Young travelers love Northern California. It's an adventurous destination, and it's also safe for family travel. Because of the coast's mild climate, you can cycle, hike or beachcomb February to November. In winter there's great skiing in Tahoe. And year-round, you'll find family-friendly museums and indoor entertainment galore in the region's cities.
Best Regions for Kids
- San Francisco & the Bay Area
In San Francisco, explore hands-on, whimsical science museums, hear the barking sea lions at Pier 39, traipse through Golden Gate Park and along that famous bridge, and make new friends at the city's many playgrounds.
- Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada
Kids will gawk at Yosemite’s waterfalls and granite domes and can hike through ancient groves of giant sequoias, the world’s most massive living things. Mammoth Lakes is a four-seasons family adventure base camp, as are some of the resorts at Lake Tahoe, notably Squaw Valley, Heavenly and Northstar.
- Gold Country
Young imaginations run wild in Gold Country, ignited by tall tales of rough-n-tumble forty-niners, gun-slinging bandits and treasure-hunters. Connect with the Wild West in historic towns such as Columbia State Historic Park and Nevada City. In late summer and fall, gather apples together at you-pick-'em orchards.
Northern California for Kids
Northern California has ample services and attractions geared toward kids. National and state parks often have ranger-led activities and self-guided ‘Junior Ranger’ programs, in which kids earn a badge after completing learning-based scavenger hunts.
Children’s discounts are available for everything from museum admissions to bus fares. The definition of a ‘child’ varies – in some places anyone under 18 is eligible, while at others the cut-off is age six.
Kids are welcomed at casual restaurants, which often have high chairs, children’s menus, and paper place mats and crayons for drawing.
Many public toilets have a change table, while places such as airports and museums may have gender-neutral, private ‘family’ bathrooms.
Aquariums & Museums
- San Francisco The Bay Area is a mind-bending classroom for kids, especially the hands-on Exploratorium, the multimedia Children’s Creativity Museum and the eco-friendly California Academy of Sciences.
- Chabot Space & Science Center Stargazers will go gaga over this kid-oriented science and technology center in the Oakland Hills.
- Bay Area Discovery Museum Excellent hands-on museum in the Marin Headlands, with multilingual exhibits including a wave workshop, a small underwater tunnel and a large outdoor play area with a shipwreck.
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Get acquainted with the denizens of the deep next door to the Central Coast’s biggest marine sanctuary.
- Seymour Marine Discovery Center Santa Cruz’ university-run aquarium makes interactive science fun, with nearby tide pools for exploring at the beach.
- Turtle Bay Exploration Park In Redding, this indoor-outdoor attraction combines an eco-museum with arboretum, botanical and butterfly gardens.
- Central Coast Beach towns line the coast, from Pismo Beach all the way north to Santa Cruz, famous for its beachside boardwalk and pier.
- Lake Tahoe In summer, it’s California’s favorite high-altitude beach escape, a sparkling jewel in the craggy Sierra Nevada mountains.
- North Coast No swimming – the water is too rough – but plenty of chances for beachcombing, collecting shells and building sandcastles on uncrowded beaches. The giant driftwood trunks of redwood trees strewn on the sand are ready-made climbing structures.
- Yosemite National Park The ultimate in Sierra Nevada scenery, with gushing waterfalls, alpine lakes, glacier-carved valleys and 2-mile-high peaks.
- Golden Gate Park The giant green swath in the heart of San Francisco has grassy areas for lounging, strolling ice-cream vendors, a carousel, children's playgrounds, model boating and plenty of space to fly a kite.
- Redwood National and State Parks On the fog-shrouded North Coast, a patchwork of nature reserves protect magnificent wildlife, beaches and the world’s tallest trees.
- Lassen Volcanic National Park An off-the-beaten-path destination in the Northern Mountains, with otherworldly volcanic scenery and lakeside camping and cabins.
- Columbia State Historic Park Like a miniature gold-rush Disneyland, but with more authenticity and heart.
When to Go
Family travel is viable year-round in Northern California, but some family-centric attractions close during winter – check individual listings. Explore the coast from spring through fall. Once winter's rains arrive, consider a ski trip to the mountains.
Motels and hotels often have rooms with two beds or an extra sofa bed, ideal for families. Many hotels have roll-away beds or cots, sometimes for a surcharge. Most offer ‘kids stay free’ promotions, provided the kids are under 18 and traveling with their parents. Some B&Bs don’t allow children; ask when booking.
Resorts may have drop-off day camps for kids or on-call babysitting services. At other hotels, the front-desk staff or concierge may be able to help you make babysitting arrangements, whereby the sitter comes to your hotel room. Make sure the sitter is licensed, bonded and fully insured.
Airlines usually allow infants (up to age two) to fly for free, while older children requiring a seat of their own qualify for reduced fares. Children receive substantial discounts on Amtrak and Greyhound. In cars, any child under age eight must be buckled up in the back seat in a child or infant safety seat, unless they're over 4ft 9in tall, in which case they may ride in front with a seat belt.
Most car-rental agencies rent safety seats for about $10 per day or up to $80 per trip, but you must book them in advance. Hertz offers AAA members one free child seat. Take note: rest stops on freeways are few and far between, and gas stations and fast-food bathrooms are frequently icky.
A word of advice: don’t pack your schedule too tightly. Navigating metro areas, such as San Francisco, and the winding back roads to Northern California’s natural areas always takes longer than expected.
What to Pack
There are two magic words for traveling in Northern California: sunscreen and layers.
The first of these is always necessary, even where cool, high-altitude climates and overcast skies lull visitors into a false sense of security – the higher the elevation, the thinner the atmosphere, especially in the High Sierra. The second is an absolute must: a day that is blisteringly hot in the Gold Country can be chilly in the Sierra and downright bone-chilling on the coast. This is particularly true in San Francisco, where the weather changes fast.
For outdoor vacations, bring broken-in shoes and your own camping equipment. Alternatively, outdoors gear can be purchased or often rented from outdoor stores. But remember that brand-new hiking shoes often result in blisters, and setting up a new tent in the dark ain’t easy.
If you forget some critical piece of equipment, Baby’s Away (www.babysaway.com) rents cribs, strollers, car seats, high chairs, backpacks, beach gear and more.
Before You Go
- For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
- Lonelyplanet.com (www.lonelyplanet.com) lets you ask questions and get advice from other travelers on the Thorn Tree’s ‘Kids to Go’ and ‘USA’ forums.
- California Travel & Tourism (www.visitcalifornia.com), the state’s official visitor website, lists family-friendly attractions, activities and more – just search for ‘Family Fun’ and ‘Events.’
- Family Travel Files (www.thefamilytravelfiles.com/locations/california) is an info-packed site with vacation-planning articles, tips and discounts.