The Best Family Vacations in Northern California

The Best Family Vacations in Northern California

Interested in taking a family vacations in Northern California?  Whatever you are searching for, the region can deliver, from breathtaking waterfalls and gorgeous nights under the stars in Yosemite Park to indoor water slides with hours of splash park fun at Great Wolf Lodge!

That’s not to mention the nostalgic boardwalks with the seaside air, exploring life-size aquariums, witnessing the entertaining elephant seals playing on the shores, science tours through Napa Valley, and riding through the majestic redwoods. For more ideas, check out our ten favorite family vacation spots in Northern California!

10 Best Family Vacation Spots in Northern California

1.Great Wolf Lodge

Location: 2500 Daniels St.  Manteca

one of the best family vacation spots in Northern California
Source: Great Wolf Lodge

Great Wolf Lodge is the ultimate northern California family vacation, where children can let their imagination run wild. Big or small, young or old, there is something magical for everyone at Great Wolf Lodge. Be sure to leave your stresses in the parking lot before check-in! 

The kid-friendly water park is packed with hours of fun and entertainment, starting with the four-story interactive water treehouse, perfect for all ages in the family. For some family adventure, look for the Sequoia Splash, unique to this location, rafting down the winding curves while your family glides down the water slide together.

With racing slides for teens, a cub paw pool for the smaller ones, and the family-favorite signature River Canyon Run water slide for everyone, no one will be left out; there is water fun for everyone in the family. 

Great Wolf Lodge also provides never-ending excitement on dry land for all! Download the Great Wolf App to find out all the entertaining events included in your stay.

Interested in visiting our Manteca lodge? Book your stay today.

Look for the Great Wolf Kids characters in the lodge. They’ll be around and eager to meet with the whole family. In the evening, unwind before bed with a bedtime story with the loveable characters. The Mural Friends will enchant your little cubs with stories and songs.

We offer cabin and cave-themed amenities for even more adventure. The kids will love waking up in their wolf den, ready for another day of magical fun. 

2. Monterey Bay Aquarium 

Location: 886 Cannery Row Monterey

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Source: Tripsavvy

Spend the day under the sea, observing exciting sea creatures and animals up close and personal. The kids will feel like they have been transported into their own personal aquarium to explore the underwater wonders.

We suggest starting with the sea otter exhibit, which offers two unique perspectives. The first floor provides a front-row seat to their underwater acrobatics, while the second floor provides a spectacular view of the playfully swimming around.

The Life on the Bay exhibit offers ocean views on the deck where you and your children can spot exciting wildlife. Keep an eye out for the humpback whales, and don’t miss out on the Splash Zone, where the penguins play and provide plenty of entertainment!

The Kelp Forest is one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world. Come face-to-face with wolf-eels and leopard sharks in this 28-foot underwater forest.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium provides a full day of mesmerizing exploration where the kids can learn all about different habitats and spectacular marine life.

3. Santa Cruz Boardwalk 

Location: 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Source: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Head over to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for some old-fashioned fun where everyone in the family is sure to feel like a kid again. One of the best seaside parks in the world,  this historic destination has been entertaining families since 1907 and is the perfect day trip. 

This family vacation spot also boasts updated family-friendly activities, including laser tag, miniature golf, and a casino arcade full of video games.

Enjoy a glowing game of air hockey or test your accuracy in an amusing game of skee ball. You can find all the family favorites under one roof, which will help bring the family together for some laughs and friendly competition. 

The boardwalk rides are open daily, and they are suited for all ages in the family, from toddlers to parents, and even include some adventurous thrill rides. Slow down and enjoy the famous, hand-carved Looff Carousel, a National Historic Landmark bringing smiles to children’s faces since 1911. 

Enjoy a variety of food vendors offering creative snacks like deep-fried twinkies and chocolate-covered bacon. Look for sea otters, dolphins, and sea lions when walking along the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary on the coast. 

Don’t forget to stop for a family photo or caricature drawing to remember your memorable family vacation. There is so much to do with your family at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, from rides, games, shopping, to time at the beach; everyone is sure to leave satisfied and with a full belly. 

4. Ano Nuevo State Park

Location: 1 New Years Creek Rd, Pescadero

famous northern elephant seal at Ano Nuevo State Park
Source: Tripadvisor

People worldwide travel to Ano Nuevo State Park to catch a glimpse of the famous northern elephant seal, which the natural reserve was created to protect. They travel by the thousands to breed, give birth, and molt their skin, creating a spectacular view for tourists and spectators alike.

Traveling with small kids? Keep busy during a long flight with these awesome airplane games for kids.

Explore further into the sand dunes to see these remarkable creatures in their natural habitat. Experienced docent naturalists will guide you on a 3–4-mile hike, approximately 2.5 hours in length. They run from December 15 until March 31, excluding Christmas day and the last weekend in January. Regardless of the weather, the guides are available to take you out to explore and learn about entertaining elephant seals.

The walks are intimate with a limited capacity per hike, allowing for a more personable setting, which is great for families traveling with small kids.

Elephant seals can be seen all year round throughout their various phases. Breeding season is from December to March, when the elephant seal pups are born. Later in the season, you can find them lining the shores, hanging out, and enjoying the California coast. You must access the park by either a guided hike or by permit.

Visiting Ano Nuevo State Park provides unprecedented access to California wildlife, an experience the family will remember for years to come. 

5. Yosemite National Park 

Location: Tioga Rd Hwy 120 & Hwy 140 Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park
Source: Tipsavvy

Explore one of the most famous national parks in the United States. Enjoy the beautiful northern California landscape at Yosemite National Park and immerse yourself in the true wilderness. The ability to connect with nature, breathe fresh, pure air, admire the gorgeous views, check out the lakes, and stand amongst the tallest trees in the world makes this destination a family vacation absolute must

Yosemite also offers tons of different lodging options. Explore the southern portion of the park at sprawling Wawona historic Victorian Lodge or hang tight in Curry Village with traditional tents located in the center of Yosemite Valley. No matter where you decide to stay, you’ll be sure to find everything you need for a perfect weekend of camping.  

Kids can become Yosemite Junior Rangers by completing activities listed in the handbook. They’ll even earn a badge at the end as a reward for all that they’ve learned. 

Your national park vacation can be as relaxed or as adventurous as you want it to be, whether that means taking a guided tour, embarking on a nature and history walk, exploring the park’s famous waterfalls, or simply admiring the breathtaking beauty on your own.

The night is peaceful. Relax under the blanket of stars, roasting marshmallows and making memories together as a family. This national park will reset your mind, reminding you of what a family getaway is all about. 

6. Fort Bragg Skunk Train and Glass Beach 

Location: 100 West Laurel Street Fort Bragg Glass Beach, Fort Bragg 

Fort Bragg Skunk Train and Glass Beach
Source: World-Famous Skunk Train

Spend the morning traveling through the majestic redwoods on the world-famous Skunk Train, established back in 1885.

This 7-mile round trip rides along the Pudding Creek Estuary. The kids will be mesmerized by the passing scenery, almost as if they were living out a scene from their favorite adventure movie. 

If you want more time on this trip to explore and hike the scenic trails amongst the giant redwoods, you can get off at Glen Blair Junction and return on the next train about 2 hours later. 

Glass beach is exactly what it sounds like; a beautifully stunning beach laden with stunning-colored rocks and stones that looks like glass located in Fort Bragg. Children will keep busy searching and exploring the interesting shaped stones playing with the fun gems lining the coastline, making this a perfect northern California family vacation. 

Enjoy an afternoon relaxing in the northern California morning sun, enjoying a picnic, or a simple day of peaceful pleasure at the water. Children will love playing around the water and putting their imaginations to use. 

7. San Francisco Zoo 

Location: Sloat Blvd &, Great Hwy, San Francisco

San Fransisco Zoo
Source: California Beaches

San Francisco Zoo is one of the top California vacations. The 100 acres attraction is also open to the public 365 days a year. 

This destination strives to connect people with the wildlife while educating guests with animal talks and feedings. Don’t forget to pick up your zoo key before entering so that you can enjoy interactive storybooks as you walk through the zoo. 

Take a ride on the historic Little Puffer miniature steam train and enjoy the Dentzel Carousel restored in 1921. The merry-go-round contains different animals on which children can hitch a ride! 

With over 1,000 animals on 100 acres, the San Francisco Zoo provides a full day of entertainment for the family. Exploring exhibits such as Jones Family Gorilla Preserve, one of the largest habitats in the country for lowland gorillas. There is plenty of space to see them play, relax and eat through the viewing windows. 

Getting ready to hit the road? Check out these 10 Ideas for the Ultimate Road Trip With Kids.

8. California’s Great America Theme Park 

Location: 4701 Great America Pkwy, Santa Clara

Source: California’s Great America

Get ready for 112 acres of pure family-friendly entertainment and thrilling rides in one great California vacation destination.

Planet Snoopy provides tamer rides and amusement for younger children. Parents traveling with small kids will be happy to find an area where little ones can safely play. With carousel rides, a children’s tide pool, and Snoopy’s Space Race, they’ll be sure to have a blast. 

Those seeking more thrill and adventure can enjoy rides like Demon, Rip Roaring Rapids, and Delirium to get the blood pumping and the screams into the air. There is also plenty of entertainment for those seeking some fast, fun rides without the jaw-dropping fear. 

To cool off from the California sun, head to South Bay Shores Waterpark and relax in the slow-moving streams of the Rushin’ Rivers. Or, for something a little more thrilling, head over to the Pacific Surge, which features a six-story drop. Your adrenaline is sure to be plumping as a plunge into the water.

The Peanuts gang also provides live entertainment for kids. There’s always something planned, from rock music to midway bands and more. 

9. Lava Beds National Monument California

Location:1 Indian Well, Tulelake

Lava Beds National Monument California
Source: National Park Service

With over 800 caves, Lava Beds National Monument is a unique and fun place to explore with kids. Close to the visitor center is the only light cave that visitors can access. Exhibits have been established to help provide a better understanding of the area. 

The center has mapped out the area based on difficulty so that visitors can embark on different kinds of excursions. Most contain ladders and stairs, so make sure that everyone in your party can partake before heading out. 

As you walk through the caves, you feel the raw beauty of the earth, created 10,500 to 65,000 years ago by the cooling lava. Keep an eye out for small insects along the way! 

Guided maps and safety gear are available for rent to ensure a safe exploration. All you need to bring is your sense of adventure!

10. Redwood National and State Parks

Location: 1111 Second Street Crescent City

Redwood National State and Park
Source: Tripadvisor

This pet-friendly destination provides tons of things to do, whether you want to enjoy a scenic drive or spend the weekend immersed in California nature.

It’s easy to access the towering Redwoods by car. The nine-mile loop will bring you to the Crescent Beach Overlook, where you’ll enjoy an uninterrupted view of the gorgeous California coast. Remember, the Redwood Coast begins in Mendocino County and extends to the border of Oregon. 

The park provides different itineraries based on how long you plan to stay. There are activities for folks stopping in for the day or individuals looking to spend a week exploring the area. The details have been arranged for you.  All that’s left to do is relax and enjoy nature.

There are also several camping options with developed campgrounds. You can even sign the kids up to become a Junior Ranger to inject a little more structure into the trip. After completing a range of activities specified in the Redwood Junior Ranger Activity Book, they’ll be sworn in and rewarded with a badge of honor. 


Northern California offers tons of possibilities for your next family vacation, whether it is exploring Lake Tahoe, swimming at the beautiful beach of Fort Bragg and its natural beauty, or hiking through the tranquil trails. No matter what you choose to do, the area is sure to provide plenty of photos and even more amazing memories.

If you don’t have plans to travel this year, you can always enjoy some quality family time at home. Check out our blog for water activities, crafts, recipes, science experiments, and more! 

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