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10 Fun Things to do in Northern California with Kids

May 28, 2019

If you’re planning a Northern California vacation with kids and wanting suggestions for the best family things to do in the area, this article is for you!

Whether you’re interested in gorgeous cities, iconic landmarks, or breathtaking national parks, Northern California truly has it all! 

This guide covers information on popular attractions for families, how to get around and suggestions on the best places to stay.

Thanks to Kristie at World is Wide for this guest post on the best things to do in Northern California with kids.

10 Fun Things to do in Northern California with Kids

We love mountains, national parks, hiking, and sweeping vistas.

One of our family’s travel bucket list goals is to see all 50 states, so we were excited to hit the Golden State and tour Northern California with our kids.

1. San Francisco – Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman's wharf in Northern California with kids

What can I say about San Francisco that hasn’t been said by millions of other people?

Simply put, it’s a beautiful city on a beautiful stretch of California coastline.

The culture is cool, and the tourism is in full force along the wharf. Likewise, San Francisco was me and my husband’s first travel destination as a couple, so it’s extra special for us.

The area along the wharf has gotten even more touristy than when we were last there in the late 90’s. But it was still a great place to keep our family entertained.

We spent time at Musee Mechanique, San Francisco’s famous antique penny arcade. Our 13 and 10-year-olds (and their father) really enjoyed playing all the old-time arcade games.

We also enjoyed laughing at the sea lions, and of course, we ate at The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop in Ghiradelli Square.

2. San Francisco – Alcatraz

I’ve been to San Francisco at least three times but had yet to tour Alcatraz. I’m glad we did so when we toured Northern California with kids, as all of us found it totally fascinating.

The audio tour does a great job conveying facts and telling the story of life in the prison, as well as walking you through the escape that happened.

Travel Tip: Be sure to book your Alcatraz tour well in advance as tickets are rarely available for same-day tours. We booked it many weeks before we left.

Find information on securing reservations here.

3. San Francisco – Cross the Golden Gate Bridge

Afterward, we drove over the Golden Gate bridge, as one is required to do when in San Francisco.

We explored a bit up in the hills up by the Nike Missile Site. We didn’t actually go to the site, but we could see the missiles “launch” from we were.  

Along with these top attractions, there is literally so much to do in the adjacent San Francisco Bay Area!

Additional planning tip: Liking this list so far? Consider seeing all of these fabulous places and attractions throughout one epic Northern California road trip!

4. Sequoia National Park – Exploring Among the Majestic Trees

Our first day was spent the way you are supposed to spend your first day in Sequoia National Park, looking at the mind-blowingly large trees.

First, we went to see the General Sherman tree and walked around the area. Wow! They really are a sight to behold.

After lunch we were kind of winging it, so my husband and his trusty hiking trail scoping skills led us to the Wuksachi Trail. It quickly turned into a magical wonderland with the fog and the rushing waters.

If we’d have known we were going to end up taking our holiday card photo on this hike, we might have worn different clothes, but that’s the beauty of travel, right?

5. Sequoia National Park – Moro Rock

The next morning we hiked the Moro Rock Trail.

I’m guessing in good weather that it’s a pretty spectacular view, but since the fog was really thick we couldn’t see anything on the overlook.

6. King’s Canyon National Park – Waterfalls

King’s Canyon National Park is adjacent to Sequoia National Park. Visitors use Sequoia’s lodging when visiting King’s Canyon.

We heard that King’s Canyon was having less fog and warmer temps, so that’s where we spent the rest of our time.

After a record snowfall that year, the spring melting was creating very impressive waterfalls!

King’s Canyon is small but mighty. We really enjoyed our time there.

7. Yosemite Zipline Tours

We were driving from Sequoia National Park to Yosemite National, which seemed like a good time in our trip to fit in a zip line adventure.

Yosemite Zipline and Adventure Ranch is just outside Mariposa, California, near the western edge of Yosemite National Park.

There are seven zip lines, which is about the average number of lines, in our experience. None of them were super long, but they did add some fun elements to spice up the excitement.

For example, there was a double line where two of you could race to the end. Our kids got a kick out of that. (Spoiler alert: the bigger child will probably win.)

There was also a line where you were given bean bags to try to hit a target while riding the line.

8. Yosemite National Park – Mist Trail

Our plan to spend three days exploring Yosemite National Park was thwarted by an avalanche the day before our visit. The avalanche blocked one of the park’s entrances.

Unfortunately, it happened to be the entrance that was five miles from our hotel. As a result, our trip into Yosemite went from a five-mile trip to one that was three hours away.

Instead of a three-day adventure, we ended up with a one-day power tour of Yosemite. We started at the crack of dawn in order to get a parking spot and to begin seeing as much of Yosemite as we could (without being driven to madness by the rest of humanity who showed up to do the same thing).

The good news is, Yosemite is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. I think I would only rank New Zealand above it, in terms of places I’ve had the chance to go so far.

However, you really need more than one day to see it well. And if at all possible, you should avoid going in the summer. There are so many people there that the stress and waiting almost ruins the experience.

We did the Mist Trail, which is a ‘must-do’. You will end up soaked and, if you’re not in Buns of Steel condition, you’ll be pretty exhausted by the time you get to the top, but it’s fantastic nonetheless.

9. Yosemite National Park – Glacier Point

After hiking some more, we took some down time at a visitor center before heading to Glacier Point.

More spectacular views awaited us there.

Several photographers had their place staked out to take sunset photos, and I totally get why.

10. Santa Cruz

After leaving Yosemite early, we dared Mother Nature to hit us with her best shot in Santa Cruz. She responded…with temps in the 70s and gorgeous sunshine.

It was beautiful!

Most of our full day in Santa Cruz was spent on the beach. It was the end of the trip, so we were fine having no plan.

We wandered along the coast from the boardwalk and wharf to the surfing museum. We also enjoyed poking around the boardwalk and the shops on the wharf.

For better food, get off of the boardwalk and wharf.

Our favorite meal was at the Beach Street Cafe, just across the street from the Boardwalk arcade.

For a comprehensive overview of great food, lodging, and things to do in Santa Cruz, check out this post from Harmony at Momma To Go.

How to Get Around in Northern California

In San Francisco, your best bet is to find lodging with reasonable parking rates and either walk or take advantage of the cable car system to get around.

We personally rented an SUV to drive around Northern California.

One mistake to avoid: We tried leaving San Francisco for Sequoia National Park on a Friday afternoon. We live in an urban area, but the traffic heading out of the Bay area was far worse than we anticipated.

It took us twice as long as we anticipated to make that drive.

As a result, we ended up driving into Sequoia National Park late at night. Not only was it white-knuckle driving in the dark on curvy, mountainous roads, but we missed out on seeing some spectacular views.

Definitely aim to drive into this park during the day if you can.

Best Places to Stay in Northern California with Kids

Our lodging for one night in San Francisco was the Holiday Inn San Francisco – Fishermans Wharf. We were purely looking for a functional, clean place with reasonable parking to spend the night in before heading out to Sequoia National Park. It more than fit the bill for our needs.

In Sequoia National Park we stayed for three nights at the Wuksachi Lodge. You’ll want to stay in the park, as there is nothing really available in the surrounding area that I can recall.

The lodge was convenient and the room was passable. I will say that if you have physical difficulties, this lodge might be a challenge. There was a lot of walking up a hill and steps to get to the lodge from the parking area, and I don’t recall an elevator in the lodge.

If you can get lodging in Yosemite National Park (which you need to reserve about a year in advance), I highly recommend that so that you don’t have to deal with finding parking elsewhere in the park for your visit.

We were not able to reserve lodging within Yosemite National Park, so we reserved a lovely room at Yosemite View Lodge.

If you’re interested in the Yosemite View Lodge, absolutely spend the extra money for the riverside view. We loved having the door open to listen to the rushing river.

As for Santa Cruz, we got a hotel room at the Comfort Inn Beach/Boardwalk Area for two nights.

Honestly, other than location, this hotel didn’t have a lot going for it. The rooms were very small, and parking was really tight. It had the tiniest outdoor pool I’ve ever seen.

If you just want someplace close to the beach and aren’t worried about room size or amenities, this hotel will be fine for you.

For the best prices on hotels, as well as engaging content including images, descriptions, and reviews, search for your accommodations here.

Whatever your itinerary in northern California, you will love the natural beauty and exciting destinations this area offers!

Thanks again to Kristie, Chief Blogger at Kristie is a family travel blogger based in the Minneapolis area. Her passion is helping families create and achieve their travel goals. Her blog also tracks her family’s progress toward their travel goals.  World is Wide inspires and equips your family to keep exploring our wide world! Follow World is Wide on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

“Since life is short and the world is wide, the sooner you start exploring it, the better.”

Simon Raven

Please note that this post contains affiliate links, which means that should make any bookings using my links, I may be paid a small commission at no extra cost to you.  This allows me to provide this information free of charge – thank you for supporting my website .

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