I was born on the east coast (Florida girl here) so when my parents moved to the west coast I had some reservations. California, seriously? It has nothing to offer but hippies and traffic. And while they do have a healthy amount of both hippies and traffic Southern California has quickly become one of our family’s favorite spots.
Where else can you surf, ski, and hike all in the same day? We’ve visited northern California a few times – a trip to Yosemite (AMAZING), a few days in San Fransico and we are planning a road trip up the coast in the near future. But typically we stay in Southern California and operate out of my parent’s house in Orange County. Because of this I really can’t help with hotel recommendations but here’s our must do’s when we are in town.
In & Out Burger. It’s as good as you’ve heard. If you want to feel like a local you can use google to help you order off their secret menu.
Laguna Beach. All of California’s beaches are absolutely beautiful, but in my opinion, Laguna takes the cake. The cliffside combined with the turquoise waters makes for a pretty picturesque view.
Our favorite spot is 1000 steps beach. Don’t worry there aren’t actually 1000 steps. I counted. There’s 250. The way down’s a breeze, its the way back up that gets me. Last time I went I had a baby on my back – I was pretty slow (but steady!) and had plenty of time to count each step. Parking is free on the street, but keep your eyes out or you might miss the entrance (intersection of 9th street & PCH), it’s hard to see if you don’t know what you are looking for. Once you get to the bottom of the steps, head left. There’s a cave at one end that is perfect for exploring during low tide and tons of tide pools to check out.
We also like Crystal Cove State Park in the Laguna beach area too, and will sometimes venture out to Huntington Beach as well. It is pretty touristy but its the only place I know where you can take a picture from the pier and have both the beach AND snow covered mountains in your pictures. How cool is that?
Theme Parks. I’m not sure we’ve had a trip to SoCal where we haven’t popped into Disneyland and California Adventure. Hey, what can I say – some of us are just born with a little pixie dust in our veins. We have also enjoyed a day spent at Universal Studios Hollywood but I wouldn’t recommend that for really little kids. Universal has pretty steep height requirements for their rides. If you want to make the drive down to San Diego there is also Seaworld and Legoland as options too.
Dana Point. This is a new discovery for us. We’ve only been here once, but I imagine we will be back. Make sure to check out the Ocean Institute. It’s a learning center, dedicated to educating the public on marine life. There’s a play area for toddlers and a little museum type room with exhibits to explore. They provide daily tours of their facilities where they introduce you to several different types of fish and marine animals. The best part is the hike down to the tide pools. There’s plenty of spots to see fish and crabs and we were lucky enough to see some seals, sea slugs, and dolphins during our time there. The Ocean Institute also provides a whale watching tour and the opportunity to board a ship commissioned in the 1700’s. We finished our afternoon with lunch at the harbor while we watched the boats sail in and out.
Angeles National Forest. I doubt “forest” is the first thought people have when thinking about SoCal. But the Angeles National Forest is 650,000 of forest land right in the backyard of one of it’s biggest metropolitan cities. There are 557 miles of hiking trails available for all experience levels. We did the Sturtevant Falls trail, which is a 3 mile in and out trail down to a pristine waterfall. I’m not going to lie, the drive to the trailhead had me slightly concerned with it’s steep and narrow roads.
Typically when we hike with the tots we let them walk and explore on their own until they get tired. Then we put them in our hiking packs. We love hiking with our kids and have found it to be a great way for them to learn and develop. I wrote a full blog post about the benefits of hiking as a family a while back – here’s the link. It also includes some tips for taking the littles out on the trails. This particular hike is uphill most of the way back to the car, and it ended in a lot of tears for my 8-year-old. But we can do hard things and I think if we asked him, he’d do it again.
Orange County Zoo. I don’t want to lead you astray here – this is nothing fancy, in fact, it is quite the opposite. If I had been included in the naming, I wouldn’t have used the word “zoo.” I’d call it an animal park. There are about 15 or 20 different animals for you to see, most native to Orange County. The part we enjoy is that all of the animals are up close and the staff provides many hands-on opportunities to learn, including a petting zoo and feeding opportunities. Major bonus: it’s only $2.00 to get in. The OC Zoo is located in Irvine Regional Park which also has hiking trails, paddle boats, picnic spots, and a working railway that will take you through the park too.
Newport Beach & Balboa Island. Here is the place for all things water. The thing to do in Newport is to rent an electric boat called a Duffy boat. You can bring on food and drinks and enjoy an afternoon of cruising. I would recommend bringing a scavenger hunt on board for the little ones to keep them engaged.
Another popular activity is to rent bikes and ride along the beach. They have bike rentals for all ages including the popular Surrey bike that can fit the whole family. Friendly tip: sit in the back, then no one knows if you are pedaling or not! They also have tandem bikes, tag-a-long bikes, and electric bikes for rent if you want to try something new.
We took a whale watching cruise out of Newport a few years back and it was a lot of fun. We went off season and didn’t end up seeing any whales but we did see a few dolphins and enjoyed the sunshine. I think it gets cold on the water, so I’d bring a light jacket if you do head out into open water. My brother and his fiancé just recently tried a Segway tour. No matter your interests, there really is so much to do (and eat!) at Newport.
Joshua Tree: Two distinct deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. The strong winds and occasional torrents of rain have created fascinating land sculptures to explore.
Channel Islands National Park: There are eight islands that lie off the coast of Southern California. Five of the islands are uninhabited, preserved for the public to enjoy as part of the Channel Islands National Park. There are several sea caves and a kelp forest in the waters around the islands that offer a great opportunity for snorkeling and scuba diving.
What doesn’t make the cut: Hollywood. I’ve done it and don’t see the need to do it again. The famous Hollywood Blvd is actually really dirty – in all senses of the word. It’s not clean, and there are a lot of creepy people walking the strip. The Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is a fun photo op, but parking and traffic make it a real challenge. If you do want a picture with the iconic Hollywood sign, make the drive to Griffith Park Observatory and hike the trail. If you want to get a closer picture and have the time, drive up to the Hollywood Reservoir on Canyon Lake Dr.
No matter where you choose to spend your time in Southern California there are two things you always always always have to watch. First is the traffic. Whatever you do, you better be off the highways be 3pm or you are going to get stuck. There is almost always traffic, but rush hour will literally add hours to your commute. Take advantage of the carpool lane if you can. The second thing to be aware of is the weather. The days start off chilly, typically get hot, and then end chilly again. Always have a jacket you can access as the sun goes down.
Any other California peeps out there? What’s a must do for our next trip?