MORE AND MORE REPORTS are trickling in about the potential problems that arise with kids spending an excessive amount of time staring at screens. It can affect their mental well-being, it can make them less active, and, as all parents know, it renders them a lot less engaged with the world around them. So naturally, when planning a family vacation, a good priority is to seek out a place that will get kids off their phones, away from TVs and computers, and out into the real world.
One of the best ways to do this is to take them into nature, and one of the best places in the country to do this is California. The Golden State has more national parks than any other — nine of the total 59 — literally hundreds of state parks, and an incredible diversity of landscapes, from beaches to mountains to deserts. Here are 5 ideas for quick weekend trips that will make your kids forget all about their electronic devices.
1. Shasta Cascade
The Shasta Cascade region comprises the southernmost part of the Cascade Range that extends north to the border with Canada and beyond. The mountain chain is known for being home to a number of volcanoes, including California’s Lassen Peak. Lassen erupted in the early 20th century, and as a result, much of the surrounding land was utterly transformed. In 1916, the area was designated Lassen Volcanic National Park (among the oldest national parks in the system).
Thanks to this volcanic activity, the surrounding landscape is dramatic, and the national and state parks services have done a really great job preserving the region. Aside from the national park, there are dozens of national forests, national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and state parks in this northeastern corner of California. Hikers can join up with sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, climb Mount Shasta, visit the beautiful Burney Falls (a favorite site of Teddy Roosevelt), and even walk through underground lava tunnels (which, I’m not kidding, contain a thing called “lavasicles”) at Lava Beds National Monument.
No, there’s no cell reception inside a lava tunnel, but do you think your kids will notice?
2. Death Valley and the deserts
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the cool northern mountains is California’s desert region in the southeast of the state. The area contains three deserts: the Great Basin, the Colorado, and the Mojave. While the word “desert” is typically associated with others like “empty” and “barren,” those are hardly accurate descriptors of this region. It makes for a great sightseeing trip and offers a ton of outdoor, screen-free activities.
First, you’ve got Death Valley, the lowest, driest, and hottest place in the country. The lowest elevation in North America is at Badwater Basin, which you can easily get to by car. Or go hiking on the dunes at Mesquite Flats, one of the few places in America’s national parks where there aren’t trails you have to stay on.
If you head southwest you’ll be in the Colorado Desert, which is part of the larger Sonoran Desert. There you’ll find the gorgeous Joshua Tree National Park, with Palm Springs just down the road. While there’s certainly plenty of wildlife to find in Joshua Tree, you can also detour to the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert if you don’t want to search — the zoo contains 150 different species of animals in both American and African desert habitats.
3. The High Sierra
In the eastern part of the state, within the High Sierra region, is California’s Yosemite National Park. You’ve probably heard of that one, though, so let’s look at some of your other options. First off, if your family is the road-tripping type, just 80 miles from the sub-sea-level elevations of Death Valley is Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. That drive — a little under three hours — will take you through both the majesty of the desert and the forests of Sequoia National Park.
Sequoia is home General Sherman, the largest tree in the world, as well as the High Sierra Trail. If hiking is a bit too rugged, or your kids are younger, you can always take them glamping (“glamor camping” — basically just really comfortable camping) in Sequoia. And Sequoia is adjacent to yet another of California’s national parks, Kings Canyon.
To the north, there’s great skiing in the Lake Tahoe area if you’re visiting in winter, or parasailing if you’re going in the summer. For the former, though, don’t overlook Mammoth Mountain, which has the added bonus of being located in striking distance of several hot springs — the perfect way to round out a day of skiing.
4. The North Coast
The North Coast of California is much less populated than the central and southern coasts, so there will be much less in the way of distractions for you and your kids, but no shortage of gorgeous views. The area is known as the “Redwood Empire,” thanks to Redwood National Park and its associated state parks. One of the best (and easiest) ways to see the redwoods is on the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of road through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. But really, anywhere you can get the kids into the middle of a grove of 300ft redwoods is an experience they’ll keep with them for life.
Just west of the forests, you have unparalleled views of the Pacific Coast. One of the cooler experiences you can have here is crashing for a few nights at a lightkeeper’s house, a bed and breakfast near the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse just north of Mendocino. Another convenient aspect of this region is that it can be easily combined with a trip to the Bay Area and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes Alcatraz, Muir Woods National Monument, and a large number of incredible campgrounds and hiking trails.
5. Gold Country
California’s Gold Country is best known, not surprisingly, as the home of the 1849 California Gold Rush. Comprising sections of the western Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley, it has a ton of great outdoor and family activities. There are many towns, of both the ghost and very much alive-and-kicking variety, centered around mining history.
Check out the 19th-century buildings on display in Nevada City, or go gold panning on the Mokelumne River, where they’ll let you keep the gold you find (the panning is followed by a barbecue, so it’s a win even if you don’t find any gold).
Five bucks says that’ll motivate your kids to put down the phone.
There’s also world-class whitewater (of many different classes and difficulties) on the American River, you can go apple-picking in Placerville, and you’re always within an easy drive of the state capital, Sacramento, which you can tour by bike, train, or even steamboat. The only reason your family will need a cell phone on this trip is for the camera.