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Help with California Itinerary - Field Trips

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Hoping there are some people here who can give me some good advice. We are homeschoolers planning a trip to California (first time for me) and we like to pack our itineraries with educational outings. This is what I've got on the itinerary so far. If you are familiar with any of these places, are there any specific exhibits that you'd consider "must see"? Some of them are really big so don't want to miss any key things. For reference we'll have an 8 and 11 yr old with us who are used to these types of trips (ie. lots of walking!). Main interest for them is science but I want to make sure to get in some great art too. The main thing I'm unsure about is the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. We live near a world class aquarium so I wonder if this one might be skippable. Also wondering if the safari's at the safari park are worth it, and if so which one? Which museums at Balboa Park should be priority? We won't have time for all of them. Any suggestions?


Our whole family is science crazy, but we also appreciate history and I want to make sure to get in some great art. I love botanical gardens and so do my kids. My hubby not so much, but he'll tolerate a bit of gardens and art. ;) We've done these kind of trips before so we know how much we can handle. Is there anything major that should be on my list but isn't? (Besides Disney  ;) )


LA Area:
Getty Center
La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum
Griffith Observatory
LA Natural History Museum
California Science Center
LACMA art museum


Palm Desert:
Living Desert
Joshua Tree National Park


San Diego:
USS Midway Museum
San Diego Zoo
San Diego Safari Park (extra safari’s worth it?)
Birch Aquarium at Scripps (maybe?)
Moonlight Beach



Balboa Park San Diego Museums: (which ones to prioritize?)



Fleet Science Center

San Diego Museum of Man
San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego Museum of Art
Timken Museum of Art
San Diego Air and Space Museum
San Diego Mineral and Gem Society


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Museum of Man is a favorite of both my daughter and I in Balboa Park. Buy an Explorer Pass so you can hop between museums easily.


We’ve never done the extra safaris at the Safari Park. There’s plenty to see without them. Bring really comfy shoes.


Legoland, maybe?

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I grew up in California (Wilmington, Long Beach, San Bernardino Mountains).   My husband grew up in San Diego and I just moved here in August.   We've done a few things, but not a lot yet.



  I agree about skipping Birch and going to tide pools.  Real tide pools are cooler anyways.  Or down to see the seals (which I haven't seen yet...dang.  And I don't know how long they stay).  Whale watching is fun but expensive (actually, never did it commercially.  I grew up on a boat though so we went ourselves and that was so much fun.



If you're going to Midway than the San Diego Air and Space Museum is a little redundant.   They do have more on the development of flight, but it's actually very short...you can go through it in an hour (unlike the Midway which is really massive and takes more time to go through).   Midway you can actually sit in some of the planes and go inside, put your hands on the controls, etc., and at the Air and Space Museum you cant.   Midway has an audio walking tour which can take a lot of time if you listen to a lot of it.  I think there's a version that's shorter.   You can earn wings...there's a free booklet/pamphlet I've heard you can get and you answer things on the tour.  We didn't do it but that's an option. The Air and Space Museum does have an astronaut/space exhibit right now which I haven't been to yet,  but it costs extra.


Of the museums I've been to there, Fleet and Natural History Museum was most impressive.    The Natural History Musuem has a lot that's really specific to California, and San Diego.  I'm not sure if it would overlap some with the LA Natural History Museum.


In San Diego the Maritime Musuem (which includes real sailing ships) is something to consider.


Unless you're coming from somewhere like Colorado, it would be a shame to come to California and not get to the mountains.  There's some smaller mountains/hills in San Diego, but it's not the same as getting up into the high mountains and away from the city.   There's two that would not be out of your way and both would give you similar experiences.  Since you're going to Palm Desert, there's a tram in Palm Spring that takes you right into the mountains (just the tram itself is lots of fun...unless you're scared of heights).  You could play in the snow if theres snow, and there's a lot of wildlife up there (we saw deer, squirrel).  


The other place on your way I'm really familiar with because I used to live there.    Between the La Brea Tar Pits and Palm Desert you would go right past the San Bernardino mountains.    I suggest the Twin Peaks National forest.  It's small...you can easily find your way to a road in any direction.  But it's still pretty.   The fire access roads turn into great sledding trails in the winter, and are good for hiking trails in nicer weather (the only weather to avoid there is slush...where it's snowed but then warmed up).   We just went up last weekend and explored evidence of where a fire went through (a while back...it's green now), and downed trees where we found an animal den (the animal wasn't there, but we could see evidence).   Lots of science stuff.   And there's a fire tower at the end of the main road where you can see all the way to the ocean sometimes, and all the way to the desert in the other direction, if it's a nice cloudless day (looking down on the clouds is an experience too if it isnt')--and the volunteers there will tell you all about it's history.  If there's snow you'll need chains to get up the mountain (they won't allow you up without them).    Rim of the World is the quickets way to Twin Peaks, if you are scared of heights go up 330...it's still got some vistas but you're not so out on the edge.



The Queen Mary in Long Beach is another thing not too far off your route.  It's an old cruise ship...something any Titanic fan would love to see.   It's a museum, but also a hotel...though I don't know how expensive it is to stay there.  It's been so long since I've gone though I can't tell you whether it would trump anything you already have on your itinerary.  





Edited by goldenecho
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Birch aquarium is pretty, but small. A much better aquarium is in Long Beach. For something a little different with some great exhibits and wildlife rescue, I recommend the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista on the Bay.


In Balboa, the Fleet science center is pretty cool. Our favorite is Model Railroad Train Museum. Children's admission is very affordable. You can also get a pass for several museums at Balboa and just enjoy the day there. It's such a lovely place to walk around.


Moonlight Beach is great for a beach day! You might also want to consider visiting Coronado Island. The beach is awesome there too, but it's so fun walking around the island. Laguna Beach is also a cute beach town with lots of local artists in the community to walk around. Also, in Oceanside, there's a great pier with a restaurant at the end with burgers and shakes over the water. This is a favorite for my kids.


I don't know if the extra safaris are worth it.


One of our favorite places that is inexpensive is the lighthouse at Point Loma. There's some fun history to tour the Lighthouse, but down below are the tide pools. If it's low tide, you can see some great marine life exploring the rocks and tide pools. So much fun. It's a national park.


Look at a Go Pass for admission into several places at a discount. We also did a tour of San Diego Bay included on the Go Pass.


One other thing if you're going into the winter months is to consider a whale watching tour off of Dana Point in Orange County. You can see some great gray whales close to the coast. That might be on a Go Pass too.



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Thanks for all your suggestions!


We are coming from Vancouver so the mountains and snow are not a draw for us. The seals and tide pools are not a draw either as we've already experienced them plenty.


We've decided to skip the Palm Desert. 


I've been told by multiple people that the Balboa museums do not compare to the LA ones so I think we will skip Balboa and just do the LA ones (Natural History, Science center, etc). We've been to the Oxford Natural History Museum and the British Museum, the Met and Natural History Museum in NYC, etc. so I'd be comparing them to those.


Trying to decided whether to do the Getty Center or Villa... I'm actually leaning towards the Villa now... and it's a bit less of a drive from where we're staying. 


Any input on what to expect at the Griffith Observatory? Best to go later in the evening I'm assuming?


We've already been to Legoland in the UK so we'll skip that. Already been whale watching before and won't do that ever again...   :ack2: (lots of puke and 5 tourists died after their whale watching boat capsized, the following year in the same place we were... oh, and never did see any whales)


We are crazy about animals and zoo's... I've been told that you can't feed animals with the regular Safari tram, and that's kind of what drew me to it so I think it would be worth the extra $$$ for us to do that. Not every day you get to feed giraffe's and rhinos. Still cheaper than going to Africa.  :thumbup:


Originally we were only going to do one day in Disneyland but now that we're not going to Palm Springs we'll have an extra 2-3 days to do Disney or something else. 

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Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach is a much better aquarium than Birch...though Birch has beautiful views since it is in La Jolla. Both pale in comparison to Monterey Bay Aquarium...but you aren't doing Northern California.

There is a Southern California City Pass that includes Disneyland if you are thinking about doing amusement parks. 


One thing that you didn't list as possible itinerary stop...the various Missions of California. 

Edited by calbear
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Originally we were only going to do one day in Disneyland but now that we're not going to Palm Springs we'll have an extra 2-3 days to do Disney or something else. 


You need two days at Disneyland and California Adventure. :-) If you have a third day, you could do Knott's Berry Farm, which is just down the road from Disneyland.

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I no longer live in California (and I lived in the northern half), but we've spent two months in the past two years in SD.  Balboa Park is beautiful.  It was the highlight of both of our trips to SD, whether you go into their museums or not.  You can rent one of those bicycle surreys which are fun, and go beyond the main part of the park.  (The park is pretty extensive.)


We loved the SS Midway.  My dd and I went on it, and she is a history lover.  Veterans that had been on the Midway crew are the tour guides.


We decided to go to the SD Zoo at the last minute, and are glad we did.  If you've been to other good zoos, you could probably skip it, but the SD Zoo is so nicely laid out and is exceptional, I think.  (But it's also pricy!)


If your kids are old enough, you can go on a Segway tour in SD.  (I don't now the minimum age requirement.)  We did that twice, one up and down the harbor area, and another to various sites within the city.  Very fun, especially with a good tour guide.

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The museums themselves do seem to be smaller, but Balboa park itself is amazing just to walk around.     If you like gardens, it's just beautiful, with gorgeous Spanish style architecture, reflecting pools, etc.  (Like, if feels like you are dropped into a city in 17th century Spain).     I think it's probably smart to save your money for LA museums, but if you're going to be in San Diego anyways I would just walk around and see the gorgeous park, which is absolutely free. 




I've been told by multiple people that the Balboa museums do not compare to the LA ones so I think we will skip Balboa and just do the LA ones (Natural History, Science center, etc). We've been to the Oxford Natural History Museum and the British Museum, the Met and Natural History Museum in NYC, etc. so I'd be comparing them to those.


Edited by goldenecho
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We went on a 10 day trip to California last May. At the time we had a 13, 10 and 7 year old. 


Joshua Tree was a highlight for us, of all the things we saw. (We drove from LA to SF along the coast, went to Monterey, back through Yosemite, then to LA again). It was otherworldly and amazing. We timed the trip so we were there at night. The stars were unbelievable to us East Coasters. It was absolutely worth the drive, even though it’s out of the way. 


SD Safari Park was great. We did not pay for an extra safari and loved it. You cannot feed the animals from the Africa Tram that is included, so it that’s high on your list you may want to pay the extra. 


Getty Villa and Getty Center were both really beautiful. If I had to pick one I’d do Getty Center, the building and grounds were almost as cool as the artwork. 



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I would skip Griffith Observatory, unless it is absolutely on must see list. If you go, allow ample time for parking, it is crazy lately. I would second Huntington gardens and library. In the library building there are quite a few interesting things from history of science, and it's beautiful. Out of Getty Villa and Center, my kids prefer the villa, but it is less art and more ancient Roman and Greek history. You need to make a reservation though.

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I rather enjoyed my visit to the Autry Museum of the American West.  Worth looking at their event calendar - the Day of the Cowboy was pretty cool, though I don't see it on the calendar yet for this year, and they also have homeschool days.


Huntington Library, mostly for the adults - very, very old astronomy books from important astronomers, plus lots of gardens to walk around. I enjoyed La Brea Tar Pits, LA Natural History Museum, & California Science Center. 


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We did the safari park this past May, the regular tram ride will take you past most of the animals but you can’t feed them from the tram. The actual safari rides cost extra but take you in smaller groups into the exhibit. I didn’t feel like it would have been worth it for my family. The tickets for it and the zoo were so pricey we just went to the safari park.


We cruised through the Natural History Museum, we had been to the one in DC and Denver (might have been natural science) in the past year, so it was slightly redundant for my kids. The Science Museum was run down compared to others we have been to. Definitely go through Balboa Park even if you skip the museums, it is beautiful.


The Calibrio National Monument was one of the favorite things we did, the kids got their junior ranger badges and we learned quite a bit about California wildlife from the park ranger. We even saw a cottontail rabbit, which looked a lot different from the cottontail rabbits in our backyard.


If you can and if you don’t live near the ocean, I would go on a whale watching tour. We did see a few whales but the dolphins were amazing. I enjoyed that so much that I went in January and then again with the kids in May.


We didn’t do the USS Midway tour but I wish we had. We did get to tour a boat from the Colombian Navy though, it was sailing around the world and had docked in San Diego, they were giving free tours.


Enjoy your trip!

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Just so you know Timken in Balboa Park is always free as is the Botanical Garden there. If you do USS Midway, be sure to plan for at least 4 hours there if you are into history. There's lots to see and explore. The cafe actually serves pretty good food. It's not gross cafeteria food. 

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