Things to Do With Kids in California

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California Boredom-Busters: Unexpected Family Attractions

If your search for a place to spend hard-earned vacation dollars and cherished time with the kids has you doing some California dreamin', you're moving in a good direction. The Golden State is a working mom's dream come true, for many reasons, not just because you can spend lazy days at the beach or chase excitement at theme parks. Lots of California attractions—whether enjoyed as road-trip stops or single-day adventures—are golden opportunities for kid-friendly fun.

Cool and Unusual

Pack a picnic and head for Marin County, where the Bay Area Discovery Museum (557 McReynolds Rd., Sausalito, CA) waits in the shadow of the Golden Gate. Kids ages 6 months to 10 years enjoy activities based on science, technology, engineering and math, staying occupied for hours while you enjoy one of the most naturally stunning museum settings anywhere. Highlights include:

  •  The Tot Spot, where babies and toddlers splash to their heart's content in a miniature stream, head indoors to clamber up miniature mountains, or dress up as their favorite animals and drift on waterbed-soft lily pads. 
  • Lookout Cove, a 2.5-acre outdoor playground where older kids splash in tide pools, explore a sea cave and hiking trails and play hardhats on a scaled-down replica of the under-construction Golden Gate Bridge.
  • The Fab Lab's Design Lab, introducing kids ages 5 through 10 to the 21st-century art of digital fabrication using laser and vinyl cutters and a 3-D printer.

Feel the (Gold) Rush

It's easy to mistake the Columbia State Historic Park (11255 Jackson St., Columbia, CA) for a Hollywood movie set. The residents of this restored Gold Rush boomtown recreate the 1850s with period costumes and 19th-century trades including horseshoeing and candle-making. The old-time bowling alley's uneven lanes and wooden balls challenge even expert bowlers. If you strike out there, try panning for gold at the park's Matelot Gulch Mining Company. Take a hair-raising ride in the Quartz Mountain Stage or—for a special treat—stop at Nelson's Columbia Candy Kitchen, where the goodies have been made from scratch for nearly 100 years.

Wings by the Water

If your visit to California falls sometime between October and February, pack up the kids and follow Highway 1 to Pismo Beach on the Central Coast. Your destination is a grove of eucalyptus trees just south of the city limits, where thousands of orange and black monarch butterflies come to roost. Look for them layered like shingles along the branches, warding off the cold and rain. Local volunteers, who staff the Docent Trailer between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., answer your questions about the butterflies. Follow your visit with a picnic at bluff-top Dinosaur Caves Park (2701 Price St., Pismo Beach CA). Preschoolers love the dino-themed playground, and the clifftop trail boasts spectacular coastline views. Both the butterfly grove and park are free.

Channel Nature

What would-be explorer wouldn't love a boat trip to a (nearly) deserted island, with the chance to race dolphins or spot whales along the way? Located about one hour offshore, Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park lets you experience California almost as it was before Balboa found the Pacific. Explore pristine tide pools and spot scrub jays and island foxes that live only in the park. Snorkel the giant kelp forests. Book a half-day round-trip through Island Packers Cruises (Ventura Harbor, 1691 Spinnaker Dr., Suite 105B, Ventura, CA). Before boarding, stop at the Ventura Harbor Channel Islands Visitors Center (1901 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura, CA) and pick up Junior Ranger booklets so the kids can record their discoveries. Dress in layers, including jackets, for the changeable weather.

You'll need to take:

  • Food for the day, stored in a lightweight cooler or backpack to protect it from scavenging wildlife
    * Water bottles to fill at the Scorpion Anchorage
    * Sunscreen and hats because shade is limited
    * Flat, rubber-soled closed-toe shoes suitable for hiking
    * Bags for hauling out your trash

Fossil Fueled

Remarkably out of place in the middle of the Los Angeles megalopolis are Hancock Park's La Brea Tar Pits (5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA). Fossilized remains of Ice Age animals and insects regularly bubble to their surface, covered in black goo that's sure to please any budding dino hunter. The La Brea Tar Pit Museum houses thousands of the fossils, from delicate dragonflies to a mighty—and fully reassembled—mastadon. Museum admission includes the Excavator Tour, a chance to watch museum staff as they piece together fossilized skeletons or work on a live fossil dig at the observation pit.