We love the big cities and popular tourist destinations in California (hello, Disneyland!). But don’t overlook the lesser-known corners of Cali when planning your California family vacation. These seemingly hidden California destinations feature hikes among the Redwood trees, great surfing for beginners, the chance to sleep in a former ocean liner, thrilling ATV rides through sand dunes, a look inside Charlie Brown’s “hometown,” and more. Here, we’ve uncovered some of the lesser-known California destinations to consider for your next trip with the kids.
Skip Los Angeles, Go to Long Beach
Situated about 40 minutes south of Los Angeles, Long Beach is a coastal city that’s home to the RMS Queen Mary, a former ocean liner that’s now a museum and hotel. Families can tour the ship and see the boiler room, historic staterooms where celebrities once vacationed, and a 600-pound replica model of the Queen Mary made entirely of LEGO bricks. Less than a 10-minute drive from the Queen Mary, families will find a row of shops and restaurants to enjoy at Shoreline Village, as well as the Aquarium of the Pacific. The aquarium not only features sea life, but also offers immersive theater experiences and hands-on exhibits. With more than 5 miles of beaches and waterways, street art and numerous events held throughout the year, Long Beach is a family destination waiting to be discovered.
Recommended Hotel: The Queen Mary
Skip Napa Valley, Go to Santa Rosa
Located in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa is less than an hour from the Napa Valley. Like Napa Valley, it’s family-friendly—just lesser known. Kid-friendly wineries include The Francis Ford Coppola Winery (just outside of town), with a large pool area with cabanas and lifeguards. Children are more than welcome at this winery that also features tons of movie memorabilia.
Another fun fact? Charles Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, made his home in Santa Rosa and this is where the Charles Schulz Museum (and all of his Peanuts friends) is located. Families can spend time visiting the museum or the nearby children’s museum, or hike through a California Redwood forest.
Recommended Hotel: Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa
Related: 10 Best Wineries to Visit With Kids
Skip San Francisco, Go to Mendocino
Located along California’s Northern Coast, Mendocino is a solid three-hour drive north of San Francisco. Take the scenic drive north, passing through Redwood forests, grape vineyards and coastal cliffs. Mendocino is one of only two historic towns in California and appears more like New England than Cali, with gingerbread-style houses and small hotels dotting the tiny village. Family activities include canoeing, hiking and biking, and just outside of town, there’s a historic tourism train. Called the Skunk Train, it will take you through the Redwood groves, as well as an animal preserve where you can feed giraffes.
Recommended Hotel: Mendocino Grove
Skip San Diego, Go to San Clemente
For true Southern California fun in the sun, visit San Clemente, which is about an hour north of San Diego and less than 30 minutes from Laguna Beach. Families will love the beaches, surfing and fishing pier in San Clemente. Whether you’re a pro surfer or trying to catch your first wave, San Clemente is great for all surf skill levels. There are surf camps, lessons and schools and even a surf museum. The Surfing Heritage and Culture Center showcases surf boards and plenty of surfing history through photography, videos and memorabilia.
Recommended Hotel: Hampton Inn and Suites San Clemente
Skip Lake Tahoe, Go to Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake is similar to Lake Tahoe in that both are four-season destinations, with skiing and snow tubing in the winter and swimming and hiking in the summer. Big Bear Lake is just two hours from Los Angeles, making it perfect for those seeking a weekend getaway from the city or looking for an easy drive from LAX. We also love the small-town, log-cabin vibes of Big Bear Lake Village and the Big Bear Alpine Zoo, which is an animal rehabilitation facility that doubles as a zoo. The zoo offers injured or orphaned animals a temporary safe haven while they heal and determine if they can be released back into their natural environment.
Recommended Hotel: Golden Bear Cottages Resort
Related: 10 Cheap California Family Vacations
Skip San Luis Obispo, Go to Pismo Beach
Located along California’s central coastline about 15 minutes from San Luis Obispo is this classic California town. Pismo Beach offers small-town charm with unique things for families to do sans crowds. Families can rent a dune buggy or ATV and explore the sand dunes at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. Visit with the thousands of Monarch Butterflies that migrate to Pismo Beach’s Eucalyptus treesbetween November and February at the Monarch Butterfly Grove. Or play on the playground equipment at Dinosaur Cave Park, which (unfortunately) isn’t filled with actual dinosaurs but rather dinosaur-themed climbing equipment.
Recommended Hotel: SeaCrest OceanFront Hotel
Skip Santa Barbara, Go to Ojai
Located about 45 minutes from Santa Barbara, Ojai offers boutique hotels and luxury resorts, plus outdoor recreation galore. Families love the hiking and biking trails, horseback riding, Jeep tours, and camping in and around this hip, bohemian community. Lake Casitas, home of the 1984 Olympic canoeing and rowing events, offers families an opportunity to get out on the water for some boating, kayaking and fishing. Don’t miss the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market on Sundays.
Recommended Hotel: Ojai Valley Inn