As a parent, summer vacation planning means looking forward to cherishing every minute with my child who won’t stop growing—and, of course, it’s enough to cause a panic attack. There’s seemingly so much to think about: Has my kid’s passport expired? What are the must-pack items for the great American road trip? How will we ever do it all?
Then I realize that we can’t do it, and instead I start a parent bucket list. For me, that bucket list is about seeing things a lot of people don’t stop to check out. I don’t mean the world’s largest ball of mud at a roadside stop but those historical markers that are overlooked in plain sight: the majestic national or state park that is down the road from an amusement park, or even that park that is overshadowed by a must-visit-before-you-die park. This doesn’t mean that we skip the tried-and-true tourist stops. It just means I push us to do more off-the-beaten-path attractions than you’d find in most travel guides.
If you’re in San Diego, California, to visit the San Diego Zoo—famous for its giant pandas—or SeaWorld, take a couple of days to enjoy these nearby natural attractions:
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
La Jolla, California
Our family had a great hike through gorgeous trees along a sandy path that led to the ocean. It was a solid hike for someone not in the best of shape and easy for my then-preteen daughter. Torrey Pines has plenty of space for kids to explore and have a great time. Be sure to pack a lunch or at least some snacks and plenty of water. If it’s an appropriate time of the year, pack your beach gear to jump in the ocean. At the very least, bring a towel so you can take off your socks and shoes and dip a toe into the Pacific Ocean. No matter how cold it is, you won’t regret it.
The big thing that ruffles my feathers about amusement parks is the intense sense of being under a clock. You have only a certain amount of time to see what you came to see: you stand in a line, wait, wait, and move to the next line. It can wear on you and the kids. What I love about visiting open spaces like Torrey Pines is that the only clock is sunlight.
San Diego, California
As the name suggests, definitely get to this spot before sunset. It is located in a residential area with plenty of street parking. You will end up envying the people lucky enough to have this view every day. It was beautiful to sit at the top of cliffs at least 65 feet high while surfers took to their boards just off the coast. Being that far up and looking over the ocean makes you feel like you are at the edge of the world. This is another great spot for a picnic. The park has plenty of space for kids to run around and for you to settle down on a blanket. In recent years, falls off the ledge have resulted in serious injuries or death, so be careful out there! We found this spot by talking with locals at a restaurant. Pro tip: be good to and talk to your servers at breakfast.
Up the coast in Seattle, after you hit the Space Needle and Pike Place Market to grab coffee from the original Starbucks and then watch fish being tossed around, head across the Puget Sound on a ferry to Bremerton to visit a couple of nearby small towns:
SEA Discovery Center
This town with deep Norwegian roots is adorable and perfect for a day trip. Bainbridge is a community that can be visited by hoping on the ferry in downtown Seattle to Bainbridge Island. You can walk into town when you arrive at the Bainbridge ferry terminal. I highly suggest starting off at Sluys Poulsbo Bakery for ginormous doughnuts. If you are traveling with younger kids, visit the SEA Discovery Center, a hands-on aquarium with an amazing tide pool tank and a lot of activities. The tide pool offers plenty of opportunities for you and your kids to prove you are brave enough to stick your hands in frigid Pacific Northwest water to gently touch a sea star. When you’re ready to take a time-out from touching things, there is even a room with crafts where you can sit and color for a bit. For older kids, rental kayaks are available for taking a spin around the Sound. And if you’re lucky, there will be a seal basking on a pier or buoy.
Olympic National Park
Port Angeles, Washington
Some may know this town as one of the locations for the Twilight films, but you should know it as your headquarters to a ton of adventures inside nearby Olympic National Park. Hurricane Ridge, at an elevation of 5,242 feet, is an area in the park where the wind blows harder than almost anywhere else you may have experienced outside of a tornado or, yup, a hurricane. This is where you will appreciate your camera’s panoramic function. Sol Duc Falls is a breathtaking waterfall that is worth the short hike to see. Your holiday-card photo just might be waiting for you on the bridge overlooking the falls. The big reward for finding this part of the park is a stop at the hot springs (bring your swimsuit!). Three different pools are filled with rain and melted snow and heated by volcanic rocks. The whole place smells like sulfur, but you won’t mind once you dip yourself into the 100-degree water that soothes your body and soul.
These are just a couple of cities to inspire you to ditch the typical big-name vacation attractions and create different types of memories. I’m currently planning our summer vacation and consulting travel guides, but more importantly, I’m also talking to friends who live near big-name attractions to learn about nearby must-visit spots. Planning these trips can feel like a lot of work, but it’s so worth it because before I know it these family vacations will be history.