Yosemite National Park draws millions of visitors annually with its spectacular waterfalls, lakes and seemingly endless hiking and biking trails. This summer, the park is undergoing a long-awaited refresh, limiting the number of visitors with a reservation system and closing some trails for reconstruction. Thankfully, Bay Area families have many other national parks to explore and we’ve also rounded up other Californian beaches, forests and lakes that are equal to—or rival—Yosemite.
Lake Tahoe’s natural beauty easily matches Yosemite’s and while best known as a winter destination, the region is equally stunning in the summer. Seek out spectacular hiking trails in Emerald Bay State Park and D. L. Bliss State Park, go kayaking in the famously blue waters out to Fannette Island, relax on a sunny beach or go fishing at a trout farm—our summer/fall guide to South Lake Tahoe has it all!
Redwoods National and State Parks
A road trip to the far north coast of California will take you to the tallest trees in the world at Redwoods National and State Parks. Receiving fewer than half a million visitors a year compared to Yosemite’s 3.3 million, the remoteness of this park is part of its draw. Stroll to the Big Tree in Prairie Creek State Park and take the Circle Trail, a 15-minute walk with informative posts along the route. A visit to Fern Canyon will reveal an incredible mini-canyon with steep walls covered in lush greenery. This amazing hike can be combined with a morning of tidepooling at Gold Bluffs Beach. Permits are now required to access the trailhead.
Photo credit: Mammoth Lakes Tourism
Crossing the Sierras will take your family to the mighty Mammoth Lakes, a popular ski resort in the winter and beautiful hiking destination in the summer. Although this region is a longer trek than Yosemite, kid-friendly stops along Highway 395 like ghost town Bodie State Historic Park and wildlife haven Mono Lake (play at Upside Down House) will break up the drive. Once at Mammoth Lakes, take a scenic gondola ride to the top of the mountain, check out the dramatic earthquake fault and hike to the jaw-dropping Rainbow Falls.
Swap the Sierras for the Cascade Range and visit Mount Shasta, an active (although currently quiet) volcano in California’s far north. If you enjoy Yosemite National Park’s famous waterfalls, you’ll love McCloud Falls, with three separate roaring waterfalls that impress year round or Burney Falls, located in McArthur-Burney State Park, said to be the most beautiful waterfall in California. Relax at the hot springs of Penuma Retreat Center then take the kids on an underground adventure to Pluto’s Cave, a lava tube formed during an ancient eruption. Check out our trip here for all the details.
Photo by Meghan Rose
Channel Islands National Park
Five islands make up Channel Islands National Park with Santa Cruz Island the closest and easiest to visit. Often referred to as the “Galapagos of North America” due to their amazing wildlife, the islands are reached by boat which often has dolphins swimming and leaping alongside. With no cars allowed in this unique national park, it’s a great place for kids to run around and explore, check out wildlife, go for a hike or snorkel through the kelp forest. Kids five and older can take a kayak tour and explore the sea caves around the island. Channel Islands National Park is one of California’s least visited parks but one of our favorites.
Escape the heat of summer at rugged and remote Big Sur which feels like another world. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park has a large, recently upgraded camping site, or stay at one of the cozy motels along the highway. Take the kids to the beach at Andrew Molera State Park and search for the famed purple sand or head into the forest for a hike through wildflowers to the waterfalls in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or Julia Pfeiffer State Park. Stop for an ice cream—and an incredible ocean view—at Coast Gallery.
Photo credit: Sarah McDonald
The Lost Coast
North of Mendocino, the 101 veers away from the coast, cutting off a huge area from civilization. As a result, there is a slice of undeveloped coastal California waiting to be discovered by those willing to make the trek. Drive through groves of towering redwoods before emerging onto a beautiful shore where California’s wild Kings Range National Conservation Area greets you. Dubbed “the Lost Coast” due to the region’s inaccessibility, it’s possible to car camp on unspoiled beaches, miles from the nearest town.
Pick a campsite depending on your comfort level: Mattole River Campsite is right on the beach, with picnic benches, fire rings and a pit toilet. It’s a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) site, so you can collect driftwood for your fire—a job the kids will love! If you’re looking for something closer to a town, Wailaki Campground is perfect. Just outside the peaceful seaside community of Shelter Cove, this BLM site feels remote while only 15 minutes away from a great coffee.
Photo credit: J. Silverman via USFS
Stanislaus National Forest
Clear streams, hikes through peaceful forests, secret swimming holes—Stanislaus National forest outside of Yosemite National Park is just as beautiful as the groves inside the gates. Visit Calaveras Big Trees in the mountain town of Arnold to see huge sequoias or head to Emigrant Wilderness for granite ridges and lakes on the park’s northwest boundary. If its a Western adventure you’re seeking, Kennedy Meadows Resort has rock climbing, horseback riding, hiking or fishing.
Another great option is San Jose’s Family Camp at Yosemite, which is held just outside the national park at Groveland. Enjoy a traditional summer camp together with other families, taking part in activities like archery and nature hikes, or simply relaxing.
If you do want to visit Yosemite National Park this summer between May 20 through September 30, be sure to make a reservation for your dates on Recreation.gov before you arrive. Some tickets are released seven days in advance, so if your preferred times are sold out right now, set your alarm and log on at 8 a.m. one week before your day. But if you can’t snag a date this year, don’t fret—California is full of hidden gems that rival the natural beauty of Yosemite, waiting to be discovered.
No Snow Needed: Tahoe in the Summer Is EPIC