California is a beautiful state and a hot spot for family vacations and road tripping. While it would be amazing to make a trip to see the entire state, it is the second largest state in the U.S. and if you are short on time, you may not have the time to squeeze it all in.
With that being said, our goal in this guide is to help you figure out which destination is best for your family.
Ultimately, deciding between Southern California vs. Northern California is going to come down to what your interests are and which major cities and landmarks you are wanting to see in the Golden State.
We’ll dig a little deeper into what you can expect from each area, but as a general rule, if you prefer scenery and the wilderness, you may consider Northern California whereas if you prefer the glitz, glam, and excitement, you will want to visit Southern California.
- What is considered “Northern California” vs “Southern California?
- Major Airports in California
- Choose Your Type of Family Vacation in California
- Picking Your California Vacation Destination
What is considered “Northern California” vs “Southern California?
California is a large state, the largest in the lower 48, and you may be wondering just what is defined as Northern California.
Northern California is most often identified as the San Francisco Bay area and above. The northern region comprises 21 counties split into four main regions, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento Area, Northern San Joaquin Valley, and Monterey Bay Area.
There is no precise cut off point, and some would argue that San Francisco and the Bay Area are in fact ‘Central California.’ Let’s not get into semantics though, you are welcoming to agree to disagree with our interpretation!
Major Airports in California
Understanding where the major airports are in California can be an important starting point for planning your California vacation as it will most likely be the starting and end point of your trip. There are dozens of airports in teh state, but the largest are:
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) – LAX is the busiest and considered the most popular airport in California. Its location makes for an excellent starting point for a road trip/vacation through Southern California.
San Diego International Airport (SAN) – Taking it even a little further south compared to Los Angeles, The San Diego International Airport is a great option if you are looking for something a little less chaotic, and it will be an excellent choice for a Southern California vacay.
Sacramento International Airport (SMF) – Located in Sacramento County, SMF is a great option if you plan to explore the northern region of California.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) – SFO is located just outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, making it an excellent hub for visitors looking to see San Francisco or Northern California.
Choose Your Type of Family Vacation in California
As we mentioned earlier, where you choose to visit in California will really depend on your family’s likes and interests. There is so much to see throughout the state, but here are a few popular cities and attractions to consider basing your travels around:
Best for a Beach Family Vacation in California
Being located on the coast of the Pacific Ocean means there are plenty of beautiful beaches to see all throughout the state, but some are better than others. Here are a few of the most popular, well-known, and our family’s personal favorite beaches:
- Huntington Beach – Located just southeast of Los Angeles, Huntington Beach starts at Beach Boulevard and is a 2-mile sandy beach to the Santa Ana River Channel. The view is incredible, and this beach is perfect for a fun family day in the sun.
- Santa Monica Beach – The Santa Monica beach is beautiful and located, of course, in Santa Monica, California. In our opinion, the best part of Santa Monica Beach is that you can enjoy it year-round. While the beach itself and a dip in the ocean are ideal for the warmer months of the year, there may be some points where the ocean is a bit too cold to enjoy. If you visit during a cooler month, you can have a blast with rides and games on the Santa Monica Pier!
- La Jolla Beach – La Jolla Beach is small but mighty! The views at La Jolla are absolutely beautiful, and you will certainly want to break out the camera to capture the moment. If you’re into scuba diving or snorkeling, this beach is an excellent choice to explore!
If it’s a beach vacation you’re coming to California for, despite some gorgeous rugged coast line in Northern California, it’s got to be Southern California for the warmer water, and the win!
Best for a Theme Park Trip to California
If your family is the type that loves theme parks and fun, California is home to some of the most notable and fun amusement parks in the US. Most of the well-known and popular theme parks are located in Southern California and include:
Disneyland and California Adventure
Disneyland and California Adventure is one of the biggest draws of Southern California. Enjoy theme parks based on some of Disney and Pixar’s biggest films and stories.
Universal Studios Hollywood
In addition to Disneyland, Universal Studios is among the most well-known amusement parks in California. Here, you can enjoy rides and attractions themed to some of the most famous motion pictures and films, and you will even get the chance to see a behind-the-scenes look at a real film studio.
Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm is an amusement park owned and operated by Cedar Fair and features rides and attractions of all thrill levels. The park is separated into four themed areas that pay tribute to the history and culture of California, including the 1800’s Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, the Boardwalk, and the High Sierras.
Six Flags Magic Mountain
Six Flags Magic Mountain is located in Valencia, near Los Angeles, California, and is known as the “Thrill Capital of the World”. The park is home to 20 world-class roller coasters, which is more than any other theme park on the planet, so if you are one that loves adrenaline and adventure, you don’t want to skip Magic Mountain! Also, get the chance to see some of your favorite characters, including Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes as well as some of your favorite DC Super Heroes.
There is Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, north of San Francisco, but thrill fans will tell you that there’s a firm winner between these two if you had to pick one over the other.
So again, it looks like our theme park-lovers are going to be better suited to a Southern California vacation.
Best for a Nature Trip to California
If your family is one that loves nature and exploring, you are in luck! California has some of the most breathtaking views, well-known and famous national parks and forests, and so many other natural wonders you won’t want to miss out on!
In our opinion, some of the best nature spots are located in Northern California. Some can’t miss spots include:
Yosemite National Park
Lake Tahoe is known for outdoor fun and activities. The best part (in our opinion) about Lake Tahoe is its versatility for year-round visits. In the Spring and Summer months, you can expect activities including swimming and water tubing while in the Winter months, you can expect to enjoy skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing.
Redwood National Park
The Redwood National Forest is home to the tallest trees on Earth. Standing in among the Redwood trees is a one-of-a-kind experience. You can expect to enjoy outdoor activities, including camping, hiking, and bike rides.
Best for Incredible Scenic Drives in California
Sometimes the best way to experience a state is to simply hop in the car, take a drive to take in the sights and explore. There are so many incredible scenic drives throughout the state of California and here are a few of our favorites:
Pacific Coast Highway – 656 miles
Traveling along the Pacific Coast is one of the best ways to see the sights in California. While this drive will require at least a couple of weeks of your time, it will allow you to see a lot of the state. Along your drive, you will get the chance to see some of the most beautiful beaches and California’s most popular destinations.
- Traversing both Northern and Southern California, learn more about driving the PCH in our San Fran to San Diego road trip itinerary
Route 66 – 315 miles (California portion)
The California portion of Route 66 spans about 315 miles. Route 66 is a famous route that will take you from Santa Monica, California, through California hitting popular cities and destinations, including the San Bernardino National Forest, the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, and the Mojave Desert.
Northern California Wine Country
Northern California is known for its Vineyards and wineries. If you are one who loves wine, taking a drive through the Northern California Wine Country is something you don’t want to miss. The drive will take you through a loop to hit some of the most popular wineries in Northern California, including Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley.
- Grab more Norcal Scenic Driving inspiration here
The National Parks
California is home to an astounding nine national parks, and having the chance to see all of them in one trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can choose to take the time to see all of the national parks, or you can choose to explore specific regions of the state.
- If you head more northern, you can explore parks, including Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic National Parks and the Redwood National Forests.
- If you choose to go south, you will see parks, including Joshua Tree National Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, and Death Valley.
Its a bit of a tie when it comes to scenic drives and national parks in California as each is so unique and spectacular in its own way.
The big difference is climatic; the further north you go, the colder it gets. Some roads become impassable in winter, where as places like Death Valley are much better visited in the cooler winter months than summer.
Picking Your California Vacation Destination
The bottom line is that both Southern California and Northern California offer families some incredible attractions you won’t find anywhere else in the world. There’s certainly no one right answer, and there’s plenty of state to go around!
If you have a week or less in California, we strongly suggest focusing on just one part of the state that interests you most; With 7-14 days you could see the highlights of both Northern California and Southern California, but you’d spend a lot of time driving.
With more than 2 weeks, you could cover things more comprehensively and even included a couple of stops in Nevada and Oregon.
Before you set off in your car, you may like to dig deeper into our guides to:
- The best family things to do in San Diego and Southern California
- Road tripping from San Diego to Joshua Tree
- Unmissable stops driving from Los Angeles to Yosemite
- Yosemite to Death Valley suggested driving itinerary
- Scenic Drive from Yosemite to Lake Tahoe
- San Francisco to Seattle driving itinerary ideas
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