School is back in session, but the days are still long and sunny. With tourist season winding down, now is a great time to take a study break and enjoy a weekend family getaway.
Drive just a couple hours east from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park, where you can escape the city lights and hike, bike and climb your way around almost 800,000 acres of unique rock formations and plants – including the iconic, spiky Joshua trees that many remember from the cover of the U2 album of the same name. The park’s magnificent night skies open up to reveal the Milky Way and other starry wonders usually hidden by urban glare.
The park boasts nine campgrounds, most of which are available on a first-come, first-served basis (learn more about them and the park at www.nps.gov/jotr), or you can look for lodging in surrounding communities.
To make the most of your stay, stop by one of the four visitor centers for maps and information. Among the popular activities are Skull Rock and a 1.7-mile nature trail. An 18-mile motor tour with 16 scenic stops provides a leisurely way to see the park. Park rangers also offer guided tours, hikes and children’s story times.
During the park’s busy months, October through May, guided tours also take place at Keys Ranch, where homesteaders Bill and Frances Keys worked and raised their five children. The ranch house, school house, store and workshop still stand on this site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Park entry fee is $20 for a seven-day pass for one vehicle and passengers, or $10 per person on bicycle or on foot. Camping fees vary by campground.
If you’d rather head north, in the time it takes for the kids to watch a movie in the car, you can reach Rankin Ranch, a 31,000-acre working ranch in Caliente. You’ll be greeted by Rosie and Dixie, friendly mixed-breed dogs who live with the fourth, fifth and sixth generations of the Rankin family.
Guests stay in private cabins and share meals in the dining room. It doesn’t take long to feel at home and find your favorite horse to ride. More fun activities include haywagon rides, feeding farm animals and milking goats. Remember, you’re out in the country, so give your teens a heads up that the only free WiFi is from 3-5 p.m. daily.
Weekend rates including lodging, three meals daily, horseback rides and all ranch activities for a family of four start at $1,370.
By the Sea
Beach lovers, shopping divas and horse racing enthusiasts can find plenty of fun at Solana Beach, a hidden gem of a town near San Diego and close to the Del Mar racetrack. It’s a walkable 3½ square miles, making it easy to get from the shopping and arts district to the sand. It’s also fun to catch the sights on electric or regular bikes, which you can rent from San Diego Electric Bike Co. (101 S. Highway 101; 858-345-1030; www.sdebike.com).
Tide Beach Park, near the intersection of Solana Vista Drive and Pacific Avenue, is hidden by steep bluffs but accessible by staircase. The area is ideal for swimming, snorkeling and observing marine life.
Located near the racetrack and a mile from the beach, the recently renovated Winners Circle Resort (550 Via de la Valle; 858-755-6666; www.winnerscircleresort.com) offers kitchens and kitchenettes, a tennis club, pool table and game room. Rates start at $169 April to September and $139 October through March. L.A. Parent readers can use the discount code “SUMMER” to receive a 15-percent discount on any stay through Dec. 31, based on availability. (Available for online booking only, and cannot be combined with any other offer.)
Farther up the coast, you can ditch the car and bike your way around charming Balboa Island, an enclave of Newport Beach. Accessible via bridge and ferry, the island offers pier fishing, mom-and-pop specialty shops and a lovely beach for swimming.
Fuel your adventures with the Balboa Bar, a chocolate-dipped ice cream rolled in sweet or salty toppings. Dad’s Donut Shop and Bakery (318 Marine Ave.) and Sugar ’N Spice (310 Marine Ave.) both claim to have invented the yummy treat. Stay long enough, and you can have a family taste-off.
Once you’re full and have had your fill of fun, seek shelter at one of the many vacation rentals available on the island, which you can find through www.balboaisland.com/vacation-rentals, airbnb, tripadvisor and other online resources.
On your way back to the mainland, take the ferry to the Balboa Fun Zone (600 E. Bay Ave., Newport Beach) to enjoy the arcade games and Ferris wheel.
Away Up North
Even farther north, the laid-back seaside town of Morro Bay, not far from San Luis Obispo, is known for Morro Rock, majestically rising from the nearby ocean. But it also boasts boatloads of fresh seafood, whale watching (Central Coast Humpback Whales migrate May-October), kayaking, bay cruises and bicycling, much of which you can do at a discount via the Morro Bay Adventure Pass ($90 for two adults and two children, www.MorroBay.org/AdventurePass).
You can also visit the beaches, parks, tide pools and the 2,300-acre Morro Bay National Estuary free.
For camping and birding, check out Morro Strand State Beach and Morro Bay State Park, also home to the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History (20 State Park; 805-772-2694; www.ccspa.info/morrobay). Admission is $3 for adults and free for ages 16 and younger. The Morro Bay Mural Mile (download a map at www.morrobay.org/mural-mile-walking-tour), where 23 murals depict city history, sea life and natural beauty, is a nice walking tour of downtown and the waterfront.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the waterfront and embarcadero. Frankie and Lola’s Front Street Cafe (1154 Front St.; 805-771-9306; www.frankieandlolas.com) is popular for breakfast, while Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant (1245 Embarcadero; 805-772-8120; www.morrobaydockside.com) is a good option for lunch and dinner.
The budget-friendly Rockview Inn & Suites (1080 Market Ave.; 805-772-1259; www.rockviewinn.com) offers family-size suites, welcomes pets, and is walking distance from the waterfront and Morro Rock. Rates for a family of four start at $109.
If you don’t mind getting on a plane, a two-and-a-half-hour flight will bring you to the bustling port city of Seattle, with numerous kid-friendly attractions and a walkable downtown. A good place to start is the 74-acre Seattle Center (305 Harrison St.; 206- 684-7200; www.seattle.gov/TOUR/center.htm), home to the Pacific Science Center, EMP Museum (dedicated to pop culture), the Seattle Children’s Museum and the Space Needle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair.
The Seattle Center Monorail (also built for the World’s Fair) will take you to downtown and the iconic Pike Place Market (85 Pike Street; 206-682-7453; www.pikeplacemarket.org), one of the country’s oldest farmers markets. From there, it’s an easy jaunt to restaurants and boat tours at the Elliott Bay waterfront. The Seattle CityPass ($69 adults, $49 children, www.citypass.com/seattle) will save you money on many attractions.
Family-friendly hotels include The Westin Seattle (1900 5th Ave.; 206-728-1000; www.westinseattle.com) downtown, and the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Seattle Airport (18740 International Blvd.; 206-246-8600; www.doubletree.hilton.com).
So Worth a Stay
If you’re fond of roughing it, but are still nostalgic for your childhood camping days, consider staying at Autocamp, about three miles from the beach in Santa Barbara (2717 De La Vina St.; 888-405-7553; www.autocamp.com), where you’ll find five vintage Airstream trailers for couples or families.
The 1950s-era, 26-foot Airstream Overlander sleeps a family of four and has a dining nook perfect for playing cards and games. But don’t think your stay will have you stuck in the past. The renovated trailers feature new appliances, modern fixtures and upscale amenities such as quilted pillow-top mattresses and luxury linens. One unit even has a spa tub and integrated speaker system.
Each trailer comes with an outdoor barbecue grill and complimentary use of two retro-style beach cruiser bikes. Rates start at $150, and the trailers fill fast, so book early.
Another adventurous place to stay is the landmark Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (100 Madonna Road; 805-543-3000; www.madonnainn.com), which offers 110 whimsical themed rooms sure to delight kids. The Old Mill room features a thatched roof and stone façade, and a water wheel that propels miniature figures in and out of a miniature mill. A carousel horse takes center stage in the Pony room, and The Jungle Rock room features natural rock walls and a cascading waterfall shower.
The resort also has a hilltop pool with a 45-foot waterfall, lagoon, and onsite stables for guided trail rides. Rates start at $199.
However you choose to spend your weekend away, adventure awaits. And a little fall family fun could be just the ticket to slipping happily back into the work-and-school routine.
Mimi Slawoff is an L.A. mom of three who writes about travel and family fun.