Several years ago, my family resolved to travel more of our home state of California. We realized we were jetting around all over the country and the world while missing out on amazing destinations right in our backyard. In fact, these were the very same destinations that many other people jetted from all over the world to see! We’ve been roadtripping the state on school breaks and weekends ever since. As a result, we’ve discovered a lot of destinations in the Golden State to recommend to other families.
So with spring break planning season in full swing, I wanted to recommend a few of our favorites! Spring break is an exceptionally good time to visit many destinations in California because the hotter areas of the state aren’t quite so hot yet. Plus, if you prefer the cold, the Sierras still have plenty of snow in March and April.
Editor’s Note for 2021: California travel is still fairly limited this year, so be sure to check travel restrictions and closures before you go. Luckily, a number of the destinations on this list have lots to do outdoors, so you may find more to do in the Golden State than you might expect. I’ve highlighted relevant differences to be on the lookout for under several of the destinations below.
Here are my top 10 recommendations for the best destinations in California for spring break travel.
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Top Spring Break Destinations in California
1. Palm Springs
Palm Springs is a dream California destination during spring break. It’s warm enough to enjoy the outdoors and the pool but not yet blazing with desert heat. We traveled there for our family’s 2016 spring break and found so much for family travelers – from the Palm Springs Aerial Tram to the Living Desert Museum to a day trip excursion to Joshua Tree National Park. And if you like golf, there is plenty of that too.
Related: Guide to Palm Springs with Kids
The family-friendly luxe resorts are plentiful in and around Palm Springs and surrounding towns like Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, and Indian Springs. Consider the Omni Rancho Las Palmas or the Waldorf Astoria’s La Quinta Resort & Club for great pools and kid-friendly amenities.
2. Monterey & Santa Cruz
Within a short drive of the San Francisco Bay Area are two nearby destinations with a lot to offer families during spring break. You can hit both Monterey and Santa Cruz from a single home base.
Santa Cruz‘s laid back beach vibe and world famous Beach Boardwalk provide lots of family fun, but you can also enjoy non-beach activities too. My kids love nearby Roaring Camp Railroads for a ride aboard a real narrow gauge railway through the redwoods. The Mystery Spot is also good clean family fun. (Editor’s Note 2021: Both Roaring Camp Railroads and the Mystery Spot have now reopened with special safety protocols!)
Head about 45 minutes further south to visit Monterey, which is home to one of the best aquariums in the world. The Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is a well-located lodging option. It has room types big enough for families right on Cannery Row within walking distance of the aquarium. (Editor’s Note 2021: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is still closed per state regulations for indoor attractions, but announced its intention to reopen in a few weeks in a March 11, 2021 press release.)
Nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea is another quaint seaside town worthy of a stop. For a truly unique lodging experience there at a moderate price point, consider the Bavarian-themed Hofsas House Hotel.
3. San Diego
In all fairness, you really can’t go wrong with San Diego during any time of year, but spring break visits are as good as any of them. From the world renowned San Diego Zoo to Sea World (both now reopened in 2021), there are lots of activities for travelers with children. Head further north to nearby Carlsbad for a visit to Legoland California for what is becoming increasingly popular theme park alternative to Disneyland (shh – don’t tell Disney I said that!).
Hotel options in the San Diego area abound, but travelers with kids will find the Hotel del Coronado a great family beach retreat. Up near Legoland in Carlsbad, the Omni La Costa is ideal for families with a kids club and cool splash pads.
(Editor’s Note 2021: While it is currently closed as a theme park, Disneyland has targeted a reopening date in late April. In the meantime, there is increasingly more to do in the Disneyland area. In addition to Downtown Disney and Buena Vista Street which have been open for shopping and dining, Disneyland is holding a spring food festival this year, a Touch of Disney. Similar to the annual Food & Wine Festival, this event will be held in Disney California Adventure but will be offered as a specially ticketed event. Be sure to check out all other spring 2021 offerings at California theme parks.)
Speaking of Disneyland, frequent readers know how much my family adores Walt’s original park. I would certainly be remiss in not recommending it to California visitors in the spring when the Southern California weather is glorious.
Even though Disneyland is crowded nearly year round these days, spring break isn’t especially bad all things considered. The Southern California school systems usually don’t all take breaks at the same time, so the crowd convergence doesn’t come from everywhere all in one single week. My family stopped by Disneyland for a day during last year’s spring break and still managed to get in 20 rides on a single day’s park hopper ticket.
Where to stay? If you can splurge, the Disneyland Hotel or Grand Californian are always amazing choices. Off-property, our family loves the Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance. Check out my complete guide to the best walking distance hotels for families near Disneyland for more!
5. Lake Tahoe
(Editor’s Note 2021: Ski resorts are one type of travel destination that have been able to stay open in California this year. But they are operating a little differently. Be sure to check out my guide to the 2020-2021 ski season for all the details.)
As much as my family adores skiing, we visit Lake Tahoe more than nearly anywhere else in California. At just about 3 hours from San Francisco and just a hop, skip, and a jump from Reno, it’s easily accessible even for folks coming from much farther than the local crowds.
Unless it is an exceptional drought year, ski resorts are usually open well into April. You can often enjoy some bluebird spring skiing days with excellent snow conditions. You will certainly find us skiing at our favorite family-friendly resort, Northstar California, in April many years!
6. Big Sur
If you want to introduce your kids to one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth, Big Sur should be high on your list. This stretch of California’s central coast features dramatic seaside overlooks, waterfalls, and amazing hiking and beaches.
The area is also known for its extremely friendly California hippie vibe so it can make for an intriguing cultural exchange too. You’ll be greeted with smiles wherever you go. Plus, you can do Big Sur on the cheap (just book in advance because limited accommodations do fill up).
If you have older kids, a drive a bit further south to San Simeon to visit Hearst Castle is a nice excursion as well. (Editor’s Note 2021: A slide south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in January has resulted in the closure of a section of Highway 1 in the southern part of Big Sur for the coming several months at least. Travelers who want to continue southward toward San Simeon have a substantial detour at the moment).
7. Pinnacles National Park
If you haven’t heard of this national park, you are in good company. Most people – including even me until recently! – haven’t. Up until 2013, Pinnacles was a national monument, but it got called up to the big leagues not long ago, making it one of America’s newest national parks.
The park is inland in the Salinas Valley southeast of Gilroy, making it very close to the Bay Area and doable on a trip to Monterey, Carmel, or even Big Sur. Pinnacles is best explored in the spring (or fall) to avoid summer heat. It offers a number of kid-friendly hikes and some amazing geological features formed by the fracturing of the San Andreas fault.
8. Avenue of the Giants
The coastal redwoods are some of the most iconic tourist attractions for visitors to Northern California. The dramatic Avenue of the Giants just south of Eureka is a beautiful drive with trees so high you can barely see the tops. Plan for time for hiking and be sure to make a stop at the Shrine Drive Thru tree in Myers Flat as well as the Chandelier Drive Thru Tree south of the area in Leggett.
Head further north towards the Oregon state line to spend time in Redwood National and State Parks for even more redwood exploration. Or combine this trip with stops in Mendocino or Sonoma counties.
Nice family-friendly lodging options are few and far between this far north in the state, but we found the Benbow Inn charming with an amazing outdoor weekend brunch.
9. Yosemite National Park
(Editor’s Note 2021: While the park is no longer requiring reservations to enter, Yosemite is operating under a number of modifications this year. See my guide to Yosemite’s reopening for complete details.)
Yosemite National Park is a bit of a victim of its own success in the summer. Crowds can be truly out of control then, so avoid the masses and go in the spring instead! The waterfalls are often at their most dramatic in April when the snowmelt begins anyway.
If the weather is still cold, you can usually still ski at Yosemite’s own ski resort, Badger Pass, in late March and sometimes into early April.
10. San Francisco
Last but certainly not least is my home city, the City by the Bay! San Francisco has so much to offer no matter how long you have to visit. Spend the entire week exploring sites like Pier 39, Alcatraz, Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, Union Square, and many more family-friendly sites. Or use San Francisco as a jumping off point for other excursions around Northern California.
There are a million different hotel choices in San Francisco but I personally love the Westin St. Francis for its prime Union Square location.
For San Francisco travel planning with kids, these articles can help:
- Top 10 Kid-Friendly Day Trips Near San Francisco
- Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco with Kids: 8 Top Things to Do
- 25 Free Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids
- Guide to Transit & Transportation in San Francisco
- 24 Hours in San Francisco: The Perfect 1 Day Itinerary
California’s Best Destinations in Every Season
Don’t miss my travel guides for every season in California:
- Best Spring Break Destinations in California for Families – YOU ARE HERE
- Best Summer Destinations in California for Families
- Best Fall Destinations in California for Families
- Best Winter Destinations in California for Families
Or see many of these destinations featured in my web story covering the best spring break destinations in California!
For more California vacation inspiration, check out 13 blogs that will make you want to visit California. And for more spring break vacation ideas far and wide, don’t miss Spring Break Ideas for Families – Luxe Ideas that Won’t Break the Bank.
This is sponsored content written by me on behalf of Northstar California. The opinions, text, and photos are all mine.