California Spring Break: 10 Unexpected Places for Family Adventure

California is already feeling like spring, and spring break will be here before we know it! Thinking of an escape this year? 

In this amazing state, you can visit natural wonders like desert blooms, waterfalls, beaches, sunny snowy mountains, and, of course, some really big trees. Get ready to make wonderful new memories with an adventurous California spring break the whole family will love.

Things are changing fast – make sure to double-check what’s open before your trip. And be sure to follow all local guidelines to keep yourself and others safe!

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Spring Break in San Diego, California

The boys on the Coronado Island Sand Dunes
The boys loved the Coronado Dunes. Viewed from above, they spell “Coronado.”

The San Diego area is a paradise for families, with endless possibilities for fun and adventure.

  • For families who enjoy a bit of adventure with their animal experiences, check out the San Diego Safari Park. View animals via zipline, safari cart, or private cabana. Get ready to splurge, because bucket list items abound here!
  • Get a little adrenaline boost with the super fun San Diego Harbor Speedboat Adventure. Drive your own speed boat and cruise past harbor highlights like the USS Midway, Coronado Bridge, Seaport Village, and more. A guide will share information about these landmarks – and let you know where to stop for photo ops – through your onboard communications system.
  • Explore some of San Diego’s outdoor art landmarks. In Escondido, you can visit Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Queen Califa’s Magical Circle” in the Iris Sankey Arboretum. Among the pillars of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge is Chicano Park, an area with both historic and artistic significance to Chicano and Mexican culture.
  • Whether or not you’re staying on Coronado Island, be sure to make some time to play, or simply relax, here. The beach in front of Hotel Del Coronado is beautiful and wide, with services that range from the hotel’s taco stand to s’mores on the beach.
  • There are hikes for every level at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The Guy Fleming Trail is under a mile and winds toward gorgeous ocean views. Bring binoculars because you may be able to spot migrating whales through April. Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of the largest tandem operators in the world, and all ages are welcome to fly.   

Palm Springs, California Spring Break

Cabazon Dinosaurs near Palm Spring
Cabazon Dinosaurs all dressed up for Christmas. They’ll be celebrating with different outfits throughout 2021 (KESQ).

Palm Springs makes a perfect base for exploring the springtime desert. With plenty of options to relax or adventure, it makes an ideal spot for your California spring break.

  • Take a day trip to explore Joshua Tree National Park, less than an hour away from Palm Springs. Spring is one of the best times to visit with mild temperatures perfect for hiking and climbing. Plus the stunning desert wildflower blooms.
  • Another desert park worthy of your time is Anza-Borrego, one of California’s most fascinating state parks. Here you can explore seasonal waterfalls, and desert wildflowers, and have a rare glimpse at native palm trees. Also not to be missed are the over 100 Borrego Springs Sculptures.
  • On the kitschier side is a visit to see the Cabazon Dinosaurs. Fellow 80’s kids might recognize them from Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure and The Wizard. Folks at this roadside destination are cheering up visitors with a series of paint suits on Mr. Rex and Dinny throughout 2021.
  • For a different view of Palm Springs, check out the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. This rotating tram car carries you 2.5 miles up the cliffs of Chino Canyon to the wilderness of Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Enjoy views from observation decks or head off to explore some of the park’s family-friendly hiking trails. You can even play in the snow here while it lasts!
  • Introduce your family to the area’s native cultures with a visit to Tahquitz Canyon.  After a 1.8-mile hike with steep rocky stairs, visitors experience the area’s seasonal 60-foot waterfall, rock art, ancient irrigation systems, and native plants and wildlife. This area is culturally sensitive and sacred to the Agua Caliente people.

Death Valley National Park Spring Break

The obligatory Badwater Basin sign photo in Death Valley.
Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America

Last winter we took an RV trip to Death Valley, and loved, loved, loved it!  Spring break is an even better time to visit with desert blooms and swimming pupfish. Check out our full Death Valley family guide for more information and recommendations.

  • Standing at the lowest point in North America! Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level and is an iconic Death Valley photo opp. The area is pretty awesome to explore with salt crystals that look like snow as far as the eye can see.
  • Sandboarding the Mesquite Sand Dunes was the highlight of the trip for all three of my boys. While the sand dunes are fun to visit on foot, coming prepared with sandboards will up the adventure (and laughter) ante. Death Valley has multiple dunes for viewing, but the Mesquite Sand Dunes are the only ones that you can walk through. Star Wars fans will recognize the area as Tatooine!
  • Desert first-timers will probably not expect much in terms of wildlife sightings, but spring is a prime time for pupfish viewing on the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This is a big Death Valley highlight for little visitors.
  • Rent a Jeep from Farabee’s Jeep Rental and leave a teapot from home at Teakettle Junction on your way to see the wondrous Racetrack Playa. The region’s moving boulders have long been one of the park’s best mysteries.
  • Witness Death Valley’s desert blooms! Though super blooms are rare, wildflowers are never completely absent. Check out the park’s wildflower season page to see if your visit coincides with a good year for wildflowers.

Spring Break on Catalina Island

Road to Avalon on the shores of Catalina Island
Catalina Island Views (Photo: LPETTET from Getty Images Signature via Canva)

If you’re dreaming of an island adventure, there’s no need to leave California. Visitors can access family-friendly Catalina Island from the ferries that leave from LA and Orange County. Spring is one of the best times of the year to visit, avoiding overcast summer mornings and choppy winter water. Spend spring break relaxing on the beach or get moving with plenty of outdoor activities.

  • Avalon, Catalina’s only incorporated city, is pedestrian-friendly, so set out and explore by foot. Bike and golf cart rentals are also popular ways to get around. Several rental agencies rent bikes and carts, and some vacation rentals include a golf cart for convenience. 
  • If you’re enjoying experiencing Catalina from high up, you might want to continue the family bonding by swinging through the trees together at the Catalina Aerial Adventure ropes course.
  • Gain a new perspective on the seas surrounding Catalina through an underwater cruise. You’ll glide 5 feet below the surface to look for local marine life while sitting in the boat’s comfortable cabin.
  • Rent a boat to sightsee, fish, snorkel, or scuba. Outfitters like Joe’s-Rent-A-Boat in Avalon have motorboats, kayaks, and pedal boats to help you explore Catalina from the sea.
  • Take a scenic 30-minute boat ride to “the other side” of the island. Two Harbors has become known as an adventure paradise for outdoor lovers with everything you need to enjoy hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, boating, fishing, snorkeling, or SCUBA diving!
  • Search for American bison on an exciting expedition into the island’s interior aboard an open-air biofuel Hummer. The bison are descendants of animals that a movie crew left behind in the 1920s. You can expect this scenic adventure to be full of interesting tidbits about Catalina’s history.

Santa Barbara, California Spring Break

Santa Barbara East Beach from Stearns Wharf at sunset
Santa Barbara views from Stearns Wharf (Photo: sborisov from Getty Images via Canva).

This gorgeous small city’s coastal vibes have earned Santa Barbara the title, “the American Riviera.” It has some of the best that California has to offer. Though it’s known for art, wine, and luxury travel, it can also be a wonderful spot for families to escape to the outdoors for a quintessential California spring break.

  • You can’t visit Santa Barbara without a visit to Stearn’s Wharf. Located at the end of State Street, it’s an iconic place to buy an ice cream cone, pick up a souvenir, and even hop on Lil’ Toot, a water taxi with a short narrated trip between Stern’s Wharf and Santa Barbara Harbor.
  • Santa Barbara Channel is one of the west coast’s best areas for whale watching. Mother whales with newborn calves hug the coastline on their way back to Alaska through April. Take the family out for a whale-watching cruise, or bring the binoculars to Shoreline Park and look out from the bluffs while the kids run around and play.  
  • Spring is prime hiking season in Santa Barbara, with wildflowers blooming and waterfalls flowing. A perfect spring family hike is the 1 mile-flat loop hike in Douglas Preserve. Half the loop traces the coastline and half looks back at a park where you can see paragliders taking off. With wildflowers in bloom, the Preserve is paradise in the spring. Arroyo Burro Beach below is family-friendly and has tide pools to extend your adventure.
  • Tweens and teens might enjoy seeing the beach from a different perspective … on horseback! Los Padres Outfitters offer family rides along the beach and through gorgeous trails any time of day.

Interested? Check out our full post on Santa Barbara here.

The California Central Coast Spring Break

Boys playing in front of the underwater mural outside of the Avila Beach Aquarium
Having fun in front of the Central Coast Aquarium, Avila Beach

This low-key area offers something for everyone and is a perfect spot for a family-friendly California spring break with plenty of sunshine and adventure. Consider Avila Beach or Solvang as a base, two of our favorite places for a long weekend getaway.

  • Take a family surf lesson with Sandbar Surf School. This surf school is not just about learning how to stand up on the board.  I love their focus on helping beginners have fun, feel safe, and appreciate the overall experience.  
  • Pismo Beach’s Oceano Dunes is one of the few California beaches that allows you to drive your car on the beach. If your car isn’t a 4WD and you don’t want to risk it, you can always rent an ATV and play on the dunes instead. 
  • About an hour south of Pismo is the charming little city of Solvang, with its historic Danish village. Walking through the village and picking up treats at the delicious bakeries is a lot of fun. Embrace your silly side by renting a surrey bike to explore the area from Wheel Fun Rentals!
  • There’s plenty to see and do in the beautiful little area of Avila Beach. Extend your time in Avila with a beach bonfire. Bonfires are allowed beginning the first Sunday in March, so spring break will get you there just in time!
  • Children over 30 pounds and more than 36 inches tall are welcome to fly at Margarita Adventures zip lines. Soar over valleys, oaks, mountainsides, and vineyards on a 6 zipline tour that covers more than 7,500 feet.

California Spring Break in Monterey

JJ's first time in a kayak, the Elkhorn Slough Kayak Tour
The Elkhorn Slough offers a great introduction to kayaking for families.

Monterey Bay is the heart of the largest protected ocean area in the continental United States. Halfway between Alaska and Mexico, the cooler water from the north mixes with the warmer water from the south, bringing animals that thrive in each type of water. A spring break visit to this California gem means fewer crowds and beating the June gloom.

  • March is when whale migration seasons overlap, with gray whales migrating through mid-March and humpback whales, blue whales, and fin whales beginning their travels through the area. Hop on a whale-watching tour and see what you find!
  • While in Monterey you can’t pass up a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. With over 200 exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals, the Aquarium is an awe-inspiring window to ocean life.
  • El Estero Park (aka the Dennis the Menace Playground) is a local favorite. It has play structures, large slides, a climbing wall, suspension bridge, a hedge maze, giant adventure ship, paddle boats and more! 
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of my favorite places to walk in the region. I love taking my boys on the Cypress Grove Trail which is only about a mile loop but feels like another world.
  • Another can’t-miss experience on the Peninsula is exploring the gorgeous 17-mile drive. This popular e-bike tour allows you to experience it in the fresh air. The tour is family-friendly, allowing younger children to ride tandem with their parents.

Spring Break on California’s Sonoma Coast

Giraffes were a favorite part of our Safari West Tour
Giraffes were a favorite part of our Safari West Tour!

Sonoma Coast is a great place to go if you’re hoping to recharge during your California spring break. Consider renting a vacation home near the Russian River. You’ll be close to both the ocean and fun little inland communities.

  • Quirky towns line the banks of the Russian River. Families enjoy discovering their unique character and farmers’ markets. Get some outstanding pie and ice cream in downtown Guerneville or visit the Depot Museum in Duncan Mills.
  • Enjoy amazingly delicious scones in the garden of Freestone’s Wild Flour Bread, and then take a walk along popular Goat Rock Beach near the mouth of the Russian River.
  • Bodega Bay is a small coastal community known for its natural beauty. Stop by Candy & Kites to pick up a snack and souvenir that you can use on the breezy beaches.
  • North Salmon Creek Beach is an ideal beach for kids. Though the ocean here is too rough for young kids, this beach’s small lagoon makes it a safe place for young children to splash around.  
  • Adventurous families with kids over 10 (and 70 pounds) will love Sonoma Canopy Tours’ high-flying zip line adventure. Glide from tree to tree, taking in breathtaking views as go. You’ll even zip into an old-growth redwood forest where the trees are more than 700 years old.
  • For a change of pace, head to Sonoma’s Safari West. Guests journey out in search of nearly 900 animals from over 90 species on this 400-acre preserve. You can splurge for private tours, animal encounters, and sleepovers too.

Yosemite National Park Spring Break

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on the way to Wapama Falls

Over spring break you won’t be guaranteed warm weather at Yosemite, but you will experience waterfalls at their most powerful, fields of wildflowers, and fewer crowds than in summer.  We have a guide to family-friendly Yosemite which provides details about year-round park experiences. The following are some of our favorites.

  • Waterfalls, waterfalls, waterfalls!  Yosemite is known for these natural wonders, and they are stunning in spring. Yosemite Falls in spring is unlike any other time of year. Prepare to get wet on some trails!
  • Kids will appreciate that Ansel Adams was just a kid himself when he fell in love with photography at Yosemite. Take a free camera walk with staff from the Ansel Adams gallery or even a family-friendly photo class.
  • In March and April, visitors can witness wildflower blooms in the lower elevations. Cook’s Meadow is a good place to start.
  • If you’d like to truly escape the crowds, head over to Hetch Hetchy for the Wapama Falls hike at its most impressive. Not only are the falls powerful enough to mist hikers as they pass by, but the trail itself will be full of butterflies, puddles, and other fun wonders to keep kids interested.

Lake Tahoe Spring Break

Tubing in Tahoe
One of many rounds on the tubing carousel at Soda Springs’ Mountain Adventure.

Everyone’s favorite northern California lake makes a wonderful family destination any time of year, and spring break is no exception. Springtime in Tahoe can mean snow play in the sunshine. Rent a cabin in family-friendly Tahoe City or Incline Village, and enjoy Tahoe’s magic.

  • Heavenly’s Scenic Gondola Ride is always an exciting option, with gorgeous views of the lake as you ascend. Pause on the observation deck for photos and a cup of cocoa. Turn around here or continue to the top. You might even be able to do a little hiking when you get there.
  • If the ski resorts are still open, Mountain Adventure at Soda Springs is a perfect option for kids who are too little for skiing. First, you’re driven out to the kids’ area on the park’s “sleigh,” a Jeep with cool snow tires. We spent the whole time at Planet Kids, which is limited to kids 7 and under. Tube Town access is included in the pass as well.  
  • If there’s not too much snow on the ground, walk or bike the three-mile East Shore Trail to Sand Harbor. This trail is stunningly beautiful and makes for a safe and fun way for people to access this popular beach.
  • Consider a boat tour to see Tahoe from the water. There are so many good options that it can be overwhelming. Check out our top picks – from big paddle wheel cruises to private speedboat rentals that will take you wherever you want to go.

Road Trip Planning Basics

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