I was born and raised in Northern California and as such, have spent some serious time tromping around the Golden State. On our recent trip back to California, we revisited some of our most favorite places and I was reminded of dozens more. Most totally kid-friendly, some best done (read – more enjoyable) without kids in tow. If you haven’t been to northern California or are planning a trip, below I’ll outline our favorite towns, cities, and attractions (and will specify which are geared towards kids and which aren’t – though, my philosophy on traveling with kids is that it’s ALL enriching for them, so we tend to just drag them along everywhere).
I’ll take you on a road trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe and point out our family favorites along the way.
San Francisco could (and should) have a completely dedicated post (which I plan to do in the overwhelming amount of free time I have), but for now, I’ll highlight our top 5 to-do’s – with children.
1. California Academy of Sciences/Golden Gate Park: we’ve had a membership here since the 4 year old missy was just a wee one (and still do for our trips back home). Though much of it is too sophisticated for young tots, there is still PLENTY to do for kids of all ages. You can catch a Penguin feeding, explore an aquarium that rivals the Monterey Bay (complete with an albino alligator), walk through a living rainforest, catch a show at the Planetarium (for kids over 4), or even let your toddler be hands on in the toddler room (which is found by the gift store in a fairly discrete location, FYI). The location is also a great jumping off point for many other GG Park attractions – VERY close by are the botanical gardens, the Japanese Tea House, and the De Young Museum… something for everyone.
2. Ocean Beach: especially at sunset, on a clear day (if you visit in September or October, your chances of catching this are MUCH better). A perfect day at Ocean Beach would involve playing in the sand and flying kites until an early dinner time, at which point you cross the street and grab a beer and a bite to eat at The Beach Chalet, after which you walk back to the beach and waste the evening away daydreaming into a miraculous west coast sunset.
3. The Exploratorium: another one for the kiddos – but never fear, weary parent, you’ll be able to sink your hands into fun as well. Kids can explore science and culture through hands on exhibits. It has recently moved to Pier 15, so you can add it to your list of sites to see along the Embarcadero (see below).
4. The Embarcadero: a stroll along the Embarcadero is a must if you want to enjoy the beauty of the iconic San Francisco Bay. Use the Ferry Building as your start point (not only a good location but an incredible development geared around educating people about sustainable agriculture). Grab good eats at one of the many fabulous eateries inside (I recommend Gott’s – on a nice day, you can eat outside AND there are plenty of dishes that will make your munchkins happy). If you’re feeling like a pick me up before you embark upon the rest of the embarcadero, hit up Blue Bottle Coffee and GET A LATTE (if you’re not vegan, which I hope you’re not, because they’re SOOO good). From the Ferry Building, it’s not overly ambitious (if you have a few hours), to walk all the way to Pier 39; it’s a great walk. If, however, you don’t have much time, hop in a bike taxi and breath in the view from there. I’m not much for the hustle bustle tourist circuit, so Pier 39 isn’t exactly my favorite place to go, BUT, it’s worth catching a street performance and having a look at the sea lions found at the end of the pier.
From San Francisco, head north, across the Golden Gate Bridge (which you SHOULD also walk across – but I won’t judge you if you don’t – I’ve honestly never done it), making a last stop at my final SF-with-kids recommendation (at least in this post).
5. The Bay Area Discovery Museum: though it’s actually in Sausalito, not San Francisco, you get kick ass views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline from here. In regards to the museum itself, it’s pretty awesome, you should just trust me and go. Your kids’ll be stoked. From here, you can either head through Sausalito proper (which is worth a day of sightseeing in itself – but a drive through is sufficient if you’re tight on time) OR you can also head out to the Marin Headlands for awesome hiking and beaching (Rodeo beach is dog friendly).
OKAY, OKAY, let’s get out of SF and head into Northern California proper. We’re going to head up Highway 101 and then out to Point Reyes National Seashore. You’ll take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (at Larkspur) and meander your way through small town Marin, out into the wild. If you’re driving through around breakfast, you MUST stop at The Hummingbird Cafe in Fairfax (if you’re a meat eater, their chicken and waffles are heavenly). If, however, you’re driving through and just need a rest, grab some ice cream at the Fairfax Scoop (BEST. ice cream. EVER). Scratch that, just stop in Fairfax, no matter what time of the day it is (and if it’s dinner time, go to 123 Bolinas for small plates or Sorella Cafe for Italian deliciousness, and please order the Butternut Squash Ravioli for me). It’s full of great shops (many are resale), bitchin’ people, and an awesome grocery store if you need to restock (Good Earth). It’s one of my most favorite towns on the planet. If you spend too much time, you might want to move there.
From Fairfax, you can go one of two ways. You can either continue west out to Pt. Reyes, or take Bolinas Road out of town (beware, it’s a WINDY one) and hit up the oh-so-lovely town of Bolinas (which will also leave you with daydreams of a slower pace of life). Bolinas State Beach, just at the edge of town, is super accessible and a great spot for the kids to roam.
If you opt to continue forth on Sir Francis Drake, you’ll drive through Samuel P. Taylor State Park (which is a magically beautiful grove of redwoods) and out into Point Reyes National Seashore. I really can’t begin to synthesize all the amazing beaches, hikes, and vistas there are to take in, so I’ll give you my top two: Drakes Beach (on Pacific side of the peninsula) – which will bring you through the old historic dairy farms and give you a good general feel for the area AND Heart’s Desire Beach (on Tomales Bay side of peninsula). Though both are easily accessed by car, you can also opt to hike in and around both beaches. You could easily visit both in one day and you’d scratch a decent surface of what Point Reyes is all about. Honestly though, if you have time, hole up in a B and B for a few days and take your time. It really is THAT amazing.
From the heart of Point Reyes, you’ll pass through Point Reyes Station (which is up there on my list of favorites) and you should hop out of the car, hit up the Bovine Bakery for a treat and then go around the corner and grab some fresh cheese at Cowgirl Creamery (where the kids can actually watch the cheese being made).
Okay, head north on the 1, toward Bodega Bay, BUT BE SURE TO STOP AT THE MARSHALL STORE for local oysters on your way. It’s A-MAZING. Even if it’s super crowded, which is often is on weekends, you can still grab oysters and dine on the hood of your car.
If you’re feeling adventurous and have some kid-free time (everyone travels with grandparents or nannies, right?), just adjacent to The Marshall Store is Blue Water Kayak Rental – rent a kayak and head across calm Tomales Bay to a secluded beach on the other side.
If you need a place to stay for the night, the cottages at Nick’s Cove in Tomales are a prefect stop (and if you haven’t yet had your fill of oysters and fresh seafood, be sure to eat dinner there, it’s DI-VINE water front dining).
From Marshall, hop back on Highway 1 heading north and you’ll pass through a few lovely little towns on your way up to Jenner, where this road trip will head inland.
Just before you get to Jenner, if you need some more beach time, stop off at Goat Rock State Beach (unless you have a dog, in which case, head just north to Blind Beach). It’s located just at the mouth of the Russian River and is a lovely spot to take in the Pacific. And if you’re hungry, there is a great restaurant in Jenner called The River’s End.
Okay, from here, we’ll head east on the 116 towards Guerneville, following the beautiful Russian River. If you’re craving some fresh water swimming, stop off at one of the many on and off the beaten path swim spots (you’ll see cars parked on the road with beaten and hardly-beaten paths leading to the river – depending on how adventurous you are). There are MANY quaint little towns in the Russian River Valley, but I personally think that Guerneville gives you the best amenities and proximity to activities. In addition, it is home to Armstrong Redwoods State Park, which you must visit (short of heading north to the legitimate Redwood National Park, Armstrong gives you a taste of what it feels like to be in a large redwood grove).
If you’re not feeling a picnic on the river, or are feeling like swapping your flip flops for heels, you can grab a beer and pub fare at Stumptown Brewery for lunch or hit up Applewood Restaurant for a deliciously romantic (best done without kids) dinner. In terms of accommodations, I’ve always wanted to stay at West Sonoma Inn, but have instead ended up either camping or opting for a short term vacation rental (which are plentiful in this area).
The Russian River Valley is famous for its Pinots and has a very well organized wine trail, so pick up a guide at a local business and head out to taste some delicious wine. If you’re doing it on your way out of town, head toward Healdsburg and grab some lunch on your way out. It’s a great central downtown, surrounded by good restaurants and plenty of wine tasting rooms. IF, HOWEVER, you’re a beer gal like I am, go to Bear Republic Brewing Company for some decent grub and exemplary beer (the Racer 5 IPA is where it’s at).
Alright, from Healdsburg, we’re going to head south on Highway 121, through the Napa Valley, for more exploration and even more wine. I’m not much of a sommelier, so I’ll let you figure out what wineries you want to hit up, but I will say that the towns of Calistoga and St. Helena should both be on your list of stopovers.
From here you can either head toward the 37 and on to Highway 80 headed east, OR you can take the scenic route around Lake Berryessa and twist and turn your way to Highway 80. I recommend the later, if you have the time.
Once you’re on Highway 80, it’ll be smooth sailing for a couple of hours, so hunker down and put some good tunes on the stereo. The one place I’d recommend stopping is the little town of Davis. It’s a university town and has developed into a pretty awesome bohemian community; a short jaunt off the 80 will get you a pretty good glimpse of life there.
As you head east, stay on highway 80 (though you can also take the 50 if you want to go directly to South Lake Tahoe) and we’ll meander our way up into the mountains via the foothills.
Once you hit Auburn, if you’re in need of some grub, Auburn Ale House is a perfect stop (it’s just a stone’s throw from the highway) for quality pub fare and pretty good beer (brewed at the source). From here, you’ll head north on Highway 49 and up into the heart of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s. Nevada City will be our next stop.
With a deep history, Nevada City was founded around California’s gold boom of the mid-18oo’s and still maintains it’s historic charm. On top of this, the progressive culture that has formed here creates a unique vibe. If you’re laying over, be sure to stay at The Outside Inn (though a last minute room may be a tall order depending on when you’re passing through). My best recommendation for dinner will head you a few miles south into Grass Valley, but I promise will be worth the drive: Diego’s Restaurant. You could easily spend a week in this area, but if you only have a night, make sure you hit Fuddenjuce for a smoothie and a bite to eat on your way out of town.
We’ll hop back on Highway 49 and take a left when it veers toward Downieville (you can also stay straight onto Highway 20 for a beautiful drive directly to the 80 East towards Lake Tahoe). Now, the Yuba River meanders it’s way through this area and is a MUST stop, no matter which way you’re going. There are a number of great spots to hike and swim, but I’m not going to give them away/go into such detail here (the link above does however outline a few). 49er Crossing, as it is apparently called, is a simple spot to stop along Highway 49 on your way to Downieville; you can opt to swim right at the bridge or you can hike up along the river to a more secluded spot. Wherever you end up, it’ll be beautiful.
Okay, our next stop is Downieville. Located on the north fork of the Yuba River, Downieville is an old gold mining town that has VERY much kept the flavor of its roots (helped by the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere). If the gold rush is of any interest to you, this is a great place to connect to that history. And if you’re a mountain biker (with extreme, hardcore mountain biking kids), it’s a bit of a mountain biking mecca. If your visit is timed with an overnight, there are a few B&B’s right on the river; you could also head just north to Sierra City and find similarly quaint accommodations. The camping is also excellent, as you can imagine,; I would recommend Sand Pond campground, especially if you’re traveling with kids.
Upwards and onwards. We’re almost there. From here, you’ll continue on Highway 49 through the foothills and into the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Head south at the 89 junction and head to Truckee. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in Truckee, but the downtown is quaint and is definitely worth a lunch stop. From Truckee, we’ll take the 267 toward Incline Village. Once you hit Kings Beach, you’ve made it to Lake Tahoe and from here to South Lake Tahoe, the views are incredible. If you want to catch the most spectacular view of the lake (no seriously, it’s the best), stop off at the Stateline Fire Lookout, just before Incline Village. From Highway 267, you’ll take a right onto the 28 and take it for another 30 minutes or so to South Lake Tahoe.
We made it!
Last but not least are my South Lake Tahoe recommendations. We just discovered a great little hotel, just adjacent to the casino strip, called 968 Park Hotel and highly recommend it. It’s well priced, totally restored with the environment in mind, and conveniently located. Make sure to catch some rays at Zephyr Cove, hike along the lake at Emerald Bay, rent bikes around Camp Richardson, and grab sandwiches at Sprouts.
Whew, I’m tired, are you?