Armed with a modern-day treasure map (of the iPhone variety), my 4-year-old son and I beelined through the park, following the in-app compass to our destination. Ding! “You’re getting close!” the app encouraged.
Our hearts were pounding as we arrived where X marked the spot. We frantically flipped over leaves, shuffled rocks and generally sleuthed around a bit, until … pay dirt!
My son popped open a small Tupperware container and eagerly assessed the treasures – in this case trinkets, figurines and even a buffalo nickel – left by other geocachers. He pocketed the nickel and left a miniature plastic pony in its place for the next treasure hunter. We wrote our names in the log and recorded our find in the app with great satisfaction.
Who knew a GPS-fueled treasure hunt with a 4-year-old could yield such outdoor fun?
Geocaching is catching on around the globe, from classrooms in the Los Angeles Unified School District to far-flung corners of the Earth. There are 2.8 million geocaches hidden around the world, nearly 5,000 of them in Los Angeles. Finding these hidden treasures is a fun, free, family activity that encourages exploration and can help you see L.A. in a whole new way.
How it works
“It’s fun, it gets us outdoors and it gets us trying new things,” says Silver Lake resident Ginny Pennekamp, mother of 5-year-old Finn. “The very best part is knowing a secret about that location forever. We’ll never drive by the Harley Davidson store without talking about the huge coffee can of treasure in their pipe, and we’ll never walk over the Shakespeare Bridge [in Franklin Hills] without checking that cache for new treasures.”
There are a few geocaching apps available, and we use Geocaching from Groundspeak Inc., which is affiliated with Geocaching.com. To get started, simply download the free app (there’s a subscription fee for the advanced version), create an account and click on “Map” to see caches hidden in your immediate area. You might be surprised how close to home you can discover hidden treasures. Listings include difficulty level, terrain and size of the container. There’s also generally a bit of background info about the location and an invaluable hint.
If you still can’t find the cache after reading the hint, peruse the comments and photos left by other geocachers for additional help.
In lieu of a smartphone, you can use a simple GPS device (a good option in patchy service areas). Search by city on Geocaching.com for listings with GPS coordinates. Filter the results for the easiest finds or look for the green icon, which indicates a beginner cache. It’s a good idea to check Geocaching.com to make sure a cache is still active—or simply look for recent activity in the app listing.
The rules are simple:
- Take a treasure, leave a treasure.
- Be discreet.
- Always place the cache back exactly where you found it.
Full disclosure for little ones with big expectations: Not all caches contain prizes. Some containers are simply too small to hold anything other than a tiny paper log (caches can be a film canister or even a faux wad of chewing gum), so take note if the cache is listed as “micro.” Bigger containers generally mean treasures. Think stickers, plastic bugs, party favor swag and piñata loot. (This is also a great way to get rid of your own surplus of such items.)
Finn has logged about a dozen caches. A pirate enthusiast, he’s a huge fan of the modern-day treasure hunt. “I like to hunt for them, count the numbers, find clues and try to get toys out of them,” he says. “And if they don’t have toys, then I can just sign my name. I like to read the tiny books inside.” Finn’s favorite treasure? A tiny flag with a hamburger on it.
Geocaching is more about exploration and outdoor fun – from your own back yard to an unknown corner of Los Angeles – than treasure. It’s also a great way to get kids off the couch and out into the world. “The best thing for us is on days when we need to go out but can’t think of anything to do,” says Pennekamp. “We pick a geocache, go after it and end up learning a lot about an entirely new neighborhood we’d never go to otherwise.”
Beyond the obvious fun factor, geocaching is also an immersive hands-on learning experience. Kids learn about navigation and develop their creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Geocaching has even found its way into the curriculum of many LAUSD schools. At the Wright Middle School STEAM Magnet in Westchester, the annual GeoFest has become an anticipated event for eighth graders.
Developed by eighth-grade math teacher Jessica Broussard and Jeff Nielsen, who is now assistant principal at Casimir Middle School in Torrance, the event aims to build bridges between school and family. Students map out their five favorite places on campus in a geocaching hunt for their parents or guardians to complete. The exercise introduces concepts such as the distance formula and Pythagorean theorem, and opens up dialogue with parents as students explain why they selected each particular spot.
“The big advantage of this project is that we pull from the students’ lives and interests to really answer the question: When will I ever use math? Why is this important?” says Broussard. “Listening to students talk about how it was the best day of school ever makes all the planning worth it. Students think they’re just having a great time running through a scavenger hunt, but teachers see collaboration, critical thinking, ingenuity, troubleshooting and responsibility.”
From wee hamburger flags to the Pythagorean theorem, the joys of geocaching run the gamut. Most importantly, it’s a lot of fun for the whole family. All you need to get started is a smartphone and a sense of adventure.
5 Fun Caches for Kids
Here are a few fun caches to get you started. The codes in parenthesis are the geocache numbers associated with each location on Geocaching.com and will help you locate each cache in the app.
- Travel Town (GCXJEP): Hidden in Griffith Park’s beloved free train museum, this cache will get you up close and personal with a dining car.
- The Daily Prophet (GC1EE7Q): Calling all Harry Potter fans: This one’s for you. Time it right and you can even get a bonus cache at this Burbank spot.
- Dinosaur Train Tyrannosaurus Cache – Jim Henson Co. (GC273QV): One of a series of Dinosaur Train-themed geocaches placed around the country by the Jim Henson Company.
- I <3 Biker Trash (GC2TVGQ): Gear up for a clever Glendale hide the kids will love, with plenty of treasures to choose from.
- That Black Gooey Smelly Stuff (GC23J41): Spend some time exploring the La Brea Tar Pits after finding this small, well-camouflaged cache.
Muggle: In Harry Potter, a muggle is a non-magical person. Here, it’s a non-geocacher. Always be discreet around muggles when geocaching.
Trackable: A tag that’s attached to an item, which you can track on geocaching.com as it’s moved from cache to cache.
Hitchhiker: The item or treasure that a trackable is attached to.
Travel Bug: A trackable with a specific mission set by its owner. Possible missions include “Visit every state,” or “Travel from coast to coast.”
Geocoin: A trackable akin to a travel bug. They’re often personalized and used as a geocaching calling card.
Melissa Gage has been a Los Angeles-based freelance writer for more than 15 years, and the mother of her son for four.