California for families

By Kyndra Campbell, Native Californian writer and professor.

Photography by RyanJLane/Getty Images.

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January 2018

From the white sandy breaks of the So Cal coast, to the fog-kissed Golden Gates of San Fran, California offers it all: outdoor adventure, educational exploration, and awe-inspiring recreation for the family, says writer and mother of two, Kyndra Campbell. 

Northern California

For budding adventurers: Angel Island State Park

The lowdown: Set sail on a Blue and Gold Ferry ride from either San Francisco or Oakland to embark on an adventure to the greatest natural island in the San Francisco Bay: Angel Island. You can explore the island’s history and beauty on foot or by bike – rentals are available from Angel Island Company Rentals. Once home to the Immigration Station, the West Coast centre for immigrants seeking U.S. Citizenship, Angel Island is rich with history – particularly the Chinese immigrant experience. After your historical tour, munch a picnic lunch and enjoy stunning views of San Francisco at the peak of Mt. Livermore, the end of the scenic North Ridge Trail.

In the know… The early bird gets the worm, and a full day on the Island. Catch an early ferry to have time to explore as a daytrip excursion. The first ferry ride departs Pier 41 at 09.45 and the last ferry of the day leaves Angel Island at 15.40.

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Get lost in a cloud of fog as high-pressure water from 800 nozzles surrounds you, or experience no sense of sight in the Tactile Dome – a series of rooms and mazes where you are only allowed to trust your sense of touch.

For inquisitive minds: The Exploratorium – the Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception

The lowdown: Located on Pier 15 with more than 650 hands-on rotating exhibits that invite children and adults to explore using all their senses,The Exploratorium ignites a curious mind. Travel across Fog Bridge and get lost in a cloud of fog as high-pressure water from 800 nozzles surrounds you, or experience no sense of sight in the Tactile Dome – a series of rooms and mazes where you are only allowed to trust your sense of touch.

In the know… There is so much to do here that it may be best to divide and conquer your museum visit over two days.

For young thrill seekers: bioluminescent kayaking in Tomales Bay 

The lowdown: Try kayaking in Tomales Bay – just a little over an hour north of San Francisco – by both the light of the moon and the light of bioluminescence – living organisms giving out light. After enjoying sunset, grab your paddle and explore the treasures of the bay after dark. Schools of fish, seals and micro-sea critters will light your way as you experience the beauty of the dark waters. Blue Waters Kayaking offers 4-hour private and scheduled tours.

In the know… The best viewing conditions on the bay are dependent on the weather and moon shape. Check the forecast and plan your trip accordingly.

  • Say hello to the protected wildlife of San Diego Zoo © Alamy.

    Bear necessities

    The San Diego Zoo has the largest koala colony and the most successful koala-breeding programme outside of Australia. £545 pp

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  • Glimpse into San Diego’s nautical past at the Maritime Museum.

    Aye aye captain 

    See what it would’ve been like to sail aboard Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s famous ship, San Salvador, with one of the museum’s four-hour long replica tours. £427 pp

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  • Immerse yourself in a world of interactivity at the Exploratorium, San Francisco.

    Kaleidoscopic nights

    Visit the Exploratorium on Thursday evenings from 18.00 for their ‘After Dark’ adult-only evening, featuring booze, beguiling exhibits and a bonus discount price. £570 pp

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Southern California 

For budding adventurers: Balboa Park

The lowdown: Balboa Park is a natural wonderland to children of all ages – big kids too. Climb aboard the historic 1910 carousel and try to take hold of the brass ring as it whizzes by your fingertips. Take family pictures with the beautiful Lily Pond – home to turtles, ducklings and koi fish. Picnic in the Japanese Friendship Garden under cherry blossoms and aside bonsai trees, and then end your day with a smile, as you’re entertained at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre where the magic and art of puppetry has been alive since 1935. Stay for: The soothing heated pool, which overlooks the harbour.

In the know… For more fun in Balboa Park, check out the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

For inquisitive minds: Maritime Museum of San Diego 

The lowdown: What child doesn’t fantasise about being a pirate sailing the open sea in search of treasure? At the Maritime Museum of San Diego imaginations can run wild as you board the world’s oldest operating ship, Star of India. Explore all the museum has to offer by visiting its rotating and permanent exhibits on the history of the US Navy, sea navigation, and commercial fishing, among others.

In the know… Book onto the water adventure – just don't forget your pirate’s hat and eye patch.

For young thrill seekers: Torrey Pines Gliderport 

The lowdown: Ask the locals and they’ll tell you that the only way to take in the sand and sea of the coastline is from the sky. At Torrey Pines Gliderport you can learn to paraglide, hang-glide or sailplane your way around So Cal. All ages may tandem fly – though younger children may enjoy their time as spectators as you jump and soar off the cliffs.

In the know… Cash payments yield discounts on flight costs.

  • Explore the cultural heart of San Diego at Balboa Park © Getty.

Best of the rest

For stars in the making: Universal Studios Hollywood 

The lowdown: Universal Studios Hollywood is the place to relive yours and their favourite movies by becoming part of the scenes and sets – all while experiencing family thrills and fun. Located in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, wrangle the whole family aboard the Flight of the Hippogriff coaster and soar down dips and around turns as you experience the magic of Harry Potter first-hand. Be entertained at the Special Effects Show as Hollywood stunt artists recreate memorable effects from some of the hottest films. Ready to burn off some energy with the kiddos and cool off from the Cali sun? Head over to the Super Silly Fun Land and get wet with more than 80 water features and games – all featuring your favourite Minion characters from Despicable Me.

In the know… Plan your day around the entertainment, as shows are only offered several times a day, whereas rides run all day long.

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For classic family fun: Santa Cruz 

The lowdown: A journey to California isn’t complete without digging your toes in the sand, smelling the salty air breeze off the Pacific Ocean, getting a sun-kissed glow on your cheeks – and plunging 21 metres down at 88kph on the classic 1924 wooden coaster, the Giant Dipper. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a California mainstay destination that combines the best of surf, sun and amusement. Indulge in a chocolate-dipped banana or house-made salt water taffy from Marini’s at the Beach as you flip-flop down the boardwalk and try your best at water balloon clown games, or catch the spray of cold water from the final drop of Logger’s Revenge. End your day by soaking up a golden sunset from atop the Sky Glider and stay late to enjoy the magical lights of all the rides and attractions.

In the know… Take a trip on the historical Roaring Camp Railroad steam train that departs from the Boardwalk and winds its way through the towering redwood tree forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains and along the serene San Lorenzo River Gorge.

Explore California by car