Schools’ out and the kids are getting bored and restless. Or worse, they’re wasting the glorious summer days playing video games or staring at their phones. Turn off the devices and pack your bags—it’s time to hit the road and explore the great outdoors! Whether it’s for the day or for the week, you don’t have to travel far to enjoy what beautiful California has to offer. Here are some drivable destinations—less than five hours from the heart of Silicon Valley—that the whole family will enjoy.
THE NORTH COAST
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful Marin County which is perfect for those who like to spend their time outdoors. Less than two hours away from the Bay Area, Marin County makes for a perfect day trip for those seeking respite from the hustle and bustle of the Silicon Valley.
A tad north of the Golden Gate are the redwoods and oaks of Mount Tamalpais. From its 2,574-foot peak, visitors are treated to a spectacular view of the Farallon Islands and the surrounding hills. Within the park are over 60 miles of hiking and biking trails. Besides exploring the miles of hiking and biking trails, there are many other activities to enjoy within the park. During the summer, the Mountain Theater produces entertaining plays and musicals – check www.mountainplay.org for the current productions. Stargazers and budding astronomers will enjoy the astronomy program at Mt. Tamalpais which runs April through October and includes a talk and a star tour of the night sky, followed by telescope viewing at nearby Rock Springs. Other activities include horseback riding, camping, and hang gliding.
A moderate hike from Mt. Tamalpais is nearby Stinson Beach. Stinson Beach is the perfect place for families to spend the day. Kids and parents alike will enjoy swimming, surfing, sunning and playing in the sand and sea. In the summer, lifeguards are on duty and the snack bar is open. Adjacent to the beach is a park with showers, BBQ grills and several picnic tables. The charming coastal town of Stinson Beach offers several restaurants and shops and a full-service market where you can pick up picnic supplies and snacks.
The Marin Headlands, located within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, encompasses several interesting historical structures, including the 150-year-old Point Bonita Lighthouse and the NIKE Missile Silo. The park is home to deer, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, raccoons, skunks and a wide variety of birds. Go to the Visitor Center and learn about the Miwok Indians, the lighthouse, the area’s military history and the plants and animals native to the Headlands. Bring your hiking shoes and your bicycles; the park has many hiking and biking-friendly trails. Make sure to bring water and snacks as the park does not sell food or water on site.
THE CENTRAL COAST
Just a little over an hour’s drive from the Bay Area is Monterey and its nearby coastal towns. With several beaches, aquariums, museums and parks, the options in and around the Monterey Bay are endless.
Explore the area by sea or by land—Adventures by the Sea offers fun transportation options for exploring the Monterey Bay. Rent a kayak or paddle board and explore by sea or, if you are a land lubber, rent bicycles or a surrey to explore by way of land. For a truly fun family bonding experience, opt for the surrey and pedal, in-synch, to Lover’s Point, a short and pretty ride away. This is a wonderful and healthy way to spend a day outdoors taking in the sights along with the refreshing sea air. Make sure to take along some bottled water and a picnic to enjoy at Lover’s Point where you can get reenergized for the ride back.
Located in the center of Monterey’s 45-acre El Estero Park Complex is Dennis the Menace Park. The park is a timeless favorite with kids of all ages. For the little ones, the smaller play structures, swings, slides and hedge maze offer tons of fun. Older kids will get a kick out of climbing the rock walls and going down the big slides. Even teens and tweens can have fun at this park; take along skateboards and helmets and let them practice tricks at the skate park. For the whole family, a leisurely paddle-boat ride around the lake can be enjoyed by all.
A little over three hours from the Bay Area, just about half-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is the laid-back surf town of Cayucos and its waterfront Cayucos State Beach. This old-timey beach town offers plenty of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, and bird-watching, as well as one of the most pristine beaches in California.
The charming beachside town of Cayucos boasts an old-time beach town vibe, along with unspoiled beaches, historic buildings, a popular beachside boardwalk and a pier for fishing and enjoying the beautiful sunsets. There are several small family-owned budget friendly inns and motels, antique shops and quaint restaurants that offer traditional seaside fare like chowder, fish n’ chips and gourmet seafood.
Cayucos State Beach is a haven for surfing, boogie boarding, swimming and tide pooling. Rent a kayak and paddle out into Estero Bay or take a surf lesson. With its flat sandy shore and gentle waves, the beach is perfect for building sand castles and splashing in the water. Lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There are picnic tables, restrooms, and outdoor showers. The Fishing Pier is a hot spot for whale watching, spotting sea otters and enjoying the beautiful sunsets. Once the sun goes down, the pier is lit for night fishing.
San Luis Obispo
A mere three-hour drive from the Bay Area, San Luis Obispo is a great town with many activities and attractions that will please everyone in the family.
For the nature lover, there are many state parks and beaches to be explored. Along the way on Hwy 1, stop by Limekiln Beach State Park and take in the breathtaking views of the coast and the majestic redwoods. A half-mile stroll through the redwoods will take you to the limekilns where rocks were once turned to limestone to make building materials. Limekiln State Park also provides access to streams, waterfalls and the beach.
In the town of San Luis Obispo, food lovers will enjoy the family-friendly outdoor Farmer’s Market held downtown weekly on Thursday evening on Higuera Street. The market is famous for its fresh local produce, live music and tasty food. San Luis Obispo also abounds with several family-friendly and moderately priced restaurants.
History buffs will love San Luis Obispo for its well-preserved historic architecture and rich past. San Luis Obispo is home to the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The mission is a fine example of beautiful 18th century Spanish architecture with its beautiful wooden doors, graceful arches, and lovely gardens. Other historical highlights include the famous Hearst Castle in nearby San Simeon. Visitors will be awed by splendid palace once owned by newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst.
Being just a just hop, skip and a jump away from the Bay Area, Sonoma County is the ideal spot for an easy weekend getaway for the whole family. Less than a two hours’ drive from San Francisco, with over 200 award-winning wineries, beautiful beaches, majestic forests, and the Russian River, Sonoma County has much to offer.
Behold some of the oldest and tallest trees on the planet. Armstrong Redwoods State Reserveis a 700-acre state park dedicated to preserving the magnificent coast redwood—the tallest living trees on our planet. These stately trees can live to be over 1,000 years old and tower above 250 feet and are truly awe- inspiring. A hike through this cool and serene forest offers a peaceful reprieve from the hustle and bustle of daily life and a chance to commune with Mother Nature. The Pioneer Nature Trail is an easy mile-and-a-half-long round trip, perfect for families with younger children. The reserve includes a visitor center, self-guided trails and picnic tables.
There’s no better way to explore the Russian River than by drifting along in its cool waters. Spend a blissful day rowing on the river, floating past the trees, spotting turtles, ducks and deer, listening to the birds and simply basking under the sun and sky. River’s Edge Kayak & Canoe Trips lets you choose a self-guided trip to suit your family—you can choose between a half-day (best for families with younger children) or a full-day trip—or inquire about custom trips and create your own adventure. Wear a bathing suit and bring a hat, sunscreen, water, camera and a hearty lunch to take along for a picnic on the river’s edge. On warmer days, park your kayak or canoe and take a leisurely dip in the river to cool off.
A drive along the scenic Sonoma Coastline should not be missed. There are several breathtaking beaches along the coastline to explore. Favorite beaches include: Bodega Head which offers many hiking trails along the ocean which allows access to sandy coves, as well as a spectacular view from the bluffs where migrating gray whales can be spotted. Shell Beach is perfect for beachcombing and offers tide pools teeming with sea life for kids to explore. Goat Rock Beach has an easily accessible sandy beach, picnic tables and restrooms, making it an excellent choice for families to spend the whole day. Goat Rock Beach is also home to a colony of harbor seals which kids will find delightful to observe.
About four hours from the Silicon Valley are the emerald waters of popular vacation spot Lake Tahoe. Popular for good reason, Lake Tahoe offers a plethora of outdoor activities for the whole family. Lake Tahoe has many beautiful parks and sunny beaches all along its four points on the lake.
King’s Beach on the North Shore is ideal for families as it is central to nearby hotels, restaurants and shops. The King’s Beach Recreation Area boasts almost a thousand feet along the lakefront where families can spend the day playing and lounging in the sun, swimming in the lake and enjoying a host of water sports. Rental huts dot the shore offering boats, kayaks and paddle boards for rent. The park also offers picnic tables, barbeques, restrooms, a playground, and basketball court.
On the South Shore, the historic Angora Lakes Resort is a popular destination for families who want to enjoy an old-fashioned getaway on the lake. The Lower Angora Lake is dotted with rustic cabins which feature decks offering stunning views of the surrounding lake and mountains. The cabins are available for rent on a weekly basis but fill up quickly for the season, so book early or add your name to the waitlist. Hike a bit further up (about 1 mile) and discover the Upper Angora Lake. The upper lake is a hot spot for day use and offers a large, sandy beach and kid-friendly, shallow waters. Thrill-seekers will enjoy jumping off the rocks and cliffs into the cool water below. Boat and kayak rentals and a refreshment stand offering sandwiches, ice-cream, and fresh-squeezed lemonade are open during the summer months. Make sure to arrive early; it’s very popular with families and can get crowded.
Sand Harbor is the best beach on the East Shore and, possibly, all of Lake Tahoe. Sand Harbor features a long, wide expanse of fine sandy beach and crystal-clear shallow waters where the kids can swim and play. It also has one of the best beach facilities with separate parking, grills, fire pits, and running water. During the summer, Sand Harbor hosts the lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.
Located along the West Shore and down a wide, stroller-friendly (though slightly steep) path, Emerald Bay offers a wide sandy beach, picnic tables, and a lovely view of Fannette Island. Take a hike just south of Eagle Creek, where the water is shallow enough for the little ones to swim and where there is plenty of sand for building sand castles. At the end of Emerald Bay, set back among the trees and surrounded by waterfalls and cliffs is Vikingsholm Castle. The castle can be accessed via a one-mile hiking trail stemming from the Vikingsholm parking lot or by private boat. The hike is steep and hot during the summer so lather on the sunscreen, don a hat, and bring lots of water.