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Annual events & festivals in Northern California

Looking for something fun to do with your family? California is full of annual events, local festivals and fairs that are a delight for families with kids of all ages. Here’s a guide to some of the biggest family-friendly events in Northern California.

Just a fluke - Whale

Northern California

JANUARY: Point Sur Light Station Whale Watching, Big Sur

Monterey Bay offers year-round whale watching, with the majestic gray whales migration at its peak in January. This particular tour takes place at Point Sur Light Station State Historic Park, led by whale experts and includes plenty of hot drinks and binoculars as part of the visit.

An excursion to the lighthouse atop the 360-foot-high volcanic rock marks the beginning of the adventure, followed by a picnic and whale watching at the top of the Point.

Parking is located a half of a mile’s walk at the base of the rock formation, so wear comfortable, durable walking shoes and layer clothing as the weather can be cool. No strollers or pets are allowed on this tour.

Location: 19 miles south of Carmel along Highway 1

Website: Point Sur Light Station Whale Watching

September/October: Annual Great Sand Castle Contest, Carmel

Wander down to Carmel Beach and you will spy more than your average sand castles being built. For decades, the Great Sand Castle Contest has brought out people of all ages to the beach to try their hand at winning the exclusive Golden Shovel award. Other awards, such as the Sour Grapes award, are bestowed upon contestants across many categories.

Always centered on a theme, contestants use the sand and their creativity to wow judges, who often encourage non-monetary bribery as part of the fun. Whether you want to roll up your sleeves and dig in, or just come to see the spectacular sculptures, this annual event is a must-see for families.

Location: Carmel Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California 93923

Website: Annual Great Sand Castle Contest


April: Ducky Derby and Carnival, Santa Cruz

Ducky Derby in Santa Cruz

Every April, Omega Nu of Santa Cruz holds its Annual Ducky Derby and Carnival at Harvey West Park’s Friendship Gardens. The festival includes fun for the entire family, including food, games, music, and of course, more than 10,000 rubber ducks. The ducks are available for adoption before they head down the 75 yard man-made waterway to the finish line, plying for prizes and bragging rights.

Prizes are nothing to quack at, either — past event winners received resort stays in Maui, diamond earrings, $1000 savings bonds, and more. Several “heats” are held throughout the day, leaving plenty of time for the other activities throughout the festival.

Location: 326 Evergreen St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Website: Ducky Derby and Carnival

June: Northern California Pirate Festival, Vallejo

The annual Pirate Festival is held in Vallejo on Father’s Day weekend, featuring everything a swashbuckler could wish for. From entertainment to musicians to swordfighters and more, the Vallejo waterfront is transformed into a pirate town that is fun for all ages. Coming in costumes is encouraged, but not necessary to enjoy the cannon battles, sailing, nautical music, maritime crafts, and pirate booty for purchase. As long as you love pirates, you are sure to find something at this annual festival for you. And, admission is free, so you won’t have to feel like you are walking the plank just to get the entire family in.

Location: Vallejo Waterfront, a few short steps west of the Vallejo Ferry Terminal. Located at 289 Mare Island Way, Vallejo, CA 94590

Website: Northern California Pirate Festival

October: Fresno Fair, Fresno

From vendors and exhibitors to attractions and entertainment, the annual Fresno Fair is the largest event in the Central Valley. With fun for visitors of all ages, live animals, concerns, arts and crafts, and exhibits offer plenty to see. For those looking for some fun, carnival games and rides for every age group will keep you laughing and trying your luck. And, there’s nothing like the food and sweet treats that can only be found at the fair, from frog legs to fried candy bars, to make the fair worth the wait. For family-friendly fun, the annual Fresno Fair is perfect for kids young and old.

Location: 1121 S. Chance Ave., Fresno, CA 93702

Website: Fresno Fair

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