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29 fun family activities in Southern California

Family activites Photo by Jim Benning

School's out. The kids are bored, and you've already exhausted your usual list of activities. What can you do besides the obvious amusement parks? Here are 30 fresh ideas to inspire you to get out and explore with the family this summer.

Los Angeles County

1. Watch a classic film in a movie palace. Every June, the Los Angeles Conservancy hosts movie screenings at some of downtown L.A.'s most opulent theaters, including the Orpheum Theatre and Million Dollar Theatre. 213-623-2489.

2. Listen to mariachi music. El Mercadito Mariachi Restaurant, located in a three-story marketplace, is loud, festive, and thoroughly East L.A. Listen to the band while enjoying refreshing aguas frescas, made-from-scratch churros, and cheesy elote (Mexican street corn). 323-262-4507. 

3. Kayak the Los Angeles River. From June through September, the L.A. Conservation Corps and its Paddle the L.A. River program allows participants to kayak a 1.5-mile stretch of the bird-rich river near the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area in the San Fernando Valley.

4. Listen to a 2,600-pipe Wurlitzer organ. The 1925 wind-powered instrument accompanies silent films screened at El Segundo's Old Town Music Hall. 310-322-2592.

5. Swing in the trees. Soar 300 feet above the forest floor in the San Gabriel Mountains with Ziplines at Pacific Crest in Wrightwood (near Mountain High Resort). Along with the exhilarating zips, the tree canopy tours include hiking, rappelling, sky bridges, and on one course, a free fall from a platform. The longest zip, at 1,500 feet long, propels riders up to 50 mph. 760-705-1003.

6. Visit a quirky castle. One man's junk is another man's building materials. Rubel Castle, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in Glendora is constructed from bottles, bicycle parts, household items, and other used materials.

7. Experience life on a California rancho. Living-history characters from the 1840s through the 1940s stroll the grounds at Rancho Los Cerritos Historic Site in Long Beach. Free tours Wednesday-Sunday. 562-206-2040. 

8. Catch a ball game at Dodger Stadium. When it comes to ballparks, Chavez Ravine has always been architecturally distinguished—no other team has a full-time arborist. Opened in 1962, the stadium is the third-oldest facility in the majors.

9. See Mission Control. In addition to its annual open house, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge has weekly tours where space junkies can visit the control room that monitors interplanetary exploration. 818-354-9314.

10. Marvel at Watts Towers. Simon Rodia's masterpiece of 17 interconnected steel-and-mortar structures took 33 years to complete. The self-taught artist built it with simple hand tools, using a window washer's belt to hang from the towers as he worked. Guided tours of the outside fenced area are available free of charge. 213-847-4646. 

Orange County

11. Enjoy a shake and a sunset at Crystal Cove Shake Shack. This Pacific Coast Highway roadside landmark in Newport Beach overlooking Crystal Cove cottages and the ocean has been serving hungry beachgoers and road-trippers since the early 1940s. Parking is limited; expect a line. 949-464-0100. 

12. Get berry happy: Pick berries and watermelons at Tanaka Farms in Irvine. The kids will be charmed by Hello Kitty and other Sanrio characters.

Riverside County

13. Operate a real steam locomotive. The Southern California Railway Museum in Perris provides a day of instruction followed by the chance to climb into the cab and take the locomotive out on the track. 951-943-3020;

14. Watch a drive-in movie in a classic locale. The historic Van Buren Drive-In Theater in Riverside has presented alfresco movies since 1964. 951-688-2360;

15. Go bananas. Located in Mecca near the Salton Sea, the International Banana Museum has more than 20,000 banana-related items and eats, including banana sodas and banana splits. 619-840-1429.

San Bernadino County

16. Visit the site of the original McDonald's. The unofficial McDonald's museum located on Route 66 in San Bernardino provides a nostalgic peek at Golden Arches memorabilia. 909-885-6324.

17. Climb a rock. The Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School has day- and weekend-long classes that will have you hugging a boulder in no time amid the natural beauty of the national park. 760-366-4745.

18. Go off-roading on a wagon train trail. Stop at Calico Ghost Town for a 20-mile off-road tour that follows the 20-Mule Team Borax Wagon Train trail created in the 1800s. 

San Diego County

19. Pose for a photo on Potato Chip Rock. Be forewarned: Reaching the whimsical, Pringle-esque granite protrusion (pictured at top) near the top of Mount Woodson entails a challenging 7-mile round-trip hike from Lake Poway or a roughly 5-mile round-trip trek from State Route 67, followed by a scramble or leap onto the rock itself. On weekends, long lines can form. But, oh, the photo ops.

20. Swim with sharks. Seriously. Every summer, docile leopard sharks gather in the warm waters off La Jolla Shores, giving beachgoers the chance to swim, snorkel, or kayak among the creatures. Go on your own—the sharks tend to congregate near the Marine Room restaurant-or with a local kayaking or snorkeling outfitter.

21. Pick apples in Julian. This mountain community northeast of San Diego is dotted with apple orchards, and for a modest fee in late summer and early fall, you can pick a basket's worth of Granny Smith, Red Delicious, and other varieties. 760-765-1857. 

22. Time travel. At the annual Cabrillo Festival held in September, see the dramatic reenactment of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's landing in San Diego Bay in 1542. He was the first European to set foot on the present-day U.S. West Coast. 619-701-5107.

Santa Barbara County

23. Feed an ostrich. One hundred ostriches and emus roam freely at OstrichLand USA in Solvang. Ostrich feather dusters and fresh ostrich eggs are available for sale. 805-686-9696.

Ventura County

24. Savor Oxnard's famous strawberries. The state's largest strawberry producer has several ways to sample its juicy fruit, from U-pick farms to weekly farmers markets.

25. Kayak into sea caves. In Channel Islands National Park, take a guided paddle around Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. The underwater kelp forest will amaze you, too.  Channel Islands Adventure Company is the park's designated concessionaire. 805-884-9283.


Shooting rapids on the Kern River

Rafting on the Kern River | Photo by B. Christopher / Alamy Stock Photo

26. Shoot the rapids on the Kern River. Drive just 160 miles from L.A. and you can be paddling a raft through white water (pictured above) The Kern has rapids from mellow Class II to thrilling Class V. A guided trip is highly recommended.

27. Go on location. More than 400 movies were made in the Alabama Hills, from Gunga Din to Django Unchained. Pick up the Movie Road self-guided tour booklet ($2) from the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, which will lead you to 10 locations from seven Westerns.  The tour takes about two hours. 760-876-9909.

28. Visit a real-life Rudolph. Considered a rescue farm for rehab and retirement, Tehachapi's Windswept Ranch cares for reindeer as well as zebras, goats, sheep, and other animals. 661-809-3965.

29. Ride a dune buggy. Spanning more than 40 miles, the Imperial Sand Dunes are part of the largest dune system in California. Enter off State Highway 78 near Glamis (pass required) for prime off-roading terrain and camping. Be sure to read up on the guidelines in advance.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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