Our Top West Coast Destinations for Traveling Families
After being on the road for over two years, we thought it might be fun to look back at our favorite places we've visited. To keep things manageable (for us and you) we decided to break them up into general locations. We started with the East Coast, but this article is all about the West Coast!
- Oliver Lee State Park & White Sands National Monument
- Valley of Fire State Park
- Mammoth Lakes & Lee Vining, CA
- Santa Fe, NM
- Sedona, AZ
Olive Lee State Park + White Sands
Alamogordo, TX is home to a really weird city name, but also two of the coolest parks we’ve been to. Oliver Lee is nestled right up at the foot of a massive mountain range. It’s basically first come first serve and we got super lucky. The views out into the valley as the sun went down were hard to describe - kind of a hazy pastel beauty that never got old.
Probably the best part was the epic Dog Canyon Trail that started at the visitor’s center and went 5.5 miles back up into the mountains, climbing an elevation of over 3,000 feet. It was just my oldest daughter and myself that day (and I do mean all day - that 5.5 miles was just one way), but we truly had an adventure. It was beyond beautiful and super challenging. It’s made me really want to dig in and start doing longer hikes with the kids.
Right down the road was the famed White Sands National Monument. It definitely earned it’s reputation with endless views of an alien white landscape that never gets hot because of it’s unique gypsum sand. We’ve actually been twice now and made sure to slide down the dunes as many times as we could!
If it’s not obvious, come in the winter or spring months as it’s nasty hot in the summer. It’s still worth the trip, though!
Valley of Fire Sate Park
Even though our trip to Valley of Fire was preceded by a massive boondocking disaster(!) we absolutely loved this park. We spent two days exploring to get around my work schedule and I’m so glad we did.
The first day we drove the “loop” and stopped at all the major rock formations. The Beehives, Seven Sisters and Elephant Rock were probably our favorites. They all were an intense bright red with all sorts of wind swept holes, caves and areas to explore.
There were also a few massive rock surfaces with loads of petroglyphs that we enjoyed studying.
The second day we wanted to hike so we set off towards Fire Canyon. After a short detour (the trail markers need to be better!) we found the main trail and walked the canyon all the way to the end. Ashley was a little stressed about the drop-off at the end, but we all had a blast yelling into the canyon and hearing our echoes.
Both days were so much fun, and it’s a place we won’t soon forget. Make sure to visit Valley of Fire State Park if you’re in the area.
Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining
Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining were adjacent towns we just kind of stumbled on and fell in love with instantly.
Initially drawn by the promise of natural hot springs with amazing views (Ashley’s request for her birthday), we looked in vain for a camping spot and empty hot springs in Mammoth Lakes multiple times over before moving up further to Lee Vining. Our timing was bad and a holiday weekend was coming up - thus the overcrowding.
But what a great happy accident! We found an amazing boondocking spot right on the gorgeous Mono Lake and fell in love with the tiny town.
We stayed there until the the holiday was over and headed back down to Mammoth Lakes, exploring the impressive Mammoth Mountain, an Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and finally snagging a dip in one of the nearby hot springs.
Our spot in Mammoth was beautiful as well - right on the river and back off the main road enough to have some privacy.
Eventually we went back to Lee Vining and stayed another week, eating way too much ice cream and the local burger joint and exploring a nearby ghost town.
We even took a day and drove up the Tioga Pass to get a glimpse at Yosemite National Park. It was amazing as promised!
Really, though I think we fell in love with Mono Lake the most. The snow capped mountains on one side and the lake below made for one of our most scenic boondocking spots yet. The sunsets there were so magical, and the day before we left we were able to take a canoe tour of the lake and learn about it’s incredible ecosystem. The story behind how the area banded together to save it when Los Angeles diverted too much water and it started drying up is pretty amazing, too.
And of course, there’s the Tufas - otherworldly rock sculptures made out of limestone, carbonates and underwater springs rich in calcium. Visit at sunset for guaranteed amazing pictures.
Most people just stop at Lee Vining on their way to Yosemite, but if you spend a few days there you might just find yourself not wanting to leave.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Looking back through our Santa Fe adventures I’m amazed at how much we did in our time in the area. Wears me out just reading about it! Not only that, but it was all amazing! Ok I just need to stop wasting time and jump in.
We started our time in Santa Fe hanging out at an Aplaca farm and exploring the near by Pecos National Monument. It’s the remains of an old Spanish Mission complete with underground Kivas and a fascinating story about the Indian upheaval and fight that ensued. The ruins themselves are just awe inspiring.
Tent Rocks National Monument was one of those places that we just kept pinching ourselves every time we turned a corner on the Slot Canyon Trail. Squeezing through the windswept rock walls and marveling at the trees shooting up everywhere you think they shouldn’t, the hike was capped off with incredible views of the tent rocks themselves, triangular eroded structures towering above everything else. Won’t be forgetting that hike anytime soon.
In town, we explored Palace of the Governors, The Santa Fe Modern Art Museum, History Museum and Botanical Gardens. Too much to recount here, but they were all very well done and worth a day visit to learn about the area.
Then there was Meow Wolf. One of the highlights in an already incredible trip, we were blown away by the unique attraction. Part mystery, part exploration, part art exhibit, I don’t really know what to call this place other than to tell you to go, dig into the story and explore. So very, very cool.
Finally, we drove all the way out to Bandelier National Monument. We marveled at the impressively built rock wall houses, trying to imagine how much fun it would have been to live in a freaking cliff.
Even better, we braved the climb up to the top of the Alcove House, a magnificent natural rock formation that the Indians used as a ceremonial cave. Ashley really overcame her fears that day and I’m so proud of her!
To top it off, we saw a Deer and Aberts Squirrel on the trail back. Perfect end to a perfect day.
Finally there’s Sedona. Hot dang this place was beyond gorgeous. Maybe we’re just drawn to massive red rocks, but the mountains, flowers, trees and landscapes here made an impression on us.
There was so much to do that we only scratched the surface. Starting with the Doe Mountain Trail, we hiked up the insane switchbacks to a nice level area where we were treated to a breathtaking view into the valley below. The kids really wanted to go out to the edge, but even I was a little worried with the sheer cliff drop-offs. We kept them close!
Fay Canyon was a pretty mundane trail until the end where you can keep going and explore the canyon by climbing around and dodging cacti. Lots of echoes were tested that afternoon!
The Airport Vortex was absolutely stunning. Get there as the sun is going down, deal with the crowds and just soak it all in.
Near our campsite, Palatki Ruins was an awesome afternoon of secluded, quiet rock houses, petroglyphs and education. Compared to everything else at Sedona, it felt like it was worlds away and we loved that.
And of course, you have to go to Devil’s Bridge. Terrifying beautiful, this rock mass made for some pretty spectacular pictures, and the hike up at sunset wasn’t half bad, either.
I don’t even have room to mention Tuzigoot National Monument or Montezuma Castle National Monument or the Chapel of the Holy Cross! There is so much to do here. Did I mention that? You really need to check it out.
Do you have a favorite place on the West Coast? Let us know in the comments!
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