The city of San Francisco has dozens of activities and events to keep both locals with kids as well as family travelers busy. But sometimes you just need to get out of the city and explore more of Northern California. The area is rich in history and natural beauty.
If you have young kids, day trips are a logistically-easy as well as cheap way to explore the areas surrounding the City by the Bay. My family loves taking day trips with our kids and have been doing several this summer to keep travel costs down. Here are our top 10 picks for kid-friendly destinations that make easy day trips near San Francisco.
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.
2) Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach in Marin County has long been a summer time beach retreat for Bay Area families. At just about an hour 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. One other piece of advice: the road to Stinson is quite curvy so be prepared if your kids are prone to car sickness.
3) Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
It’s only a little over an hour to head south to laid back Santa Cruz, where a historic boardwalk with carnival rides galore await your adventurous kiddos. 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.
The natural beauty of Northern California is something that all kids should experience first-hand. The gorgeous and imposing redwoods in Muir Woods in Marin County north of San Francisco make for an easy day (or even half-day) trip. You can customize your hike through the trees 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.
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.
If you have kids who are in love with trains, a day trip to Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton (near Santa Cruz) will definitely be a huge hit. Roaring Camp features historic refurbished steam trains running on several routes as well as a central “town” with western activities and dining. A few weekends each summer, Thomas the Tank Engine comes for a visit during “A Day Out With Thomas.” The event is extremely popular (and often sells out) so get tickets earlier if your little ones are Thomas-obsessed.
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 trip, 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 Farms is best known for its fall pumpkin patch, but it has lots of other kid-friendly activities on weekends year-round.
9) Sonoma & Healdsburg
Who says wine country is only for grown ups? Definitely not us! 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). With younger kids, a good bet is to hit the two larger towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg. Sonoma’s most kid-friendly attraction is Train Town. Healdsburg has a quaint town square with a corner candy shop perfect for a treat. Grab lunch or dinner at Bear Republic Brewing Company’s brewpub.
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).
What are your favorite kid-friendly Northern California day trips? Share your recommendations in the comments.