mother and children on rock overlooking joshua tree national park

Joshua Tree National Park is a treat any time of year, but is particularly lovely during fall’s cooler weather. (Photo: Getty Images)


From L.A. to San Diego, Keep the Kiddos Entertained on 7 Fall Family Escapes

Just because autumn is back-to-school season doesn’t mean you have to stay home; in sunny SoCal, fall is a perfect time to grab the kids and get out of town.

From beach towns to apple picking, seafaring to rock climbing, offbeat museums to animal magnetism, there’s a wealth of family-friendly adventures between Los Angeles and San Diego.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Joshua Tree National Park

In Joshua Tree National Park, about two hours east of Los Angeles, the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet in a cacophony of rugged rock formations, stark desert landscapes and twisted Joshua Trees.

Much to the delight of nature-lovers, hikers, cyclists, bouldering fans and rock climbers, Joshua Tree boasts more than 8,000 boulder and rock climbing routes.

The park’s uncrowded south entrance is a great starting point for short and long hikes from Cottonwood Springs Oasis, a natural palm-fringed spring. Enjoy the short walk to a second oasis and look for ancient Native American stone mortars. Or take a three-mile loop trail to an abandoned mine and old mill. If your family are seasoned hikers, the eight-mile loop to Lost Palm Oasis, the park’s largest grove of California fan palms, is worth it.

Other favorite stops just off the park’s main road include Skull Rock and Keys View, which offers a panorama of the Coachella Valley, San Andreas Fault and San Jacinto and San Gorgonio peaks.

Channel Islands National Park

overhead view of channel islands national park inlet
Bring the kids close to nature in the Channel Islands. (Photo: Getty Images)

Set sail for Channel Islands National Park, an hour north of Greater L.A. Island access is via Island Packers, the park’s concessionaire. Plan a day trip to one of the park’s uninhabited islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa or Santa Barbara.

Once you reach the islands, hike with a guide or on your own. Anacapa has a 1932 lighthouse and sweeping coastal views. Historic ranch buildings, Torrey pine groves and white sand beaches dot the landscape on Santa Rosa. Fall is gray whale season, so keep an eye out on the voyage there and back.

Kayak with Channel Islands Adventure Company inside the world’s largest known sea cave on Santa Cruz or past a sea lion rookery on Santa Barbara. If you scuba, explore giant kelp forests with Channel Islands Dive Adventures.

Newport and Balboa Island

Sand, sea, yachts and tradition have made Balboa Island, an hour south of L.A. in Newport Beach, a family favorite for generations. Must-dos are threefold: First, rent a canopy-top electric boat. The iconic vessel was invented here by Marshall “Duffy” Duffield in 1970 and can be booked via Duffy Electric Boats.

Next, nosh on a dipped-in-chocolate frozen banana. The tasty treat is said to have been invented here in 1945 at Sugar ‘n’ Spice.

Finally, take the Balboa Island Ferry (operating since 1919) to the Balboa Fun Zone, a fixture since 1936, for a ride on the Ferris wheel and vintage arcade games.

Oak Glen — Apple Country

apple picking father and son
Apple picking is the ultimate autumn activity. (Photo: Getty Images)

Discover the pleasure of a bygone era — picking apples — in Oak Glen, a small, robust, apple-growing region in the San Bernardino Mountains an hour outside L.A.

After picking apples at Los Rios Rancho orchard, enjoy their petting zoo, wagon rides, nature trails and corn maze. Willowbrook Apple Farm, planted in 1910, features U-pick and U-press cider-making (in case the kids pick too many).

If you’ve still got a hankering for the fruit, visit Apple Annie’s Bakery & Restaurant for a taste of their 5-pound Mile High Apple Pie.


If you’ve got younger kids, visit Carlsbad, equidistant from L.A. and San Diego, for Legoland California — and stay for the beach and quirky edutainment.

Shoot apples out of a cannon? You bet! Your kids can do so at the Carlsbad Strawberry Company, home to Southern California’s only apple cannon, as well as tractor rides, a year-round 1.5-mile Corn Maze and a fall pumpkin patch.

Put on headphones, pick up an instrument and rock out at the Museum of Making Music, which explores the connection between people, instruments and music.

Budding engineers love the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum, which wows with a cool Batmobile, one of 200 working miniatures. Then take surf lessons with Pacific Surf School or SoCal Surf Lessons.

North San Diego County

two giraffes nuzzling
Marvel at animals at the San Diego Zoo. (Photo: Getty Images)

Take the kids hiking in the High Sierras without leaving SoCal — in Palomar Mountain State Park. Ninety minutes from San Diego, the park has flora that is similar to that of the Colorado Rockies along the Lower Doane and French Valley trails in the upper reaches of 6,140-foot Palomar Mountain.

Animal lovers can marvel at tigers, wildebeests, hippos and others at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Plan a ride on the Flightline Safari zip line, where you’ll zip two-thirds of a mile while 130 feet above the Africa Plains habitat where giraffe, zebra, ostrich and herds of savannah animals roam free.

Don’t miss the Lemur Walk — strolling inside a cage of free-ranging ring tailed Madagascar lemurs. It’s a hoot.

Coronado Island

Wiggle your toes in the wide, sparkling (thanks to mica) sands of Coronado Island, regularly ranked among the best family beaches in North America. Build a sandcastle. Fly a kite. Comb the beach for sand dollars. Play beach volleyball. You can even find tide pools at Coronado Central Beach (one of the island’s five beaches).

Explore one-of-a-kind shops, eateries and sweets shops at Coronado Ferry Landing. Then rent bikes or a surrey at Holland’s Bikes & Beyond and pedal along the Bayshore Bikeway, which is framed by awesome views of the San Diego skyline.

Cruise the bay on rental paddleboards, Jet Skis and speedboats or take a kayak harbor tour with Bike & Kayak Tours. If you’ve got skateboarders in your crew, the Coronado Skatepark has 16,000 square feet of challenges.