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(Photos: Christine Sarkis)

An Epic California Spring Break Combining Beach Time and Snow

Spring break sits at the crossroads of winter and summer, a time to trade chilly school days for the promise of sun. But a California spring break offers an intriguing option: Embrace the best of winter and enjoy spring-break-worthy beach time.

California Spring Break Magic: Beach and Snow

Here’s a taste of what you can do with kids when you plan a California spring break road trip that includes beach-bliss in Santa Cruz and all the winter fun of Lake Tahoe.

Santa Cruz

Its laid-back vibe means that kids are welcome almost everywhere in Santa Cruz. This stretch of coast is dotted with a tantalizing variety of sandy beaches and tide-pool-festooned rocky seashores. On weekends in winter and spring, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—named the World’s Best Seaside Park by the amusement industry—is a family crowd pleaser packed with rides, all set against the brilliant backdrop of the Pacific.

Look beyond the beach for the sort of fun that makes Santa Cruz a top family-friendly destination. At the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, the Pacific comes to life with exhibits and touch pools that give families a front-row seat to the thriving underwater world just beyond the center’s windows. And the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center offers exhibits and displays that allow families to explore the local marine environment from dry land.

With a few days, you can venture beyond Santa Cruz to nearby towns for more spring break family fun. Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton offers vintage train rides through redwoods and along a river, and just next door Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has a short family-friendly trail loop through a towering old-growth redwood forest. Head south to Watsonville to let kids belly up to the bar at Martinelli’s Company Store, where they can taste a full range of sparkling and still juices while learning all about how the company turns U.S.-grown apples into this favorite family-celebration drink.

The Drive

About four hours separate Santa Cruz from your next stop on this California spring break. Power through the drive to maximize your time in each place, or take it slow and stop for some outlet shopping in Vacaville, lunch and a museum in Sacramento, or a peek at one of the many historical sites along the way.

You can bypass much of the Bay Area’s commuter traffic (traffic apps like Waze will give you the best real-time advice), but you’ll want to be strategic about timing your route through Sacramento, as that part of the drive gets significantly slower in late afternoon and early evening.

Tahoe and Truckee

The towns and ski resorts that make up the Tahoe region offer family-friendly fun set against the beautiful backdrop of soaring peaks, dense forest, and, of course, the sparkling centerpiece of Lake Tahoe itself.

Hit the slopes with the kids without draining your family’s entire travel budget by choosing a ski resort that offers deals for parents. Full-day ski schools for kids cost less than the average at resorts including Boreal, Homewood, and Tahoe Donner. Boreal, Diamond Peak, Homewood, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and Mount Rose are among the resorts that offer single lift tickets that two parents can trade off using—a true gem if your kids are non-skiers or still need middle-of-the-day naps.

Kids who don’t ski or snowboard can still find plenty of snow-based action. Squaw’s SnoVentures zone has groomed snow tubing hills complete with snow tube rentals, a magic carpet so you don’t have to walk up the whole hill, and attendants making sure everyone stays safe and has fun. SnoVentures also has mini-snowmobiles for kids 6 to 12.

Some of Tahoe’s most kid-friendly winter activities take place indoors. Woodward Tahoe’s Bunker is a massive warehouse packed with trampolines, foam pits, half pipes, and more. In addition to daylong and weeklong camps, Woodward also offers drop-in classes including a ninja class, Super Hero Saturday, and parkour. At the KidZone Museum in Truckee, pirate ships, castles, and more creative spaces encourage imaginary play. There’s also a baby zone for pre-walkers and an art studio where kids can create projects to take home. Truckee’s newly redone Community Swimming Pool is the perfect place to end the day: Kids can go down a waterslide, play on the splash pad, or swim in the large heated pool.

There’s even the option to camp indoors with the debut of the Great Indoors Family Room at Basecamp Hotel in Tahoe City. This two-room suite includes a tented king-sized bed, picnic table, and faux-wood fire in one room and a bunk bed in a room-sized canvas tent in an adjoining space. Indoor plumbing completes the not-roughing-it package.

If You Go

For a California spring break that includes Santa Cruz and Tahoe, you can mix and match your airports. To arrive or depart closer to Santa Cruz, check prices in and out of San Francisco International, Oakland International, and San Jose International. San Jose gets you closest to Santa Cruz, and since it’s a smaller airport, it’s easier to navigate.

To arrive or depart closest to Tahoe, fly into Reno-Tahoe, which is about 40 minutes from Truckee. Or consider Sacramento, which is about an hour and a half through the mountains from Tahoe.

More California Beach-to-Snow Vacations

You can pull off this magic act of a beach-and-snow California spring break throughout the Golden State. In Central California, pair Pismo Beach with Mammoth Mountain. In Southern California, head to Huntington Beach in Orange County for fun in the sun and then east to Big Bear for skiing and snow play.

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Christine Sarkis visited Santa Cruz and Tahoe as a guest of Visit California. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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