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 our family 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 are a fit 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 understand the weather differences all over the state. In our family’s travels all over California, we have found it best to stay on the coast or in the mountains in summer. 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 approximately June to August.
So, without further ado, family travelers should consider these destinations in California in summer.
Top Destinations To Visit in California in Summer with Kids
A world class aquarium, delicious seafood and wine, amazing beaches, and plenty of outdoor space to hike and explore make 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 East Bay 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 (while they are still here – boo to the latest 2023 stadium news!), pay a visit to Children’s Fairyland (a personal inspiration for Walt Disney when he was building Disneyland), have STEM adventures at the Lawrence Hall of Science or Chabot Space and Science Center, or play pilot aboard the USS Hornet. Although parts of Alameda County are very urban, there are lots of hiking trails as well as beaches (we are partial to Crown Beach and Crab Cove in Alameda, of course!).
Our family’s favorite place to stay when we are looking for a staycation is the historic Claremont Club & Spa by Fairmont. The hotel has an enormous pool area and other recreation options like tennis courts.
For more ideas on what to do in the East Bay, check out these top things to do in Alameda with kids or my guide to 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.
Check out even more travel tips in this complete guide to visiting Mendocino with kids.
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.
There are several lakes popular for summer recreation in the county so consider some time on the water as well.
Related: Guide to Every Train-Related Attraction in Northern California
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 or the cost. It gets so few visitors because of its isolated location and also due to the limited number of months the road through it is open – not because of what it has to offer!
Most of the snow usually melts in June or by early July, so don’t go too early in the summer season. Always check the official website to make sure the road is open when you plan to go. The area’s high elevation keeps Lassen pleasant even in the summer months. And Bumpass Hell is one can’t-miss hike with just the right amount of challenge for younger kids.
7. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Editor’s Note: As summer 2023 season approaches, be aware that some of the roads in both parks are closed due to flood and storm damage. Many attractions and some lodging options are currently closed. Check current conditions here.
Don’t want to fight the summer crowds of Yosemite? Another less-visited national park destination, Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Park, should be on your list. Kids can gawk at the world’s largest living creatures: the giant sequoia trees.
The hiking and camping opportunities are pretty endless. Make reservations early if you want to explore Crystal Cave, as tickets are limited and the area is traditionally only open in the summer (Editor’s Note: Crystal Cave is still closed in 2023 due to fire damage, but is anticipated to reopen in 2024). The area has suffered some fire damage in the last couple of years, so always be prepared for the risks of travel in wildfire season, especially for visits later in the summer when fires are most common.
Related: Beginner’s Guide to National Parks Travel
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 hiking and biking for adventurous families. If you are planning to take a plunge in Lake Tahoe, bring a wetsuit – it stays cold! Another popular water activity many families enjoy is floating/rafting down the Truckee River.
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.
Just be prepared for some serious traffic in summer, especially on weekends, as Tahoe is a popular destination for millions of Bay Area residents and other Northern Californians.
Related: First Timer’s Guide to Visiting Lake Tahoe
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 adjacent LEGOLAND water park mean that you can easily spend a weekend or longer in the area.
The area has more to do than just theme parks, with numerous gorgeous beaches in town and the surrounding communities. The nearby beach towns of La Jolla to the south and Oceanside to the north are easy outings for even more coastal adventures. And of course, the city of San Diego isn’t far away either with even more family-friendly things to do.
10. Santa Barbara
Keeping things along the coast, the city of Santa Barbara is another glorious beach destination for families in summer. Located between LA and San Francisco on California’s Central Coast, it’s drivable as a weekend summer getaway for millions of Californians.
Stearns Wharf is a fun place to explore or eat. Visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center for some marine education. My family loved renting a surrey to bike the beach paths the last time we visited. Santa Barbara is home to one of the largest missions in California, so there are opportunities for some California history lessons as well.
Not far up the road is the city of Solvang – the “Danish Capital of America.” Families can enjoy delicious Danish food and baked goods and stroll the town to check out the architecture that naturally features a windmill or two.
Share your favorite summer travel spots in California in the comments! What did I miss?
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
- Best Summer Destinations in California for Families – YOU ARE HERE
- Best Fall Destinations in California for Families
- Best Winter Destinations in California for Families
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.
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