Family Travel: Climb, Splash, Just Relax

Nature and kids belong together like peanut butter and jelly. What child can resist climbing on a low hanging tree branch or blowing the fuzzy seeds off a dandelion head?  

Last summer, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced he was considering closing nearly 50 of our beloved state parks in order to save more than $14 million for the state. Due to public outcry, none of the parks have closed, but many have suffered service cutbacks, such as fewer opening days, bathroom closures and trash pickup reduction. For park cutback info, check out

Happily, California is home to 278 glorious state parks and beaches that host more than 85 million visitors annually. We’ve picked a dozen family-friendly icons guaranteed to delight. If you’ve never camped or hiked or explored these gems, don’t delay. Enjoy them while we still have access. Log onto for info on all of California’s state parks. Click on to snag a campsite.

Within a One-hour Drive
CASTLE ROCK STATE PARK: The massive boulders with holes resemble prehistoric bowling balls. Moss, ferns and madrone spring up, almost playing hide-and-seek among the hills and valleys. On a clear day, you can see as far as Monterey.

Sequestered off Highway 9 on Skyline Blvd, Castle Rock is an idyllic Sunday outing. Trails narrow in some spots, so talk to the ranger to select the right path. Call 408-867-2952 for operating hours. After your trek, drive to downtown Saratoga and grab a coffee or smoothie at Blue Rock Shoot.

KIDS WILL LOVE: The mighty, rushing waterfall. The viewing platform, boasting astonishing views of the waterfall beneath, is perched on a slope. Be careful when you bring little ones. This is a popular rock climbing site, so you’ll have a good time observing climbers clinging onto precipices.

HALF MOON BAY STATE BEACH: This state beach covers four miles of shoreline and three beaches. It is best known as a clean, flat camping area and is an excellent site for newbie campers. Each site has its own picnic table and barbeque pit. Bathrooms and showers are centrally located. The beach is steps away. Restaurants and grocery stores are within a five-minute drive for hamburger runs. Camping fees are $50 per site for those situated about 100 feet from beach. Camping spaces further away cost $35 per night. Call 1-800-444-PARK (7275) or 650-726-8819.

KIDS WILL LOVE: The 4-mile paved bike coastal trail that winds through the park. The paved portion is stroller-friendly, too. Day use fee runs $10.
Within a Two-hour Drive
ANGEL ISLAND STATE PARK: Taking the ferry to Angel Island from Tiburon or San Francisco is part of the adventure. There are myriad activities, such as hiking, camping, bicycling and wading at the beach. The island provides an opportunity to talk to kids about immigration; Angel Island was the place where Chinese and some European immigrants were detained from 1910 to 1940. The U.S. Immigration Station is open for tours. Summer schedule: 3 tours a day, Wed.-- Sun. 11am., 12:30; 1:45; and 3:30pm. Fee is $7 adults and $5 children ages 5-11. Tours last 1 hour and 15 minutes. Details at 415-435-5390.

Plan on spending a day here. You can barbecue at the pits provided at the Ayala Cove or purchase food at the Cove Café. For more information, click on or If you bring your bike, it costs only $1 more for the ferry ride. You can also rent bikes at the café.

KIDS WILL LOVE: Oct. 9-10 is Fleet Week when the Blue Angels perform airplane stunts.

AÑO NUEVO STATE PARK: Taking pride as the world’s largest breeding ground for elephant seals, this San Mateo County park and beach offers exciting family adventure. Your main goal is to see these enormous critters, which are as long and heavy as mini- vans. Be sure to wear sunglasses and a hat, for the walking path is not shaded.

A wonderful visitor center sells books, stuffed marine animals and postcards. The center also features natural history exhibits. No pets allowed. You can visit on your own from April through Dec.14. From Dec. 15 through March, you must call to obtain tickets for guided seal walks. The tour lasts 2.5 hours. Bring bottled water for the moderately strenuous 3-mile hike. 650-726-8819.

KIDS WILL LOVE: The elephant seals. Docents are available at the viewing platforms to explain their habitat. Be sure to come before 3pm to obtain your $10 trail and parking permit. No visitors to see the seals are allowed after that.

JACK LONDON STATE HISTORIC PARK: This year, this jewel celebrates its 50th anniversary with a Jack London film screening on Sept 11. The 1,300-acre park in Sonoma is a memorial to the popular writer and the site of his former home. The forest setting is rife with tales from his life. In particular, the stone ruins of Wolf House, his dream home damaged by arson, makes the park fascinating. Another building called the House of Happy Walls is where his wife, Charmian, lived. His gravesite, ranch and personal cottage are also on the premises. Call for operating hours at 707-938-5216.

KIDS WILL LOVE: Roaming through the moss-covered ruins of the Wolf House. Other buildings, such as the winery ruin and barns, are still intact. Docents lead hikes through the homestead. Lush trails are abundant so kids can expend their energy.

POINT LOBOS STATE NATURAL RESERVE: Any visit to Carmel or Monterey must include a trip to Point Lobos. Variegated ocean hues change beneath blue or gray skies. Hiking is easy to moderate. Call 831-624-4909 to find out when the Whalers Cabin Museum is open. Ranger tours are also available. For group tours, call 831-625-1470.

KIDS WILL LOVE: The giant slabs of jagged rocks as large as stranded ocean liners on their sides.

Within a Three-hour Drive
COLUMBIA STATE HISTORIC PARK: The Gold Rush era is alive and well with shops and recreated businesses reminiscent of the 1800s. Based three miles north of Sonora, the park is a history teacher’s dream. Docents dress in period clothing as they explain life during the days of old. Call the park to ask about its Gold Rush Days, traditionally the second Saturday of each month. Weekend tours available at 11am. Phone: 209-588-9128.

KIDS WILL LOVE: Riding a stagecoach and panning for gold.

CALAVERAS BIG TREES STATE PARK: Home to the rare giant sequoias, Big Trees State Park, northeast of Stockton off Highway 4, is a monument to nature’s majesty. Venture inside the grove of the tallest trees in the world, measuring 250 to 300 feet tall. Most popular is the stunning and leisurely 1.5 mile walk through the North Grove.

Camping provides an opportunity to enjoy these giants in their glory. Get a fine glimpse of fall color as mountain dogwoods turn red, beginning in August. By October, the trees show off their brilliant coats of red, green, gold and yellow. Call the visitor center for operating hours at 209-795-3840.

KIDS WILL LOVE: Climbing on the stump of the Discovery Tree. They will be eager to buy a trinket from the well-stocked gift shop and visitor center filled with nature books and toys. Also, mark your calendars for the annual Family Day, Saturday, Aug. 21, where the park offers carriage rides, crafts and live reptiles. Dogs are welcome on leash in designated areas.

Within a Four-hour Drive
MONTAÑA DE ORO: Gargantuan waves testify to the power of the Pacific Ocean at this park in San Luis Obispo county. The walking path above the ocean is well maintained and flat with views of wildflowers, birds and coves. Call 805-528-0513 or 805-772-7434 for hours and guided tour information.

KIDS WILL LOVE: The pebbly beach known as Spooner’s Cove, filled with multicolored stones. A great spot for kite flying and picnicking.

POINT CABRILLO LIGHT STATION STATE HISTORIC PARK: Lighthouses are beacons to yesteryear, but this one in Mendocino County still operates. The original Fresnel lens flashes 24 hours a day. The acreage surrounding the lighthouse is a perfect running space for kids (under the careful watch of parents, of course). On site is a gift shop and tide pool aquarium free of charge. Note that there is a half-mile walk from the parking lot to the lighthouse. Lighthouse tours are available on Aug. 7 and Sept. 25. The fee is $10 per person; tours lasts 30 minutes. 707-937-6122 or

KIDS WILL LOVE: The museum with lighthouse artifacts. In the summer, visit the tidepools and go on nature walks. The restored Light Keeper’s House, complete with 1900s antiques, is available for rent with a minimum of two nights. How cool is that? Call 707-937-6124.

VAN DAMME STATE PARK: Located on the Mendocino coast, Van Damme State Park is an oasis of calm. Tiny wood bridges, meandering pathways, lush foliage and streams draw you into a hushed state. Parking is plentiful, but no trash service is available. There are picnic tables at the front entrance. Day use only with $8 fee per car. Call 707-937-5804 to find out about campfire programs and nature hikes. There are a string of state parks and beaches along Highway One in Mendocino, so you could cover several in a single day.  

KIDS WILL LOVE: The Fern Canyon trailhead walk, which is flat and easy. Kids will also enjoy wading in the ocean as the park links Van Damme beach. Kayak tours are available at the beach parking lot.

Over Four Hours, But Worth It
MCARTHUR-BURNEY FALLS MEMORIAL STATE PARK: This aquatic eye candy, located northeast of Redding, pours out 100 million gallons of water a day. Plant yourself for an afternoon or overnight. It’s common for local residents to come with their own folding chairs, sit in front of the falls and enjoy nature’s symphony. President Teddy Roosevelt once called the falls the “eighth wonder of the world.” Camping is permitted. Small wood cabins can be reserved. Call 530-335-2777 for hours of operation and
530-335-5713 for cabin queries.

KIDS WILL LOVE: Playing in the water on the small beach that fronts the falls. The 1.3 mile trail around the falls is an easy trek. On the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend, the park hosts a Heritage Day commemorating pioneer life during the late 19th century.

Kathy Chin Leong, editor of, is a fan of state parks and has visited at least 20 of these California treasures.

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