We love to travel with our kids, and though this often includes international travel, we have found that when traveling with young children it can be much easier to travel locally. Luckily for us, we live in Northern California, a beautiful, varied region that attracts travelers from all over the world – and we’re lucky enough to have all these scenic places right in our backyard! So if you are in our neck of the woods, here are our picks for the most beautiful places to visit in Northern California with your family. Share your favorites in the comments!
18 Most Picturesque Places to Visit in Northern California
1. San Francisco: Okay, I’m cheating because they are so many picturesque places in San Francisco alone. From the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park to Lombard Street and Pier 39, there are so many spots to visit. Here are recommendations of where to visit in San Francisco as well as great day trips you can take in the area. What is your favorite Bay Area spot?
2. Lake Tahoe: Truly a gorgeous place to visit, one that will win over even the most “indoorsy” child. In addition to lake itself (one of the largest in the country), there are also lots of fun places to play, hike, and picnic in the surrounding area. And in the winter, it is a great place for skiing and playing in the snow! Tip: If Lake Tahoe itself is crowded, try exploring one of the smaller lakes in the area, such as Dicks Lake or Eagle Lake.
3. Yosemite: We absolutely love going to Yosemite and have visited regularly before and after having kids. There is something for everyone, whether you crave solitude in the woods or more of a camp atmosphere as in Camp Curry. Being originally from the East Coast, witnessing first-hand the enormous stone faces of Yosemite’s peaks really brought home just how different and big everything is out West.
4. Wine Country: This beautiful region – which includes Napa and Sonoma Valleys – is another world-famous spot in Northern California. And even if, like us, you aren’t interested in the wine, you still don’t want to miss the breathtaking views this area has to offer. While much of the area is geared towards adults, you can still find great kid-friendly spots, such as Calistoga, and we had a great time exploring the San Francisco Solano Mission in Sonoma. (For more on Missions throughout California, visit our California Missions page).
5. Point Reyes: Point Reyes has gorgeous beaches as well as its famous lighthouse. There are so many spots to explore and enjoy. Just beware of all those stairs to get down to the lighthouse if you take the kids! And keep in mind that if you are driving from inland, there is a significant drop in temperature when you reach the coast. It is always much colder, so bring a long-sleeve shirt or light jacket, even in the middle of the summer! (If you love the coast, another great spot south of San Francisco is the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve!)
6. Muir Woods: Northern California is renowned for its redwoods, and Muir Woods is one of the premier places to view them. It is easily accessible from San Francisco, and there are very kid-friendly trails through the woods.
7. Big Sur: Located south of Monterey, Big Sur offers some of the most beautiful views of the California coast. You can simply enjoy the scenery from the viewing spots along the highway, or extend your stay with some camping. When I was in college, it was a popular spot for retreats. It contains a number of state parks and a federally protected marine area.
8. Santa Cruz: Despite the fact that Santa Cruz is more accurately part of Central California, it is typically included in Northern California, and in any case is worth a mention as a great place to visit! There are, of course, the beaches, but it is also known for its old-fashioned boardwalk, with carnival rides and games for the kiddos.
9. Monterey: From the beaches and aquarium to Cannery Row, Monterey is not to be missed. There are lots of areas for families to explore, and personally I enjoyed the beautiful drive along the coast almost as much as the destination itself!
10. Mount Shasta: If you drive along I-5 heading to far northern California, you can’t miss Mt. Shasta, which rises up suddenly and dominates the view for miles. This potentially active volcano is at the southern end of the Cascades. Beyond exploring the mountain itself, the surrounding area is beautiful and provides plenty of outdoor activities for the whole family.
11. Sierra Nevadas: This gorgeous mountain range stretches throughout much of Northern California, and includes Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. And thanks to the California Gold Rush that took place in its foothills, it is also dotted with real ghost towns!
12. Apple Hill: For many families in the Sacramento area, it is an annual tradition to visit Apple Hill in the fall. This beautiful collection of orchards and farms offers apple picking, pies, petting zoos, and more! And pie, did I already mention pie?
13. Old Sacramento: This historic part of Sacramento is a fun place to visit with kids, to see what life was like in the time of the Gold Rush. You can take a river cruise, enjoy the old-timey shops, or visit the State Railroad Museum (always a favorite for kids!)
14. UC Davis Arboretum: The 100 acres of gardens included in the Arboretum are open to the public 24 hours a day, free of charge. It is a favorite spot for UCD students to study, for professors to spend their lunch breaks, and for families to enjoy a picnic or leisurely walk. You can also appreciate a great diversity of plants from all over the world included in this wonderful collection.
15. State Capitol and Gardens: The Capitol is an impressive building and has so much history to explore. (Be sure to check out the paintings of the governors, especially Jerry Brown’s first portrait!). But the grounds themselves are also worth the trip, with plants from throughout the state. Our favorite time to visit is at the holidays, when you can enjoy the decorations – including the Christmas tree on the lawn – as well as holiday concerts.
16. American River Parkway: The 23 mile parkway stretching along Sacramento is a wonderful place to enjoy wildlife or recreation and is a favorite place for school field trips as well as family outings.
17. Russian River: The Russian River is a treasure tucked into the redwoods outside Santa Rosa. Kids will enjoy swimming or kayaking in the cool river water. Don’t miss these great tips for your visit.
18. Lassen Volcanic National Park: This park, established nearly 100 years ago, is a cauldron of geologic activity innocently situated in the peaceful wilderness of Northern California. Make sure to hold the little ones’ hands as you cross the plank walkways over boiling mud, evidence of Lassen’s past as an active volcano. And be prepared for that rotten-egg smell from the sulphur – of course, if you have little boys like mine, it will just add to the atmosphere as far as they are concerned!
What are your favorite places to visit in Northern California?