Kid-Friendly California Fun and Learning
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Huge and diverse both in geography and culture, California has thousands of family-friendly diversions within a few hours drive of almost anywhere in the state. The cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego have world-class theaters, museums and the vibrancy to support many different ethnic sub-communities. Natural wonders include hundreds of miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, rugged peaks like Mount Whitney, internationally-famous parks like Yosemite and the unique desert ecosystems of Death Valley and Joshua Tree. California has long been "the promised land" for many, and that ethos continues today with Web-related exploration in Silicon Valley. Want to get in on the fun and learning? Here are 21 top picks for kids in the Golden State.
- San Diego Zoo– Tucked into historic Balboa Park, this internationally-recognized zoo boasts thousands of animals and plants living in their natural habitats, plus the safari-styled Wild Animal Park just outside the city.
- Redwood National & State Forests– A cluster of northern California parks houses the spectacular cousins to the sequoias of the High Sierra. Redwood trees only exist on the US Pacific coast, and often soar higher than 300 feet tall.
- Golden Gate Bridge – Take a walk across 1.7 miles of engineering marvel to fully appreciate the construction and beauty of this bright orange symbol of the City by the Bay, and the state as a whole.
- Page Museum - La Brea Tar Pits– A hot, gooey home to some of the best preserved Pleistocene vertebrates, plants, mollusks and insects from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, the Pits are a hunk of ancient history right in the middle of urban Los Angeles.
- Gold Rush Country– Follow in the footsteps of the 49ers through Gold Rush-era towns like Nevada City or Columbia, and see where the Rush started at Sutter’s Mill (now Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.)
- Monterey Bay Aquarium– Located on author John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, this world-famous aquarium submerges visitors into watery California marine habitats and offers close-up encounters with hundreds of sea creatures, enhanced by special programs and hands-on activities for kids. Bonus: drive some of the Pacific Coast Highway around scenic Big Surwhile you’re there.
- The Getty Center– See Van Gogh’s “Irises” and five Cézannes plus other unique works of decorative art in a swoopy, futuristic landmark building overlooking Los Angeles.
- California Missions– Follow much of the original Camino Realto visit one or all of the 21 missions on California’s historic Mission Trail, which extends from San Diego to Sonoma. Visitors should be aware that these are all generally still active Catholic parishes, so plan visits accordingly.
- Alcatraz Island– Get your tickets early; this isolated former Federal prison that housed Capone and the Birdman is very popular with Bay Area visitors. A cellhouse audio tour is included in the ticket price, and Park Ranger tours can include naturalistic aspects of the island.
- Griffith Observatory– The grounds, exhibits and telescopes are free and open to the public, and there are Public Star Parties roughly monthly with the LA Astronomical Society.
- Love Your Food– The modern movement to “eat local” can be credited to Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. Older kids might enjoy sampling the imaginative rotating menu (lunch in the more casual Café at Chez Panisse might be the best bet.) Another way to introduce great fresh food is to visit the San Francisco Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building Marketplace on Tuesday and Saturday, when local restaurants bring samples and California farmers are out in force.
- Joshua Tree National Park– A wild mix of rough, rocky terrain, desert and incredibly well-adapted plant life, this area has been occupied by humans for over 5,000 years (there are 501 archeological sites within the Park.)
- Butterflies – The migratory paths of the Monarch butterfly bring them to California from about mid-October through March. See them at state parks like Point Mugu, Leo Carillo, Malibu Lagoon State Beachand the town of Pacific Grove.
- Yosemite National Park– Waterfalls, soaring granite monoliths like El Capitan, lush Alpine views of Tuolumne Meadows and wilderness trails like the John Muir are some of the wonders of this justifiably famous park, established in 1890.
- Cable Car Museum & Cable Car Rides– A symbol of hilly San Francisco since 1873, the classic green clanging vehicles move when the driver “grips” onto the continuously-moving underground cable. It is can’t-miss transportation fun for kids.
- Tech Roots in Silicon Valley – At the Intel Museum , learn how those tiny silicon chips are made, or step through the past and future of technology at the Tech Museum of Innovation. While you’re at it, drive by 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto to see the original garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started the tech revolution (not open for public tours.)
- Death Valley & the Mojave Deserts – Three million acres of Death Valley National Park encompasses ghost towns, unique extreme desert ecosystems, a wide range of terrain and brilliant swaths of stars at night. This lowest point in the Western Hemisphere is probably best avoided in the heat of summer.
- Exploratorium– There are hundreds of interactive exhibits in this hands-on, experimental science museum in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts near the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Children’s Pool in La Jolla– Just north of San Diego, this pretty beach is partially protected by a seawall and is home to seals and sea lions for much of the year. For more insight into the flora and fauna around you, visit the nearby Birch Aquarium<at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
- Walt Disney Concert Hall– The twisty, curvy Frank Gehry-designed metallic home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic appeals to kids not only with its looks, but also the Saturday morning Toyota Symphonies for Youth
- Whale-watching(approximately December to March) – From either the San Diego Cabrillo National Monument or the Los Angeles city harbor, watch from shore or take a guided boat to see gray whales passing by on their migration from Alaska to the Baja Peninsula.
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