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368 posts
  • Family-friendly
  • North Coast
Paul and Babe at the Trees of Mystery, Klamath, Calif.
Paul and Babe at the Trees of Mystery, Klamath, Calif. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: He's a 49-foot-tall lumberjack, and he has a wisecrack ready for your kid.

What: Call him the kitsch king of Klamath or maybe, given his girth and ax, you should just call him Mr. Bunyan. About 36 miles shy of the Oregon border stands this Paul Bunyan, towering 49 feet, 2 inches above U.S. 101, flanked by Babe, his faithful blue ox.

Holler up a question during open hours and he'll give you a live answer, and maybe a wink and a wave, perhaps an account of his regular Friday night poker game with Bigfoot. (Ira Glass of "This American Life" interviewed him in 2013, with startling results.) 

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
  • L.A. County
  • Orange County
A gray whale fluke in Dana Point.
A gray whale fluke in Dana Point. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Why: The winter months mean whale sightings along the California coast, particularly grays but also featuring orca sightings. About 20,000 to 25,000 Pacific gray whales migrate every year. To the grays, the warm waters off Mexico are a giant nursery; they give birth there before returning north to Alaska to feed.

What: The winter gray-whale season starts just after Christmas, peaks in mid-January and runs through April. Sightseeing trips generally last three hours, and depart in mornings or afternoons. First-timers should dress in layers to ward off the chill, wear skid-resistant shoes and bring sunscreen, even on overcast winter days. Morning departures are generally gentler than in the afternoons, when the winds pick up.

Where: Piers and harbors across Southern California, including:

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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Above the Hollywood sign on Mt. Lee, Los Angeles.
Above the Hollywood sign on Mt. Lee, Los Angeles. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Why: For a brush with fame and maybe a view of DOOWYLLOH -- those familiar white capital letters from above and behind. 

What: Legions of tourists make the hike to the Hollywood sign on Mt. Lee (elevation 1,708 feet), but many of them make enemies in Beachwood Canyon, the neighborhood under the sign. Not you.

You might even make friends because you won’t stop in the middle of North Beachwood Drive to take photos. And you’ll park legally (which means doing this on a weekday or adding a quarter-mile to your hike) or you'll take a ride-share or a taxi to the starting point.

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: There's more than one way to cross America's favorite orange bridge.

What: First, rent a bicycle in San Francisco's North Beach or Fisherman's Wharf areas. (There are several rental outfits, including Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bike Rentals.) Then (following the directions the rental people give you) ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. It's 1.7 miles across the bridge, and there's no toll for cyclists or pedestrians.

Pause part way to look up at the 746-foot-tall towers and consider that military leaders once liked the idea of painting the bridge black and yellow. 

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Pacific Wheel, Santa Monica Pier.
Pacific Wheel, Santa Monica Pier. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Unless you charter a flight or build a better jetpack, you won't get this view of Santa Monica, the bay and city, any other way.

What: The Santa Monica Pier went up in 1909, was largely rebuilt in the 1980s, and added an amusement park, Pacific Park, in the 1990s. Basically, it's the payoff at the end of Route 66. Its high point, about 130 feet up, is the Pacific Wheel, a Ferris wheel that started spinning in 1996.

On your way to the wheel, notice the carousel, which you might remember from  the 1973 movie "The Sting." Once you're aloft, take a good look at those bright lights all around you. They were amped up in May 2016. This is billed as the world’s first and perhaps only solar-powered Ferris wheel. Kids taller than 42 inches can ride alone.  

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  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
Snacking flamingo, San Diego Zoo.
Snacking flamingo, San Diego Zoo. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because creatures are more interesting when gnashing their teeth near your fingers. And all the world’s creatures seem to be here.

What: For all its global fame, the San Diego Zoo boils down to about 3,700 animals on 100 acres, not unlike some colleges. And like some students, these creatures spend a lot of time asleep. Sadly, you can't order pizza for them. But you can plot your visit to see them eating, when they're livelier. You might even get to feed a critter yourself. On weekends, there’s an 11 a.m. sign-up in the Urban Jungle to feed giraffes (three biscuits for $15); and there’s a wolf-keeper presentation at 11:30 a.m. daily. Check the zoo’s online list of keeper talks and animal encounters list to see what’s up when. 

Or splurge on an added program. For $109 on top of the usual admission price, you can get in two hours early to see the pandas, which just might be chewing on bamboo. And the Animals in Action program (ages 5 and older) is pricey at an added $109 for an hour, but it usually gives visitors a chance to feed flamingos from a cup.

  • Family-friendly
  • Orange County
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because no amount of tech bells and whistles can beat the scissors-wielding women and men who can cut a full silhouette in the time it takes to ask, “How long is the line at Pirates of the Caribbean?”  

What: Yes, Disneyland has decades’ worth of newer, fancier attractions. So what? Sit your kid or yourself down in the Silhouette Studio on Main Street, hold still for 60 seconds or so, and walk away with a paper profile your family will keep for decades. Then do the rest. The original Disneyland (85 acres, opened in 1955). Downtown Disney (20 acres of shopping, dining and entertainment, opened in 2001). Disney's California Adventure (about 70 acres of rides, shows and such, opened in 2001).

Where: Disneyland, 1313 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim,  27 miles southeast of downtown L.A.

  • Family-friendly
  • North Coast
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Of the three remaining drive-through trees in California, this one is the most handsome.

What: For about 80 years, giddy Californians have been steering their vehicles through the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Underwood Park, the tourist epicenter of sleepy little Leggett.

But there’s no telling how long this opportunity will last. As John Stephenson, fourth-generation owner of the tree, pointed out, "It could fall over any minute, and we all go home."

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  • Family-friendly
  • Deserts
Badwater, Death Valley National Park
Badwater, Death Valley National Park (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because Death Valley National Park's low point is also a traveler's high point.

What: Death Valley's Badwater, a salt-encrusted old lake bed between forbidding mountains, is the lowest point in North America. It's especially vivid and perplexing just after sunset when there's a prominent moon -- because how can there be a moon in the sky, when you seem to be standing on its surface already? You'll be sorely tempted to pose for an album cover photo.

Also, be sure to hike a few hundred yards out onto the salty flats, so that you can look up at the east canyon wall for the white sign that's 282 feet above you. That's where sea level is.

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: Nothing says San Francisco more clearly than a cable car climbing a hill.

What: The cable cars of San Francisco cover three routes: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California Street. You want a Powell-Hyde ride, and you want to begin at the turnaround at Powell and Market streets, near Union Square (where there's often a queue, along with buskers and beggars).

Also, you want pole position, standing on a running board with a hand-hold on the pole at the right front of the car (unless, of course, you have the opportunity to give a bright-eyed kid that spot).