Cathedral Rock at Sedona

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Cathedral rock (photo credit: Geno Pawlak)

If you’re looking for an active family getaway that will recharge and renew your spirits, look no further than Sedona, Arizona. This spectacular destination offers the majesty of a national park, with all the conveniences of city life. Recognized by Good Morning America as one of the “10 Most Beautiful Places in America”, Sedona is surrounded by breathtaking red sandstone formations, unparalleled natural beauty, and, many visitors claim, the positive energy of uplifting vortexes. There is little doubt that Sedona offers peace and serenity to those who embrace it—along with a multitude of opportunities to explore the impressive natural surroundings.

General Information
Sedona—a four-seasons getaway—is about 460 miles from San Diego. A range of fun, outdoor adventures await your family’s arrival, including hiking, rock climbing and bouldering, mountain biking, horseback riding, and off-road scenic jeep tours. There is also excellent dining, shopping, galleries and museums.

If you enjoy lively surroundings, consider staying in—or strolling through—Sedona’s Uptown district. Filled with shops, boutiques and restaurants, the area is also packed with wellness centers offering metaphysical experiences such as aura photos and psychic readings. Uptown is also a good starting point for guided tours, which include everything from off-road wildlife jeep tours to meditative yoga trail outings.

Kids and sweets enthusiasts might want to try homemade ice cream, such as local flavor Prickly Pear, from Black Cow Café. Or, nearby Sabrina’s Gourmet Ice Cream offers outstanding views from their back patio.

For a more off-the-beaten-path vibe (with amenities), book a room at low-key Sky Ranch Lodge, located on the Airport Mesa. The relaxing grounds include gardens, a wine bar, pool/hot tub, sunset views and easy access to hiking trails. In the evening, take a short walk over to the airport’s Mesa Grill. Kids love the restaurant’s close proximity to the runway.

There is no shortage of restaurants in Sedona—you’ll find everything from standard food court fare to high-end dining. For breakfast, fuel up at Nick’s West, then pack sandwiches for the day’s expeditions. Grocery options include Safeway, Whole Foods and other natural markets. Or, if you are heading north of town, stop at Indian Gardens Café & Market for lunch; the outdoor patio is charming. Foodies will appreciate dinner at Elote Café (arrive early for first seating) or Cucina Rustica (make reservations); the whole family will enjoy pizza at Picazzo’s or burgers at Oak Creek Brewery.

For more information on lodging, dining and activities, visit and

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Bell Rock (photo credit: Lisa Pawlak)

Hiking Sedona
The Sedona area offers hundreds of hiking trails for all levels. Don’t miss exploring the area’s impressive red rock formations on foot. Many of the area’s attractions maintain multiple trails up, down, around or along rock formations. For example, energetic family members can attempt a steep climb up to the saddle points of Cathedral Rock (1.5 miles), while others—especially those with younger kids—might be happier on the Easy Breezy trail that meanders below.

Bell Rock offers a fun, moderate hike (3.6 mile loop), circling Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. Along the way, rock climbers and scramblers can ascend smaller structures or the face of Bell Rock, which requires varying degrees of difficulty depending on the route.

Other popular hikes include the Airport Loop (3.3 miles, easy/moderate), Broken Arrow (3.4 miles, easy), Devil’s Bridge (4.4 miles, moderate), Fay Canyon (2.3 miles, easy) and Soldier Pass (4.2 miles, moderate) trails.

Many trail parking areas require a Red Rock Pass, which can be obtained onsite at parking lot vending machines, or in advance from a number of local businesses. Head out early as parking fills up.

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Courthouse Butte (photo credit: Lisa Pawlak)

Other Activities
The Red Rock Scenic Byway, south of town, is a 7-mile scenic drive and gateway to the area’s most popular attractions. North of town, Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive is 14 miles and offers red rock, oak tree, and creek views. This area is particularly picturesque in the fall when the leaves change colors. During warmer months, nearby Slide Rock State Park offers swimming and a natural water slide. Oak Creek is stocked with rainbow trout for fishing enthusiasts.

Rent or bring bikes to explore mountain biking trails. Or get to know the area on horseback (tours available).

Finally, be sure to venture outside at night and look up. With clear skies the majority of the year, crystalline stargazing will leave the whole family dazzle-eyed and dreamy.

Lisa Pawlak is an award-winning freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast.

Published March 2018


learning to snowboard

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photo credit- Big Bear Mountain Resort

Ready to play in the snow? The whole family can enjoy a snowy, active vacation with adventures like skiing, snowboarding, sledding, snow tubing, ice skating, snow people building, bobsledding, snowshoeing, winter ziplining, snow ball fights and more. So, pack up the car and head to the mountains for some good old-fashioned, frosty fun! Here are six winter destinations—all within a day’s drive of San Diego.

Big Bear Region
Nestled within the San Bernardino Mountains and accessible for a day trip or weekend getaway, this popular area hosts a range of family-friendly activities.

Big Bear Mountain Resort includes sister ski areas Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. Bear Mountain is home to Southern California’s largest learning area, with the highest acreage of beginner terrain and a Skill Builder Park, which contains safer, smaller versions of the mountain’s famous freestyle features that attract professional skiers and boarders.

Recent renovations feature two new Magic Carpets—a conveyer-belt style ski lift (at the level of the snow) that safely transports learners to the top of beginning ski runs. Nearby Snow Summit also offers night skiing and a tube park. Both have upgraded base area facilities, including new locker rooms.

Additional winter fun includes Big Bear Snow Play’s evening glow tubing sessions, and Alpine Slide’s authentic bobsliding experiences. You’ll also find snowshoeing, zipline, off-road Jeep tours and the Big Bear Alpine Zoo. Average annual snowfall is 100 inches.

About 20-30 minutes southwest of Big Bear Lake, Snow Valley also has skiing and snowboarding, along with a snow play area and downhill sledding.

Learn more about Big Bear:

Brian Head Resort, Utah
A doable 8-9 hour drive from San Diego, Utah’s highest ski resort boasts a base elevation of 9,600 feet and an average snowfall of 360 inches.
Offering terrain for all ability levels, Brian Head has two connected mountains: Navajo Peak for beginner/intermediate, and Brian Head Peak for a mix of intermediate and advanced runs. The resort is generally priced lower than many California ski areas, particularly in late season.

Other activities include snow tubing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and more; adults might also enjoy the full service day spa at Cedar Breaks Lodge & Spa. Learn more at

Nearby Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks are gorgeous after a dusting of snow. Read my articles about family travel to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks at

Lake Tahoe Area
With its crystalline lake waters surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of ski resorts in the world, Tahoe is a true mélange of majestic scenery and never-ending adventure. Drivable in a day, the area is also served by Reno-Tahoe airport.

The region has 15 downhill ski areas, an average annual snowfall of 400 inches, over 300 days of sunshine, and more than 22,000 acres of world-class skiing and snowboarding.

Resorts include Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows’ rare mountain-top beginners area; Northstar’s high-end luxury accommodations; Heavenly’s unparalleled scenic views and après-ski scene; and Kirkwood’s off-the-beaten-path, small town atmosphere.

A full range of winter activities awaits, including ice skating, sleigh-rides, dog sled tours, cross country skiing, gondola rides, snowshoeing, and an abundance of sledding hills and tubing parks. There’s also excellent nightlife, dining and entertainment. There’s even “snow-ga”—yoga specially designed for pre-slope stretching and post-ski recovery. Visit and

Mammoth and June Mountains
One of California’s premier winter sports recreational resorts, Mammoth Mountain, is located in the eastern Sierras, approximately 400 miles from San Diego, and served by Mammoth-Yosemite airport.

Mammoth Mountain is best known for world-class skiing and snowboarding, with California’s highest ski summit of 11,053 ft., over 400 inches of average annual snowfall, and clear blue skies 300+ days each year. Several base lodge areas serve the expansive ski area.

The town of Mammoth Lakes offers snow play areas, electric tubing, scenic gondola rides, high-speed snowmobile tours, ice skating, luxury snowcat tours, dog sled rides and more. Perhaps time your trip to include a guided full-moon snowshoe or cross-country tour.

Nearby June Mountain, about 30-minutes from Mammoth, is smaller and less crowded, with an average snowfall of 250 inches. Kids 12 and under ski/ride free.

Learn more about Mammoth:

San Gabriel Mountains
Several ski areas are easily accessible for day trips, just east of Los Angeles. The largest resort, Mountain High, is divided into West, East and North resorts. The North Resort has family-friendly, beginner terrain and is home to the North Pole Tubing Park. Kids 6 and under ski free with a paying adult; visitors receive a free lift or tubing ticket on their birthday with valid photo I.D. Visit for more information.

Mount Baldy has several vintage-style chair lifts and a tube park. Nearby Mount Waterman ski area and Buckhorn Ski/Snowboard Club are quite small, but cozy.

Yosemite National Park
The beauty and serenity of snow-covered Yosemite will remain with you for a lifetime. Beyond that, this winter paradise is home to a large range of snow-filled activities, including Yosemite (formerly Badger Pass) Ski & Snowboard Area’s ski lifts, 300 inches of annual snowfall, snow tubing/sledding areas and cross-country skiing. Ranger-led snowshoe walks are offered December through March, conditions permitting; and an outdoor ice skating rink operates seasonally in Yosemite Valley. Find more information at


Lisa Pawlak is an award-winning freelance writer and winter sports enthusiast.

Published January 2018

Big Bear

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Photo credit-Lisa Pawlak

Are you dreaming of a white, winter getaway? This season’s snowfall might be off to a slow start, but don’t let that stop your family from heading to the mountains for a fun-filled winter vacation at Big Bear. Winter activities include skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing and sledding, ice-skating, bobsledding, snowshoeing, zip-lining, snow play and more! Read on to learn all about this family-friendly, frosty destination.

Skiing and Snowboarding
Big Bear Mountain Resort  includes sister ski areas Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, conveniently located right in town. You can even ski both in a single day, since a free base shuttle operates between the two resorts and lift passes are exchangeable. Don’t worry about lack of winter storms because snow machines are busy pumping out the fluffy white stuff. Southern California resorts generally rely heavily on artificial snow to operate.

For beginners, Bear Mountain is a great place to start. It is home to the region’s largest learning area, with the highest acreage of beginner terrain and a Skill Builder Park, which contains safer, smaller versions of the mountain’s famous freestyle features that attract professional skiers and boarders. Recent renovations feature two new Magic Carpets – a simple conveyer-belt style ski lift (placed at snow level) to safely transport learners to the top of beginning ski runs.

Both ski areas have undergone significant renovations to base lodge facilities, streamlining the equipment rental process and introducing new, family-style locker rooms. Snow Summit offers night skiing, snow tubing, and the Adventure Academy – a one-stop-shop learning center for all kids’ rentals, tickets and lessons.

About 20 minutes southwest of Big Bear Lake, Snow Valley Mountain Resort  is open for skiing, snowboarding and snow play.

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Photo credit-Geno Pawlak

Snow Tubing and Sledding
If you’re looking for high-speed thrills that require less money, skill and gear than the big slopes, consider snow tubing or sledding. Note: evening sessions are generally less crowded.

Options include Big Bear Snow Play’s daytime or evening sessions, which claim the longest runs and offer glow-tubing after dark, Alpine Slide’s authentic bobsledding (daytime only) and snow tubing experiences, and Snow Summit’s Grizzly Ridge Tube Park . All three are served by Magic Carpets, so you can save your energy for downhill fun. Nearby Snow Valley’s snow play area offers a scenic chairlift to access downhill sledding.

Other Winter Activities
For some high-flying fun, try a winter zipline tour with Action Zipline Tours. Transportation via shuttle vans and off-road safari jeeps is provided to the 9-zipline course, which also includes an adrenaline-pumping suspension bridge crossing, all located deep within the forest. The friendly guides create a fun, safe experience that will leave your family thirsting for more adventures. Afterwards, you might even splurge on the photo package.

Off-road Jeep tours are offered year-round, weather dependent. You’ll also find snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice skating. Kids love the Big Bear Alpine Zoo, which features over 60 Alpine animals, including grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, snow leopards, eagles, owls and foxes.

The Big Bear Discovery Center offers a wealth of free and low-cost family activities throughout the year, such as nature walks and crafts, snowshoe eco-tours, bald eagle counts and celebrations, and Winter Trails Day – a good opportunity to try snowshoeing and other winter sports.

During inclement weather, head over for some indoor fun at The Bowling Barn, which has gutter bumpers for kids and arcade games, or to Big Bear Funplex’s laser tag, black-light mini golf, and ice skating.

General Information + Where to Eat
Big Bear Lake is tucked away in the San Bernadino mountains at an elevation of 6,750 ft., with the surrounding ski slopes rising to 8,805 ft., so be sure to take altitude sickness prevention measures such as drinking plenty of water. For the drive, which is about three hours, you may need to rent or bring tire chains. Check road conditions here.

The area’s accommodations range from high-end resorts and vacation condos, to rustic private cabins and budget motels. Many families find it helpful to reserve a place with a kitchen; groceries are readily available.

There are also excellent restaurants -- don’t miss Grizzly Manor Café for breakfast, where the pancakes are bigger than the plates. Two adults can easily share a breakfast entree. If there’s an outdoor wait, ask for a cup of coffee to keep you warm. For dinner, head over to Big Bear Village, which is a festive area of restaurants and shops. There, Saucy Mama’s Pizzeria is a favorite – but if it’s too busy, try Fire Rock Burgers & Brews just around the corner. Just be sure to save room for their dessert options, which include ooey-gooey, fresh skillet-baked chocolate chip cookies a la mode, and a variety of ice cream floats.

Fun village shopping sites include The Toy Galley, North Pole Fudge and Ice Cream Co., and Bear Essentials gift shop. You’ll also find horse-drawn carriage rides and the Big Bear Visitors Center. To entertain the whole family during this excursion, play smart-phone based local scavenger hunts, or try a geo-caching adventure.

More information on where to stay, places to eat, and things to do in Big Bear can be found at

Lisa Pawlak is a contributing writer, Encinitas resident and outdoor enthusiast.

Published February 2018

snow mobiles

Snowmobiles race down the slopes of Mammoth.

Take the kids to “shred some pow” at Mammoth Mountain, one of California’s premier winter sports recreational resorts. Families wanting a fun, wintery escape will fulfill mammoth-sized dreams at this snowy paradise. From skiing, snowboarding and snow play to tubing, scenic gondola rides and snowmobile tours, the entire family will create lasting memories.

While Mammoth is best known for world-class skiing and snowboarding, the town offers a full range of activities, both on and off the slopes. “We have a very laid back vibe,” says Lara Kaylor, of Mammoth Lakes Tourism. “We also have the best snow and longest ski season of all the California resorts.”

When and Where
Mammoth is located in the eastern Sierras, approximately 400 miles from San Diego. The winter sports season extends from November through June and boasts a summit of 11,053 feet, an average of 400 inches of annual snowfall, and clear blue skies for more than 300 days each year.

Mammoth is a relatively straightforward drive from San Diego, though chains are required at times. If you prefer to fly, Alaska Air operates a direct flight from San Diego to Mammoth Yosemite Airport. Once in the town of Mammoth Lakes, a free shuttle service is available.

Peak times include Christmas through New Year’s and winter holiday weekends. A great time to go is mid-week in January when there are fewer crowds, lots of snow and good deals. Mammoth’s nearby sister resort, June Mountain, is generally quieter and offers free lift passes to kids 12 and under.

Because Mammoth’s base elevation is over 9,000 feet, individuals sensitive to altitude related illness should take appropriate precautions.

Where to Stay and Eat
There are many lodging options from which to choose: from luxury slope-side and ski-in cabins to the charming Village or budget-friendly motels in Old Mammoth, just a short drive away. Many include amenities such as kitchen and laundry facilities.

Resort lift and lodging packages can be booked at A multitude of property management companies book condos both slope-side and town-wide.

In Old Mammoth, Sierra Nevada Resort and Spa is a family-friendly lodging option. Located next to a shuttle stop, it also offers mini golf and a free “Cub Club”, ideal for parents wanting a night out. Nearby Motel 6 and Best Western are among the town’s budget-priced options.

For a festive experience, stay in or stroll through Mammoth’s Village. It is filled with cute shops, outdoor fire pits, tasty restaurants and fun events such as Woolly’s Weekend Winter Parade on seasonal Saturday afternoons. To start each ski day, take a gondola directly from the Village up to the Canyon base lodge. After skiing, try Gomez Restaurant’s welcoming ambiance, kids’ menu, sandbox, and mammoth-sized margaritas. Then visit kid-pleaser Ben & Jerry’s or Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

On the slopes, McCoy Station is a fun stop for a cafeteria-style lunch, complete with stunning mountain views. Or pack sandwiches and eat on The Outpost’s patio on the backside of the mountain.

HOT TIP! There’s a Vons in town, but the store’s long lines are infamous. Consider bringing groceries up from San Diego. If you forget something, try Sierra Sundance Whole Foods Market.

Skiers getting ready to hit the slopes.

Skiing and Snowboarding
The mountain’s skiing and snowboarding terrain includes a 3,100 ft. vertical rise, 3,500 acres, 28 lifts and 150 named trails. It is rated 25 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 20 percent advanced and 15 percent expert.

Mammoth’s Ski and Snowboard School offers group and private lessons. Beginner youth packages include instruction, gear rentals and lunch. Arrive at the slopes early to coordinate rentals, tickets and lessons. Lift passes can be purchased and recharged online, so hold onto them for future visits. Kids 4 and under ski/board for free.

Consider exploring more than 19 miles of groomed trails at the Tamarack Cross Country ski area. Rent Nordic skis or snowshoes, take a guided tour and experience the serenity of the surrounding natural world.

Sunset at Mammoth mountain resort.

More Fun Family Activities
Kids love Woolly’s Tube Park & Snow Play area, where they can take a lift to the top of six groomed, high-speed tubing runs. Younger ones have a blast building a snowman or riding the snowy “merry-go-round.” Nighttime electric tubing (tubing under lights, with music and glow party favors) is available on select dates.

Everyone can ride safely to and from Mammoth’s panoramic summit in an enclosed gondola from Main Lodge. Once there, enjoy a scenic lunch, visit the interactive exhibits of the interpretive center and pose for a family photo by the summit sign.

Tour Mammoth’s backcountry—a luxury snowcat vehicle accommodates 12–14 people and includes culinary delights. Or, try a high speed, thrilling snowmobile adventure through trails, meadows and forests. Young animal lovers and their families can join a “musher” and team of energetic sled dogs for an exciting, memorable adventure.

A public ice skating rink, located next to the library, is open seasonally. Nearby Minaret Cinemas plays newly released movies.

You won’t go wrong with an après-ski visit to Mammoth Rock ‘n’ Bowl. This complex offers bowling, indoor golf, darts, foosball, ping-pong and more. Downstairs, order from a traditional alley-side menu; upstairs, discover the unexpected and excellent, upscale Brasserie restaurant.

If your visit is well timed, explore the surrounding area with a guided, full moon snowshoe or cross-country ski tour. These 1.5-hour tours depart from Tamarack Lodge; afterwards, enjoy fireside hot beverages.

Ski lift at Mammoth.

Gear Rental Options

  • When deciding where to rent ski/snowboard gear, consider daily expense, personal tolerance for crowds and overall convenience. Wherever you choose, remember to include helmets!
  • Mammoth’s base lodges. You won’t have to drag gear to/from your lodging and, if there are any issues, they can be addressed onsite; however, you will pay a premium and there may be crowds, which takes extra time.  
  • Off-site, Mammoth-based rentals. They likely have more competitive pricing and shorter lines. Try The Ski Renter (online reservations available:
  • A premium delivery service, such as Black Tie Ski Rentals. They deliver gear directly to Mammoth accommodations and if there are any problems during the day, meet you slope-side to fix them. It’s a great option for families who need a little extra time and personal assistance.
  • Rent in San Diego. Local businesses, such as Hansen’s Surfboards, offer competitive rates and don’t charge for travel days. Advance fittings and reservations are recommended.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area

Mammoth Lakes Tourism

The Village at Mammoth Events

Lisa Pawlak is an award-winning contributing writer, Encinitas resident and avid outdoor enthusiast.

Published January 2017

traveling with kids

Here are some tips for traveling abroad with children.

International travel gives your child an opportunity to experience other cultures and customs, and is a great way to broaden her understanding of the world around her. If you plan to travel abroad with your kids, these tips will help ensure a successful adventure for the whole family.

Time it Right. Plan travels abroad to be ten or more days. This includes two days in route.

Put it in Perspective. Establish trip priorities based on your child’s age, personality and interests. Focus on places your child has heard about or may want to see.

Mix Things Up. Don’t over plan or sightsee all day, everyday. Mix structured activities with free time for your family to play at the park, shop or swim at your hotel.

Take a Tour or Map it Out. Consider taking a tour to make your visit more interesting. If you opt out of a tour, get a map of the site in advance to highlight items you want to see.

At-Home Primers. Look at globes and maps before your trip to get a distance perspective. Read child-friendly travel books and fiction titles set in the destination; watch related DVDs and take virtual tours of sites online. Teach your child a few basic words from the native language.

Journal. Purchase a journal of your child’s choosing. Encourage him record what he sees and thoughts about his experience. Take a child-friendly camera so he can take pictures and create a scrapbook.

Entertainment. Before flying, find out what kind of entertainment is on the plane. Consider taking a portable DVD player, favorite books, travel-size games and plenty of snacks.

Jetlag. Ease the discomfort of jetlag by staying awake the first day as long as you can. Leave that day open and flexible.

Accommodations. Many hotel rooms in historic districts are small with twin-sized beds. Email the hotel in advance and ask about bed and room sizes. Consider connecting rooms to give your family more space. When traveling with young children, choose one accommodation that is close to everything you want to see.

Culinary Adjustments.
In many foreign countries dinner may start later than what is customary to your family. Unfamiliar foods may not be palatable to your child. Take snacks and familiar foods, but encourage your child to try new things.

Transportation. Use public transportation in larger cities. Hop on, hop off buses allow you to stop at sites you want to see. Trains are often a great way to travel long distances. If you are going outside the city, weigh the option of renting a car with your comfort level of driving.

Prepare for Emergencies. Most touristy locations have medical facilities with English-speaking doctors, but check your insurance policy before you go. Most policies—even good ones—don’t cover medical in foreign countries. If yours doesn’t, get travel insurance that covers medical.

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.

Published: June 2014

sequoia trees

California National Parks are full of awesome wonders.

These national parks in Southern and Central California are within a day’s drive of San Diego.

Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service with a visit to one (or more) of these scenic destinations. Seven of America’s natural treasures are located within 400 miles of San Diego, allowing local families awe-inspiring opportunities to experience everything from crashing coastal waves and majestic green forests, to stark sizzling deserts.

Always stop into a park’s visitor center upon arrival to request information on current conditions, road closures and safety alerts. Also ask about Junior Ranger Programs for a fun way to engage the kids.

Channel Islands
Located off the coast between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, these five islands are paradise for marine animal and bird lovers; view whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sharks and almost 400 avian species. Outdoor enthusiasts will also enjoy camping, kayaking, hiking, photography, boating, snorkeling and scuba diving. Don’t miss the interactive exhibits and Junior Ranger Program at the Channel Islands Visitors Center, located in Ventura.

Read more about visiting Channel Islands here.

Death Valley
A setting of extremes, Death Valley is one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on earth. Nonetheless, it manages to offer a comfortable visit – particularly in early spring or late fall. Don’t let the park’s name fool you; more than 1,000 plant species and dozens of types of mammals and reptiles thrive within its 3,000 square miles near the California-Nevada border.  

Visit salt-flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, mountains and mining ruins. Impressive wildflowers bloom from late February to early June, depending on elevation. Be sure to stop at Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level, and with less than two inches annual rainfall), Furnace Creek (a natural oasis), and the Ubehebe Crater (resembles the surface of Mars). Snow-covered Telescope Peak towers over 11,000 feet.

Visitation is fairly steady all year; although cooler months are more pleasant, many come in summer to experience the infamous heat. A variety of lodging and camping options are available within the park.

Joshua Tree is a mystical place.
Photo by Lisa Pawlak

Joshua Tree
Few places on earth offer such a wondrous and seemingly out-of-this-world experience as Joshua Tree. Located a mere 175 miles away, the park has enormous rock formations, unusual Joshua trees, rugged mountains, sand dunes and green oases.

Throughout the year, family-friendly outdoor activities include camping, hiking, stargazing, wildflower and wildlife viewing, rock climbing and bouldering.

Learn more about Joshua Tree National Park in our article from the April issue.

Our newest National Park offers a peaceful, scenic landscape that rests in stark contrast to the volcanic eruptions that formed these geologic wonders millions of years ago. Notably, Pinnacles operates as a rare release site for captive-bred California condors.

The park, filled with chaparral, oak woodlands and canyons, also holds unusual talus caves and towering rock spires, along with over 32 miles of trails. Hikers and climbers love the park’s many adventures, including explorations of Bear Gulch and Balconies caves; enjoy stargazing, wildflowers in the spring, and fall foliage later in the year. Abundant wildlife includes raptors, mountain lions, foxes, bobcats, rabbits, deer, lizards and snakes.

Most popular during cooler months, the park has two entrances: East and West. Inner roads do not connect the two. Pinnacles Campground lies within the park and accepts reservations. There is no other lodging inside the park, but find a variety of options in nearby Soledad, Hollister or Salinas.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon
At these adjoining parks in the southern Sierra Nevadas are giant sequoia trees, black bears and mountain lions, one of the continent’s deepest canyons, remote wilderness, huge granite walls, shady forests, peaceful meadows, roaring rivers and splendid waterfalls. The entire region is pure bliss for hikers, climbers and nature lovers.

Take a scenic drive along Generals Highway (check road conditions—it can close in winter), which runs between the two parks. Stop at Giant Forest for the one-mile paved Big Trees Trail or to climb Moro Rock’s 400 steps to fantastic views. A tour of Crystal Cave requires advance ticket reservations. Grant Grove is home to some of the largest trees on the planet and Kings Canyon Scenic Byway (closed in winter) heads into the mile-deep, glacially carved canyon.

Weather varies significantly with the seasons and due to elevation changes. Winter conditions can limit accessibility, but also allow for fun snow activities. There are four park lodges (two open year-round) and 14 campgrounds. Backcountry hikes include parts of the Pacific Coast Trail and Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

Half Dome is an icon of Yosemite.
Photo by Kim Platt

Yosemite’s majestic beauty is truly a site to behold: the astounding waterfalls, grandiose rock formations, flowering meadows, giant sequoias, panoramic viewpoints, mirror lakes, rushing rivers and remote wilderness areas. Both relaxation and adventure await millions of visitors each year.

Yosemite Valley (about 400 miles from San Diego) can be toured via park shuttles and offers a variety of hikes and activities, including many geologic marvels. Cook’s Meadow trail is a serene one-mile walk that offers views of popular Glacier Point, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock and Yosemite Falls (the highest waterfall in North America). El Capitan, an enormous granite monolith, hosts world-class climbers. Lower Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall can be reached via short trails. When you leave the valley, the Tunnel View Overlook is not to be missed.

Along with scenic drives and hundreds of hiking trails, there is ample opportunity for photography, biking, bird watching, camping, fishing, horseback riding, backpacking and winter sports. The park is open year-round and accommodations include everything from backcountry camping and campgrounds, to tent cabins and luxury hotels.

Park rangers recommend starting the day equipped with plenty of water, food and gas. Wear appropriate footwear and weather protection, use careful footing, and appreciate wildlife from a safe distance.

Lisa Pawlak is a contributing writer, Encinitas resident and mom of two boys.

Published June 2016

road trip

road trip 2050

The secret is out: San Diego is amazing. In fact, it’s a top U.S. vacation destination. So while the rest of the country is descending upon San Diego this summer, consider venturing away from the crowds for a few days. A road trip to California’s Central Coast offers tons of fun for families and has plenty of space to explore, roam and discover. Add these stops to your family road trip.

camarillo 2050

EAT in Camarillo
Have breakfast at Waypoint Café at Camarillo Airport. Sit outside to watch planes land and take off while enjoying Cinnamon Roll French Toast (or indulge in a delicious shake at lunch). Kids love exploring the miniature “airport” off the patio, featuring a replica of the control tower and runway. Visit this local favorite during the week or at off times, or be prepared to wait.

oxnard 2050

STAY in Oxnard
Looking for a relaxing beachside community that is void of crowds? Stay in Oxnard—it’s so awesome. Who knew? I’ve been driving past Oxnard my whole life, having no idea there were pristine beaches lined with sand dunes, miles of bike and walking paths, fun-filled parks, and farm stands selling local produce just minutes off the freeway. If you only go for the day, be sure to visit Channel Islands Harbor for a peaceful family-friendly kayak tour through Marine Emporium Landing or take a gondola ride through the Harbor’s Seabridge Canals. Rent bikes or surreys and take the path along Hollywood Beach and Mandalay Beach, where you’ll find a huge playground to spend a couple hours. Ride the opposite direction to Channel Islands Maritime Museum at the end of the marina.

Find more tips about visiting Oxnard here.

rumfish 2050

WINE & DINE in Ventura
If you have access to a babysitter, be sure to stop in Ventura for dinner at Rumfish y Vino. The outdoor patio provides ambiance perfect for a date—but if your kids are older, even teens appreciate the cool vibe and outdoor fireplace. My husband summed the meal up pretty well, “I'm not gonna lie. This is some of the best seafood I've had." He was talking about the fish stew. I argued that my sea bass was better: perfectly cooked with coconut rice, bell peppers and charred cherry tomatoes. Regardless of what you eat, get a margarita—they’re on point.

Find more things to do in Ventura here.

moxi 2050

DISCOVER in Santa Barbara
The new MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation is a must-do field trip for families. Indoor and outdoor highly interactive exhibits engage and delight all ages. Make discoveries about sound, light, speed, color, gravity and much more. Our family spent more time than we should have competing at Quiet Quest—a test to see how quietly people can walk through a rock path. Needless to say, I beat my husband and teen daughter at this challenge, but didn’t have as much luck when it came to testing jumping ability upstairs. Don’t miss the rooftop Sky Garden where you’ll find an interactive water exhibit, lookout tower and glass sky deck, not to mention a stunning 360-degree view of Santa Barbara. With surprises around every corner, MOXI is an absolute blast! Plan to spend several hours.

avila 2050

PLAY in Avila Beach
Just half a mile off Hwy. 101 (Avila Beach Dr. exit) is Avila Valley Barn, a fun-filled stop featuring farm animals, an ice cream shop with gourmet treats, and a country barn filled with baked goods, fresh produce, and specialty items. There is no entry fee to visit with animals, which include goats, pigs, miniature horses, sheep, alpaca, chickens and donkeys. Kids can even pet and feed some of them (buy a bag of feed in the store). Hot corn on the cob is available right from the corn roaster. On weekends, kids love tractor and pony rides for a nominal fee. Check the schedule online for seasonal u-pick opportunities on the farm.

SLO 2050

SHOP & EXPLORE in San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo (SLO) is heavenly with tons of gorgeous trees and a rushing creek running through downtown. Follow the San Luis Creek path to explore, then cross the footbridge from Mission Plaza to Higuera Street where there’s great shopping, plenty of comfortable coffee shops and infamous Bubblegum Alley. Head uptown to Monterey Street to grab lunch at SLO Provisions, where you might get lucky to find the rotisserie pork sandwich with lemon herb spread and fennel slaw as a daily special. Either way, there are delicious offerings for everyone in the family. If you happen to visit SLO on a Thursday, stay for the evening farmers market downtown—it’s been a local highlight for more than 30 years!

Planning to drive further north up the coast of California? Read “5 Fun Things to Do with Kids in the Bay Area.”

When Lisa Gipson isn’t editing San Diego Family Magazine, she loves to discover new places with her husband and teen daughters.



Published July 2017



RV Camping

Taking It on the Road, Family Style!

Camping and touring in a RV

During a recent email session with an old friend about our summer plans, I mentioned that our family planned on taking our annual four-week road trip in our motor home. My friend emailed back and said he thought I was very “brave” to set out on such an adventure with two young children (ages 2 and 5). I chuckled when I read his email and wondered if he knew how much he was missing out on by shirking away from the idea of such a fun trip with one’s family.

My husband and I have been “RVing” for over ten years. We have swapped our motor home styles and sizes as our needs have changed and as our family has grown over the years. When we first started traveling, we took only short trips and actually didn’t go often enough to get the full benefits of “motor homing.” We certainly had some blunders that were not so funny at the time but seem to be funny now. In fact, on our first trip in the motor home to Pine Valley, we forgot our pillows and could not get the outdoor grill lit to cook dinner. After giving up on the grill because we had no flashlight with us and it was getting dark, we decided to bake our dinner in the motor home but could not get the oven lit! Going to bed a little hungrier than we had planned, my husband cut his back open on the curtain rod sticking out of the top window over our bed. It was that night that we knew motor homing was right up our alley!

Funny story aside, when we first started out in our little 24-foot RV, we did not notice as many motor homing families with young children as we do today. At most campgrounds you roll into nowadays, you will probably see little bikes, skateboards and toys near many of the already parked motor homes. We have noticed a great trend of families getting out in the motor home to be together.

Since we had kids, we have discovered a new world of family fun and family bonding within the walls of our motor home. We saw the Grand Canyon when our son was only six months old. We ventured up from southern California all the way to the Canadian border with stops everywhere in between in our motor home. Our kids love to pick out good, old-fashioned postcards to send off via “snail mail” to different family members on every trip. They keep a count on the states we have visited and have a list of states they want to call upon. Besides seeing amazing geological and natural wonders, breathtaking varieties of scenery, and different, unique animals we have been able to truly escape the daily grind so we can tune into our kids, ourselves and each other. Once we are settled into a campsite, our kids burst out of the motor home to climb trees, dig in the dirt, collect rocks, and keep a look out for animals. They search for the “best” play grounds and ride their bikes at every stop we make. After a few days out on a new trip, my husband and I realize we are able to clear our heads and suddenly have energy again to have fun with our little ones!

On our RV trips, we bring our cat, we cook for our little traveling family, play games inside and out, walk together, talk together, read, solve puzzles, enjoy music and movies. Don’t get me wrong, there is still the usual daily housekeeping, but it all seems easier and less tedious as we float our way along the highways of our country. We have met so many unique people during our trips. Some folks were locals; some of them were from other countries. Some of them were “full-timers” and some of them were just out for the weekend. Most of them have been amazingly nice and they usually have interesting stories to share. They help remind us of just how many people there are in our big world. There is so much learning to be had from a trek out on the road.

As our world gets more and more overloaded with DVRs (and believe me, we love our DVR), mp3 players, cell phones, texting, emails and video games, not to mention the bills, chores, groceries, laundry and schedules that go along with life, our family clings more and more tightly to the wonderfully simple idea of unplugging for a while and jumping into the seat to take a trip in our motor home. Not only do we come home with fun pictures of our wanderings, but are we able to build special memories for our kids to share with their kids. We want to spread the word and tell families of all kinds what enjoyment can be had from packing the family up for a trip in the RV.

Do your homework to maximize your RV trip. Here is a link to check out how your campground choice fared for other RVers:  

If you don’t have a motor home, you can rent one from several local RV rental businesses in San Diego. Following is a list of rental services in the San Diego area.

Notable Campgrounds around San Diego County. Some are rustic and some more resort-like. Check each website to see what suits your RV needs and camping interests. Don’t forget to save money on your campgrounds reservations! Be sure to ask if they honor AAA membership discounts.

Autumn Johnson is a freelance writer and mom of two young children. She has been traveling in a motor home searching for fun for over ten years. She can be most often found loading the motor home for the next trip on the road.

bay area visit

Go on a San Francisco Bay area adventure!

Planning a road trip to the San Francisco Bay Area? Here are five kid-friendly stops from Gilroy (south of San Francisco) to Fairfield (north of San Francisco). Each super fun spot will entertain, educate and inspire the whole family. So start planning your northern California road trip now!

Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park
Gilroy, 408-840-7100

Hidden in the beautiful trees of the Garlic Capital of the World (Gilroy) is a unique theme park that delivers family fun while inspiring an appreciation for horticulture and the importance of trees. Geared towards kids ages 2–10, the park features whimsical rides like the Strawberry Sundae, Artichoke Dip, Garlic Twirl and paddle boats designed like ducks and swans. The beautiful landscaping and majestic gardens create an unusual (but welcome) serene environment amidst the usual fun of a theme park. You have to experience it to believe it. If you visit during the warm summer months, Bonfante Falls, the Water Oasis and Splash Garden are sure to cool down the kids.

Gilroy Gardens is closed in January and February.

If you’re driving to the Bay Area from San Diego, this could be your first stop as it is located about 80 miles south of San Francisco.

California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco, 415-379-8000

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I was a bit embarrassed to admit I had never been to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. My teens were begging me to go, so we did. Wow, what an awesome field trip full of discoveries! The biggest surprise: a huge underground aquarium with a touch-tank tidepool. We could have spent three hours in the aquarium alone, but there were so many other exhibits to explore. Even more impressive is the four-story rainforest featuring free-flying birds, butterflies and exotic reptiles. It is amazing. Other highlights include planetarium shows, the natural history museum, a living roof and the earthquake exhibit. Experience San Francisco’s two biggest quakes with a visit to The Shake House.

Families with young scientists-in-training should visit the Early Explorers Cove, a learning play space with activities designed for children ages 5 and under.

San Francisco, 415-528-4444

Recently named by Fodor’s Travel as one of the best children’s museums in the United States, the Exploratorium is a thrill for all ages. “Don’t come with a plan because you’ll never stick to it,” advises 12-year-old Maya. “There’s something for everybody here, so we always start and finish in a different place.”

Discover six main galleries featuring hundreds of hands-on science experiments, art activities and interactive exhibits that provide hours of thought-provoking fun. Engage your senses, investigate living things, explore the local environment and “think with your hands.” You’re guaranteed to learn something new.

After 44 years at the Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium is now located at Pier 15, not far from the Ferry Building.

Mrs. Grossman’s Sticker Factory
Petaluma, 800-429-4549

Factory tours are a blast—and who doesn’t love stickers? Get the best of both worlds at Mrs. Grossman’s Sticker Factory—a family-friendly field trip that is sure to delight all ages. Behind-the-scenes tours of the working factory reveal fascinating sticker history and little-known facts as you stop at six different stations, where each visitor receives free stickers. The tour wraps up with a fun, hands-on sticker art project. A stop at the store is fun for kids and a trip down memory lane for parents.

The factory is located in Petaluma, a 40-mile drive north on Hwy 101 from San Francisco. Tours run Monday through Thursday and reservations are required, so be sure to call before visiting.

Jelly Belly Factory
Fairfield, 800-953-5592

About 60 miles northeast of San Francisco (and directly east of Petaluma), you’ll find the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield. It’s a fascinating and “sweet” experience to learn the process of making a Jelly Belly (and the irregular “Belly Flop”), which is detailed in a series of videos throughout the free working factory tour. Other highlights of a visit include tasting free samples, seeing Jelly Belly art, eating Jelly Belly-shaped food in the cafeteria and stopping at the Jelly Belly Candy Store and gift shop.

Tours are held daily (except certain holiday) and depart every 15 minutes, but be prepared to wait in line during peak times. Please note that during weekend tours, candy-making machines are not in operation.

Lisa Gipson loves exploring and traveling with her family. She is the managing editor at San Diego Family.

Photo credits: Photos were provided by Mrs. Grossman's Sticker Factory, California Academy of Science and Chris Picon.

Published: March 2015

family on beach

family on the beach

Resorts your family will love! Looking for a family vacation where there’s relaxation for adults and fun for the kids? These resorts offer plenty of amenities for families -- guaranteed to make memories that last a lifetime.

Southern California

great wolf lodge

Great Wolf Lodge
12681 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove

Looking for an awesome one-of-a-kind getaway for your family? Great Wolf Lodge is the only indoor waterpark and resort of it’s kind in California. The indoor waterpark—available to lodge guests only—features a variety of attractions that satisfy everyone from toddlers to teenage thrill-seekers, making it perfect for families. Some highlights include River Canyon Run (raft ride), a lazy river, children’s activity pool, tube slides, a 40-foot drop slide and Fort Mackenzie, a multi-level structure with suspension bridges, spray stations and a giant bucket that dumps water on people below.

The resort also features numerous attractions on “Main Street”: glow-in-the-dark mini golf, an arcade, Scooops Kid Spa, Ten Paw Alley (pint-sized bowling balls!), and Howly Wood Theater, an interactive, 3D motion ride. 

Don’t miss the Forest Friends animatronics show and evening story time, where families are invited to attend in pajamas. “My son and nephew loved story time,” says mom, Jennifer, “and they loved the dance parties!” And then there’s MagiQuest, an interactive virtual game that takes participants on quests throughout the lodge, wielding a magic wand. The wands also make characters come to life in themed suites such as the Wolf Den and KidCabin.

Several eateries on the property make Great Wolf Lodge a one-stop family destination. They even have a Dunkin’ Donuts. Great Wolf is located just 90 minutes north of San Diego and down the street from Anaheim. There is a shuttle that will transport Great Wolf guests to Disneyland for the day.

So, why does SoCal need an indoor waterpark? Here are some of the benefits:

  • It’s an all-weather destination. Great Wolf Lodge keeps the air and water at 84 degrees at all times.
  • No need for sun protection.
  • No fear of sunburn, tan lines or losing sunglasses.
  • No wind means you don’t freeze when you’re wet and standing in line for the next waterslide.
  • No birds to steal your food.
  • It’s not like any other resort experience in SoCal.

Kid-friendly getaways
Welk Resorts
8860 Lawrence Welk Dr., Escondido

Mario Kart tournaments. Free kids golf clinics. Family puzzle challenges. Mini-golf madness. Toddler finger painting. Build-a-Sundae Night. This is a sampling of the regularly scheduled activities you’ll find at Welk Resort in Escondido. Surprised? Perhaps you thought Welk Resort was a timeshare property for seniors. It’s true that Welk is mostly a timeshare community (for all ages), but a number of newly renovated villas are available for the public to reserve, making their family-friendly awesomeness accessible to anyone. Although it’s just 40 miles north of downtown San Diego, the beautiful grounds and surrounding mountains will separate you from the demands of daily life.

Local mother of four, Rachel Hensley, has taken six one-week trips to Welk Resort with her family. “Being so close, Welk is ideal because we just pack up our food and go,” says Hensley. “We love the waterslides, organized crafts and pool games, candy sushi-making, game room with pool tables and foosball, catch-and-release fishing, ice cream socials and on-site pizza delivery. It’s relaxing for everyone and a good place to spend family time together.”

hotel del coronado
Hotel del Coronado
1500 Orange Ave., Coronado

The storied halls. The sparkling beach. The legendary playground by the sea. The Del has witnessed the wonder of children growing up and then returning with little ones of their own. It's been the backdrop of happy holidays and celebrations for more than 128 years and inspired generations of family traditions that bring you closer to the ones you love.

The holidays are a magical time at Hotel del Coronado. From its enormous lobby tree decorated with seaside accents to strolling Victorian carolers and more than 100,000 twinkling white lights strung throughout, The Del is pure holiday enchantment. Whether you’re there for a few days or just a few hours, there are plenty of family-friendly activities to get you into the holiday spirit.

The iconic Del is an adventurous world all its own, where beach-loving families from near and far write their fondest stories on its glittering sands. From surf camps and boogie boarding to sandcastles and coastal bike rides, the best memories begin at The Del.

Paradise Point Hotel
1404 Vacation Rd., Mission Bay

This 44-acre tropical island resort offers a number of holiday events for families, including a Kids Kandy Kane Race, Afternoon Cookie & Cocoa Break and the Jingle Shells Bay Sail. Finish your evening with s’mores at a beachside fire pit.

Omni La Costa Resort & Spa
2100 Costa Del Mar Rd., Carlsbad
Omni features several beautiful pools, waterslides and a splash landing activity pool, the Omni Kids Crew program, Kidtopia Kids Club, teen fun in the Vibz Game Lounge or sport court, and family activities such as s’more roasting and dive-in movies. 

5885 The Crossings Dr., Carlsbad

A LEGO-lovers dream come true! Choose a pirate-, adventure- or kingdom-themed hotel room featuring a separate kids sleeping area with bunk bed and trundle. Your stay includes nightly kids entertainment, kid-friendly breakfast buffet and early access to LEGOLAND.

The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa
3649 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside

Whether you stay overnight or go for the day, The Mission Inn Festival of Lights is not to be missed, featuring more than 4 million lights, animatronic characters, nightly carolers, horse drawn carriage rides, visits from Santa and more.

Is this list missing one of your favorite family resorts? Email your suggestions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and tell us why it’s your favorite.


Lisa Gipson is the managing editor at San Diego Family.

Published: November 2014; Updated: April 2016

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