Best things to do with kids in northern california

Best Things to do With Kids in Northern California in 2022

From beautiful landmarks like Yosemite National Park to the world-famous Disneyland Resort, the Golden State really does have something for everyone. While southern California contains a lot of major attractions, there are plenty of things to do with kids in northern California as well. Zoos, beaches, and national parks are just a few things kids might enjoy in the area. 

Check out the list below for a few pointers on where to begin!

24 Of the Best Things to do With Kids in Northern California

Great Wolf Lodge, Manteca

northern California family vacation
Source: Great Wolf Lodge

The Great Wolf Lodge in Manteca is just one of seventeen locations nationwide. Of course, our resorts are best known for the indoor water park, but there are plenty of other activities worth exploring during your stay. 

Even if you can’t spend the night, we’ve got everything you need for a fantastic day trip. Individuals located in the San Francisco Bay area can reach us in just over an hour!

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

Despite outside weather conditions, the indoor water park is open all year long. Other fun activities for the whole pack include bowling, arcade games, mini-golf, yoga, arts & crafts projects, dance parties, and storytime to help wrap up the day. 

Here at Great Wolf Lodge, we’re proud to provide a wide range of activities that the whole family can enjoy.

Golden Gate Bridge

explore northern California with kids
Source: Golden Gate Bridge

No trip to northern California is complete without visiting the Golden Gate Bridge. This iconic landmark and operational bridge has been around since 1933.

The Bridge’s Visitor Center is there to welcome visitors, provide orientation and information services, house exhibits, offer high-quality commemorative merchandise, and showcase the original 12-foot stainless steel Bridge “test tower” used back when construction first began.

A local non-profit called San Francisco City Guides also offers free walking tours on Thursdays and Sundays. Learn the history of the Golden Gate bridge to enhance your appreciation for modern engineering and American industrialism. 

If the weather is nice, be sure to stop by Baker Beach to view the bridge from the water!

Golden Gate Park

things to do with kids northern California
Source: Golden Gate Park

Located in the northwest section of San Francisco is the iconic Golden Gate Park. The park is one of the best ways to take in the city’s culture. The site is also nestled between some amazing historic buildings in downtown San Francisco.

It is said that the best time to visit the park is between October and May. This is the greenest time of the year for the city.

Visitors can also enjoy minimal haze during this window. Be sure to visit during daylight hours to get the most out of your time there!

San Francisco Zoo

san francisco zoo
Source: Daytrippen

The San Francisco Zoo is located on the city’s western edge along the California coast. The zoo is the perfect place for the whole family to spend the day together!

The zoo is always buzzing with new exhibits and learning opportunities. Service is limited due to the pandemic, but there are still camps and programs for children and adults alike.

The zoo is also home to beautiful botanical gardens with plenty of plants and bird species to enjoy. Due to the temperate climate, the zoo can grow a wide variety of plants from all over the world, including beautiful California native plants and unique specimens from exotic locales.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz beach boardwalk
Source: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is another iconic California attraction and serves as one of the state’s beach theme parks. The attraction is located down the California coast from San Francisco on the northern edge of Monterey Bay.

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has plenty of fun things for the whole family, including bowling, mini-golf, roller coasters, arcades, and even a casino.

The Santa Cruz boardwalk is even older than the Santa Monica Pier – the theme park traces its roots back to 1865 and is a must-visit for a fun day on your family vacation to northern California!

Santa Cruz City

Santa Cruz city
Source: Vandal Stop

Sure, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a huge attraction, but there are plenty of other things to do in this northern California coastal town. One of the most vintage activities for families in Santa Cruz is the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium.

For over 65 years, the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium has been a family staple for the Santa Cruz community. Open seven days a week except on holidays, the roller rink is one of the better ways to spend time with the family. If you want, you can even rent out the entire rink for a private party!

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium

While in the area, another great place to check out is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There are plenty of exhibits that showcase marine wildlife from around the globe, including sea lions, penguins, and sharks, among others.

Want to explore the rest of the state? Check out our list of the Best Family Resorts in California today!

The Monterey Bay Aquarium also offers a peek into tide pools “brimming with life along Monterey’s beautiful coastline” at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

The tide pools are an incredible experience but require some safety precautions. Depending on ocean activity, the tide pools could be dangerous and probably not suitable for younger children, so plan accordingly!

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park
Source: Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous attractions within California and worldwide. This must-see site is located in the Yosemite Valley and is full of natural wonders that the whole family can enjoy.

Right now, the park is open but with limited services due to the pandemic. There is plenty of information about visiting throughout the year, depending on the season, as well as helpful information about fishing, hiking, tours, and other activities available.

If you are looking for hiking trails that support your whole family, the website lists them by difficulty level. Mountain biking is another excellent way to explore the area. Don’t panic if you didn’t bring a bike of your own; there are plenty of rentals onsite!

Mammoth Mountain

Mammoth Mountain
Source: Ski Racing

About an hour from Yosemite is Mammoth Mountain. The fantastic ski area serves as a reminder that you really can experience all of the seasons of California in just one day. 

The mountain offers ski rentals, lessons, tickets, and lodging, among other amenities. There are slopes to suit all skill levels and ages, too. If skiing isn’t your thing, there are also snow tubing options for the whole family.

There are also several package deals for families visiting the area. There are ski and lodge options, seasonal ski passes, holiday ski passes, and payment plan options for your convenience.

Just a few hours from most major cities, you can’t go wrong spending this winter at Mammoth Mountain!

There are also plenty of summer family activities for those planning to visit during the warmer months. Mountain bike trails, rock climbing, and golf are just a few of the options you can take advantage of at Mammoth Mountain in summer.

Sequoia National Park

 Sequoia National Park
Source: Expedia

If you prefer a family vacation that takes you far outside the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, then a trip to Sequoia National Park is a great choice. As one of California’s national parks, the landscape has been protected for a number of years. This has left an incredible natural playground, complete with massive trees that are centuries old!

It is important to remember that Sequoia National Park is a five-hour drive from San Francisco- not your average day trip! There are tons of things to do during your visit, including fishing, hiking, and exploring nearby attractions. There are also a few lodging options onsite if you want to spend the night.

One of the other unique nearby attractions is the Crystal Cave which offers cave tours. Visitors can only experience this marble cave through a guided tour, so book yours today!

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe
Source: North Tahoe Business Association

Lake Tahoe is one of the most iconic vacation destinations in California. Not only is it incredibly scenic, but it is a family-friendly destination for both kids and adults alike. Just three hours away from San Francisco, Lake Tahoe makes for a great day trip as well. 

There are many fun things to do in Lake Tahoe, both indoors and outdoors.  Some of the activities include boating, hiking, gambling, skiing, and more. 

Lake Tahoe is even big enough to have some of its own beaches. A fun way to spend a relaxing afternoon is over at Sandy Beach in Tahoe Vista.

California State Railroad Museum

California State Railroad Museum
Source: California State Railroad Museum

Located in Sacramento, California, the California State Railroad Museum is an excellent way to explore northern California with kids. With exhibits in locomotives, rolling stock, and information on the workers who built the western railroads in our country, everyone in the family is sure to leave a little more educated.

The museum also offers virtual exhibits, a student activity center, and teacher’s resources if you want to continue educating your children even after leaving the museum. If you are a local, there are also one-off events and membership options to enhance your visit to this fantastic museum.

Redwood Valley

Redwood Valley
Source: Redwood Valley Railway

One of the most picturesque areas in California is the Redwood Valley. Acres upon acres of redwood forests lie to the north of San Francisco in the upper Napa Valley area of Sonoma County. The valley is home to redwood trees some 2,000 years old and miles of dramatic coastline, mountains, rolling dunes, wetlands, rivers, and even shimmering blue lagoons. 

There are countless fun things to do with the entire family in this part of northern California. One of the best ways to see the state park is with the Redwood Valley Steam Train.

Think of it as a relic of what it must have felt like back in the wild west!

Walt Disney Family Museum

learn about California amusement parks
Source: FMS

On the northern edge of San Francisco sits another family-friendly attraction that is a must for a day trip. We’re talking about the Walt Disney Family Museum, of course. The museum has countless experiences that will leave you and your family excited to return during your next trip to the area.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is a nonprofit organization that features contemporary, interactive galleries with state-of-the-art exhibits narrated by Walt Disney himself alongside early drawings, cartoons, films, music, a spectacular model of Disneyland, and more.

Oakland Zoo

Old Growth Redwood Forest
Source: Best Western

Home to over 850 native and exotic animals, the Oakland Zoo is a one-of-a-kind experience, with lots of different exhibits to enjoy during your family vacation!

The Oakland Zoo is not just a place to learn about exotic animals; it is also a wildlife center dedicated to wildlife conservation both locally and globally. The zoo also includes the Marine Mammal Center, which features sea lions and other marine life.

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The Oakland Zoo is currently offering a one-of-a-kind opportunity for families. It considers the currently Glowfari Lantern Festival has been called “an unforgettable experience for all ages to enjoy.” Families can explore a mile-long illuminated stroll through an African, Asian, and desert safari. We promise this exhibit is well worth the price of admission!

Old Growth Redwood Forest

Old Growth Redwood Forest
Source: Daily Kos

California’s Old Growth Redwood Forest offers some of the most unique experiences the United States has to offer. If you are traveling to northern California with kids, it is definitely worth stopping by this tremendous raw habitat.

The Old Growth Redwood Forest has trees that grow up to 380 feet in height and 26 feet in diameter. This mesmerizing forest is a must-stop for a day trip – or even longer. After all, it would be nearly impossible to explore the 200 miles of trails and dense vegetation to traverse in a single day. 

Visitors should be aware that this area can be dangerous and may not be the best place to bring very young children. 

Turtle Bay Exploration Park

turtle bay exploration park
Source: Turtle Bay Exploration Park

The Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California, is a 300-acre gathering place featuring the Sundial Bridge, a museum, forestry & wildlife center, arboretum, and botanical gardens. This kid-friendly environment is also enjoyable for the entire family. 

Be sure to stop by the Sundial Bridge, The Turtle Bay Museum, and the Mosaic Restaurant while there!

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park
Source: Visit Redding

In the central valley heartland of northern California sits Lassen Volcanic National Park. The national park is incredibly picturesque but also very remote. There is limited cell service and some steep slopes and cliffs.

Need a place to cool off during your visit to the Golden State? Explore our list of the best water parks in California now!

While the park is tons of fun for those who love the great outdoors, you need to take precautions and visit the park website before embarking on your trip. You may only want to go to Lassen if your children are a bit older.

Black Sands Beach

 black sands beach
Source: California Beaches

On the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge sits one of the most iconic beaches in all of California. Feel the cold Pacific waters hit your feet on the beautiful black sand! This unique location is just minutes away from downtown San Francisco and is a must-see while in northern California.

We will note that the hike to the beach is challenging with cliffs standing between the sand and the parking lot, so be sure to pack appropriately. It is certainly doable, however, and you won’t be sorry. Pack some lunch and enjoy a nice picnic while you’re out of the city!

Sonoma Wine Country

wine country, northern California
Source: Wine Country

Sonoma Wine Country is a northern California destination that people travel worldwide.  Of course, Sonoma County offers many attractions, not just wineries!

Santa Rosa is the central city in Sonoma County, home to fantastic fun for the whole family. One of the most unique places to visit is the Safari West of northern California.

The Safari West team promotes animal education and animal conservation while providing your family with a once-in-a-lifetime experience traveling through the northern California safari.

San Jose

San Jose
Source: Expedia

On the other side of the bay from San Francisco sits the northern California city of San Jose. Rich with history in its own right, it is a beautiful place to visit with kids of all ages.

One must-see stop for families is the Children’s Discovery Museum. The award-winning Museum offers yearly exhibitions to help kids learn about different subjects in a more unconventional setting. It also contains interactive exhibits that spotlight science, humanities, performing arts, and health and physical fitness. 

The Visit San Jose website is another excellent resource for finding fun family activities. Other fun destinations include the Happy Hollow Park and Zoo, Lick Observatory, or a night at the San Jose Sharks hockey game!

Fort Bragg

Fort Bragg
Source: The Backpackers

Fort Bragg, California, is a gorgeous family vacation destination that truly encompasses the spirit of the state. Located far up the coast from San Francisco, this enclave is a must-visit when in the area.

One of the most famous places in Fort Bragg is Glass Beach.  Part of the MacKerricher State Park, Glass Beach gets its name from the sea glass that washes up on its shore. Due to its exposure to saltwater and sand, the otherwise sharp and jagged glass has become smooth and is often collected by folks walking the beach.

Grab a mason jar and get to Glass Beach to create your very own take-home souvenir!

The Mendocino Coast Model Railroad & Historical Society is another local attraction for families. The company is dedicated to preserving the history and educating visitors on the logging industry that built the towns along the Mendocino Coast.

Crissy Field

Crissy Field
Source: Drive The Drive

Chrissy Field is a former airfield that now serves as a campground on the beach. With views of the Golden Gate Bridge and easy access to downtown San Francisco, it’s the perfect place for families to get their nature fix when visiting a more urban environment.

An easy bike ride from downtown San Francisco, this serene getaway is a great way to avoid the hustle and bustle of downtown life. Pack a blanket, enjoy a picnic, or build some sandcastles on the beach. It’s a great way to spend some quality time for packs with pups of all ages!

Alcatraz Island

best things to do with kids: northern California
Source: Indy Star

Few places in the entire United States encompass the same kind of mystery that Alcatraz Prison does. The former institution is located on Alcatraz Island off the northern side of San Francisco and is open to the public for tours. 

The California Park Ranger Service even offers programs for kids visiting the island. Talk to your kid and see if they’d like to become a “Junior Park Ranger” for the day! 

While some may be apprehensive about bringing children to a former prison, it’s well worth it. It’s situated on a beautiful island with great views of San Francisco. If you’re looking for an excuse to get out on the water, a trip to Alcatraz will serve you well!

FAQ

What are some of the best family weekend getaways in California?

The answer depends on your preference. We would of course recommend our Great Wolf Lodge Manteca location for a splashing good time for the whole pack. 

Lake Tahoe remains a top destination for families looking to get out of the city, too. And there are plenty of other attractions in the surrounding area for families to enjoy, including Lassen Volcanic National Park and in Sonoma County.

What are some fun family day trips in Northern California?

Some of the best family day trips in northern California are to Golden Gate State Park in downtown San Francisco or Black Sands Beach, just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can also head down to San Jose for a Sharks game on a Saturday night. If you plan ahead, you could even make it to all three locations on the same day!

What are the most kid-friendly day trips in Northern California?

Northern California is full of kid-friendly day trips, especially around San Francisco and San Jose, such as the Aquarium of the Bay, the San Francisco Zoo, and the Happy Hollow Park and Zoo. These destinations make for an excellent day trip with the kids!

What are the best free things to do in Northern California?

The best free activities in northern California usually revolve around the area’s beautiful beaches and landscapes. Black Sands beach makes for an easy day trip you could take from San Francisco. Baker Beach also offers a fun time for the whole family, along with some fantastic views of the Golden State Bridge.

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed our list of the best things to do with kids in northern California! Think about making our Great Wolf Lodge home base if you’re visiting the area.

Our Manteca location is conveniently located just one hour east of San Francisco and close to plenty of state parks, vineyards, and museums to explore during your stay.

If you don’t have plans to travel this year, don’t worry: we’ll bring the spirit of the lodge to you! Check out our blog for fun things to do at home with the family. We’ve got recipes, science experiments, trivia games, and much more!

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