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17 Family-Friendly Day Trips From San Francisco

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Whether you are a local or a tourist, the city of San Francisco has dozens of family-friendly activities and events to keep you busy. But sometimes it’s rewarding to get out of the city and explore more of the greater Bay Area and Northern California. Day trips are logistically easy as well as a cheap way to explore the areas surrounding the City by the Bay. We regularly add day trips from our San Francisco home base into our family’s travel plans in the summer and on weekends to keep our travel costs down.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of many family-friendly day trips from San Francisco.

The trick with day trips is know just how far to go and how to time a particular trip around busy Bay Area traffic trends. So with that challenge in mind, I’ve chosen 17 kid-friendly destinations that are doable as day trips from San Francisco, with all my best tips for doing each trip smartly.

I’ve personally visited 16 of the 17 destinations on this list (some of them multiple times) so you can trust these recommendations! Plus, I’ve also included links to additional in-depth resources about each destination, either here on Trips with Tykes or written by travel bloggers I know and have verified who will give you the honest scoop.

Top Day Trips from San Francisco for Families

1. Monterey

Monterey California Cannery Row with Kids

With its world class aquarium, gorgeous beaches, and bustling waterfront scene, Monterey is as good as it gets for a kid-friendly day trip from the Bay Area. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and adjacent Cannery Row are hugely popular, especially on summer or warm weather weekends. Plan to arrive early to beat the crowds.

With toddlers and younger kids, be sure not to miss the Dennis the Menace Playground just a short drive away, which has a variety of play structures. Older kids may really enjoy a whale watching trip out on the bay or a trip to explore the quaint downtown of nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea.

The drive from San Francisco to Monterey is about 2 hours but can have substantial traffic, so plan your departure times accordingly. If you have flexibility, this is one day trip I recommend doing on a weekday if possible (leaving the Bay Area after morning rush hour).

2. Stinson Beach

Day Trips Near San Francisco - Stinson Beach

Stinson Beach in Marin County has long been a popular summer time beach retreat for Bay Area families. At less than 1 hour from San Francisco by car when the traffic cooperates, it makes for a quick trip that still feels like a real getaway. The wide sandy beach has plenty of room to build sand castles, throw a frisbee, or find space for a picnic. And the downtown has several family-friendly restaurants for grabbing a meal or ice cream treat (I recommend Breakers Cafe, which has a casual fare and a kids menu).

Check the weather before you go because, being in Northern California, Stinson Beach can really get socked in by fog. The road to Stinson, Highway 1 North, is quite curvy so be prepared if your kids are prone to car sickness.

3. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Child Building Sand Castle

It’s about an hour and a half to head south to laid back Santa Cruz, where a historic boardwalk with carnival rides and food galore await your adventurous kiddos. It’s one of the best theme parks in Northern California and bonus that it’s also full of history!

When we visited when our kids were toddler and preschooler age, they adored the rides but also simply enjoyed spending time on the beach in front of the boardwalk digging in the sand. Now that our oldest is a teen, she can’t get enough of the classic coasters and thrill rides.

I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but again, plan your trip around traffic. Parts of California Highway 17 to Santa Cruz from San Francisco are pretty narrow and hilly. On warm weekend days, everyone from San Francisco heads in that same direction! I recommend leaving the city early in the morning (by 8:00am ideally on weekends) to beat the traffic. Plus, you can snag the in-demand parking at the Boardwalk if you are an early bird.

4. Muir Woods

Siblings at Muir Woods National Monument, a family-friendly day trip from San Francisco

The natural beauty of Northern California is something that all kids should experience first-hand. The imposing redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County north of San Francisco make for an easy day (or even half-day) trip. With several loop trails of different lengths through the trees, you can customize your hike to match the ages and ability of your kids.

Muir Woods is a National Monument run by the National Park Service so your kids can participate in the Junior Ranger program during their visit as well. And if you have an America the Beautiful annual parks pass, be sure to bring it for free admission (remember, 4th graders can get in free with the Every Kid Outdoors Program!).

Just be aware that parking reservations are now required at Muir Woods. So make a reservation in advance, and do so especially early if you hope to visit on weekends or holidays that regularly sell out.

5. Gilroy Gardens

Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park Entrance Sign

Northern California has a number of beloved amusement parks, but Gilroy Gardens might be the most well-kept secret of them all. This hidden gem of an amusement park in the tiny town of Gilroy (about 20 minutes south of San Jose) is perfect for younger kids. Rides are fairly easy going with lots for families to do together, with a couple of smaller coasters in the mix to help get your kids ready for the bigger thrills of other theme parks.

Admission is reasonably-priced and the beautifully landscaped grounds give even Disney a run for its money. Our family’s personal favorite thing to do is spotting the famous “Circus Trees,” created using unique tree grafting techniques that sometimes defy belief.

6. Roaring Camp Railroads

Day Trips Near San Francisco - Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton, California

If you have kids who are in love with trains, a day trip from San Francisco to Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton (near Santa Cruz, about 1.5 hours from the city) will definitely be a huge hit.

Roaring Camp features historic refurbished steam trains running on several routes, including one through coastal redwoods (75 minutes roundtrip) and another that drops visitors at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (3 hours roundtrip). There is also a central “town” with kid-friendly western activities and dining.

The railroad hosts special seasonal events for nearly every holiday you can imagine, including A Day Out With Thomas in summer, Christmas lights trains, a fall harvest festival train, and more. Be sure to check Roaring Camp’s calendar and purchase tickets in advance because they can and do regularly sell out.

7. Big Sur

Big Sur

South of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea is the breathtaking coastal preserve of Big Sur. Although it’s far enough from the city that I’d recommend it as a full weekend getaway, parts of it can certainly be done from San Francisco as a day trip if you’d prefer.

Highlights include unspoiled beaches galore. Older kids will enjoy a tour of the historic Point Sur Lighthouse. A can’t miss stop offering the iconic Big Sur view most people have seen before in postcards is McWay Falls. View the waterfall from atop coastal cliffs by strolling on a short kid-friendly hiking trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. For dining with kids, I highly recommend the beloved and quaint Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn (delicious for brunch).

Most of Big Sur is accessible only on the very winding Highway 1 which can sometimes be closed by any and everything that Mother Nature throws its way – wildfires, floods, and mudslides! Always check road conditions carefully before planning a trip.

8. Half Moon Bay

Fall Things to Do in San Francisco - Lemos Farm Half Moon Bay

On warm Bay Area days, head south along Highway 1 to the pristine beach town of Half Moon Bay. The beaches are easily accessible and free, with a fair amount of parking compared to other destinations along the Northern California coast. Watch surfers, whales, or just let your kids dig in the sand.

If you want to get active on your day trip, Half Moon Bay is teeming with hiking opportunities, many of which are doable for even younger kids. The Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail runs for 11.5 miles overlooking the coast with many dramatic views and is ideal for hiking and biking and walking between beaches.

While in Half Moon Bay, consider a visit to Lemos Farm for a train or pony ride. Lemos Farm is best known for its fall pumpkin patch, but it has lots of other kid-friendly activities on weekends year-round.

9. Sonoma County: Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, & Sonoma

Vineyards in Sonoma County, California

Who says wine country is only for grown ups? Definitely not me! There is so much to do in Sonoma County with little ones while still allowing mom and dad to sample a sip or two along the way (with a responsible driver, of course). There are so many different areas even within Sonoma County with kid-friendly things to do that you could definitely tackle the area as multiple day trips.

Highlights include the kid-friendly amusement park Train Town in the village of Sonoma as well as the Charles M. Schulz Museum (of Peanuts cartoons) in Santa Rosa. Animal-loving kids will adore taking a tour of the animal park at Safari West, while families will also enjoy the quaint town square of Healdsburg with several ice cream shops on the town square perfect for a treat.

10. Calistoga & St. Helena (Napa County)

Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga California

Some parts of Napa County are decidedly not kid-friendly, but the smaller town of Calistoga north of the Napa main drag is a perfect fit for families. The city was founded as a spa retreat due to its geothermal activity, and that volcanic legacy makes for some engaging natural wonders and history to explore.

Our kids especially enjoyed seeing Old Faithful Geyser of Calistoga in action as well as the Petrified Forest – both attractions formed by volcanic activity. Another family-friendly stop (and one that tends to fly under the radar) is the Sharpsteen Museum. This tiny but captivating museum was founded by one of Walt Disney’s animators and houses some impressive Disney artifacts on display.

The next town over from Calistoga – St. Helena – is quite family-friendly as well, and is a spot our family recommends especially for dining. In particular, families will enjoy Gott’s Roadside and Pizzeria Tra Vigne.

If parents want to still take in the highlights of wine country, there are a few family-friendly winery options nearby to enjoy wine tasting in family-friendly surroundings. Consider a visit to Sterling Vineyards which has a gondola ride. Another family-friendly winery is Castello di Amorosa, which is a modern replica of a Tuscan style castle perfect for exploration.

11. Sacramento

Old Sacramento - Historic Gold Rush Buildings

The capital of the state of California is located just 80 miles from San Francisco, making it an easy getaway in a single day from the Bay Area. You can easily spend the entire day in just Old Sacramento taking in the city’s Wild West history as a railroad town. The impressive California State Railroad Museum will captivate transportation loving kids for a couple of hours. I highly recommend a train ride on the Sacramento Southern Railway on the next block and a meal in a historic riverboat turned restaurant – the Delta King – on the riverfront.

Another hub of kid-friendly day trip activities is around the Sacramento Zoo. Next door to the Zoo is the adorable Fairy Tale Town, a small park with fairytale sets and scenes perfect for toddlers and young kids to explore. Also in the area is Funderland, another small amusement park with multiple carnival style rides, including a few with some mild thrills.

Need other Sacramento things to do on a day trip? In summer, be sure not to miss the Giant’s AAA affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats play a baseball game. And of course, squeeze in some education about California government and history with a tour of the State Capitol.

12. Pinnacles National Park

San Francisco Day Trips - Pinnacles National Park

Northern California has a number of magnificent national parks, but big names like Yosemite National Park or Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are a little too far for day tripping. Thankfully, one of America’s newest national parks is a bit closer – within a 2 hr, 15 minute drive south of San Francisco.

Pinnacles National Park is located on the San Andreas Fault, creating all sorts of weird and wonderful geological feature to explore. There are two entrances, not connected to one another within the park. The east entrance (south of Hollister) has the most kid-friendly hikes including one through Bear Gulch Cave that was a highlight for my family.

13. Oakland

Childrens Fairyland Entrance in Oakland California

The city of Oakland is so close to San Francisco that a lot of locals and visitors don’t think of it as a day trip. But you should! It’s quick and inexpensive to get there, meaning you have more time and money for exploring and activities.

Depending on the kind of outing you are seeking, Oakland can be an urban escape or a trip focused on nature and the outdoors. If you want to explore more of the city with kids, the Lake Merritt neighborhood is a good place to start. It is home to Children’s Fairyland, a beloved local amusement park that was one of the inspirations for Disneyland. Not too far away in downtown is the Oakland Museum of California, a museum that celebrates and details three aspects of California history: art, natural sciences, and human history. It’s engaging for kids while still being fascinating and educational for adults.

For outdoor and nature adventures, Oakland has a number of glorious hikes hidden in the hills. Redwood Regional Park (to explore redwoods, naturally) and Tilden Regional Park (for a carousel and steam trains to ride) are two good places to start. My family has also especially enjoyed hiking in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve which has a labyrinth and sits atop Oakland’s very own extinct volcano.

Finally, don’t forget about Oakland Zoo. With its new gondola and California Trail exhibits as well as the small amusement park and train rides by the entrance, it’s a destination where it’s easy to spend at least a half-day with kids of all ages.

14. San Jose

Winchester Mystery House in San Jose California
Photo courtesy of Team San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau

Another big Bay Area city, San Jose, is often overlooked as a San Francisco day trip possibility. But the South Bay has lots to offer families as well.

The must-do attraction is the Winchester Mystery House. Built haphazardly by the eccentric heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune who was perhaps trying to escape a curse, this house has dead ends, staircases to nowhere, and lots of mystery. Another family-friendly attraction in keeping with its Silicon Valley home is the Tech Interactive, San Jose’s museum focused on all things STEM.

San Jose has a number of family-friendly amusements as well. Happy Hollow Park and Zoo is the city’s beloved fairytale amusement park (similar to Children’s Fairyland in Oakland or Fairy Tale Town in Sacramento). The town next door, Santa Clara, is also home to a large scale theme park, California’s Great America.

15. Sausalito

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge View from Sausalito

Just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County is the well-known bayside village of Sausalito. Sausalito is famous for its houseboats, and it’s definitely worth taking a stroll to see them along the waterfront.

Adults also tend flock to Sausalito for the quaint downtown full of boutiques and restaurants. Families should plan to grab a meal here at a waterfront restaurant, but the downtown area probably won’t hold kids’ attention for too long beyond that. Thankfully Sausalito and its immediate vicinity have several kid-friendly attractions, including the Bay Area Discovery Museum and Marine Mammal Center.

Part of the fun of a day trip to Sausalito is also just the getting there. Depending on the ages of your kids, there are several unique transportation options that can really add to their enjoyment of the trip. Older kids can visit Sausalito by biking to it over the Golden Gate Bridge. Bike rentals abound in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. Families with kids of all ages will enjoy another mode of access – taking the ferry (bikers can ferry back to San Francisco as well). The Blue & Gold Fleet runs ferries multiple times a day between Pier 41 and the Sausalito terminal. Third and finally, if you opt to drive, pull over on the first exit after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge at the H. Dana Bower Rest Area and Vista Point. From the vista atop the Marin Headlands, you’ll get a magnificent bridge and city view en route.

16. Pacifica

Mother and baby at beach at Pacifica, California - a popular day trip near San Francisco

Spacious beaches, hikes with views, and the prettiest Taco Bell in America (not kidding!) make the seaside town of Pacifica a unique family travel destination. Just south of the city en route to Half Moon Bay, it’s easily reached in about 20 minutes. Its quick and drivable location makes Pacifica an ideal day trip for families with younger kids who still need to plan around nap times.

Pacifica can often be extremely foggy, but on days when the sun wins the battle, the beaches are some of the best in the state. You’ll have the best chance for sun visiting in August and September when the Bay Area has its traditionally warmest weather.

The most popular hike in the area is Devil’s Slide, which follows what used to be Highway 1 before the road was moved inland to bypass frequent rock slides. The coastal views are amazing and it’s doable with kids, as the trail is a paved road about 2.5 miles roundtrip.

17. Point Reyes National Seashore

National Park Service Point Reyes Lighthouse
Photo courtesy National Park Service.

North of Stinson Beach on the coast of Marin County is another rugged coastal destination popular as a day trip for families. The Point Reyes National Seashore is full of outdoor adventures, from beaches to wildlife spotting to hikes and even a waterfall.

Point Reyes is run by the National Park Service, so kids should stop by the Bear Valley visitor center for a junior ranger booklet and to learn about the area. Families will also enjoy visiting the Point Reyes Lighthouse for views and a chance to whale spot. Sea lions can commonly be spotted at Sea Lion Cove.

Like a lot of the NorCal coast, fog is common at Point Reyes. You’ll have the best chance for sun and warmth at Drake’s Beach which has a sheltered location (be aware the beach can be closed during winter/early spring to protect elephant seal pups). Some of the beaches along Tomales Bay side are also more protected spots for families to enjoy.

What are your favorite kid-friendly Northern California day trips? Share your recommendations in the comments.

Travel beyond San Francisco with these top day trip ideas in Northern California. A Bay Area local gives her tried and true first hand recommendations!
Visiting San Francisco with kids? Get out of the city with one of these top 12 kid-friendly day trips, from Muir Woods to Monterey and beyond.

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Shalendra@Camping In Shimla

Sunday 15th of September 2019

San jose is the best place to visit with your children. There are lot of fun activities available at the Studio to do also you can spend some time with your children at the park catching butterflies.

Shalendra@Camping In Shimla

Tuesday 3rd of September 2019

If you ever visit to San Francisco then never forget to visit Golden Gate park which stretches half miles way. The famous attraction in the park are Japanese Tea Gardens and Deyoung museum.

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