Get Outside With The Kids in California
Three epic family adventures in the Golden State (that don’t involve a theme park)
California. Where even to begin with such a mindblowing and magical place? Whether you’re 1 year old or 100, this intensely diverse state has something for everyone. Since an entire childhood could be spent exploring and not even come close to seeing it all, travel-planning (beyond Disneyland!) can be overwhelming.
Since theme parks occupy so much of the attention when it comes to kids in California—aka, Kidifornia—here I’m going to focus on the outdoors. California is an immense and inexhaustible playground, on which both kids and their parents LOVE to play. Here are three amazing destinations to get your family outside and enjoying new adventures together.
Let’s start at the beach; with 840 miles of coastline reaching north to south along the Pacific Ocean, California offers endless opportunities for fun on the water. A go-to favorite for locals and visitors alike is La Jolla, a pretty seaside community in San Diego that’s known for its gorgeously rugged coastline. If your offspring are water babes, this is the place for them!
Start with surf lessons—companies like Menehune Surf School, Surf Diva, and Pacific Surf offer both private and group lessons for anyone five years and up. From the ‘I’ve-never-seen-the-ocean-before!” beginner to someone who’s got a bit more experience in the waves, this is a fun, challenging, and super rewarding activity for kids. After all, there are few things that feel more triumphant than standing up on a surfboard for the first time.
Snorkelling, renting SUPs, and/or kayaking are also stellar options in La Jolla. For example, why not try a guided sea cave tour in kayaks?
They’re an amazing way to explore this area’s dramatic coastline, perhaps see some wildlife, and hello—caves! What kid doesn’t love to feel like an explorer?
If you’re after more wildlife, head to the somewhat comically-named “Children’s Beach.” Meant to accommodate young ones, it has filled in with sand over time and become a favorite spot for seals during pupping season. While you do NOT want to take your children down to this beach to build sandcastles from December to May, you DO want to take them to the nearby boardwalk so they can safely watch the dozens of plump seals basking in the sun.
Other great options in La Jolla: Scripps Pier (especially fun for taking photos), Sunny Jim Sea Cave (California’s only sea cave that you can access by land), and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
Next, let’s explore a place known far more for its lack of water than La Jolla’s abundance of it: Death Valley. But don’t let the name put you off! As long as you’re not some kind of cactus trying to survive there year round, it’s a perfectly safe (and incredibly exciting) place to take kids.
Straddling the California/Nevada border and packed full of wondrous landscapes, this desert is a prime destination for children who love the outdoors and/or science and/or Star Wars (which filmed there in the late 1970’s). For the nerdy parent, it’s also fun because of all the Death Valley facts you can impress your kids with before you go. For example:
-At almost 135 degrees fahrenheit, it set the record for the hottest temperature recorded in North America
-It’s the lowest place in North America at 282 feet below sea level!
-Finally, Death Valley is the driest place on the continent, with an annual average rainfall of just 2.4 inches
Some sites you’ll definitely want to check out include the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes; the Badwater Basin salt flats; Saltwater Creek (yes, there is some water there); Dante’s View, which is at high elevation so be sure to bring some layers; and the short walk up to Zabriskie Point to view the Badlands.
- The “death” in “Death Valley” comes from this desert’s summer tempurates! In other words, late October to early spring is the best time to visit, when temperatures range from around 40°F to 70°F and the ranger programs are in full swing.
- Also, remember there is far more in Death Valley than you could possibly see in a single trip, so don’t be overly ambitious with your itinerary. You want to spend your time exploring with interest and purpose, not just racing around from site to site.
And now, to the glory of the mountains and old-growth forests. Few things inspire more awe (in adults and children alike) than the natural beauty of Yosemite, which has been protected as a national park since 1890.
Located in eastern California, the landscapes in this park are the epitome of epic, from the iconic climbing mecca that is El Capitan to Yosemite’s tall waterfalls, stunning valleys, and ancient giant sequoias. It’s the perfect place for your family to unplug, breathe in fresh air, and get to know the land.
Consider starting at Yosemite Village; while it’s hardly the peak of the “great outdoors,” it is a great place for kids to get acquainted with the park and learn about its past. The Yosemite Museum, for example, is filled with hands-on exhibits about the history of the Miwok and Paiute people from the mid-19th century to present day, which are sometimes accompanied by traditional skills presentations by historians.
Kids can also become Junior Rangers! The park has a fantastic program for kids 7-13 years of age to earn a Junior Rangers patch, while 3-6 year olds can become “Little Cubs” and receive a button. To earn the patch, kids must complete the booklet, collect a bag of garbage, and attend a guided program. Both rangers and cubs require booklets that can be purchased for $3.50 and $3.00 respectively at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center; Nature Center at Happy Isles (May through September); Wawona and Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Centers (June through September); and Big Oak Flat Information Station (May through September).
If it’s your first time in Yosemite, there are a few classic activities to add to the top of your list. These include admiring El Capitan and Half Dome; walking up to Yosemite Falls; the Glacier View lookout (there’s a protective wall so it’s safe for kids, but keep a close eye nonetheless); and the Tunnel View hike.
In the very southern part of the park is Mariposa Grove—with over 500 mature giant sequoias, it’s the largest sequoia grove in Yosemite. There’s a shuttle that runs there from the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza, which has about 300 parking spots. It’s best to arrive earlier in the morning to snag one, so this is a good place to start your day! Once in the grove, the Big Trees Loop Trail (0.3 miles, 30 to 45 minutes) is a good route to take with toddlers, while the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail (2 miles, 1.5 to 2 hours) is good for older kids who can handle longer hike.
Finally, if at any point during your trip you’re looking to cool off (or your kiddos just love to swim), head to the lovely Merced River. Several great spots for a dip include the west end of Housekeeping Camp, along the banks of North Pines Campground, Devil’s Elbow (along Northside Drive), and Cathedral Beach (along Southside Drive). Other options include Lake and Mirror Lake.
- Yosemite is most popular between May and October, and for good reason. During these months the weather is pleasant and the skies (and therefore views!) are more likely to be clear.
- If you have a 4th grader, you can grab a free pass to the national parks—including this one—through a program called Every Kid in a Park.
Other Tips for Outdoor Adventures with Kids:
Prepare! Prepare! Prepare! We all know that nature loves throwing curveballs, so even if you’re heading to a typically busy outdoors site, prepare for any scenario. That means bringing a lot of water, sunscreen, hats, a small first aid kit, bug repellent (if necessary), and plenty of snacks. If you’re going on any kind of extended hike, be sure that someone else knows of your plans, whether that’s a staff member at your hotel, or new friends from a campground.
Learn about these places ahead of time. If you’re traveling to Yosemite, For example, there are many fun children’s books to be read; titles like “So Big! Yosemite” and “The Sequoia Lives On” are an engaging way to learn about and get excited for what’s to come. Or for older kids heading into the park, documentaries like “Free Solo” and “The Dawn Wall” will have them itching to see El Cap. Or, if you’re planning to explore the coast, watch some videos and read up on California’s bountiful marine life. It’ll build anticipation before the trip, and make all of your experiences together that much richer.