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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Welcome to the Los Angeles River, America's least likely recreational area. That L.A. has a navigable river at all surprises many folks. All they see are the empty concrete culverts poured decades ago to prevent mass flooding. But honestly, if someone blindfolded you and plopped you down here, you might think you're in Idaho.

What: There are stretches — a mile here, seven miles there — where the bottom is soft and the deep earth tones are a cinematographer's smeary dream. A wall of trees to your left. A wall of trees to your right. Dozens of species of chattering birds. Minnows doing button-hooks beneath a ribbon of urban drool. This water isn’t as pristine as it might look. It is sourced from storm drains and a treatment plant. Yet the water sparkles over rocks. Herons and hawks work the shorelines

It's the surprise of this setting — a tunnel of trees in the parched valley — that makes the unmasking of the L.A. River so alluring. It is also one more reminder, in this land of freeways and mini-malls, that nature and wildlife still manage not just to survive, but to thrive.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Orange County
Old Towne Orange
Old Towne Orange (Sara Lessley)

Why: Because the city of Orange's Old Towne Historic District is a funky yet family-oriented spot for strolling, dining and people-watching. The heart of the matter is the pedestrian-friendly traffic circle where Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street meet. Some people call it the Orange Circle, some call it Plaza Square

What: This neighborhood, which sits in the middle of Orange County, has sustained a vibrant conglomeration of quaint cafes and restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, and specialty and curio stores since the late 19th century. It doesn't hurt that within a few blocks, you'll find a working train station and the campus of Chapman University.

(Sara Lessley)

From the central fountain, you might head for breakfast at Blue Frog Bakery (136 S. Glassell St.), check out the vintage garden items at The Potting Shed by Carlisle (401 W. Chapman Ave.) or join up with an Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tour. Other temptations include Francoli Gourmet Italian restaurant and specialty store, Tiddlywink Toys and Haute Sweets Baking Co.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Why: If I told you there are about 17 hotels on one side of this single street 1.5 miles long, you might want to run the other way. But it works here, probably because the other side of the street is a low bluff over a charming central California coastline of cypress trees and rocky outcroppings. All these lodgings are smallish enough to call themselves inns (once upon a time, they were motels). And you can stroll to a few casual restaurants such as Sea Chest (no credit cards, no reservations) and Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill (no reservations) along the same stretch.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

What: Moonstone Beach Drive runs along the ocean side of Highway 1, and a pleasant boardwalk runs along the ocean side of Moonstone Beach Drive. Now and then, deer show up in the meadows. One lodging that's seen a lot of upgrading in the last year: Oceanpoint Ranch (previously known as the San Simeon Pines), with 61 rooms on 9 acres. But whether you sleep in the neighborhood or not, this is a great place for a walk, especially on foggy early morning.

Where: Moonstone Beach Drive, 8 miles south of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, 238 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro.
Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro. (Elisa Parhad)

Why: Where else in the world can you experience shoals of flopping fish on the shores of a moonlit beach? 

What: Every March through August, small silvery fish called grunions (Leuresthes tenuis) show up on the sandy shores of California’s southern beaches to spawn. These fascinating creatures have attracted and entranced Californians since long before Europeans reached these shores. For a two-hour period late on the nights after the highest tides, grunions ride in on waves and flop onto the sand en masse to deposit their eggs. If you're fishing or catching and releasing, that's your cue to reach in and grab the grunion with bare hands. But it may be thrill enough just to watch the tide of fish under the night sky. 

(Gary Florin / Cabrillo Marine Aquarium)

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro offers an introduction to the spectacle. The museum opens its door at 8 p.m. for two scheduled nights in June and two more in July to offer a “Meet the Grunion” program that includes guided observation of grunions on the beach.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
"Beauty and the Beast" premiere, March 2017
"Beauty and the Beast" premiere, March 2017 (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Why: As a rule, there's not much on Hollywood Boulevard that I'd recommend for a kid in elementary school. But this rule has one gleaming exception: Disney's exuberantly restored El Capitan Theatre, which is a great place to see a family film.

What: This venue, built in 1926, premiered "Citizen Kane" in 1941 and kicked off Hollywood's revival (still ongoing) with its reopening 50 years later. The outside is Spanish Colonial. The inside: East Indian Theatrical (by way of a San Francisco architect). The Disney studio often premieres new films here. Whether the show is a premiere or not, pre-show entertainment often includes performances on the venue's Mighty Wurlitzer organ, which rises from beneath the stage.

Back in the '20s, this venue began its life as a stage for live theater. In fact, it was one in a trio of boldly themed venues on the boulevard: El Capitan, Chinese and Egyptian. In 1941, El Capitan switched from live theater to movies.

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(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Los Angeles' downtown Biltmore, now known as the Millennium Biltmore, is a snazzy space on Pershing Square with a starry history and hints of noir.

What: The hotel, which dates to 1923, began life as the biggest American hotel west of Chicago and housed several Academy Awards ceremonies in the 1930s, 1940s and 1977. Nowadays it gets a lot of business travelers, who stride purposefully through rooms done up in a glitzy mix of Renaissance, baroque, neo-classical and Moorish styles.

The tale is told that this is where aspiring actress Elizabeth Short -- a.k.a. the Black Dahlia -- was last seen alive before her notorious unsolved murder in 1947.  And the hotel's Gallery Bar serves a Black Dahlia in her memory -- citrus vodka, Chambord and Kahlua. Inconveniently, some who have studied the case closely say there's no solid connection between Short and the bar. But the hotel has seen plenty of shooting, including many movies ("Chinatown"), perhaps the longest talking-while-walking shot ever on TV's "The West Wing," and the semi-dirty dancing in singer Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" video.

  • L.A. County
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: Since 1921, this quirky downtown restaurant has been a gathering place for L.A. power brokers and carnivores.

What: Most restaurants made out of replica train cars are diner-type joints. But the Pacific Dining Car aims higher. Steaks are a specialty, and the hefty prices are clearly aimed at the expense-account crowd. It's open around the clock, and it's been in its current location since 1923. Part of the harrowing cop film "Training Day" was shot here, and Michael Connelly has used the restaurant in his Harry Bosch detective books. Breakfast is a good time to catch power diners in the act. Lunch is a good time to order the Caesar Salad with Filet Mignon ($41.95).

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Where: 1310 W. 6th St., in downtown L.A., two miles west of City Hall. (There's a second location on Wilshire in Santa Monica, but 6th Street is the one with tenure.)

Add the Interstate 5 drive known as the Grapevine" to your California bucket list.
Add the Interstate 5 drive known as the Grapevine" to your California bucket list. (Christopher Reynolds)

Why: Sometimes it's beautiful, especially when it's spring and the Tehachapi mountain slopes are green and the wildflowers are going off. But even when it's boiling hot and the grass is brown, this portion of Interstate 5 is vital. It holds the state together, joining star-crazy, left-leaning Southern California and the farm-rich, right-leaning San Joaquin Valley.

What: Without Interstate 5 to bind them, SoCal (especially Los Angeles County) and the Central Valley (especially Kern County) might not even be speaking to each other. But this mountain passage is a necessary part of just about any north-south road trip in which speed is crucial. (If you can afford to dawdle, you're probably over on U.S. Route  101, if not the Pacific Coast Highway.)

It tops out at Tejon Pass, about 4,100 feet above sea level. When it snows up there, Caltrans sometimes shuts down the freeway. But even without snow, the driving is demanding. Of an estimated 70,000 vehicles roaring through daily, Caltrans says about 1 in 4 is a commercial truck. The mountain passage followed other routes before Caltrans built this alignment (and widened the route to as many as eight lanes) in 1970.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Valley
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

Why: California condors could be the poster vultures for how to turn around an endangered species. And the most reliable place to get a close-up view is by standing beneath Y-89 at the Guy L. Goodwin Education Center at Carrizo Plain National Monument. Where's that? In the outback grasslands and dried-out lake bed of eastern San Luis Obispo County.

What: The largest birds in North America, with wingspans up to 10 feet, these condors nearly slipped into oblivion around 1983, when just 22 birds were left in the wild. Scientists took a gamble by taking them into captivity and embarking on an ambitious breeding program. It paid off. Now more than 230 fly free in California, Arizona and Utah, and others remain in captivity. 

Y-89 was born at the Los Angeles Zoo, released into the wild in 1993 and died less than a year later when he collided with a power line. You can imagine how this behemoth must have dominated the skies when you walk beneath the outstretched wings and massively long feathers. 

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Everybody loves a county fair. And lately, this one is the best-attended fair in California, surpassing even the state fair in Sacramento. The nearby beach might be a factor.

What: The 2017 San Diego County Fair runs June 2  to July 4 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It's closed on Mondays, except for July 3; and closed on Tuesdays, except for June 27 and July 4.

In 2016, the fair drew 1.6 million visitors with its performers, competitions, exhibits, midway attractions, fried food, salted food, sugary food and other time-honored fair fare. (But don't expect a beauty contest. The fair abandoned that in 2004, 46 years after its 1958 "Fairest of the Fair" award went to high school senior Raquel Tejada, later known as Raquel Welch.)