7 Northern California Destinations for Your Summer Road Trip

February 8, 2021millionmilermom

With so much uncertainty in the world still, many people are opting for a summer road trip again this year. Luckily, Northern California offers so many options for summer family fun. Read on for 7 Northern California destinations for your summer road trip put together by family travel bloggers.

Sea Ranch (Sonoma County)

Our vacation to Sea Ranch was one of the most relaxing family vacations to date! Sea Ranch is actually a planned development from the 1960s with a focus to “live lightly on the land.” This translates into one-of-a-kind vacation rentals that blend into the stunning nature. It is located on 10 miles of coastline in Sonoma County. Most of the vacation homes blend into the rugged coastline and have incredible views of the ocean.

Our rental property had floor to ceiling windows in 90% of the house facing the ocean with a hot tub in a walled garden. Even though there are 1000 residents and 2,200 home rentals, you feel completely secluded with nature and we fully relaxed and enjoyed time with our kids.

Picture yourself at Sea Ranch this summer.

There are lots of activities in Sea Ranch beyond your vacation rental! Five miles north is the Gualala which has some great small restaurants that we enjoyed including Upper Crust Pizzeria and Trinks Café. There is also Gualala Point Regional Park with the Bluff Trailhead, Sea Ranch Golf Course, and the unique Sea Ranch Chapel. And of course, the stunning Pacific Coast is at your feet with cliffs, beaches, and 50+ miles of trails. Truly a wonderful, unique family vacation spot!

Our rental was Seascape through Vacasa.

 Jennifer is a family travel blogger based outside Washington, DC. She is currently exploring DC with her kids and sharing hidden gems along the East Coast on Instagram @FamilyTripGuides or FamilyTripGuides.com

Emigrant Gap Camping

Taking in the lake view at Snowflower Resort near Tahoe.

Every summer our family packs up and heads on a little road trip to go camping!  We love to camp at locations that are close to water!  We randomly found a fun little camping resort a couple years ago and we keep going back every year.  This hidden gem is called the Snowflower Resort which is located in Emigrant Gap, CA, just off I-80, headed east towards Donner Pass.  They offer comfortable campgrounds, cabins, or RV’s spots with plenty of activities for families.  Our favorite activities include hiking, campfires and all of the water activities that are offered on their private lake!  Our family loves to paddle board and kayak all around the lake while enjoying the sun and the beautiful views! 
A weekend away camping is something we all look forward to every year and we are excited to experience it again this year!  

Marc is from NORCALKIDS, Adventure Awaits (follow them on Instagram and use the hashtag #norcalkids).  His family of 6 enjoys sharing their adventures while exploring Northern California. 

Lassen National Park

At Lassen Volcanic National Park families can make their way through otherworldly landscapes of bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles, gape at plunging waterfalls, run through meadows of wildflowers, hike into the crater of a volcano, and splash in nearby lakes made from its lava flows. And that’s barely scratching the surface!  

One of the popular hiking trails: Cinder Cone

This spectacular National Park gets a fraction of the visitors of other California gems like Yosemite and Death Valley, but it’s an ideal spot for family-friendly adventures. After exploring Bumpass Hell and other natural wonders off of the park’s Scenic Drive, get your Junior Ranger badges at the Loomis Museum and head to the fascinating, but less-visited, northeastern corner of the park. The Butte Lake area offers trails that will lead you past Fantastic Lava Beds, Painted Dunes, and up into Cinder Cone volcano. When you’re ready to rest, relax at the lakeside picnic area while the kids splash along the shore.  

Lassen doesn’t have the lodging options of many National Parks, but we like the rustic Camping Cabins at Manzanita Lake. Several cabins are located just 150 yards from the lake and you’ll enjoy the convenience of the Camper Store nearby.

Kristy from JJ & The Bug is all about finding new and fun ways to get outside as a family. If you’re curious to learn more about what Lassen has to offer, check out our Family-Friendly Guide to Lassen National Park here.

Redwood National Forest

When planning a trip to Northern California, you must visit the Redwood National and State Parks. These parks are home to some of the tallest trees in the world! You can actually find these amazing trees all the way from the Oregon border along to San Francisco, however there are a few special spots you must see. The northern most park is Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. This park is one of the most natural in existence and contains very few trails. However, the old growth groves are filled with lush undergrowth and worth a visit to contrast with the redwood parks to the south.

Another popular park is the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park where you’ll find the Newton B Drury Scenic Drive and you might even get a glimpse of elk.

And lastly, you’ll move further south to Humboldt Redwoods State Park where you’ll find the famous Avenue of the Giants. This is a popular drive that will surround you in trees and offers some nice hiking opportunities.

Seeing the redwood trees in California up close is truly a unique adventure and something that everyone should do. If you’re looking for spots to stay, I recommend the Beachcomber Motel in Ft. Bragg or the Best Western Plus in Crescent City.

Kim Tate is the founder of Stuffed Suitcase, a travel blog that shares travel destination ideas and tips to help make traveling easier. You can also find her on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and YouTube.


A view of gorgeous Mendocino, California

Mendocino is a great summertime destination in Northern California if you are traveling with your family. The small coastal town is located just off the Pacific Coast Highway, three hours north of San Francisco. Families will love the fact that it is away from the hustle and bustle, and boasts access to beautiful beaches, state parks, and outdoor fun. Families can kayak through sea caves in Van Damme State Park, rent a bike or canoe in Mendocino Headlands State Park, visit a museum downtown or hike Russian Gulch State Park. Those with smaller children may just enjoy wading through the section of the Big River that leads out into the Pacific Ocean . 

In terms of where to stay, the Cottages at Little River Cove offer families more space and a full kitchen, in addition to a great location with beautiful views. Downtown Mendocino has some delicious dining options and is also a nice place for a stroll around the headlands area during sunset. For a short day trip, families may want to head north to check out the lighthouse at Point Cabrillo State Park and then onto Fort Bragg and visit Glass Beach to collect unique sea glass. Mendocino makes for a great family vacation spot in Northern California and it is just a short road trip from San Francisco

Margie is the owner of DQ Family Travel and is on a quest to visit all 50 states and visit national park sites around the country. You can follow her family adventures on Instagram

Sonoma County Coast

Sick and tired of staring at the same four walls for the past year? Then it’s time for some intense nature therapy on the breezy Sonoma Coast. From Salt Point State Park in the north, to Bodega Bay in the south, this stretch of coastline is full of adventures for your family. If you want to extend your stay by a few more days then you can drive inland for less than an hour to the vacation wonderland that is the Russian River Resort Area. 

Whale Watching: The best places for whale watching are from Bodega Head in Bodega Bay, and from an easy hike on the Kortum Trail just north of Bodega Bay. You can also book a whale watching boat tour with Bodega Bay Sport Fishing

What will you spot during your stay in Bodega Bay?

Tidepooling: Our favorite spots are Shell Beach at Sonoma Coast State Park, Stillwater Cove Regional Park, and Salt Point State Park. In addition to sea creatures you can find edible seaweed, called sea lettuce, especially at Stillwater Cove. Want to tack on a whale viewing hike? Pick up the Kortum Trail at Shell Beach.

Hiking: With bigger kids, you can up the activity level. For a a bit of forest bathing with stunning rhododendrons take a quick hike at Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve in May or June. Or how about a pygmy forest? Salt Point State Park is the place to go for that. For sweeping views from the coastal prairie take the Raptor Ridge Trail at Jenner Headlands Preserve or hike to Pomo Canyon from Shell Beach.

For the pure coastal experience you can stay at Timber Cove Resort. It was remodeled in 2016 with tasteful modern decor, with suites that have 2 rooms, so you can separate kids from adults and have a restful night’s sleep. If you will be extending your trip to also enjoy the Russian River resort area, then Lucky Bend Lookout is a Mid Century Modern family friendly vacation home with all the gear you will need for your little ones. You can literally jump into the river from the back yard and won’t need to leave the house for your entire stay.

Sarah is a Mom from San Francisco with a healthy Sonoma County obsession. She is the owner of Lucky Bend Lookout vacation rental and co-author of the Sonoma Family Adventures blog. Follow on instagram @luckybendlookout

Yosemite National Park

Making some new friends at the Alpaca Ranch House near Yosemite.

If California had a crown jewel, Yosemite National Park would definitely be a top contender. With immense beauty and tranquility, it offers so much to do and see for the whole family. Within the park, there are several options to camp, hike, climb and just explore nature but you can also do water activities on the Merced River. For those with younger children, some of the easier hikes like Mirror Lake, Bridalveil Fall and Lower Yosemite Fall.

To amplify your vacation, consider an accommodation that offers some addition entertainment and recreation. For those wanting to be close to the park, consider staying at Rush Creek Lodge. Spacious rooms will allow everyone to get a good night’s rest to save up energy for the heated salt water swimming pool, kid-sized zip line, lots of lawn games and nightly s’mores. If you want to stay a little farther away from the park, check out the Alpaca Ranch House where you can stay in a 2-bedroom house at a working alpaca farm. It is located a little under an hour away from Yosemite but you have the town of Mariposa just 15 minutes away and lots of options for local fun such as gold panning.

Comments (23)

  • offbeatescapades

    February 10, 2021 at 7:07 am

    Love this! Brings back so many good memories of our time in Northern California. We want to be able to return one day. Our favorites of the bunch are probably Sonoma County – so laidback and Yosemite of course. 😉

  • Emma

    February 13, 2021 at 1:35 am

    I really love that people are putting a good effort into exploring their own backyards at the moment. It just goes to show that you don’t always need to travel 10,000 miles away to see amazing, natural locations. Lassen National Park sounds amazing! The fact that it offers so much and doesn’t get half the crowds that Yosemite does really appeals to me.

    1. millionmilermom

      February 15, 2021 at 9:40 pm

      This pandemic has made us open our eyes and see what is right in front of us for sure!!

  • Karee

    February 13, 2021 at 1:37 pm

    Great collection of places to visit in California! Living in the PNW, I love finding places that would make a great road trip, but not necessarily across the country. Thanks for sharing this list!

    1. millionmilermom

      February 15, 2021 at 9:40 pm

      This is definitely great for you – not too far but feels like you’re exploring. We’re actually looking at the PNW for summer to feel like we’re getting away 🙂

  • Travelling Tam

    February 13, 2021 at 2:55 pm

    Love this! There are some really great destinations in California. I especially like the look of Lassen National Park as its landscape is so unusual!

    1. millionmilermom

      February 15, 2021 at 9:39 pm

      It definitely isn’t the typical view people think of when they visualize California. But, that is what I love about the state – from sea to mountains, so much variance!

  • Emma

    February 13, 2021 at 7:13 pm

    Lassen National Park looks like a place I would really like to visit as it’s a completely different landscape than you typically see other places. I love the idea of visiting a volcanic region, that was one of the highlights of my trip to Hawaii too so cool to know there’s somewhere closer

    1. millionmilermom

      February 15, 2021 at 9:38 pm

      Yes, totally! The volcanic stuff intrigues me as well.

  • Krista

    February 14, 2021 at 12:17 am

    I would love to go hiking around Redwood National Forest – those trees look enormous! Great list you’ve put together.

    1. millionmilermom

      February 15, 2021 at 9:38 pm

      It is a beautiful spot – redwood trees are truly amazing!

  • Get Lost

    February 14, 2021 at 12:30 am

    This is such a great guide! I’m from the UK and love visiting California, it’s such a beautiful state! I’ve not seen anywhere near as much of it as I’d like to! Redwood National Forest is somewhere that is definitely on my bucket list! Those trees look incredible! Lassen National Park looks amazing too, the landscape is unreal! Thanks so much for the great guide!

    1. millionmilermom

      February 15, 2021 at 9:38 pm

      Thanks! Lassen is incredible — that whole region is full of volcanic remnants so really cool landscape to look at.

  • bmeitiner

    February 14, 2021 at 1:21 pm

    This is great, thanks for sharing!! Would absolutely love to visit Redwood National Park and Yosemite. I didn’t know about all the other places though so they have also been added to the list!

    1. millionmilermom

      February 15, 2021 at 9:37 pm

      So much to do in NorCal! I always struggle with trying to do too much in one trip and not planning enough time getting between them!

  • Danik the Explorer

    February 15, 2021 at 11:14 am

    I really cant wait to explore California again, as I have only done San Fransico (and the bay area) and San Jose. I only know of the Redwood Park and Yosemite National Park but I am saving those for when my children get a little bit older so I can show them also and hopefully provide a education to the outdoors. Never heard of the three other places so would love to check them out also. 🙂

    1. millionmilermom

      February 15, 2021 at 9:36 pm

      Nice! I live in San Jose! Definitely a great spot for a family road trip one day – so much to see!

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  • D

    February 16, 2021 at 5:26 pm

    These are great ideas! We are definitely looking into a California road trip- would especially love to explore the coast!

  • Sandy N Vyjay

    February 16, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    Road trips are definitely the best and safest option in these times. California has such amazing places to head to and this list has some real gems. Each place promises a great time, but we would love to visit the Redwood National Park and the Yosemite National Park. Both of these are really iconic and having read so much about them, hope to experience them some day. the Sonoma County Coast too looks promising for a great time in the lap of nature.

  • Linda (LD Holland)

    February 18, 2021 at 5:45 am

    California is one of our favourite spots for road trips. We have seen a lot but your post added some new ones for the next time we visit. A beach break as Sea Ranch in Sonoma County sounds perfect for a summer visit. We have done a lot of the National Parks but have missed Lassen. So that goes on the list too!

  • Travel with Mei and Kerstin

    February 18, 2021 at 9:49 am

    When we lived in San Francisco, we went to Yellowstone and also Sonoma, but didn’t got the opportunity to go to Redwood National and State Parks. When we can visit the USA again, we’ll certainly try to explore all these amazing places in Northern California!

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