling hills and along seashore cliffs—it feels right out of a movie, starring you. And what better place to do it than the Northern California coastline? Be it on the sandy beaches of Pacifica or across the yellowing grasses of Sonoma, riding is an activity for anybody who loves an amble through the outdoors. Read on for our picks of the best stables along the Northern California coast.
17. Escaping to Carmel-by-the-Sea
A birthday was just the excuse these two families needed to flee the smoke-ravaged Bay Area for the gray glory of summer on the Central California coast. Carmel-by-the-Sea provides the perfect escape for anyone looking for a slice of the California coastline.
18. COVID Camping in Big Bear
A last-minute escape from quarantine to the San Bernardino Mountains delivers a low-cost dose of nature and fun. Heart Bar is one of the many campsites that dot the pine covered mountains around Big Bear Lake. The weekend trip helped this travel-hungry family make it through quarantine without going stir-crazy, and now it’s one of their must-see locations!
19. A First-Timer Houseboats Shasta Lake
About a half-hour from Redding in far Northern California, Shasta Lake is actually a reservoir formed by the Shasta Dam’s completion in 1944. And Shasta Lake is big, trailing only the Salton Sea and Lake Tahoe as the largest bodies of water in California. To Amy and her family, its size meant being able to explore the lake and the rivers that fed it without running into traffic from other boats. Here’s how a peaceful Northern California lake and a tricked-out rental converted a skeptic into a believer.
20. A Yosemite Winter Gamble
Yosemite National Park is a wonderland any time of year. Spring offers wildflowers and powerful waterfalls; summer features sun-filled adventures; and autumn brings a crisp nip in the air and colorful leaf-peeping, but winter in this majestic playland stole Darya Mead’s heart. Will it be “snow globe” or “flip flops”? Book a weekend, roll the dice, and find out. You can’t lose.
21. A California Crowdpleaser
A seasoned British traveler tours California for the first time and discovers the bargain and wonder of an August road trip through the best of the Golden State, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas.
22. Hiking through History on Angel Island
Jump on the ferry and spend the day in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. You’ll get a hell of a hike, a lesson on California history, and incredible city and bridge views. To clear your head and fill your lungs, get over to Angel Island State Park. Now’s the time!
23. Going Deep on Catalina
Just an hour from Long Beach, offseason Catalina Island delivers outdoor action overload and a big dose of authentic “Old California.” Catalina is an ideal destination for multigenerational trips. All members of any family can spend their days running in opposite directions, doing exactly as they please, and still meet up for a game of pre-dinner tag in the sand, a golf cart trip up the hill, or a trip to the candy store.
24. ROAM’s Guide to Family Skiing in California
Sweat-wicking underlayer, bib, warm hat, wool socks, snow boots, gloves, and polarized sunglasses—you’ve done the drill. And so has your kid. And there have probably been tears. And chances are they’ve turned around and marched straight back into the cabin after they’ve fallen into a snowbank, or even touched the cold white stuff. Is it even worth it? We at ROAM say a resounding, Yes! Whether your family skis, boards, or just plays in the powder, here are our picks for the California mountains worth getting geared up for.
25. A Local’s Guide to the Best of Central Marin
Nestled between the San Francisco Bay and Mt. Tamalpais lies one of Northern California’s most interesting suburban areas: The “Twin Cities” of Larkspur and Corte Madera in central Marin County. Just minutes from your door in the Twin Cities, you can be strolling along a creek, sipping wine under the redwoods, tasting critically acclaimed California cuisine, enjoying locally roasted coffee, or doing a little retail therapy at dozens of independent boutiques.
26. Tips for Family Hiking Near San Francisco
Taking to the trails helps families recharge and reconnect. Here’s how one family does it. From urban hiking to coastal walks, hilly trails, and beyond, the Bay Area offers a hike for everyone.
27. Beach Daze in The OC
The beaches in “The OC”—Orange County, California—are about as perfect as they get, so Kelly Dietz and her crew settled on Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort in Newport Beach, California. Known as a premier family holiday destination with beautiful scenery and an abundance of activities, it seemed like the perfect location for their local adventures. Learn more about their beach fun, sunsets, and food here!
28. Near the Island of the Blue Dolphins
Cross the moody Pacific from the Southern California coast to Channel Islands National Park. Boat from Oxnard to camp on Santa Cruz, kayak the coast, and meet sea lions, foxes, whales, and thousands of seabirds. Late summer and fall is the best time of year to dream you’re Juana Maria from the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Get the scoop on this SoCal classic weekend on ROAM.
29. Rollin’ on the Russian River
Spend the day paddling your canoe along the Russian River (about 90 minutes north of San Francisco) and be rewarded with beautiful scenery, lazy sea lions, and spectacular fun!
30. Action-Packed Snowpack in Soda Springs
Take your winter gear and head up to the snowy winterland that is Soda Springs. From snowshoeing to sledding to skiing to snow-biking (who knew?), this vacation won’t disappoint the kids or the parents.
Christine Watridge – July 2021
ROAM Assistant Editor
Christine is a college student from the Bay Area who dreams of backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail and visiting all 63 National Parks (15 down!). If she’s not outside, you can find her illustrating, writing, reading a good book, or baking focaccia bread.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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