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8 Best Family Road Trips

8 Best Family Road Trips

The Golden State is teeming with outdoor recreation destinations, but the remarkable camping and fishing at these top picks make them the best of the best. (June 2009)

With California's 4,800 lakes and reservoirs, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 1,100 miles of coastline, you'd think that finding a place to take a relaxing family camping trip with some decent fishing would be easy. But with the Golden State's growing population and increasing environmental concerns, it's anything but simple.

Moorings near the dam at Big Bear Lake provide the perfect location for families to tie up and wet a line for feisty rainbow trout.
Photo by Brian Sak.

California does have plenty to offer campers and anglers, but for a successful outing, you'll have to understand what each family member wants out of a trip before choosing your destination. Armed with that knowledge you can then research what's available and pick a location that meets everyone's requirements.

For those that don't know where to begin their search, California Game & Fish has selected eight of the state's best places for an angler and his family to camp. Each offers exceptional facilities, great fishing and a variety of additional activities. But be sure to call for conditions before planning a trip -- with the lack of rain and emerging invasive species prevention programs, you'll want the most up-to-date information.

Shasta Lake visitors enjoy an idyllic alpine setting for both camping and fishing. And with Interstate 5 crossing its midsection, it's one of the simplest lakes in the state to get to. Easy access means lots of visitors, but don't let the masses keep you away. With 29,500 surface acres and more than 360 miles of shoreline, Shasta rarely feels crowded.

Shasta Lake has plenty of cold-water and warm-water fishes, so you'll always find something biting when you go.

Bass anglers target rockpiles and submerged brush in the Pit River arm for largemouths, or rocky points just about anywhere for spotted bass.


Trout and salmon anglers troll spoons or night crawlers on the main body, from the dam to the I-5 bridge. You'll find panfish and catfish in protected coves.

There are numerous private campgrounds in the Shasta area that offer supplies, places to eat and boat rentals. But if you're looking for more of a wilderness experience, try roughing it in one of several relatively small, undeveloped oak-filled U.S. Forest Service campgrounds. For information call (530) 275-1589, or go online to

To get away from the lake for a while, take the entire family to Turtle Bay Exploration Park near Redding. The more adventurous may want to try river rafting or an off-road vehicle excursion. For other area activities, call the Shasta-Cascade Wonderland Association at 1-800-275-5555.

A two-hour drive from the Bay Area brings you to the shores of Lake Camanche, whose clean waters and full-service facilities make this a consistently popular destination. The arid nature of this low-elevation foothill reservoir makes it less than ideal scenically, and the crowds that invade during warm weather rule out the possibility of a backwoods-type experience. But some of the best fishing that the region has to offer makes this a leading candidate for a successful family outing.

Lake Camanche offers quality largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass fishing, along with decent crappie, sunfish and catfish. For bass, target isolated brush on main-lake points and submerged islands with spinnerbaits, or head to the narrows with soft plastics. Look for crappie suspended in deeper water, sunfish in the shallows around vegetation, and catfish along creek channels. There are also ponds stocked with trout at the south shore campground.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District operates two campgrounds at Camanche, one on the north shore and one on the south shore. There are a total of 518 sites. There are also 120 RV sites with full hookups at the south shore facilities. Each campground offers a supply store, coffee shop, laundry room, and marina with boat rentals and launch ramps. For north shore information, call (209) 763-5121. For south shore information, call (209) 763-5178. Or you can go online to

When you've had too much sun, or need a break from the crowds, there are fun and educational things to do in the area. The whole family will enjoy spelunking at Mercer or Moaning caverns. You'll learn about the region's history at the Amador County Museum. For other area activities, call the Amador County Chamber of Commerce at (209) 223-0350.

The hidden gem of this year's top destinations is Lake Francis, where campground managers focus on a positive family experience. Nestled in Northern California's Gold Country foothills, quiet is the name of the game here. There are no gasoline-powered motors allowed on the lake, so you'll find tranquil conditions whether on or off the water. And with all proceeds from Lake Francis Resort's operations used to send children from foster families to camp, a trip here will be helping others, too.

Although the likelihood of hooking into a fish worthy of hanging on the wall is small at Francis, you'll find enough action to keep the anglers in the family happy. This is a warm-water lake, with healthy populations of bass, sunfishes, crappie and catfish.

For bass, try poppers at the backs of shallow weed-filled coves both early and late in the day. When the sun is high, target sunfishes with small pieces of night crawler soaked below a bobber.

You'll find everything you need for a pleasant stay at Lake Francis, from secluded tent to full hookup RV sites. The resort also offers a variety of rental cabins. There are restrooms, showers and laundry facilities, a clubhouse and swimming pool, a children's play area, sporting fields, boat rentals and a restaurant, all within a short stroll. For information call 1-888-993-7344, or go online to

If the family wants to do something off the lake, there are several convenient activities nearby. Baseball fans will enjoy taking in a Yuba-Sutter Gold Sox game in Marysville. Music lovers will want to see a concert at the Sleep Train Amphitheatre in Wheatland. For other area activities, call the Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce at (530) 743-6501.

Less than an hour from San Francisco and Oakland, this state park is located on the California Delta near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. When it comes to water

-related recreation, visitors do it all here -- skiing, personal watercraft, windsurfing, sailboating, cruising and swimming. And with what many contend to be some of the best fishing in the state, Brannan Island has its share of anglers, too.

The Delta is huge, with more than 1,100 miles of rock levees, 700 miles of twisting rivers and sloughs and 57 major islands. And you never know what you'll hook into here. The system is a largemouth bass angler's paradise, with more targets to cast to than any other body of water in the state. Leave your light tackle at home when heading here, and cast oversized versions of the classics including jigs, ripbaits, crankbaits and spinnerbaits. For striped bass, try big swimbaits around rocky points. There are also catfish, panfish and salmon.

Surrounded by the Sacramento River and two sloughs, Brannan Island has 102 campsites and 13 RV sites that come with their own boat slip. All sites have fire rings and picnic tables. There are centrally located restrooms, showers and running water. Also available are a roped-off swimming area, visitor center and boat ramp. For information call (916) 777-6671, or go online to

For an enjoyable side trip, try touring the Delta by water aboard the Tule Queen. The kids won't want to miss testing new flavors at the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, while adults may want to do the same at any of several area wineries. For other area activities, call the California Delta Chamber and Visitor's Bureau at (916) 777-4041.

Known by the locals as "Naci," this huge lake should be considered a people lake. That's because it's only four hours north of Los Angeles, and it gets lots of people. And those who come like to have fun. You'll find that there's no lack of pleasure boaters, skiers and personal watercraft here, along with loud music and associated activities. But you'll also discover that the huge campgrounds, topnotch facilities and great fishing make this a destination worth considering.

Prolific white bass are the draw for many anglers at Nacimiento. If you go early enough in the year, you'll have an opportunity to cast for spawning fish in the shallows up river. During summer, look for schooling whites in the Las Tablas and Oak Shores arms by trolling shad-pattern crankbaits. Note that there are no size or creel limits for white bass, but regulations require that you immediately cut the throats of fish you keep.

Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, sunfishes, and catfish are also worth trying for when visiting Naci.

With over 300 tent or RV sites in six separate campgrounds, you'll have plenty of spots to pick from when you arrive at Nacimiento. Families that don't want to rough it will find several lake-view lodges available. The resort provides guests with a store, restaurant, swimming pool, playground, and volleyball, basketball and horseshoes. At the marina, there are supplies, fuel, slips, boat rentals and a massive ramp. For information call 1-800-323-3839, or go online to parks/nacimiento_camping.html.

On multi-day trips to Nacimiento, you may want short breaks from the crowds. Visits to Mission San Miguel Arcangel or Mission San Antonio de Padua are treats for the entire family. Military buffs will not want to miss the Estrella Warbird Museum in Paso Robles. For other area activities, call the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce at (805) 238-0506.

There isn't an abundance of wilderness-type destinations within 100 miles of Los Angeles, but the San Bernardino Mountains prove that spectacular locations can exist relatively close to large metropolitan areas. And thanks to our government, this pristine alpine setting was protected for all of us to enjoy when designated a national forest. Big Bear Lake serves as the focal point of the region, providing an ideal home base for family outings.

Although there are largemouth bass, panfish and catfish available to anglers plying Big Bear's crystal-clear waters, it's the heavily stocked rainbows that are sought after by most. Slow-troll the shallows during spring and fall and deeper from July through August. A variety of offerings work, but local favorites include flashers trailed by small minnow baits, spoons and night crawlers. The entire west end of the lake can be good. But the area between Boulder Bay and the northwest shore is best.

There are several campgrounds at the north end of Big Bear Lake, ranging from fully developed resort-style facilities within walking distance of the water to more distant primitive mountain camps. Although none of the campgrounds have direct access to the lake, anglers can use the East Ramp to launch their boats. Regardless of where you stay, groceries, gear and supplies are available nearby.

For information, call (909) 866-3437, or go online to

Big Bear, like all south state attractions, gets crowded, and at times, it's desirable to get away from the lake for a while. A must-see side trip is Moonridge Animal Park, where close-up views of wildlife in a controlled environment grab everyone's attention. You'll experience breathtaking views of the area with Big Bear Off-Road Adventures guided tours. For other area activities, call the Big Bear Lake Chamber of Commerce at (909) 866-4607.

This coastal campground offers a pleasant change of pace for those used to vacationing in the mountains or next to freshwater reservoirs, lakes and streams. Miles of sandy Pacific beach near the park provide ideal conditions for relaxing and exploring. To top off this great camping spot, you'll enjoy some of the best fishing during the dog days of summer.

Surfcasting from shore at beaches south of the campground through Morro Bay can be fun if you're equipped with waders and the right gear. Those less serious will do equally well fishing from the pier, where a fishing license is not required, at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach. You never know what you'll catch here, but for barred and calico surfperch, try soaking live sand crabs, bloodworms or ghost shrimp just outside the surf line. Squid fished off the end of the pier will take mackerel, spiny dogfish and jacksmelt.

San Simeon has two distinct campgrounds, offering 134 developed sites for tents and RVs to 35 feet long. Although beach camping is not allowed here, there are 68 primitive hilltop campsites located about one mile from the water. All sites have a fire ring, picnic table and water nearby. Developed areas have restrooms and showers. Supplies and restaurants are in the nearby town of Cambria. For information call (805) 927-2035, or visit www. stateparks. com/san_simeon_beach.html.

There are lots of things to do in the San Simeon area, but a trip wouldn't be complete without a tour of Hearst Castle. Other options include northern elephant seal viewing at a nearby rookery and tours of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse and Cambria Historical Museum. For other area activities, call the Cambria Chamber of Commerce at (805) 927-3624.

Built in 1888, this is the second oldes

t dam in the state. It forms a relatively small, scenic lake. But the great part about Cuyamaca is its dedication to leisurely activities, with peaceful camping and a strictly enforced 10-mph lake speed limit.

You'll find a variety of game fish to choose from here, including rainbow trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, catfish, crappie, bluegills and sturgeon. Trout are stocked year 'round, with most taken on floating bait rigs -- popular offerings include night crawlers, marshmallows and dough baits. Trolling minnow plugs, spoons and in-line spinners also take their share of trout. Fly-fishing at Cuyamaca can be excellent, with streamers and nymphs producing the best results.

Camping is limited at the lake with only 21 tent sites, 40 RV sites (19 with electrical and water hookups), and a single group RV area that accommodates up to eight rigs. The lake offers a restaurant, store, tackle shop, boat rentals, launch ramp and a handicap accessible fishing wharf and float. For information call (760) 765-0515, or go online to

There are plenty of family-oriented activities in the area when you need a break from the lake. As long as you're not claustrophobic, you'll enjoy a guided tour through intricate networks of tunnels at Eagle and High Peak mines near Julian. Train buffs should opt for a trip to Smith Ranch, where you'll ride aboard the SR&J narrow gauge mining railroad. For other area activities, call the Julian Chamber of Commerce at (760) 765-1857.

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