California is a destination that can be explored year-round, but there’s something special about summer in the Golden State. The season in California conjures up iconic moments in time and popular culture, from the Summer of Love in San Francisco to the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer.
Summer in California inspires wanderlust. With school out and pleasant weather in most corners of the state, travelers flock to California. Locals like me enjoy weekend excursions or road trips to yet-to-be explored nooks and crannies on our personal California bucket lists.
Where are the best California destinations for travelers with kids during the summer months? While many top family-friendly destinations like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego work year round, there are a number of places that are really in their prime during the summer months.
Your best bet in the summer in California is to stay on the coast or in the mountains. The Central Valley and a lot of other inland destinations can get blazingly hot, making some destinations that might be perfect for spring break or a fall getaway uncomfortably warm from June to August.
So, without further ado, family travelers should consider these destinations in California in summer.
Top Summer Destinations in California with Kids
A world class aquarium, delicious seafood and wine, amazing beaches, and plenty of outdoor space to hike and explore makes Monterey an ideal family travel destination in summer. It’s no wonder that Monterey welcomes several million visitors every year. Just be aware that a lot of other travelers are on to this little secret by now. Summer in Monterey is always busy and hotel prices are more expensive than usual during summer months. Consider staying a little bit inland to save on hotel costs or try to schedule a trip for weekdays to avoid the legions of weekenders escaping San Francisco (like my family!). For activities when you get there, check out my top 10 things to do in Monterey with kids.
2. The East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, & Alameda)
San Francisco often overshadows its neighbors to the east. Travelers who never leave the city, however, are missing out. As an East Bay resident myself (I live in Alameda) I can attest to the fact that the area is pretty glorious in the summer. The area gets far less fog than San Francisco but rarely gets too hot either. A lot of family-friendly activities are far less costly. The restaurant scene rivals San Francisco’s, but with its focus slightly more attuned to comfort food, the dining experience is more kid-friendly.
Take in an Oakland A’s baseball game, pay a visit to Children’s Fairyland (a personal inspiration for Walt Disney in building Disneyland), have STEM adventures at the Lawrence Hall of Science or Chabot Space and Science Center, play pilot aboard the USS Hornet, or spend a day at Crown Beach and Crab Cove. For more ideas on what to do in the East Bay, check out these 50 things to do in Alameda with kids or my upcoming guide of things to do in Oakland with kids.
3. Orange County
Forget the OC cliches. The area is pretty much heaven for family travelers in summer months, with beaches and theme parks leading the list of family-friendly things to do. Orange County boasts both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm as well as six world-famous beaches (Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente).
But lest you think a vacation to the OC is too much about leisure, there are educational opportunities for family travelers too. Stop by Mission San Juan Capistrano for a history lesson about the mission settlements in California. Or pay a visit to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda to spark a family discussion about presidential politics.
4. Mendocino County
Go north, young families! While Napa and Sonoma may get all the press, Mendocino County just to the north of them is a smart wine country alternative in the busy summer travel months. Mendocino is still a bit undiscovered. As a result, it can really be an inexpensive and family-friendly choice. The town of Boonville is home to the Anderson Valley Brewing Company where you can take a tour or try a few beers in the family-friendly tap room. Then head out to the coast to the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Ride the historic Skunk Train, stroll through the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, visit Glass Beach, or explore the coast’s famous lighthouses.
5. Gold Country (Nevada County)
Bring the Gold Rush era to life with a visit to Nevada County. The two main towns, Grass Valley and Nevada City, have numerous gold rush related attractions for families. Make sure to explore mining history at the Empire Mine State Park and the Northstar Mine Museum. And with an area so focused on 19th century history, you can bet that there is a serious focus on trains here too. Train loving kiddos should be sure to make a stop at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum or take a trip on the Railbus.
6. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park near Redding is one of the country’s least visited national parks but don’t let that status fool you. It has all the geothermal intrigue of Yellowstone but without the crowds and cost. Most of the snow usually melts in June (or certainly by July), so don’t go too early in the summer season. The area’s high elevation keeps it pleasant even in the summer months. Bumpass Hell is one can’t-miss hike with just the right amount of challenge for younger kids.
7. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Don’t want to fight the summer crowds of Yosemite? Another less-visited national park destination, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, should be on your list. Kids can gawk at the world’s largest living creatures: the giant sequoia trees. Hiking and camping opportunities abound. Make reservations early if you want to explore Crystal Cave (and what kid doesn’t want to?), as tickets are limited and the area is only open in the summer.
8. Lake Tahoe
Let’s face it, Lake Tahoe needs to be on this list every season of the year. In summer, activities revolve around boating and beach-going and with hiking and biking for adventurous families. If you are planning to take a plunge in Lake Tahoe, bring a wetsuit – it stays cold! Consider a trip into the town of Truckee for delicious and unpretentious restaurants. And take some time for California history with a visit to Donner Memorial State Park’s Visitors Center and Museum.
Pretty much every kid has a Lego phase. And when they do, make a beeline for Carlsbad, the home of Legoland California. The neighboring SEA LIFE Aquarium and water park are other memorable outings, along with 17 miles of beaches. The beach town of La Jolla to the south or Oceanside to the north are easy outings for even more coastal adventures.
Share your favorite summer travel spots in California in the comments! What did I miss?
Disclosure: A few of the destinations in this list have provided hosted attractions or lodging to my family over the years. All opinions are my own.