370 posts
  • 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.

(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.

  • 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.)

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

Why: From the foggy bridge near the entrance to the weird mirrors inside, the Exploratorium combines essentials of science with the thrills of a carnival midway.

What: Many cities have museums aimed at kids, or museums aimed at science. But the Exploratorium, born in 1969 and moved to the Embarcadero in 2013, is in its own category. (As it should be, given the prices.) It's got more than 600 hands-on exhibits, along with artworks like Fujiko Nakaya's 150-foot-long Fog Bridge, which was de-activiated during the worst of the drought but is misting again now.  Beyond the wonders within, its Pier 15 location makes it a natural stop if you're strolling between Fisherman's Wharf and the Ferry Building, or if you've just stepped off a cruise ship at Pier 27.

Fun fact: The Exploratorium's founder, physicist, professor and cattle-rancher Frank Oppenheimer (who died in 1985), is the brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. 

  • Family-friendly
  • High Sierra
A long-exposure view of Half Dome from Glacier Point as stars appear.
A long-exposure view of Half Dome from Glacier Point as stars appear. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: From Glacier Point, you have unparalleled views of Half Dome (about 1,600 feet above) and Yosemite Valley (3,200 feet below).

What: Glacier Point, 7,214 feet above sea level and only accessible in warmer months, feels like the roof of the Earth. It's just under a mile from the parking lot to the cliff's edge.

(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Though there's often a crowd jostling for position when the light is right at the prime spots, there's plenty of room for picnics. If you bring dinner (and a few layers of clothes) you can watch the stars come out. If you want to dodge crowds and enjoy a less familiar view, head a mile south (on Glacier Point Road) to Washburn Point.

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

Why: Unplugged music has a happy history here. 

What: Founded in 1968 when psychedelic rock seemed to be taking over the world, "the Freight" has long stood for quality traditional music. Acts come from all corners of the world (Iraqi oud music, anyone?), but American folk (David Grisman on mandolin, Mark O'Connor on fiddle, Greg Brown on guitar and vocals, Tony Trischka on banjo, et al.) is the most common sound. The coffee house, relocated and greatly expanded from its original digs, stands three blocks west of the Berkeley campus. It operates as a nonprofit, offering blues and bluegrass jam sessions, workshops and one of the oldest open-mic nights in the Bay Area.

Where: 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, 375 miles northwest of downtown L.A.