Don’t miss the Junior Ranger programs at state and national parks.
The free handouts and activities available at California national parks and state parks give kids a fun, hands-on way to explore the park. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, for instance, the activity booklet lists different hot springs and volcanic rocks for kids to look for and check off. At Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve, meanwhile, a nature-oriented bingo card motivates kids to keep an eye out for lizards, meadowlarks, and beetles, as well as California’s state flower. Ask for any handouts at the park’s visitors center.
Plan a ski trip that moves at everyone’s pace.
California ski resorts offer a wide range of age-specific lessons and activities—some with kids’ clubs that last half or full days, so that everyone gets plenty of time to ski or board at their own skill level. At Squaw Valley, for instance, about 65 percent of the trails are suitable for beginner and intermediate skiers, and Sierra-at-Tahoe has an 11-acre learning terrain called Easy Street. Off-the-slope activities abound as well, like Mammoth’s beloved Woolly’s Tube Park, or the 30-foot climbing wall at Big Bear and Snow Summit’s Basecamp. Meanwhile, even if your kids’ spring break falls as late as April, you’ll still find plenty of California snow.
Take the kids to a nice dinner.
In California, cutting-edge restaurants are often not white-tablecloth-type places, and many even have good kids’ menus—like the tamales and quesadillas at L.A.’s acclaimed Border Grill, or the prix fixe kids’ menu at San Francisco’s Rintaro, which Bon Appétit named one of the best restaurants of 2015. When in doubt, call ahead and ask when making a reservation; most hotels keep lists of reputable babysitting services at the front desk, and can help you hire a great sitter to come to your hotel room.
Don’t assume that wine-tasting is off the table. Not all wineries and craft breweries welcome kids, but many do—offering games, play areas, and kids’ dining menus so that the family can enjoy a visit together. Check the individual wineries’ or breweries’ websites before you go to make sure kids will be welcome and happily occupied.
Fly-fishing, Lake Tahoe
Plenty of ponds near the Truckee River are stocked with rainbow trout—a fun way for kids to learn to fish. Get hooked up with an outfitter like Matt Heron Fly Fishing, which does a Creek Creatures class on these ponds, where kids get three hours of fly-fishing or spin fishing instruction, tips on fly tying and, as a crowd-pleasing bonus, an exploration of the aquatic bugs that thrive in this area.
Mountain biking, Mammoth Lakes
During summer, Mammoth Mountain sheds its ski persona and becomes a mountain-biking hotbed: Mammoth Bike Park covers 3,500 acres, with 80 miles of single track. Kids can take a group class where they’ll learn the finer points of balance, bike control, body positioning, and braking technique; if Mom or Dad wants to try too, they can book a parent-child package that includes bikes, helmets, a park pass, and an optional 2.5-hour lesson. Already have some skills? Then boost your game with a group lesson that includes technical trails, jumping, and cornering skills.
SCUBA diving, Monterey Bay Aquarium
It’s one thing to visit an aquarium and look at the marine creatures through the glass. But at the Underwater Explorers program, held during summers at the legendary aquarium, kids ages eight through 13 can get a first-time introduction to SCUBA in the aquarium’s Great Tide Pool, neighboring Monterey Bay. In a class of no more than 12, kids get use of a dry suit, regulator, air tank, and mask, as well as an introduction to basic SCUBA practices as they explore. Keep an eye out for the sea otters that frequent this part of the aquarium.
Stand-up paddleboarding, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara’s curving coastline offers a buffer against the northerly winds, making it a mellow place to learn the balancing-act sport of stand-up paddleboarding. Rent boards and paddles at Santa Barbara Harbor, or sign up for a lesson from a company like Channel Islands Outfitters, which offers two levels of no-experience-necessary lessons: one on extra-calm enclosed waters, and another on exposed waters with a chance of small swells—but no breaking waves.
Snowboarding, Bear Mountain
This resort in the San Bernardino Mountains is a great place for kids to learn snowboarding. In addition to the three age ranges for lessons (3-4, 5-7, and 8-12), the terrain parks run parallel to groomers, so that family members of different skill levels can stay together all day. During lessons, the first level focuses on the basics, while helping kids make turns and control their speed.
Rock climbing, Joshua Tree
For a kid who never saw a rock that she didn’t want to scramble over, Joshua Tree National Park is like a dream, with more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes. And a few outfitters offer lessons right in the park. In its one-day, small-group lesson, Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School covers knot tying, rope management, rappelling, and “belaying” (getting back down safely). From October through May, tour operator Cliffhanger Guides, based in the park, also does a family-friendly, five-hour group lesson that includes a picnic lunch.
Skateboarding, Orange County
Located in Orange County’s Lake Forest, Etnies Skate Park is the largest public skate park in California, and is known to be a favorite of pint-size skateboarding dynamo Bella Kenworthy. No suprise, it offers very kid-friendly classes: Just bring your own board, pads, and helmet, and you can learn how to balance, turn, and even do an ollie (a pop-up jump).
Surfing, San Diego
With its wide beach and easy access, La Jolla Shores makes a welcoming place for kids to try surfing. Surf school Surf Diva first launched here to offer surf lessons geared toward women, but has broadened to offer instruction for the whole family, welcoming kids as young as five and offering weeklong, sleepaway surf camps for teen girls. But private lessons, lasting one to three hours (and including use of both a board and wetsuit), are great for boys, girls, and all kinds of beginners who want to learn to stand up on the board, catch a wave or two, and gain some new confidence.