Hidden Gems! Off the Beaten Path Family Vacations in California

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After a year of staycations and just staying-home, it’s time to hit the refresh button on your travel plans. While staying close to home is still the name of the travel game, lucky for us there are hidden gems all around California waiting to be discovered. From rustic mountain towns to quaint villages reminiscent of Europe, there’s a Golden State adventure for whatever kind of getaway your family craves. Scroll on for some inspiration for your next family vacation off the beaten path.


Looking for big time mountain fun without the scary drive? The mountain town of Wrightwood is approximately two hours from San Diego and offers families a back-to-nature getaway without the white-knuckle trip to get there.

In winter, spend the day with your little shredders exploring the three separate mountains of Mountain High Ski Resort. When the snow melts, enjoy a hearty diner-style breakfast in town before hiking the great outdoors. Check out the picturesque Blue Ridge Trail for a four-mile round trip hike. Or, for a more advanced adventure, seasoned hiking families can enjoy stunning views and a former mine to explore on the Big Horn Mine trail. When it's time to settle in, cozy up at Grand Pines Cabin where families can stay in a thoughtfully renovated family suite with fireplace, separate bunk-bed room and vintage arcade game.

photo: Tanveer Badal

San Luis Obispo

With tree-lined streets, a shop-local attitude and darling downtown, San Luis Obispo (SLO, as the locals call it), offers families a getaway that's equal parts outdoor adventure and downtown fun. Spend the day hiking one of the many family-friendly trails, like the Lemon Grove Loop on Cerro San Luis, before noshing on homemade pita bread and Mediterranean eats at local-favorite Petra.

Stay in the heart of downtown at the gorgeous new Hotel San Luis Obispo. Families will love the modern, relaxed luxury of this hotel gem. Its ideal location means families can explore this walkable city by foot and pit stop back in the room for a nap or splash in the modern pool. While the kiddos take five, parents can too. Enjoying luxurious details like oversized soaking tubs, rosemary shortbread cookies from local cafe Linnaeas and complimentary sparkling water refill stations throughout the hotel. For dinner, look no further than the hotel's onsite restaurant, Piadina. A mouthwatering destination in itself, Piadina puts a spotlight on local ingredients inspired by Italy. Choose a spot on the garden patio and savor dishes such as Grilled King Salmon and artisan pizzas for the kids.

Los Alamos

Small town charm with great eats and nearby family-friendly wine tasting? Sign us up! The historic tiny seven-block town of Los Alamos mixes an Old West attitude with a modern new spin. Located just off the 101 freeway north of Santa Barbara, Los Alamos is centered in the region's coveted wine country.

Spend the day strolling the quaint downtown shops, a mix of modern bohemian and antiques, and sampling the local flavor. Grab lunch at hidden gem Bob's Well Bread for freshly-baked, small batch artisan bread and an outdoor picnic-style lunch. Or, head over to Full of Life Flatbread who has been serving up locally-sourced (and kid-approved) wood-fired pizza since 2003.


For "A little slice of Denmark in California," head to the European-style village of Solvang. Soak in the old-world atmosphere with windmills, Danish bakeries and a horse-drawn carriage ride through town. Stay at boutique hotel The Landsby for Scandinavian aesthetic, modern decor and a prime location. For dinner, walk next-door to the patio of Peasant's Feast, where kids and grown-ups alike will love the mouthwatering Atterdag Smash Burger.

Read our guide on what to do in Solvang with kids here.

photo: Ren Fuller

Hope Valley

Looking for a less crowded option to Lake Tahoe? Check out Hope Valley outside of South Lake Tahoe. From Nordic skiing and snowshoeing to mountain biking and wildflower mountain trails, this year-round outdoor paradise offers plenty to do while enjoying the local landscape.

While you're there, make Wylder Hope Valley your exploration home-base. Wylder Hope Valley has been welcoming guests since 1926 and offers back-to-nature accommodations with a touch of modern amenities. Families can choose to stay in a variety of unique cabins, yurts or tent camp under the starry skies. Stop by Sorensen's Cafe for home-style meals and complimentary hot cocoa and coffee for Wylder guests.

La Quinta

Though Palm Springs often comes to mind for sun-loving vacationers, an upscale modern desert getaway also awaits in nearby La Quinta. With resort-style hotels, like the coveted La Quinta Resort & Spa, La Quinta offers visitors a relaxing vacation with first-class amenities and less crowds. Whether you spend your days exploring the area's ample hiking tails, teaching your kids to golf or savoring local flavor in beautiful Old Town La Quinta, you'll enjoy the picturesque views of palm trees, mountain vistas and sun-soaked days splashing in the pool.


While often overlooked as a vacation destination, California's capital city of Sacramento offers a wonderful opportunity for families to learn about the Golden State through history museums, the State Capitol Building and farm-to-fork eats. Planes, trains and lions, oh my! Kids will have a blast exploring the recently re-opened California State Railroad Museum, Aerospace Museum and Sacramento Zoo

With a history in agriculture, it's no wonder that Sacramento is touted as one of the great farm-to-fork cities. Parents and kids alike will love dining at local favorites like Selland's Market Cafe and Mikuni Sushi. For a home-base with a view of the California State Capital, book a room at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento with a prime location, outdoor heated pool and views of the majestic Capital dome.

Two Harbors

Though Avalon is Catalina Island's most popular destination, an island adventure also awaits on the island's rustic west end at Two Harbors. Hop aboard the Catalina Express and enjoy beautiful Pacific views as you cruise from San Pedro to Two Harbors. The trip takes under two hours and once you're there, outdoor activities are the name of the game.

Enjoy activities such as kayaking, hiking, fishing or spend a memorable day snorkeling the clear blue waters. Two Harbors also offers a unique opportunity for a family camping trip––island style! Bring your tent and gear on the ferry or rent a tent cabin at Two Harbors Campground. No need to haul over all your supplies, you can pre-order from the Two Harbors General Store. They'll deliver food, drinks and other items straight to your campsite for a $5.00 fee.

––Kerry Cushman


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