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 great to get out of the city and explore more of the greater Bay Area and Northern California. If you have young kids like I do, day trips are a logistically-easy as well as cheap way to explore the areas surrounding the City by the Bay. We regularly add day trips into our family’s travel plans in the summer and on weekends to keep our travel costs down.
Here are my top 12 picks for kid-friendly destinations that are easy to do as day trips from San Francisco. Everything on this list is a trip I’ve personally taken so you can trust my recommendations!
Top Day Trips near San Francisco for Families
With its world class aquarium and gorgeous beaches, 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 weekends, so plan to arrive early to beat the crowds. Be sure not to miss the Dennis the Menace Playground just a short drive away, which has a variety of play structures for many ages.
The drive from San Francisco to Monterey is about 2 hours but can have substantial traffic, so plan your departure times accordingly. Check out my guide with kid-friendly things to do in Monterey for even more activity ideas in the area.
2. Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach in Marin County has long been a summer time beach retreat for Bay Area families. At about 1-1.5 hours from San Francisco or Oakland, it makes for a quick trip that still feels like a real getaway. Check the weather before you go because (being in NorCal) it can 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
It’s about 1.5 hours to head south to laid back Santa Cruz, where a historic boardwalk with carnival rides and food galore await your adventurous kiddos. The last time we visited, our daughter adored the rides but also simply enjoyed spending time on the beach in front of the boardwalk digging in the sand. Be sure to arrive early as parking and traffic near the boardwalk are a challenge on summer weekends.
4. Muir Woods
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 one free with the Every Kid in a Park 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
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 only a mild roller coaster to two. The beautifully landscaped grounds give even Disney a run for its money. Be sure not to miss the famous “Circus Trees” created using unique grafting techniques that will fascinate your kids. Check out my complete guide and tips for visiting Gilroy Gardens to make the most of your time.
6. Roaring Camp Railroads
If you have kids who are in love with trains, a day trip to Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton (near Santa Cruz, about 1.5 hours from San Francisco) will definitely be a huge hit. Roaring Camp features historic refurbished steam trains running on several routes, including one through coastal redwoods and another that drops visitors at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. There is also a central “town” with western activities and dining. The railroad hosts special seasonal events, including A Day Out With Thomas in summer, holiday lights trains, and more.
7. Big Sur
South of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea is the breathtaking coastal preserve of Big Sur. Although 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, the beautify McWay Falls accessible by a short kid-friendly hiking trail, and dining at Nepenthe or the quaint Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn (delicious for brunch).
8. Half Moon Bay & Pacifica
On warm Bay Area days, head south along Highway 1 to the pristine beach towns of Pacifica and Half Moon Bay. The beaches are easily accessible and free. Watch surfers, whales, or just let your kids dig in the sand. 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
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 attraction of 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 a corner candy shop perfect for a treat.
A lot of Napa County is decidedly not kid-friendly, but the smaller town of Calistoga north of the Napa main drag is a great fit for families. Consider a visit to Sterling Vineyards which has a gondola ride kids are sure to love. Another family-friendly winery is Castello di Amorosa, which is a modern replica of a Tuscan style castle perfect for exploration. I’d also recommend Old Faithful Geyser of Calistoga as well as the Sharpsteen Museum (a tiny but captivating museum founded by one of Walt Disney’s animators with some impressive Disney artifacts on display).
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. Take your kids to Old Town Sacramento where they can visit the California State Railroad Museum and take a train ride on the Sacramento Southern Railway. Or stop by the Sacramento Zoo and the adorable Fairy Tale Town next door with young kids. In summer, be sure not to miss the Giant’s AAA affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats play a baseball game. Check out my guide to Sacramento with kids for more ideas.
12. Pinnacles National Park
One of America’s newest national parks is within an easy 2 hr, 15 minute drive of the City of San Francisco. Pinnacles 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.
What are your favorite kid-friendly Northern California day trips? Share your recommendations in the comments.