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.
If you are looking for a great place to vacation for spring break, California has so many places to consider! Here are my top 10 recommendations for the best destinations in California for spring break travel.
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Top California Spring Break Destinations
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 the Palm Springs Air Museum. Travelers looking to hit the hiking trails can plan a day trip excursion to Joshua Tree National Park or stick closer to town exploring Indian Canyons. 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 weekend or even day trip drive of the San Francisco Bay Area are two nearby destinations with a lot to offer families during spring break. You can conveniently visit 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 (see other train rides in Northern California). The Mystery Spot is also good clean family fun.
Head about 45 minutes further south to visit the city of Monterey, which is home to one of the best aquariums in the world – the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is a well-located lodging option nearby. It has room types big enough for families right on Cannery Row within walking distance of the aquarium.
Nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea is another quaint seaside town in the area worthy of a stop as well. 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, 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!). Follow this three day San Diego itinerary to hit the highlights.
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.
San Diego is one of the largest cruise ports on the West Coast, so a lot of travelers may use it as a jumping off point for spring break cruise adventures. In fact, we’ll be spending some of our family’s 2023 spring break in San Diego before we head out on a Disney Cruise to the Mexican Riviera.
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. In the last few years, a lot has changed at Disneyland so be sure to read up on the latest offerings and rule changes.
Even though Disneyland is crowded nearly year round these days, spring break isn’t always as bad as the peak of Christmas or every other holiday. 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. The last time my family went to Disneyland during our kids’ official spring break holiday, we managed to get in 20 rides on a single day’s park hopper ticket in spite of it being a traditionally higher crowd time.
During much of the spring, Disney California Adventure park is home to its annual Food & Wine Festival. If you have time to visit more than one theme park, nearby Knott’s Berry Farm a few minutes away in Buena Park holds its annual Knott’s Boysenberry Festival as well. N
Where to stay on a Disneyland vacation? If you can splurge, the Disneyland Hotel or Grand Californian are always amazing choices, particularly now that early entry privileges are back this year! Off-property, our family loves the Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance but there are dozens of other hotels nearby that we’ve enjoyed over the years. Check out my complete guide to the best walking distance hotels for families near Disneyland for more!
5. Lake Tahoe
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 or very warm year, ski resorts in Northern California are often open during most spring break periods – often 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 March and April many years! The resort that tends to stay open the longest into the spring in the Tahoe area is Palisades Tahoe, but Kirkwood and Heavenly historically tend to stay open later than some other resorts as well.
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, the drive a bit further south to San Simeon to visit Hearst Castle is a nice excursion as well.
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.
Nice family-friendly lodging options are few and far between this far north in the state, but we found the Benbow Inn charming with a delectable and delicious outdoor weekend brunch.
9. Yosemite National Park
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.
The spring season can wet and sometimes even snowy, so watch the forecast carefully. But if you can manage a little mud on your hikes, the payoff of the lower crowds and dramatic views is enormous. Bonus – if the weather is still cold enough, you can usually still ski at Yosemite’s own ski resort, Badger Pass, in late March and sometimes into early April.
Be sure to check out my guide to visiting Yosemite with kids for all the details as well as best things to do and lodging options.
10. San Francisco
Next up for spring break fun 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, Ghirardelli Square, 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 12 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
11. Greater Los Angeles
Last but certainly not least, I have to throw a mention to the other big city in the state – Los Angeles. As a NorCal girl, I don’t always give the city and region its fair due. But there are so many kid-friendly attractions and destinations for families to visit by making LA your home base.
On the northern side of the city, visit Griffith Park for outdoor space and its world class planetarium at Griffith Observatory. Kids will also enjoy attractions like the La Brea tarpits and taking in the many entertainment sights in and around Hollywood. There are amusement and theme parks beyond just Disneyland too, including Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain, both of which have more thrill rides that older kids and teens will enjoy.
The weather in March and April is usually just about perfect in Los Angeles, so make some time at one or more of the regions many beaches – from Malibu in the north to Santa Monica and Venice near the city proper. Orange County just south of the city has Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, and many more.
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.
Disclosure: This post was original published when I was a paid ambassador for Northstar California and Vail Resorts during the 2016-2017 ski season. It has been updated independent of that relationship since that time. As always, all opinions are my own.