Yosemite National Park (209) 372-0200
Yosemite National Park has hundreds of miles of hiking trails that weave past waterfalls, wildlife, lakes, and rivers. Children will love exploring around the gargantuan sequoia trees and learning about nature. It’s a California icon that has inspired artists and outdoorsmen for centuries.
Camp, swim, fish, hike, and take pictures. Teenagers who love a physical challenge should climb to the top of Half Dome. You can do a multi-day hike along the John Muir Trail or camp at one of the central sites and do day trip explorations.
You can drive to Yosemite all year and enter via Highways 41, 140, and 120 from the west. Hetch Hetchy is open all year but may close intermittently due to snow. The Tioga Pass Entrance is closed November through late May or June.
Crissy Field (415) 561-4323
Crissy Field is a former airfield that now serves as a campground on the beach. With views of the Golden Gate Bridge yet still within city limits, it’s the perfect place for families to get their nature fix next to an urban environment.
Ride bikes from Marina Green to Fort Point or along the promenade, build sandcastles and swim on Baker Beach, have picnics, or do day trips into the city with the airfield being your base. Kitesurfers and windsurfers can set sail once the wind picks up. Grab a warm meal and souvenirs at the Warming Hut.
Crystal Cove State Park (949) 494-3539
This beautiful state park is more than three miles long and offers the perfect setting for children to play and explore. Build sandcastles, explore tidepools, swim in the typically mellow ocean, go boogie-boarding, and walking or mountain biking through the trail system that weaves inland, for when it’s time to get out of the water. When there’s a breeze, many people also love to fly kites as there’s plenty of launching and landing space. There is a nearby campsite, or stay in one of the local lodges built in the early 1930s.
Living Desert (760) 346-5694
This zoo and conservation site will let children learn all about natural wonders and wildlife. There are two sections: North America, and Africa that provide an up-close look at exotic desert animals and plants. Take pictures of beautiful creatures like the fennec fox, cheetahs, camels, giraffes, jaguars, and more. Watch interesting programs from the Tennity Amphitheater and hike along the San Andreas Nature Trail. If you’re particularly adventurous, you can even ride a camel or feed a giraffe by hand. You can get an overview of the whole park on a shuttle ride and then hop on and off as you please.
Lassen Volcanic National Park (530) 595-4480
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a wonderland of volcanic gas vents, boiling pools, mud pots, and more—all powered by a deep hydrothermal system. Kids will love learning about the history of the volcano and witnessing its intense power.
Hike along the trails past boiling mud and water, walk over a boardwalk that takes you to the Big Boiler, and pretend you’re a witch at the Devil’s Kitchen, a cauldron of boiling water, mud, and steam. The Boiling Springs Lake is also a site to explore, where the bubbling lake reaches above 125 degrees. You can easily spend a weekend venturing around the other-worldly geological features.
Recommended for kids 5 and up. Diverting from the trails can be hazardous and near impossible with younger children.