In a big city like LA there is very little in the way of wildlife — let’s face, it: sometimes the Farmers’ Market petting zoos and mall pet stores aren’t quite enough to satisfy the nature itch. A short drive up or down the coast (for the length of a Disney movie) can get you and your little ones a chance to see some incredible animals in their natural habitats.
Winter/Early Spring: Every year the Monarch Butterfly flutters its way down the California coast. Thousands migrate over 1,800 miles to lay eggs on the Sierra Nevada Milk Weed. These brown and orange beauties cluster in eucalyptus groves, mate in late January and then leave for spring migration in March. The most beautiful part of all? The butterflies rest in the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, just an hour and a half drive north of Los Angeles.
Throw your kids in the car in the morning and get to the butterflies before lunch. The Coronado Butterfly Preserve and Goleta Butterfly Grove is not only convenient, it’s also totally free. The butterflies are easiest to see midday but you can go at any time. Even little legs can make the short and very easy hike (not handicap or stroller accessible but baby carrier friendly) into the grove to see the butterflies. What initially look like fall leaves blowing gently in the wind are thousands upon thousands of butterflies clustered together. Bring some binoculars or a good zoom camera and you can really get a good look. If you keep walking there are beautiful bluffs, dozens of hummingbirds, friendly docent volunteers and sometimes even seals on the beach below.
The monarch numbers were down in 2014, due to climate change issues. For more information, read this article from the LATimes.
After you visit the butterflies you can stop in Santa Barbara and see the sites or grab some lunch at the delicious seafood restaurant Brophy Brothers. Right on the harbor, they have sweeping views of the Santa Barbara coastline, delicious seafood, a children’s menu with non-fishy items and lots of parking. Family friendly and casual, this is a great restaurant for parents to grab a beer and kids to check out the birds and boats.
Winter/Early Spring: If you want more ocean air and awesome animals, continue North of San Simeon to see the extraordinary Northern Elephant Seals. Again, there is no admission fee or reservation required. These large (so named) mammals are so much fun to watch. They play, they sleep, they yawn and bark. If you head there in January you can often see babies nursing and picking on their daddies. April is another great time of year to go. Head to the Elephant Seal Boardwalk for an ideal view. Don’t worry, the seals are kept at a safe distance. If you’re feeling ambitious you can stop at Hearst Castle too, but the seals are worth the trip alone. Here is a website that will tell you all you need to know! The Friends of the Elephant Seal folks will let you know what animals are in season when you are planning your trip to Cambria.
All year: Of course, there’s always the Aquarium of the Pacific. Long Beach is a beautiful town and the aquarium is a wonderful stop for kids (and adults) of all ages. The emerald glow from the tanks magically alight your imagination. And whether it’s the graceful seahorses you seek or the scary sharks, there is something for everyone. For those who prepare air to sea, there’s even a Larakeet exhibit. Buy the over priced nectar and walk into the exhibit, you will have at least five birds landing on your head, arms and back within 30 seconds (which sort of makes the $3 dinky cup of sugar water worth it).
Spring is a particularly great time to visit the Long Beach Aquarium. It’s Penguin nesting season so kids can watch the penguins build their nests and prepare to lay eggs. International Children’s Day is on Saturday, April 5th and Sunday April 6th and the aquarium will host music and dance performances, an international choir, martial arts demonstations and mural painting. There are plenty of places to eat around the Aquarium from PF Changs and Gladstones to Famous Dave’s Barbeque, all within walking distance. Just get your hand stamped and head back to the aquarium again after lunch. A word of warning, be careful going into the gift shop. It’s massive and a filled to the brim with cool toys and gifts, which can mean that an end of the day melt down could be yours if you don’t time it cleverly.