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Family adventures to love in NorCal

Discover big trees, great hikes, and an awesome railroad park

Bodega Head, on the Sonoma Coast, offers stunning bluff top vistas
Image Credits Photography courtesy of ADAMS / HANSEN PHOTOS

Until recently, I thought the Golden State’s best family attractions were all in Southern California. However, having just done a big drive around the north, I now know that isn’t true. Yes, we have the corner on commercial attractions — Disneyland, Legoland, and SeaWorld — but a plethora of kid-friendly natural wonders also lies beyond the Golden Gate. 

Towering redwood trees are the most obvious highlight. These thrive near the coast from the Oregon border to Big Sur. Of all the places to gawk at their grandeur, my favorite is the Avenue of the Giants, Highway 254, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This 31-mile scenic highway parallels Highway 101 between Stafford and Phillipsville and provides access for families who want to walk, bike, fish, and camp under the canopy of majestic trees. Kids especially enjoy the drive-through and walk-through redwoods here. 

Views and Trails Galore

The entire Northern California coast offers stunning ocean views. To savor the vista, my husband and I walked along the clifftops whenever it was possible. This was especially memorable in Crescent City, where dramatic offshore sea stacks make the coastline one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. 

Jagged offshore sea stacks rise up along the Crescent City coast
Jagged offshore sea stacks rise up along the Crescent City coast

To the south, Mendocino Headlands State Park has a gorgeous coast of seaside bluffs and islets surrounding the town of Mendocino. I also loved the colorful plants at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and was surprised to find walking paths that stretch to water views. In winter, Mendocino is an ideal spot for whale watching. Further south in Bodega Bay, Bodega Head juts out into the ocean, providing more stunning blufftops for abundant wildlife viewing. 

Of course, inland hiking trails also offer great views. Away from the Mendocino coast, the family-friendly Fern Canyon Trail in Van Damme State Park crosses ten bridges and follows Little River through an abandoned logging skid. Lush ferns and giant redwoods provide plenty of shade.

Getting into Training 

The Railroad Park Resort in Dunsmuir is quite possibly the most family-friendly place to stay in Northern California. I mean, what kiddo doesn’t want to stay in a parklike setting with more than two dozen fully restored cabooses and a swimming pool? 

The Railroad Park Resort includes fully restored cabooses and a pool in a park-like setting
The Railroad Park Resort includes fully restored cabooses and a pool in a park-like setting

Frankly, I was prepared to be uncomfortable, but our surprisingly spacious caboose came with a king bed, high thread-count linens, and a nice bathroom. I was equally impressed with the handsome dining car, which is actually nine cars that collectively include kitchens, the Wells Fargo Car for guest seating, the Great Northern Car for private parties, and the Southern Pacific bar.

More NorCal fun

I have to confess I’d never thought about the source of our San Diego water, but I now know that some of it comes from Lake Oroville, about 80 miles north of Sacramento. This reservoir was created in 1968 by impounding the Feather River. It’s the tallest earth-filled dam in the U.S. and a popular place for house boating. Low water levels prohibited recreational activities when we were there, but forecasts for this summer are cautiously optimistic. Regardless of the water level, it’s fun to walk across the dam — about a mile — and take in the beautiful view. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park is about 160 miles north of Sacramento. It’s known for hydrothermal activity, though it’s not nearly as dramatic as Yellowstone National Park. We hiked the Devil’s Kitchen Trail, which crossed some pretty meadows and led past bubbling mud pots. 

We stayed at Mill Creek Resort, about a 20-minute drive from the park. Lodging here is in nine adorable cabins with rustic chic decor and tin roofs. These are lovingly cared for by owners Jill and Joe Hower. Since we departed, they have added vintage RVs for a pseudo glamping experience. Hosts also provide a play area for young kids and a handy camp store, and they serve creative meals on a scenic deck three nights a week. Like elsewhere in Northern California, Mill Creek Resort serves up a good balance of family-friendly activities and tasty adult beverages. If you stay here, be sure to try the local Lassen Ale Works IPL.

Lodging at Mill Creek Resort is in nine adorable cabins
Lodging at Mill Creek Resort is in nine adorable cabins

Along with big trees and great hikes, warm hospitality and great brews are more reasons the whole family will love NorCal.


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