California is an all-seasons outdoor playground where families can indulge in adventures ranging from the mild to the wild. Absolute beginners and experienced recreationists find endless opportunities for fresh-air fun in California’s 840 miles of coastline, 25,000 square miles of desert, and banquet of snowcapped mountain ranges.
Want to climb to the top of a sand dune with your baby in a backpack carrier? The Golden State has you covered. Looking to raft through thrilling whitewater rapids even if you’ve never paddled before? Easy peasy. Renew your family’s sense of wonder amid the planet’s tallest trees? Absolutely.
California’s grand and diverse landscapes provide myriad ways to get outside and play. Get started by checking out these 10 family-friendly outdoor adventures across the state:
1) Play at the Lake: Lake Tahoe
Family outdoor adventure highlights: One of North America’s most beautiful alpine lakes offers families the chance to kayak, ride jet skis, fish, stand-up paddle, or just enjoy a boat cruise on its majestic alpine waters. Water-loving families never run out of fun: Cruise from South Lake Tahoe to Emerald Bay on the Spirit of Tahoe or Rum Runner. Tour the North Shore on the 50-foot sailing yacht Tahoe Cruz. Let the kids paddle their own kayak on a guided tour with Kayak Tahoe or Tahoe Adventure Company, or “fly” across the lake on a rented jet ski from Sunnyside Marina or Tahoe Aquatic Center. Or just wade in for a swim at one of dozens of public beaches, like Moon Dunes Beach in Tahoe Vista or Speedboat Beach in Kings Beach.
Pro tip: Most of Tahoe’s visitors show up in July and August, but the water stays warm well into September. Beat the rush by vacationing after Labor Day. Take a free standing hammock with you and enjoy.
2) Gaze at Waterfalls: Yosemite National Park
Family outdoor adventure highlights: Yosemite Valley‘s sheer cliffs and plunging waterfalls will inspire even the most cynical teenager. Ride bikes along the Valley floor and watch Bridalveil Fall plummet 620 feet over a towering wall of vertical granite. Wear your raincoat to hike the granite stair-stepped Mist Trail through Vernal Fall’s dense shower of spray. Stroll to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, the final pitch of North America’s highest waterfall (2,425 feet).
Pro tip: Time your trip from April to June, when Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls are at peak flow.
3) Climb a Volcano: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Family outdoor adventure highlights: Lassen Peak’s now-quiet volcano rests amid a landscape dotted with otherworldly volcanic features: steaming sulfur vents, belching mud pots, boiling thermal pools, and rumbling fumaroles. This national park is filled with family-friendly sights and hiking trails, but the most popular is the trek to the 10,457-foot summit of Lassen Peak. A remarkably well-graded trail leads to the top, where your family can explore the peak’s barren and beautiful crater and admire the 360-degree vista.
Pro tip: Lassen’s wildflower show is worth a special trip. In good snow years, the blooms reach their peak in late July and early August.
4) Raft the American River: Gold Country
Family outdoor adventure highlights: The South Fork of the American River is a world-class rafting destination, with dozens of outfitters offering river trips from April through September. Even if your family has never experienced paddling through rushing rapids and churning whitewater, anyone aged 4 to 94 can take part in this adventure. The surrounding oak-dotted hills played a central role in California’s Gold Rush, so it’s easy to tack on a history lesson. Pay a visit to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, where the state’s gold was first discovered.
Pro tip: Check out the wide range of one- and two-day rafting trips offered by ARTA River Trips, All-Outdoors California Whitewater, OARS American River Rafting, and American Whitewater Expeditions.
5) Tour the Redwood Forests: North Coast
Family outdoor adventure highlights: Ancient redwood groves seem like magical places, especially to kids who’ve fallen in love with books and movies about gnomes and fairies. Ferns, lichen, and moss blanket tree trunks and branches, and carpets of redwood sorrel spread across the forest floor. Where the towering trees give way to open meadows, massive Roosevelt elk graze the grasslands. Pint-sized humans can explore this wonder-filled landscape with hikes in Redwood National and State Parks including the gentle paths at Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Trillium Falls, and Fern Canyon. For a kid-pleasing car adventure, drive through the Klamath Tour Thru Tree, a tunneled redwood.
Pro tip: These trees grow to gargantuan proportions partly because of dense coastal fog. Even if you’re visiting in August, pack along multiple layers of clothing.
6) Ride Bikes: Big Bear Lake
Family outdoor adventure highlights: This alpine getaway in Southern California’s mountains is primed for family-friendly biking with more than 100 miles of cross-country and single-track trails, dirt roads, and paved routes catering to riders of all skill levels. Pull your two-year-old in a bike trailer on the paved, three-mile-long Alpine Pedal Path. If your kids are old enough to ride their own bikes, take the whole clan on Towne Trail, a hard-packed dirt road that’s gentle enough for young riders. Or head to the lift-served Summit Bike Park at Big Bear Mountain Resort, where mountain bikers ride the chairlift uphill, then pedal 60 miles of gravity-fed trails ranging from swooping cruisers to hair-raising descents.
Pro tip: If your clan is new to mountain biking, start with Going Green Trail at Summit Bike Park. You’ll build confidence with easy pedaling and scenic lake views. Don't forget to enjoy the great view in Mock One Hammock after your biking.
7) Rock Climb and Hike: Joshua Tree National Park
Family outdoor adventure highlights: Few desert settings will stimulate your kids’ imaginations like Joshua Tree National Park, home to massive boulder formations, weirdly beautiful flora, and fantastic nighttime stargazing. Even kids who claim to “hate hiking” will love the easy walks to Skull Rock, Hidden Valley, Cap Rock, and Barker Dam. For a family bonding experience, sign everyone up for rock climbing lessons with Stone Adventures, The Climbing Life, or Joshua Tree Lizard. Kids as young as four can take part.
Pro tip: This national park goes big on desert scenery but not civilized comforts. Bring plenty of drinking water and a full cooler of food, and don’t expect to have cell service.
8) Swim with the Fishes: Catalina Island
Family outdoor adventure highlights: An hour-long ferry ride from Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point,Catalina Island is one of the world’s richest marine environments, where your family can explore aquamarine coves teeming with garibaldis, bat rays, octopuses, calico bass, and more. Anyone who can swim can join a snorkeling tour with Snorkeling Catalina or Diving Catalina in the aquarium-like waters of Lover’s Cove or Casino Point Dive Park. If your kids are 10 or older, they can explore the underwater world without needing SCUBA certification on a tour with Catalina Scuba. On the Two Harbors west side of the island, you can also rent all types of aquatic toys—paddleboards, snorkel gear—from Two Harbors Dive & Recreation Center. Rather stay dry while you gaze at the underworld creatures? A cruise on Avalon’s Sea Wolf Semi-Submersible lets you survey sea life through portholes five feet below the ocean’s surface.
Pro tip: Balance out your watery adventures by soaring 600 feet above the ground on the Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour. You’ll feel an adrenaline rush as you “fly” at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
9) Explore Sand Dunes: Death Valley National Park
Family outdoor adventure highlights: This vast desert park boasts dozens of family-friendly adventures, from climbing sand dunes to backroad driving to nighttime stargazing. Get the whole family up before dawn to see the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes’ shifting mountains of sand turn pink at sunrise. At sunset, snap photos of the colorful badlands at Zabriskie Point. Stroll across the crusty salt flats at Badwater Basin. At Harmony Borax Works, learn about the 20-mule teams that hauled wagons loaded with borax (a mineral used in ceramics and gold mining) across the desert. In the evening, lay out a blanket and marvel at a glittering blanket of desert stars.
Pro tip: Leave Death Valley’s paved highways behind when you rent a Jeep Wrangler from Farabee’s Jeep Rentals in Furnace Creek. No off-road driving experience is needed—Farabee’s sets you up with instructions, maps, and even a cooler filled with ice and water.
10) Learn to Surf: Huntington Beach
Family outdoor adventure highlights: Vacations can be great opportunities to veer off the beaten path, so maybe it’s time your family added surfing to its list of hobbies. Sure, riding waves has a steeper learning curve than many other outdoor activities, but it also has the biggest cool factor. Kids often learn faster than adults, but with a little practice, even mom and dad can get their toes on the nose. What better place to learn than Surf City USA, aka Huntington Beach? Sign up for lessons or surf camp with Corky Carroll’s Surf School, Banzai Surf School, or Pacific Surf School. Just don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen.
Pro tip: Before your first surf class, spend a half hour watching YouTube videos that show students practicing their “pop-ups” on dry land. You’ll do this in class, but it helps to have a mental picture before you start.