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It’s that time of year when half of American families make its pilgrimage to Disneyland. After days of standing in lines, tripping over strollers, and buying tickets in the three figures; anyone can use a day away from the parks. Here are five free, family-friendly day trips within a short drive of Disneyland.
Griffith Park Observatory
Don’t let the word “park” fool you. This is no neighborhood playground. Griffith Park is 3,000 acres of hiking trails, museums, theaters, a zoo, and enough features to take days to explore. The highlight of this northern L.A. park, is the Observatory (above).
From the Observatory, you can view the Hollywood sign, Santa Monica Mountains, and an amazing sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Inside is a museum, planetarium, and the Zeiss telescope (more people have viewed space through this telescope than any other). The grounds and building are free. There is a short film that requires a ticket purchase, but it’s totally worth it.
Check the schedule before you go; several nights during the week they put out telescopes on the lawn and show different star formations. One warning that comes with all L.A. sight-seeing—parking can be a bear. There’s very rarely parking in the actual parking lot, and you’ll have to park down the road a ways and walk in. Wear comfortable shoes and plan extra time.
Several iconic films have been shot here. Show the kids The Rocketeer for a family-friendly glimpse.
The “Old Zoo” in Griffith Park
You won’t find this one in any tourist brochure, but it’s a must-see. The zoo originally opened in 1912 and closed during the 60s. In its heyday, it hosted more than 2 million visitors annually; however, it was too small and inadequate to care for the animals properly.
When it closed, many of the cages and enclosures were left. Kids and adults can climb through the remnants and pretend to be locked in cages. Don’t let the graffiti fool you; when I was there families, photographers, and other adventurers climbed throughout. Also, don’t be afraid to push through the hole in the chain link fence, everyone does. The area now is home to a picnic area and several hiking trails.
Look for the Merry-Go-Round; it’s around the corner. To extend your trip, hike the nearby trail to Bee Rock. In the summer, the park hosts Shakespeare in the Park in front of the main enclosure.
Hike to the Hollywood Sign
If you want get up and personal to the Hollywood Sign, you’ll have to get out of your car and do some walking. Many trails in the park lead to the sign. Here’s a link to several options. The route I took (Hollyridge Trail) is closed as of this writing, but there are many other ways up.
Another fun, albeit longer, option is here. This takes you past the Bronson (Batman Caves). These caves were used in the original Batman TV series.
Malibu State Creek Park
We’re finally leaving Griffith Park to explore more of the northern coast. This park has a lot of fun options for day trip or camping, if you have the time. The land used to be owned by movie studios and was featured in TV shows such as MASH and a multitude of movies.
A few pieces of the MASH set remain, like this ambulance. A small museum, only opened a few hours each weekend, is housed in an old ranch house used in several movies. If the kids are too hot for much hiking, not far down the main trail is a beautiful swimming hole called Rock Pool.
There is a small fee to park in the parking lot. (However, and you didn’t hear this from me, if you’re on a budget and don’t mind adding a mile to the hike, there’s another option. You can park on Mulholland Highway and take the South Grassland Trail to where it joins up with the main trails).
If you have an extra hour, down the highway is Paramount Ranch, an old west town, used in many movies and shows. Anyone can wander through the town and some of the buildings (check current conditions as wildfires have taken out much of the area).
Leo Carrillo State Beach
You can’t go to SoCal and not spend a day on the beach, and every beach is definitely not equal. I’ll warn you this beach is a drive from Orange County but totally worth it if you have the day. What makes it worth the trip? First, there’s the drive down the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), then there’s lack of crowds once you hit Malibu, but best of all are the caves and tide pools.
When you first pull up to this park, you will be disappointed. Ignore those feelings and get out of the car. The beach, at first blush, looks like a tiny, rocky outlet. Go past the first life guard station, and that’s where it gets fun. At low tide, you can climb through several caves and over the rocks. Beyond that is a huge stretch of beautiful beach where sea lions come to nap. No playground can compete with nature’s wonders.
Once again parking costs money; however, if you get there early you can park along the PCH for free.
SoCal can be done on a budget and, after a few days at these places, the kids may not want to go back to Disneyland.
For an outdoor adventure without ever having to get outside, check out the Lost Gorge Mystery series!
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