11 Tips for Car-free Fun on Amtrak’s California Trains

tips for taking Amtrak in California.
One of the amazing views from Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner in California. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

As a road tripping maniac that’s driven three kids across North America, I hate my car at times. I love to use different forms of transportation. So when the opportunity came up to take the train from Southern California to the Central California Coast, I jumped abroad. After my trip, I came up with 11 tips for taking Amtrak in California.

Tips for Taking Amtrak in California 

1: Book the right train.

On my trip to Santa Barbara and Solvang this summer I boarded two different trains, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and the Coast Starlight. Each offering a different experience though they share part of the same track.

Tips for take the Coast Starlight in California
Hop abroad an Amtrak train for car-free fun in California. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Pacific Surfliner is a regional route that travels between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, California, stopping at most Amtrak stations along the way. It features a business-class car and coach cars with unreserved seats plus an observation car with a snack bar below.

The Coast Starlight runs between Los Angeles’s Union Station and Seattle with limited stops. It offers reserved coach seats, business class, an observation/snack bar car, a dining car, a parlor car plus sleeping cars.

California Driving Ain’t a Dream

2: Ditch the car and go car-free.

Tips of taking Amtrak in California.
Riding the rails instead of battling the roads tops my list of reasons to ditch the car and go car-free. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

As I look at my maps app, I blink again hoping that it’s a joke. But sadly, it’s true. Sometimes driving in Southern California is a nightmare.

With hours eaten up behind the wheel, the dream vacation crumbles as kids melt down in the backseat and this Mom loses it as another driver cuts her off.

I found a solution, ditch the car and go car-free. That’s what I did recently when I grabbed an Amtrak train. With dedicated parking at most stations, it’s easy to park the car and explore California car-free instead.

Transportation that Does More than Transport

3: The customer service difference on Amtrak.

I get it, I used to fly the friendly skies as a flight attendant for a major airline. And those skies aren’t friendly anymore.

What surprised me the most on my Amtrak train, customer service still shines on the rails. The conductor and the train stewards were polite and informative.

Looking to escape from the craziness of Southern California, then hop aboard Amtrak's Coast Starlight. Got all the tips and hints for your trip along with a video.

A steward helps passengers on-and-off the train. If the train hinted at slowing down, the conductor explained what was happening and when we would be on our way again.

I had a coach seat on the train that had to accommodate another train’s passengers when it went out-of-service. Passengers were standing everywhere, in the aisles and on the stairs.

But we were all on the train. There’s relief in that.

The stewards walked up-and-down the crowded train cars and apologized for the conditions. Then they informed us how many passengers would be getting off at upcoming stations. Then they thanked us for choosing Amtrak.

Wow. So simple but so often ignored. The passengers remained calm and even gave seats to the passengers who needed them the most–injured, elderly and those with disabilities.

Not All Trains Seats are the Same

4: If sitting in a seat is important to you, reserve a business-class or reserved coach seat.

Price sells many things in life in the case of train travel, buy up. As I learned on my weekend trip, things go wrong and when they do the train fills up.

Get a business seat, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Looking for a reserved seat on the Pacific Surfliner then reserve a business class seat. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

If you and your family are traveling with luggage out of the area, buy a reserved coach seat or business-class seat. This guarantees a seat on the train. A regular coach ticket guarantees passage, meaning you could be standing at peak times or off-schedule operations.

Though I will be honest, when the trains went off-schedule the day I was traveling, I was grateful to be on the train.

Did I have to stand part of my journey? Yes, but the train conductor and the rest of the train staff constantly communicated to the passengers what was going on.

In our case, a train had to be taken out-of-service coupled with a big convention. That meant Amtrak had a busy weekend already then another train’s passengers had to be accommodated on my train.

If I had been flying, I would have been stuck at the gate watching planes leave the airport without me. As promised, a lot of the passengers disembarked in LA and I got a seat.

In a situation that could have escalated into some seriously pissed-off passengers. Everyone remained calm by opening a book or their phone and made do.

ThruWay Buses

5: ThruWay Buses make for easy transfers.

For stops beyond traditional Amtrak stations, ThruWay buses take passengers to their final destinations. As the case for my journey to Solvang, California, a charming Danish community, I boarded a charter-like bus at the Santa Barbara Train Station.

thru buses, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Hop on Amtrak’s Thru Bus service to destinations beyond the train station. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

My train incurred delays but my ThruWay bus waited for the train to arrive. The process of getting off the train at Santa Barbara and onto an Amtrak ThruWay bus was painless. Requiring a lot less walking than changing planes at a mega airport, like Dallas/Forth Worth.

Coast Starlight

6: Book the Coast Starlight if your itinerary permits.

After exploring Solvang and Santa Barbara for several days, I needed to meet my family near San Francisco. I boarded Amtrak’s Coast Starlight at the 1905 historic Santa Barbara Train Station.

Where the Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner is a regional train route that stops at the majority of the stations along its route, the Coast Starlight does not. Running along the west coast from Los Angeles’s Union Station to Seattle, the entire journey takes about 36 hours.

Known as Amtrak’s the most scenic route, I was blown away. I took the segment from Santa Barbara to Salinas, California, taking about six hours.

My plan was to pull out the laptop and work. But I was glued to my picture window.

This route passes though untouched California coast north of Santa Barbara. For fans of the Pacific Coast Highway, when the PCH heads inland north of Gaviota, the train rolls through. This includes Vanderburg Air Force Base.

My Coast Starlight Experience

7: Pack all you want! Four bags are allowed.

tips for taking Amtrak in California.
I took four bags aboard with me. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Call me silly, but I felt a bit of old school glamour getting on my train. Maybe it’s the oversized sunglasses I was wearing or the fabulous weather in Santa Barbara but I imagined how a starlet would have ridden the train in the 50s. (Now, this 40ish Mom of three is not saying she’s a starlet but I had a vacation-induced fantasy. Don’t spoil it with reality. Or I’ll call you my husband.)

Arriving within minutes of it’s scheduled departure, my train arrived at the Santa Barbara Station, located on State St. in downtown. For my journey, I had a reserved coach seat. Finding the correct car was no problem and a steward greeted me at the coach car entrance. Then he asked if I preferred a window or aisle seat.

I grabbed my four bags (yes, I had one standard roll abroad, a backpack plus two shopping bags full of goodies) and stepped onboard. First, I stowed the larger suitcase on the rack downstairs next to the car entrance. Then I took the rest of my items to my window seat upstairs.

My Reserved Coach Seat

8: Forget the airplane luggage hassle.

tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Look Mom, it’s legroom and a legrest at my reserved coach seat. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

I had no problem storing my stuff since my train wasn’t taking off and traveling 500 m.p.h. through the air so I didn’t have to secure it. I left my backpack in my seat and the shopping bags in the open rack above.

No one was fighting for storage space. My bag wasn’t deemed oversized and checked either.

After I settled in, the first thing that I noticed was all the space. I could have danced in the space between the edge of my seat and the seat in front of me. Amazing.

I’m an average-sized woman and I’ve had to wedge myself into some small jet seats lately. It seems I’m always flying in the back of some regional jet that looks smaller than a sparrow. So this train seat was luxurious.

Tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Seat power on each row. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

I had a picture window to enjoy all to myself since the aisle seat was vacant. Then I found the standard 110-volt plug. Pulled out my chargers and plugged in my phone and my laptop at the same time.

The Amtrak Experience

9: Explore your train, especially the observation car.

explore the train, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
I love sitting in the observation car and watching the scenery roll by. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

My train pulled a line of train cars. Actually the Coast Starlight train blocks traffic on the streets at the Santa Barbara Station when stopped.

It wasn’t long before I was out of my seat and exploring my train. I went to the observation car with its domed skylights and enjoyed the view. This car is a favorite so it can be hard to get a seat at times.

10: Feel free to bring snacks aboard for your journey.

cafe cars, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Amtrak trains feature a cafe car, below the observation car. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Below the observation lounge, I found the cafe car with a couple of tables. It’s kinda like the convenience store of the train. There’s a selection of drinks, hot and cold, treats and small meals. Nothing really glamorous so I purchased a sandwich before I boarded my train in Santa Barbara.

I met a cabin steward, James Lake, a 12-year Amtrak veteran. He graciously took me on a tour of the rest of the train.

Special Amtrak Cars on the Coast Starlight

11: Ask for a tour.

Make reservations for dinner, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Make reservations for the Dining Car if traveling during dinner. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

We walked through the dining car where waiters and waitresses served food made onboard. With a printed menu, including a kids’ menu, I found chef-inspired selections. Reservations are accepted for dinner in the dining car, with business-class passengers getting first dibs.

The business class car was next and includes complimentary Wi-fi and bottled water along with an invitation to a wine and cheese tasting in the Pacific Parlour Car (additional fee applies). At Los Angeles and Portland, business-class passengers get access to the Metropolitan Lounges.

Tips for taking Amtrak in California.
With signature cocktails and special events like wine and cheese tastings, the Pacific Parlour Car is another reason to upgrade to Business Class. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

After the business class car, I walked through the Pacific Parlour Car, a vintage 1950s railcar. They were originally on the Empire Builder from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest but moved to the Coast Starlight.

Pacific Parlour Car

With a wood interior that reminded me of hotel bars where men in fedoras smoked cigars, I found the ambience enchanting. The Pacific Parlour Car features a full bar with signature cocktails along with coffee drinks and snacks.

Meals are served in the Pacific Parlour Car for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The parlour car offers a separate menu with a more limited selection than the dining car.

On the first level of the Pacific Parlour Car my guide walked me through a small movie theater where Amtrak used to show movies. Unfortunately, this theater is not being used at the time.

Tips for taking Amtrak in California.
The vintage theater in the Pacific Parlour Car isn’t showing movies right now. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

After the Pacific Parlour Car, I found the Superliner Sleeper cars, where overnight passengers enjoy a roomette with berths. Since it was booked to capacity for my summertime mid-week train journey,  I didn’t tour an Amtrak roomette.

After my tour, I returned to my seat and enjoyed the scenery whisk by until my destination.


My Amtrak train journey was part of an hosted press trip. The opinions are my own.

Know Before You Go:

  • Amtrak doesn’t feature in-seat entertainment.
  • Sleeping cars feature a shared shower in each car.










12 Haunted Cave Tours to Get Your Brood in the Mood this October

Take a Haunted cave tour.
Take your crew to a haunted cave this season for bone shivering scares. Photo Credit: Pixaby

Need a real scare this season? I’ve got 12 haunted cave tours across the U.S. to get your brood in the mood this October.

What about clumsily climbing through a cave so dark you close your eyes to get away from the suffocating darkness. How about knowing a thousand tiny, blind bats hang inches above your head with only an old-fashioned lantern to protect you?

Your skin crawling? Do you feel the goosebumps as a mysterious breeze crawls through a cave without wind? Have a facial twitch you can’t explain?

How about watching the lights of your EMF only to hear a researcher whisper, I haven’t see that phenomenon before.

Grand Canyon Caverns in Arizona

Take a hour tour outfitted with a lantern and a K2 an EMF meter to register disturbances in the electromagnetic field.


Every day in October at 6 p.m.

Located at mile marker 115 along Route 66, that’s 63 miles northeast of Kingman, Arizona. Admission for adults is $22.95 and kids 6 to 12 is $16.95 with kids under 6 enter for free.

Cave of the Winds in Colorado

Take an adventurous lantern tour of Manitou Gran Caverns while listening to ghost stories with a little history thrown in.


Every day in October at 11:00 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.

Located at 100 Cave of the Winds Rd., Manitou Springs, that’s miles 8 miles northwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Explore a haunted cave this October.
Lights are optional on haunted cave tours, most use lanterns. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Spook Cave in Iowa

Take a tour with a Halloweeny name, Spook Cave. After the cave tour, kids can trick-or-treat.


Every day 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Trick-or-Treating Friday October 20, Saturday, October 21, Sunday, October 22 and Saturday, October 28 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. only.

Located at 13299 Spook Cave Rd. McGregor, Iowa that’s 110 miles from Madison, Wisconsin.

Wabasha Street Caves in Minnesota

Would you let a lost soul guide your candlelit tour? Take an hour tour and hear the stories of the Lost Souls. Two different tours offered.


Lost Souls Tours on Sundays October 8, October 15, October 22 and October 29 at 12:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per person, cash only.

Spirited History Cave Tour on Mondays, October 16, October 23 and October 30 at 4:00 p.m. Admission is $8 per person, cash only.

Located at 215 Wabasha Street South, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Your crew over the neighborhood haunted house? How about clumsily climbing through a cave so dark you can't remember if your eyes are open? What if the cave was full of bats? And a legendary ghost. Check out my list of 12 Haunted Cave Tours through the U.S.

Lockport Cave in Lockport, New York

Take an hour-and-half candlelit tour while walking along the Erie Canel then touring the Lockport Cave.


Friday, October 20 and Saturday, October 21 at 7:00, 7:20 and 7:40 p.m.

Every day from Wednesday, October 25 to Tuesday, October 31 at 7:00, 7:20 and 7:40 p.m.

Tour starts at 5 Gooding St. in Lockport, that’s about 30 miles northeast from Buffalo, New York. Admission is $17.50 per person and kids must be 8 years to take tour.

Lewisburg Haunted Cave in Ohio

Who wants to tour a limestone cave 80 feet below ground with 30,000 live bats?


Fridays: October 6,  October 13, October 20,  and October 27 from 7:00 p.m. to Midnight.

Saturdays: October 7, October 14, October 21, and October 28 from 7:00 p.m. to Midnight.

Located at 4392 Swisher Mill Road, Lewisburg, that’s 25 miles west of Dayton, Ohio. Admission Adults $17 and Children 10 and under $8.

Crystal Cave Park in Pennsylvania

Take lantern tour with guides dressed in Victorian clothing as they recount the hauntings in the 1800s.


Fridays: October 13,  October 20, and October 27 at 6:00 p.m.

Saturdays: October 14, Saturday, October 21, and October 28 at 5:30 p.m.

Located at 963 Crystal Cave Road, Kutztown, that’s 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Admission for Adults is $20 and kids 8 to 11 is $12. Not recommended for children under 8.

Haunted Cave tours across the U.S.
With haunted caves from across the U.S. find a tour near you. Photo Credit: Pixaby

Lincoln Caverns in Pennsylvania

Take the kids on a haunted cavern tour followed by a haunted hayride.


Fridays: October 6, October 13, October 20, and October 27 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Saturdays: October 7, October 14, October 21, and October 28 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Located at 7703 William Penn, Huntingdon, that’s 95 miles west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Admission $22.98 for adults and $13.98 for kids.

Appalachian Caverns in Tennessee

Take a haunted Halloween tour of the Appalachian Caverns.


Fridays: October 6, October 13, October 20 and October 27 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Saturdays: October 7, October 14, October 21 and October 28 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Located at 420 Cave Hill Road, Blountville, that’s about 100 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Bell Witch Cave in Tennessee

A cave so haunted it terrorized generations of locals. One man even died.


Fridays: October 20 and October 27 from 6 p.m. to midnight.

Saturdays: October 7 and October 14 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. October 21 and October 28 from noon to midnight.

Sundays: October 8 and October 15 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. October 22 and October 29 from noon to 6 p.m.

Located at 430 Keysburg Road, Adams, that’s 42 miles north of Nashville, Tennessee. Admission $12 per person. No Children under 2, under 18 must have parental consent.

Cave of the Mounds in Wisconsin

Take a tour through a candlelit cave while trick-or-treating for gemstones. A family-friendly cave tour where costumes are encouraged.


Thursday, October 26 and Friday, October 27, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Saturday, October 28 and Sunday, October 29 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Located at 2975 Cave of the Mounds Rd, Blue Mounds, that’s 25 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin. Admission for adults $17.95 Children 4 to 12 $9.95 and children under 3 free.

Ledge View Nature Center in Wisconsin

A family-friendly candlelight cave tour, packed with fun and facts.


Friday, October 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Saturday, October 21 from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Located at W2348 Short Road, Chilton, that’s 76 miles north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Admission: $8 for adults and $6 for 17 and under, minimum age 5.






Oregon Goes Boom at Newberry Volcano in Bend

What to do in Bend with kids, walk on a volcano.
Kids love volcanoes so add Newberry National Volcanic Monument to your Oregon road trip. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

What to do in Bend with Kids

In-between Crater Lake and Columbia River Gorge, I found Bend, Oregon, located where the ponderosa pine forest transitions to the high desert. I did a little research and found Bend is a favorite outdoor destination throughout the seasons. Then I found a national park site where my kids could climb a volcano. Sold!

After we arrived in Bend, we spent the day at the Newberry Volcanic National Monument. With two different locations, it features lakes, hot springs, lava flows, a lava cave and a cinder cone in the middle of the Deschutes National Forest.

What to do at the Newberry Volcano

The Newberry National Volcanic Monument is divided into two areas, each with it’s own visitor center with seasonal hours and staffed with U.S. Forest Rangers.

Lava Lands Visitor Center

If limited on time start at the Lava Lands Visitor Center, located at the northern end of the monument closest to Bend. Conveniently located of U.S Route 97. It features a 3-D topographic map and introductory movie.

What to do in Bend with kids, hike to the Newberry Fire lookout.
Hike to the Newberry Fire Lookout when exploring the volcano. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During our visit, we hopped the shuttle bus ($2 per person, round trip) to the top of Lava Butte, a 500-foot tall cinder cone volcano. A must-do for the family, we hiked up to the Lava Butte Lookout, an historic and active U.S. Forest Service fire lookout since 1913.

Staffed by an official fire lookout that scans the forest for tiny columns of smoke before they turn into raging infernos. During our visit, a volunteer Forest Ranger told us about the eruption 7,000 years ago that formed the butte and its crater. On the way back to the shuttle bus stop, we hiked the easy .25-mile hike along the Lava Butte Rim.

Climb a Volcano with your kids when you explore Oregon. Got all the family fun in the outdoors conveniently located between major destinations.

If visiting the Newberry National Volcanic Monument during the summer season (May 1 to Labor Day), explore the Lava River Cave, Oregon’s longest lava tube. An unguided tour that descends 55 steps into an unlit one-mile long cavity created by a massive lava flow.

Lava River Cave requires a 2-mile roundtrip hike and you must carry two light sources. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the season. A ranger-led tour starts at 3 p.m. and reservations are made day of the tour.

Newberry Caldera

Located in a historic Forest Service guard station, Paulina Visitor Center is at the southern end of the monument, off Paulina Lake Road or County Road 21. During the summer season a forest ranger hands out maps and Junior Forest Ranger booklets. Staffed weekends only during the spring and fall from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and during the summer most days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

What to do in Bend with kids, visit Paulina Cabin.
Stop off at Paulina Cabin for more information when you visit. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During our visit, we hiked to the Big Obsidian Flow, a 1-mile loop moderate trail with a 500-foot elevation gain. The obsidian, or Black Glass, was formed 1,300 years ago and is the youngest lava flow in Oregon. This area has a vault toilet and picnic tables along with seasonal (summer) interpretive rangers.

Another hike for families, and especially waterfall-loving Moms, is the Paulina Falls trail. A .25-mile easy trail leads to an 80-foot twin falls. Both hikes have parking areas.

Within the the Newberry caldera, I found two lakes with hot springs, Paulina Lake and East Lake. Boating is permitted though both lakes have a 10-mph speed limit. Kayaks and paddle boards can be rented nearby.

What to do in Bend with kids, hike the big obsidian flow.
Hike a big pile of obsidian at Newberry Volcanic National Monument. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Newberry National Volcanic Monument with Kids

Since the Newberry National Volcanic Monument is managed by the United States Forest Service, kids can earn a Junior Forest Ranger badge. Pick up a booklet at the Lava Lands Visitor Center or the Paulina Visitor Center. The booklet focuses on activities for kids 7 to 12, though I always help my younger kids.

The Junior Forest Ranger badge is rather painless, with a few easy to complete activities. Most kids (my two boys 8 and 12 did it with no real complaints) should finish it under an hour. It doesn’t require attending a ranger program but kids have to interview a ranger.

Cool Facts about Newberry 

Located on the eastern edge of the Cascade mountain range and known for its volcanic activity, the Newberry Caldera is a 1,200 square mile volcano. About the size of Rhode Island, the Newberry Caldera is still active with seismic and geothermal activity. Ordinarily kids would snooze through this but mention seismic anything when standing next to a volcano and they start to listen.

The Newberry Caldera is thought to be 500,000 years old when the top layer of the earth collapsed and formed the crater. Subsequent eruptions formed cinder cones and lava flows.

Named after John Newberry, who explored the area in 1855 for the Pacific Railroad, the Newberry National Volcanic Monument was dedicated in 1990. Astronauts trained at Newberry during NASA’s Apollo program.

Where to Stay in Bend

I found lots of options in dining, lodging and camping in Bend. During my visit, I stayed at the Riverhouse on the Deschutes ($$-$$$), located at 3075 N. Business 97 in Bend.

Stay at Riverhouse on the Deschutes and what to do in Bend with kids.
During our visit we stayed at Riverhouse on the Deschutes. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Riverhouse on the Deschutes offers the ultimate base. The newly renovated rooms feature sophisticated, modern details with a convenient location perfect for family travelers. Centrally located, the Riverhouse on the Deschutes offers quick access to enjoy Bend’s outdoor adventures.

I found six campgrounds in the Deschutes National Forest, some of the sites are reservable.

Where’s Newberry National Volcanic Monument

Located 95 miles east from Crater Lake National Park and 140 miles south from Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Lava Lands Visitor Center is 12 miles south of Bend, Oregon. During my visit, I stayed in Bend, with the largest selection of lodging and dining in central Oregon.

Newberry National Volcanic is open year-round though the visitor centers are open seasonally from May 1 to October 31. The monument requires admission, use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a day use pass for $5 per vehicle, good at all designated parking lots.

Bats and White-Nose Syndrome

If you plan on exploring Lava River Cave, the lava tube, you will be asked if you have visited a cave, like Oregon Caves National Monument in southern Oregon. You can not wear any clothing, including shoes, that’s been in another cave due to White-Nose Syndrome.

White-Nose Syndrome kills hibernating bat colonies across the U.S. and Canada. A fungus that thrives in low temperatures and high humidity that’s killed 6 million bats since it’s discovery in 2006. Since the fungus can survive in the soil for years, rangers forbid visitors from entering the cave with the same clothing or shoes from another cave.

Know Before You Go:

  • Wear appropriate shoes for hiking on the lava flows, like hiking or athletic shoes. I slipped a couple of times even with hiking sandals.
  • The lava flows offer little in shade. Wear a hat, light-colored clothing and bring plenty of water if hiking in the summer.
  • The shuttle bus to the top of Lava Butte takes exact change only and kids under 2 ride for free.
  • Kids under 6 earn a Smokey Bear pin by completing the Smokey’s Helper Booklet.


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30 Ways to Feed a Teen on the CHEAP CHEAP in NYC

Where to eat in NYC with teens, grab some ice cream.
Teens are still kids so ice cream hits the spot for an afternoon snack in NYC, like this one at Loeb Boathouse Express Café. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The kids voted and they want to head to New York City for their teen trip. I couldn’t wait to get there until I realized I would have to feed them regularly on a budget. Since I used to live in NYC, I had a few ideas. But I still had to research so I’m sharing my list of where to eat in NYC with teens.

Our Trip to NYC

Years ago, our scout group decided to go to New York City when they graduated from eighth grade. So after raising money for years, our group boarded a plane for NYC.

Planning a a NYC trip for a youth group
Designed by famed Architect Richard Morris Hunt and built in 1883, the HI Hostel features dormer windows and a mansard roof. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Since urban travel skills and traveling on a budget topped our travel lessons list, we booked a week at a hostel. Hosteling International’s Hostel on the Upper West Side provides private rooms for youth groups under 18 with bathrooms down the hall and an inexpensive café.

Our teens came up with a list of must-dos and then I added notable buildings and museums. Since our budget was tight, we bought NYC MetroCards and used the subways along with ferries and the tram to get around.

Where to Eat in NYC with Teens

Feeding teens can be tricky. Some have allergies or other food restrictions and some teens are just plain picky.

For youth group trips, the budget offers additional restrictions as well. Then the space needed to accommodate a teen group for meals offers more challenges in NYC where space is limited, especially in restaurants.


Our hostel offered a traditional breakfast for an additional charge. Though we wanted to sample some of the best bagels in the city.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, bagels for breakfast.
Tops for breakfast in NYC, the bagel of course. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Top Bagels and More

A bagel is a must for NYC and not all bagels are the same. I recommend making the effort to sample some of the best bagels in the city. As a bonus, most kids will eat a bagel and it’s filling enough to hold teens until lunch.

For about $3 you get a bagel schmeared with flavored cream cheese. For $10 you can get melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon with scallion cream cream on a toasted everything bagel, my favorite. Order a regular coffee (NYC term for coffee with cream and sugar) to complete your breakfast. Though bagel shops offer juice for non-coffee drinkers.

Try one of the following for the best bagels in Manhattan.

Absolute Bagels, located at 2788 Broadway in the Upper West Side.

Russ and Daughters, located at 179 E. Houston in the Lower East Side.

Murray’s Bagels, located at 500 6th Ave in Greenwich Village.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, try French pastries.
A plate of croissants, including the cro-nut. Though honestly, it’s too sweet so skip it and order a regular croissant instead. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Dominique Ansel Bakery, located 189 Spring Street in SoHo (NYC term for South of Houston), is famous for the cronut.  But skip it since it’s way too sweet, even for my teen. Order one of their other croissants instead and ignore the sometimes snotty counter help.

Museum Eats

After breakfast, we headed to a museum most days since New York offers some of the best museums in the U.S. Most museums offer cafés for a quick bite while exploring their collections. I found this to be a convenient option to feed the kids though sometimes the offerings are limited and a bit pricey.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, take a break in the Museum cafe.
Take a break while exploring the MoMA Museum and grab a panini at their Cafe 2. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), 11 W. 53rd St., offers several restaurants though Café 2 is the most kid-friendly. With a seasonal menu prepared by a chef, we enjoyed one of its paninis and a salad.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), 1000 Fifth Avenue, offers several restaurants though The Great Hall Balcony Café offers the best option for kids. We enjoyed a grab-and-go salad and soup during our visit.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum1071 Fifth Avenue, features a small coffee bar with snacks at its Café 3. 

The American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th St., offers several restaurants though the Museum Food Court on the lower level features family favorites. During our visit we enjoyed salads though pizza, burgers, sandwiches and a selection of desserts are available.

The Loeb Boathouse Express Café, East 72nd and Park Drive North, offers another option close to several museums in Central Park. With breakfast items, burgers, soups and salads along with my favorite soft-serve ice cream, I found lots of outdoor seating for feeding a group of kids.

Food Halls across New York City

New York City offers food halls, a group of quick service outlets that share a common dining space. I relied on food halls to feed the teens because they could pick and purchase what they wanted. As a bonus, food halls offered lots of seating and tipping is not required.

A tad bit more expensive than traditional fast food (Subway or McDonald’s) but worth the extra dollar or two. And I found the top chefs from around the globe offered their quick-service concepts in the food halls.

Where to eat in NYC with teens. Try the Lady M Mille Crepes Cake
The best thing I sampled in NYC, Lady M Mille Crepes Cake that I found in the Plaza Food Hall. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Plaza Food Hall, located at 1 W. 59th St. in the basement of The Plaza Hotel, offers gourmet quick service outlets. Our group dined at The Plaza Food Hall before our theatre matinee and found some of the top chefs in NYC, like Chef Daniel Boulud.

Grand Central Terminal’s Dining Concourse or the Great Northern Food Hall, both located at 89 E. 42nd St., offers 35 different places to eat. Walk through the transportation hub and enjoy the Beaux-Arts building before herding the teens downstairs to eat. I found lots of options, like Jacques Torres Chocolate and Shake Shack, with lots of seating along with clean restrooms.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, a burger at Genuine Roadside Burger.
Enjoy a burger break at the Gotham West Market at Genuine Roadside Burger. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Gotham West Market, located at 600 11th Ave, offers long tables and several options for teens. I grabbed a burger at Genuine Roadside Burger, another grabbed pizza from Corner Slice.

Rockefeller Food Court, located on the lower level at 45 Rockefeller Plaza, offers lots of options for dining.

Hotdogs, Pretzels and the Black-and-White

A NYC hotdog topped the kids’ list and as a budget bonus, hotdogs are super-cheap. Not healthy or vegetarian but they’re a NYC icon.

Gray’s Papaya, located 2090 Broadway St. at 70th St, features hotdogs and fresh fruit juices. As a bonus, Gray’s Papaya has been featured in several movies and a must-do for movie fans. The recession special offers two hotdogs for under $6 and I found standing room only.

Need to feed some kids in New York City? Here's a list of quick service options that won't kill the budget.

A hotdog cart, located along most streets in NYC and especially Central Park, to grab hotdogs, drinks and pretzels.

Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs, several locations and carts across the city, offers another top choice for hotdogs.

Don’t forget to grab a black-and-white cookie, it’s a NYC icon. Easily shared and available at most delis and bakeries.

More Teen Eats

Where to eat in NYC with teens, grab a Shake Shack Burger.
Burgers go a long way with teens so order up a NYC original, the Shake Shack burger. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Shake Shack, several locations across the city, another place to grab a burger, a shake and an order of fries. Solid cheeseburger but I found lines at all hours. They offer an app but our order was too large so we stood in line.

Katz Delicatessen, located at 205 E. Houston St., is an icon. The pastrami on rye sandwiches are pricey but huge. I ordered a half and got a bowl of Matzo ball soup along with a seltzer. The adults in our group loved Katz’s though it fell flat for the teens.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, try Katz's for pastrami on rye.
The pastrami on rye is a NYC icon though teens might not get it. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Xi’an Famous Foods, several locations across the city, offers hand-pulled noodles in a tiny storefront. For the foodie adventurous in your group, I enjoyed the spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles. Knocked me over into a carb-induced coma but worth it.

Pret A Manger, several locations across the city, is a UK-based quick-service outlet. During our visit we ordered a salad, soup and a sandwich along with coffee and bottled drinks.

Time for Dessert!

Managing a group of teens in NYC is exhausting, I recommend frequent dessert stops. NYC requires a ton of walking so desserts helped me keep my energy up and a smile on my face.

I found lots of super yummy desserts for under $10 though not everyone enjoys rich, creamy, chocolatey desserts like I do. Grab them an ice cream cone, a gelato or a chocolate chip cookie instead.

The Magnolia Bakery, several locations across the city, is known for their cupcakes. Though I loved the individual cheesecakes the best and the shops are girly-cute.

Ferrara Italian Bakery, located 195 Grand St. in Little Italy, offers a cannoli and cappuccino fix with table service. Or grab a gelato from their walk-up counter and walk around Little Italy.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, Jacques Torres Chocolate.
Seriously the best chocolate chip cookie ever at Jacques Torres Chocolates. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Jacques Torres Chocolate, several locations across the city, offers a fine selection of chocolate. The chocolate chip cookies are the go-to item on the menu and during my trip, I ate three.

La Maison Du Chocolate, several locations across the city, offers more divine-looking chocolate. I sampled their èclair and angels sang. Skip it for the teens since they will eat it in one bite and the chocolate angels will cry.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, La Maison du Chocolate for eclairs.
Chocolate lovers will weep when they sample La Maison du Chocolate’s eclair. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Lady M Confections, several locations across the city, sells the crêpe cake. I sampled the signature mille crêpes cake with layer after layer of crêpey goodness. The best thing I ate in the city but I love my desserts. I found individual slices for about $8 at the Plaza Food Hall.

Épicerie Boulud, located in the Plaza Food Hall and Lincoln Center, offers more French pastries. Chef Daniel Boulud’s quick service outlet tempted me with an assortment of desserts. I choose the raspberry pistachio tart, a tiny work of food art.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, Epicerie Boulud.
Like a tiny piece of food art, I sampled the raspberry-pistachio tart at Epicerie Boulud in the Plaza Food Hall. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Junior’s Restaurant, a couple of locations in midtown and the original in Brooklyn, offers a full-menu though I grabbed cheesecake to-go. The original NY Plain tops lists for best cheesecake so if you love cheesecake, grab a slice. Makes the ultimate midnight snack.

Ladurée, located at 398 Broadway in SoHo, offers delightful French macarons for an afternoon treat. I loved the rose and orange blossom macarons the best. Grab some macarons to go in a pretty box for a souvenir.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, Laduree for macarons.
A rose-flavored French macaron from Ladurée made me swoon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Soft Swerve, located at 85B Allen St. in Chinatown, is an Instagram sensation that topped my teen’s must-eat list. Ube, a purple root vegetable from the Phillipines, is the flavor of choice here. My daughter had to try it so we stopped by. Not my thing but the kids loved it and snapped it to all their friends.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, Ube soft swerve.
Ube, a purple root vegetable from the Philippines, topped my teen’s list of food to sample in NYC complete with Fruity Pebbles sprinkles. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Brooklyn Bridge Eats

During our trip, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to add another borough to our list. As a reward, I promised the kids real New York pizza.

Grimaldi’s Pizza, located at 1 Front Street, bakes their pies in a coal-fired oven. A pizza costs less than $15, a bargain. Make reservations for larger crowds since tables seating more than four are hard to get.

Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, located at 1 Water St. in Brooklyn Heights, makes their ice cream in-house (Cash only). Steps away from the DUMBO ferry pier, take the ferry back to Manhattan ($2.75/ticket).

Know Before You Go:

  • Public restrooms are hard to find. Even McDonald’s requires a purchase so buy a bottled water and take a scheduled potty break.
  • Pack hand sanitizer, baby wipes and bleach wipes to clean up everything from hands to tables.

Discover Utah’s Bryce Canyon to Share Fun and Adventure

Discover Utah's Bryce Canyon with kids
Discover the pink spires at Bryce Canyon National Park. Photo Credit: National Park Service

Discover Utah’s technicolor show where the delicate pink of a sunrise pops into vermillion red then rusts into a sunset orange. Bryce Canyon National Park offers expansive views at every turn in the trail. The Paunsaugunt Plateau’s dramatic scenery is a hiker’s dream and draws visitors from around the world.

History of Bryce Canyon National Park

What started as an inland sea approximately 40 million years ago until 20 million years ago when the Colorado Plateau began to rise and dry out. Bryce Canyon’s rainbow-colored limestone layers actually represent different eras of time.

Explore the Bryce Canyon River when you explore Bryce Canyon with kids.
Catch the Bryce Canyon River as it snakes through the firs at the bottom of the canyon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Bryce Canyon is located on the top portion of the Grand Staircase, a sequence of sedimentary rock layers in northern Arizona and southern Utah. It offers a geologic survey of 525 million years displayed in exposed rock. Where Grand Canyon National Park represents the bottom of the Grand Staircase, Zion National Park offers a glimpse of the center.

Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon Pioneer and Bryce Canyon’s namesake, settled in the area and at times seemed obvious to its haunting beauty. Bryce Canyon National Park earned its national park designation in 1928.

What to do in 2 hours

On my first visit, I had limited time so after grabbing a map at the Visitor Center I hopped a complimentary park shuttle. At the Sunrise Point stop, I headed to the Rim Trail, a paved path running next to the edge. To walk from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point is an easy 1.0-mile hike.

NOTE: This path doesn’t feature a fence next to the canyon but is approximately 10 feet off the rim’s edge.

Walk through Bryce Canyon Lodge when you explore Bryce Canyon with kids.
The historic Bryce Canyon Lodge offers guests rooms steps away from the rim of the canyon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For more adventurous families, the Navajo Trail offers an up-close look at Bryce’s rock formations as the trail takes hikers into Bryce Amphitheater’s slot canyon. It starts at Sunset Point and is a 1.3-mile moderate trail.

I walked over to the Bryce Canyon Lodge to tour the historic park building. Inside I found restrooms along with a large gift shop, a restaurant and a ballroom that hosts ranger programs.

Explore Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park for family fun and adventure. With cabins, hikes and horseback rides, families can make memories together as they discover the pink spires of Utah.

After exploring from Sunrise to Sunset Points, I headed for Inspiration Point. Close but yet another vantage point of the Bryce Amphitheater then boarded the shuttle bus for the roundtrip ride back to the visitor center.

Family Fun in Bryce Canyon National Park

For older kids who love adventure, explore Bryce Canyon by horseback with a one-and-half hour guided tour that takes small groups to Fairy Castle and back. A three-hour tour explores the Peek-a-Boo Loop by horseback as well.

Take a hike when you explore Bryce Canyon with kids.
Kids love to hike and Bryce Canyon National Park offers several family hiking trails. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Bryce Canyon National Park hosts two summer festivals. An Annual Astronomy Festival in June and an Annual Geology Festival in July for visitors looking for specialized programming.

Bryce Canyon National Park features night sky programming. The park’s dark rangers, who specialize in the night sky, host programs to see a world beyond the naked eye.

Outfitted with high-powered telescopes, dark rangers point viewfinders on the Milky Way and nursery nebulae. On full moons, dark sky rangers guide visitors through Bryce Canyon on moonlit hikes.

Bryce Canyon with Kids

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the patches that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.

Lodging in Bryce Canyon National Park

Stay in a historic cabin when you explore Bryce Canyon with kids.
Reserve a cabin steps from Bryce Canyon’s rim to make memories with your kids. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For lodging in the park, the rustic Bryce Canyon Lodge offers rooms in the 1925 historic lodge listed on the Register of Historic Places. The Bryce Canyon Lodge features a restaurant, a pizzeria along with lodge rooms and a few suites.

For guests looking for more space, western cabins are located steps from the canyon’s edge and the lodge. They offer rustic elegance in a more private setting.

Where’s Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is located approximately 270 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada, to the south and 270 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah, to the north. Both cities offer international airports.

Bryce Canyon National Park offers a difference landscape and included in national park itineraries. It’s located 85 miles from Zion National Park. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 158 miles away.

Bryce Canyon National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per private vehicle.

Bryce Canyon National Park offers a free seasonal shuttle bus from the visitor center every 15 minutes and stops at the lodge, the campgrounds and Sunset, Bryce, Inspiration and Sunset Points.

Know Before You Go:

  • Bryce Canyon has frequent thunderstorms during Monsoon season, June through August. For your safety, when thunder roars, head indoors.
  • Bryce Canyon doesn’t have a partial fence around the canyon like Grand Canyon. Hike with the kids within arm’s reach.
  • Take it easy at Bryce Canyon, elevations range from 6,600 to 9,100 ft
  • Seasonal road closure can occur during the winter.

Take Your Kids to Prison for Family Fun

Alcatraz with Kids
On a clear day, Alcatraz doesn’t look that creepy but of course looks can be deceiving. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Why would you visit Alcatraz with kids? Well, Alcatraz topped the San Francisco to-do list for my kids, 9, 13 and 14. ALL DAY they asked, when are we going to Alcatraz. Seriously. And it was their favorite national park site of the summer after stopping at most of the national park sites on the West Coast, like Redwoods, Death Valley, Olympic, Mount St. Helens, Oregon Caves, Lassen Volcanic and Mt. Rainier.

A Prison with Kids?

I have boys and my boys are fascinated by prisons, along with a list of other things that most Moms don’t want to talk about. So I decided to tour the prison that defines hard-core prison life.

Explore Alcatraz with kids.
A walk through Alcatraz at twilight defines creepy for me. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

As a kid of the 80s, I’m all about scaring a couple of kids straight.  A walk through Alcatraz at twilight is creepy and borderline scary.But tweens and teens love to walk the line of scary and creepy so it’s perfect for them.

Though it’s not all creepy. The views of downtown San Francisco can’t be beat, really stunning. I booked the evening tour and the ferry ride along with the sunset were top-notch. Though I think we were lucky, remember that San Francisco fog!

Take a ferry to Alcatraz with kids.
On a clear afternoon, the view of downtown San Francisco can’t be beat. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

I had to see it for myself. Alcatraz is one of the places you have to visit to understand. Pictures can be haunting but walking through the cell block as the dabbled light casts a ghostly glow is eerie.

Alcatraz–What’s behind the name

Derived from the Spanish word alcatraces, or seabirds, the birds have called the island home for generations. In the 1850s, the island became a military fortress due to its strategic positioning in the San Francisco Bay.

Since the shipping traffic increased from San Francisco after the gold rush, a lighthouse was needed. In 1854 the Alacatraz Island Light became the first lighthouse on the West Coast.

During the Civil War, Alcatraz Island housed 400 soldiers and numerous cannons to protect the port. However, in 1907 the U.S. Army decommissioned Alcatraz.

The island always housed prisoners from the early days as a military fort. And soon after its decommission as a fort, military guards built a cellhouse.

Explore Alcatraz with kids and walk through the cell block.
A few of the cells on the tour feature personal belongings of the prisoners. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

In 1915, Alcatraz was renamed the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch, a military prison. During the Great Depression, Alcatraz transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice. Soon after, it became a high-profile, maximum-security federal penitentiary.

Home to the worst of the worst, infamous inmates like Al Capone, along with others with nicknames like Creepy, Doc, Machine Gun, and Birdman of Alcatraz were all incarcerated on The Rock. Inmates that caused problems in other prisons, came to Alcatraz too.

Explore Alcatraz with kids during your trip to San Francisco.
Alcatraz offers few windows so the light is dim and spooky. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

After the prison closed in 1963, Native Americans occupied the island in effort to claim it for all tribes. Support dwindled and in 1972, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Explore Alcatraz with Kids

Alcatraz is creepy and eerie in the evening so the younger kids might be frightened by the night tour. My kids, 9, 13 and 14, loved this tour but tweens and teens love to be freaked out a bit. Actually Alcatraz was their favorite national park site from the entire summer.

Explore Alcatraz with Kids when you visit San Francisco.
My kids, 9, 13 and 14, loved this tour because its was equal parts eery and creepy. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Hard to believe, yet kids lived on Alcatraz as prison guards lived on the island and brought their families with them. The kids of Alcatraz played in the gardens and Moms rarely locked their doors.

Stop by the Ranger Station at the dock and pick up a Junior Ranger booklet. Take the tour, finish the booklet and turn it back in to the park ranger for a special badge.

Night Tour

Tour Alcatraz with kids during your trip to San Francisco.
The hospital ward creeps out adults and younger kids might want to skip it. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

We explored Alcatraz during the twilight hours for the Night Tour. A special feature of this tour is the cell house lock-down where a Park Ranger unlocks then locks all the cell doors on the cell block at once. A must if you take the Night Tour.

This tour is especially creepy since the setting sun casts deep shadows throughout the prison. The lighting is limited and the hospital ward is particularly eery in the evening. It might be too scary for younger kids, my 9-year-old decided to skip this portion of the tour.

Lock the kids up when you tour Alcatraz with kids.
Sometimes good kids go bad. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Birds of Alcatraz

The birds came first, though moved on after humans occupied the island in the 1850s. When the prison closed in the 1963, the birds returned to the protected location that lacked natural predators.

The island offers refuge for over 5,000 birds today. The waterbirds include Pigeon Guillemots, Snowy Egrets, Western Gulls, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Brandt’s Cormorants. Some areas of the island may close to protect nesting birds that will abandon their nest if humans come too close.

Is a tour of Alcatraz Prison right for your kids? Find out the best time to visit and what to except for one of the most popular tours in San Francisco.

Birders, remember your binoculars and grab the brochure, Waterbirds of Alcatraz, at the kiosk after disembarking the ferry.

The Gardens of Alcatraz

The gardens that still bloom off the most surprising feature of the former high-security prison. Sprinkled throughout the property, residents first planted the gardens in the late 1800s.

Visit the gardens when you explore Alcatraz with kids.
Gardens sprinkle Alcatraz Island, planted and maintained by former inmates. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

With the help of reclaimed water, green houses and specially-trained inmates, the gardens flourished until 1963, when the prison closed. Over 230 species of ornamental plants still flourish on Alcatraz, including roses, calla lilies, bearded irises, agapanthus and hydrangeas.

Garden lovers, grab the brochure, The Gardens of Alcatraz, at the kiosk after disembarking the ferry for more information.

Get the App!

The National Park Service developed an NPS Golden Gate App, covering Alcatraz Island among other NPS sites around San Francisco. The app includes an interactive map, hidden stories and up-to-date ranger information.

Where to eat at Alcatraz

Got hungry kids? The Landing at Alcatraz, the ticketing and boarding area off The Embarcadero, offers a cafeteria with options for families along with rain ponchos and souvenirs. Food service is not available on Alcatraz Island.

Picnics are allowed near the docks when you disembark the ferry. Only bottled water is permitted on the tour.

Getting to Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay and reached by ferry only. The Alcatraz Ferry Terminal is located at Pier 33 on The Embarcadero.

Parking is an issue while visiting Downtown San Francisco. During my trip, I used public transportation and left my car at my hotel.

Alcatraz Cruises 2017 Tickets

Ages Day Tours Night Tour
Adult 18 to 61 37.25 44.25
Senior 62 + 35.25 41.25
Junior 12 to 17 37.25 43.25
Child 5 to 11 23.00 26.50
Toddler 0 to 4 Free Free
Family Pack 2 Adults + 2 Kids 112.75 Not Available


The Behind-the-Scenes Tour is 4 to 5 hours long and not available for kids under 12-years-old.

More Information about Alcatraz and San Francisco:

If you need more information about Alcatraz or San Francisco with kids, I recommend the Lonely Planet Guides, like the following.



Consideration for brands mentioned. This post includes affiliate links.

Know Before You Go:

  • Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance.
  • Parking is an issue for San Francisco. I used public transportation during my visit.
  • Alcatraz Island, or ‘The Rock”, is hilly and requires climbing. Motorized transportation is limited.
  • Luggage larger than a standard backpack is not allowed.
  • Photo ID required for the purchaser of the tickets.
  • Give yourself at least 2-and-a-half hours for the tour.
  • Bring a jacket and rain gear since the weather is unpredictable.
  • Make reservations for this popular tour months in advance, especially for the evening tour.
  • In Mid-August flies that hatch from the bird colonies and swarm.
  • The Self-Guided booklet, Discover Alcatraz – A Tour of the Rock, costs $1.
  • The cost of the tour includes an audio tour headset.


Discover a Land of Destruction at Mount St. Helens


Explore Mount St. Helens with kids.
Explore Mount St. Helens with kids to learn about the 1980 eruption that blew off a mountaintop. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Mount St. Helens, once a recreational playground for Washington, until one quiet Sunday morning in 1980 when the snowcapped mountain vaporized. A mudslide decimated a forest and a crater remained where a peak once stood. A scar in the landscape recovers and a trip to Mount St. Helens with kids is a must for your Washington road trip.

What happened at Mount St. Helens 

In 1792 British explorer Captain George Vancouver officially named Mount St. Helens after Baron St. Helens, an ambassador. Though the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and Yakama Nation’s name translates into the smoker, suggesting a history of volcanic activity.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids while in Washington.
A one-mile wide crater dominates the landscape at Mount St. Helens. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

On March 20, 1980, a 4.2-magnitude earthquake rocked Mount St. Helens and jumpstarted the volcanic activity. The next week, steam started to vent. Volcanologists flew in from around the world to watch Mount St. Helens from every vantage point. By the end of April, a bulge appeared on the north side of the mountain.

After weeks intense monitoring, Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, in a fury that geologists compared to Mount Vesuvius. Another earthquake, a 5.1-magnitude, melted the snowpack into a violent mudslide and pulverized the top of the stratovolcano into a cloud of black ash.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids and learn about the 1980 eruption.
During our visit, we attended a ranger program to learn about the fateful day in May 1980. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For the next 9 hours, a plume of ash soared 12 to 16 miles into the atmosphere that turned day into night. The eruption generated 3.9 million cubic yards of material, like ash, pumice, trees and boulders, that rushed 17 miles downstream.

In all, the eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people. In its wrath, it destroyed 47 bridges, 15 miles of railroad, 185 miles of highway and 250 homes. It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history.

Explore Washington's Mount St. Helens with your kids to learn about the 1980 eruption along with the continued volcanic activity that rocks the area. Top of your adventure with a stay in a cozy off-the-grid cabin to ignite the imagination of your kids.

After the eruption, Mount St. Helens went from a 9,677-foot snow-capped peak to a 8,363-foot mountain with a one-mile wide, horseshoe-shaped crater. Since the 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens continues to rumble, with intermittent episodes of venting steam and erupting lava domes. The majority of the area is closed to visitors so scientists can continue to monitor the volcanic activity.

What to do in 3 hours at Mount St. Helens 

Drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory’s visitor center, at the end of State Route 504 (Spirit Lake Highway) and walk through the exhibits detailing the eruption. Watch one of the dramatic films and attend a ranger program, if available. Our program offered amazing historic photos of the eruption.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids.
Take a hike and see how the landscape recovers at Mount St. Helens. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Kids need to move so we hiked the Eruption Trail, a .5-mile trail from the Visitor Center. See the lava dome and the crater along with a pumice plain and landslide deposit. If time permits, stop at the Loowit Viewpoint, just west of the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Mount St. Helens with Kids

The Johnston Ridge Observatory is a must for school-age kids with geologic exhibits and live seismographs. The visitor center offers two different films, perfect for school-age kids. Though the movies might be intense for preschoolers and too loud for babies.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids during your vacation to Washington.
My kids earned a Junior Ranger badge during our visit to Mount St. Helens with special Junior Ranger programming. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During our visit to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, my kids attended a Junior Ranger program that explained the eruption in a way a kid could understand. The program took less than an hour and parents are welcome to stay or explore the monument on their own.

Family Fun at Mount St. Helens 

Due to the delicate nature of the recovering landscape and the continued seismic activity, I found limited recreational activities at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument’s Johnston Ridge Observatory. Visit other nearby locations.

  • Coldwater Lake Recreation Area offers a picnic area, an interpretive trail and a boat launch.
  • Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake is a Washington State Park that offers exhibits on the 1980 eruption. Located 6 miles from Castle Rock along State Route 504, it’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer season.
  • Try the eastside or southside of Mount St. Helens for more recreational activities, like Lava Canyon, Ape Cave or Spirit Lake viewpoints.
  • Eco Park Resorts offers horseback tours, the closest to Mount St. Helens, that ride through the blast zone.

Camping near Mount St. Helens 

For my visit to Mount St. Helens, I decided to stay as close as possible. At Eco Park Resort, just 25 miles west from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, I found several cozy, off-the-grid cabins along with tent and RV camping that unplugged my kids and recharged my spirit.

Visit Mount St. Helens with kids and stay in a nearby cabin.
We stayed in an off-the-grid cabin, minutes from the Johnston Visitor Center. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

With a flicker of the gas-powered lights, my kids, 9, 13 and 14, and I settled in for the night under our cozy patchwork quilts. Set in a pristine landscape in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, it’s hard to believe the destruction that happened here 37 years ago.

Our cabin featured a pair of bunk beds that’s my boys fought over (in a good way) and a full-sized bed, each dressed with a cozy quilts for the brisk Washington nights. Since the cabins lack electricity, two gas-powered, wall-mounted lamps lighted our cabin. The flickering glow ignited my boys’ pioneering imaginations.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids and stay in a cozy cabin.
Inside our cabin, I found a pair of bunk beds along with a full-size bed, dressed with cozy quilts. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Inside our cabin, I found a table with four chairs, perfect for games after dinner. The long counter on one side of the cabin offered amble space for organizing camping equipment.

Outside our cabin, I made dinner on my gas camp stove, while my daughter swung on the cabin’s back porch swing. As we looked across the grassy meadow, we saw the first flickers of the nightly fire in Eco Park’s fire pit while my boys played in the late summer sun.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids and stay at a cabin.
Steps from our cabin, the newly renovated bathroom had lots of hot water with a locking door and a flushing toilet. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The owners of Eco Park Resort, Dawn and Mark Smith, offer their personal experiences of the day that Mount St. Helens erupted. The Smith family resort, Spirit Lake Lodge fell victim to 500-feet of ash that day. As the land recovered, the Smith family returned and opened Eco Park Resort in 1995 at 14000 Spirit Lake Highway.

Where’s Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

The Johnston Ridge Observatory is located 52 miles east of Castle Rock, Washington, along State Route 504 (Spirit Lake Highway). It’s located 110 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, and 150 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington.

Both cities offer international airports. The closest towns with traveler’s services are Castle Rock or Kelso, both along Interstate 5. Public transportation is not available to the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area offers a scenic drive, just 165 miles away. Astoria and the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks offers more national park fun, 120 miles west.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is open 7 days a week from mid-May until the end of October, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase an adult admission for $8 per person, kids 15 and under enter for free.

Know Before You Go: 

  • Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument’s Johnston Ridge Observatory is closed from the end of October until mid-May.
  • Mount St. Helens includes levels of restricted areas for the safety and protection of the recovering landscape.
  • Pets, bikes and horses are prohibited to protect the recovering landscape. Though a few bike trails are open.
  • Camping is prohibited at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
  • Eco Park Resort is open from May until November and reservations are required.
  • Bring a battery-operated lantern for your stay at Eco Park Resort for additional lighting in the cabin and making after-dark runs to the potty.
  • Individual ground fires aren’t allowed at Eco Park Resort, though they light a fire pit that guests can enjoy. Remember the marshmallows!
  • Due to the remote location, Wi-Fi is not available at Eco Park Resort, though I had reliable cell service.
  • Since the cabin is off-grid, no electrical outlets are available in the cabin. Remember to charge the phone before arriving.
  • The cabins are heated though I didn’t turn of the heat for my stay.
  • The hot water is on a timer and the bathrooms contain showers only. The doors lock and if you have little kids, I recommend staying with them.

Explore like a Kid in the Columbia River Gorge

Explore Timberline Lodge when you visit Columbia River Gorge with kids.
The Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood is one of Oregon’s seven natural wonders and a quick drive from the Columbia River Gorge. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Oregon boasts seven natural wonders, like Crater Lake and the Oregon Coast. Two of those destinations lie within miles of each other, a few hours from Portland.

Topping my list of scenic drives, the Columbia River Gorge protects over 80 river along Interstate 84. Along the majestic river, I found unbelievable waterfalls steps from the road. And what can be better than fresh fruit from the miles of Oregon orchards along the Fruit Loop.

Mount Hood stands tall as a beacon in northern Oregon. It offers season-to-season skiing and boarding along with the historic Timberline Lodge for national park lodge lovers.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Discover the Columbia River Gorge with Kids.
Climb high above the river to see how mighty the Columbia River is. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The ice age 15,000 years ago created the Columbia River Gorge with its distinctive V-shape. With uncontrolled flooding and seasons of freeze-and-thaw, the Columbia River Gorge features a high concentration of waterfalls to the delight of waterfall chasers, like me.

The Native Americans used the Columbia River for transportation and trade, using wooden canoes to navigate the untamed river. In 1805 Lewis and Clark’s Expedition explored along the Columbia on their way to the Pacific.

Explore Fort Clatsop with kids and earn a Junior Ranger badge.
Explore Lewis and Clark sites in Oregon and Washington to earn a Junior Ranger patch. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Army Corps of Engineers tamed the Columbia River falls in 1957 when it constructed the Bonneville Dam and The Dalles Dam. In 1986, Congress established the Columbia River Gorge as a national scenic area. 

Family Fun along the Columbia River

The Dalles

I started in The Dalles on the eastern edge the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Up first, the official interpretive center at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum where my kids, 9, 13 and 14, went to work on the museum’s scavenger hunts learning about the pioneers and Lewis and Clark.

The Columbia River Gorge tops my list for family fun in the Pacific Northwest. With something for everyone, my family found outdoor sports for every season, waterfalls, fields of fruit and flowers along with local shops and restaurants. Got all the details to plan your trip.

During our visit, we learned about the Oregon Trail pioneers and the natural resources of the Columbia River. The Lewis and Clark Expedition and Oregon canning industry get equal attention.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult admission is $9, kids from 6 to 16 are $5 and kids 5 and under are free, located at 5000 Discovery Drive.

Explore the Columbia River Gorge with kids.
The Army Corps of Engineers built and operates the dams along the Columbia River. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Since the Army Corps of Engineers tamed the wild Columbia River, we visited The Dalles Lock and Dam. With a visitor center and a Junior Ranger activity booklet, my kids learned about the importance of dams, water safety and how fish use fish ladders.

Free and open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Tour the dam with scheduled tours on summer weekends. The visitor center is located at 3545 Bret Clodfelter Way.

Hood River with Kids

Just 22 miles west of The Dalles, our next destination offers lots of agritourism. Hood River, bulges with wineries, orchards, farm stands and lavender fields.

Explore the Fruit Loop when you visit the Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Columbia River’s Fruit Loop offers endless fruit stands, like several cherry varieties you can only sample in Oregon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Fruit Loop starts in Hood River, a town along the Columbia River’s Interstate 84. With over 35 miles of country roads to meander, we spent an afternoon sampling endless fruit stands. Since it was cherry season we sampled every local variety, many too delicate to ship outside of the region.

I adore lavender so a stop at Hood River Lavender Farms (3801 Straight Hill Road) to pick my own lavender bouquets was mandatory. The gift shop offers lavender infused products and the bees seemed friendly.

Pick lavender at the lavender farm when you explore Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Stop and smell the lavender during the summer. I picked several bunches. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Kids love animals so we stopped at Cascade Alpacas and Foothills Yarn and Fiber (4207 Sylvester Drive). With spinning demonstrations, my kids learned how alpaca fur turns into yarn.

Waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge 

The Columbia River Gorge’s waterfalls offer spectacular hikes and envy-worthy photo opportunities. The most well-known waterfall, Multnomah Falls, is just the beginning. As a ribbon of water plummets 620 feet, it’s the second highest year-round waterfall in the U.S.

Visit Multnomah Falls when you explore the Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Multnomah Falls is a must, if the parking lot is full, come back in the late afternoon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Located at exit 31, the U.S. Forest Service Rangers hand out Columbia River Gorge Junior Ranger booklets for the kids and award niffy patches at the visitor center. I walked through Multnomah Falls Lodge next to the falls, with a regionally-inspired menu along with a separate bar. Restrooms, a snack bar and a gift shop offer the necessities.

Hike to the Benson Bridge, a .25-mile hike from the visitor center, an option for most visitors. Or take the 1.2-mile hike to the top of the falls, don’t forget the water bottle.

Explore the waterfalls when you visit Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Latourell Falls offers fewer crowds and a convenient parking lot a few miles from Multnomah Falls. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Don’t skip the other waterfalls along the Columbia River Scenic Highway (Hwy. 30), the crowds diminish and scenery increases.

Latourell Falls, located in Guy W. Talbot State Park, features a 249-foot plunge fall a short hike from the parking lot.

Bridal Veil Falls also requires a short hike, one mile west of exit 28 off Interstate 84. Visitors gaze at the tiered waterfall set in a mossy forest.

Visit Horsetail Falls when you explore Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Horsetail Falls is another waterfall to visit along the Columbia River Gorge. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Wah-kee-na Falls, .5 miles west of Multnomah Falls, translates into most beautiful from the Yakama language. A 242-foot tiered waterfall awaits with a nearby picnic area.

Horsetail Falls, 2.5 miles east of Multnomah Falls, offers a 176-foot waterfall steps from the highway.

Best Places to Watch the Sunset

Might not be the Oregon coast though I found a couple of spots to catch the sunset. Stop by the Vista House at Crown Point, a memorial dedicated to the Oregon pioneers and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1918, it’s perched 733 feet above the Columbia River and the setting sun casts an amber glow in its windows.

Mount Hood stands as a beacon along the Columbia River Gorge, rising up from the evergreen landscape with glaciers and year-round skiing. An easy drive allows families to explore the area, a quick drive from the Columbia River Gorge.

Explore Timberline Lodge when you visit Columbia River Gorge with kids.
The Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood is a historic national park lodge. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

While on Mount Hood, walk through Timberline Lodge. The historic national park lodge is a must lovers of the parkitecture, Timberline Lodge offers its guests rustic elegance. With six sides, the four-story building features a central fireplace, handmade furnishings and wood carvings throughout the lobby.

Lodging along the Columbia River Gorge 

During my visit, I stayed at the Cousins Country Inn in The Dalles. The conveniently located  off Interstate 84, it offers all the necessities a Mom needs, like self-service laundry and a pool for the kids.

With a restaurant located onsite, I appreciated the convenience of home-style meals. My kids couldn’t be over their cinnamon rolls as big as a plate.

Hood River, Oregon, is another option for lodging, located about halfway through the Columbia River Gorge. Close to the western edge of the gorge is Portland, Oregon, with numerous lodging and dining options.

Where’s the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Columbia River Gorge starts 30 miles east of Portland, Oregon, along Interstate 84. Portland offers the closest international airport.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. The National Park site is a fee-free area.

Interstate 84 runs the length of the scenic area though I recommend exiting and driving the Columbia River Scenic Highway.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is a quick 80 miles north along Interstate 5. Lewis and Clark National Historical Park gives kids a further understanding of the 1805 expedition with numerous sites at the mouth of the Columbia River, 120 miles west. Oregon Caves National Monument and Crater Lake National Park offer more national park sites to explore.

Know Before You Go: 

  • Grab your fresh fruit first before passing it to the back seat. Kids can vacuum pounds of fresh fruit in minutes.
  • Lavender can give some people headaches in high concentrations, like the car ride home.
  • If parking is unavailable at Multnomah Falls, tour nearby Bridal Veil Falls and circle back around.
  • Look out for banana slugs near the waterfalls, slugs the size and color of a banana.

More Information:

I recommend the Moon Guides for more information. I own several and use them to research my trips.


Consideration for brands mentioned. This post contains affiliate links.

Take Epic Expedition with Explorers in the Pacific Northwest

Explore Fort Clatsop with Kids.
Discover the Columbia River like the legendary explorers, Lewis and Clark. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

After exploring the U.S. and the majority of Canada with my three kids, 9, 13 and 14, I’m still amazed by what fascinates them. I thought historical sites about explorers would be a hard sell.

Not so. My boys, 9 and 13, knew more about Lewis and Clark than I did. Of course, they were hooked after the park ranger fired off an antique musket at our first stop.

Who are Lewis and Clark?

Explore Fort Clatsop with kids.
Retrace the steps of Lewis and Clark’s expedition at Fort Clatsop in Oregon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The famous explorers that charted the western U.S. after the Louisiana Purchase. President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, both in their early 30s, to discover a water passage to the Pacific Ocean.

Starting in 1804, Lewis and Clark along with the other men of the Corps of Discovery, set out from St. Louis, Missouri, headed west to the Pacific Ocean. Not until November 1805 did the Lewis and Clark Expedition plus Sacagawea and her baby reach the Pacific Ocean across uncharted territory.

Explore Fort Clatsop with kids.
Explore Fort Clatsop at the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park with your kids to learn about fur trading and the Corps of Discovery. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Needing a place to spend the winter, they built Fort Clatsop at the mouth of the Columbia River. For three months, the Corps of Discovery sewed moccasins, hunted and made salt in preparation for the trip back. In March 1806, they left for St. Louis.

Family Fun at the Lewis & Clark National Historical Park

During our visit we stopped by the visitor center at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park at Fort Clatsop first. With an introductory movie and an interpretive area, my kids got the basic history of the expedition.

Explore Fort Clatsop with kids.
Kids learn about primitive fort life in 1800s at Fort Clatsop. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Next we hiked to the replica of the wooden Fort Clatsop that features living history demonstrations. We explored the fort to see how the Corps of Discovery lived, learned about fur trading and the woolen Hudson Bay blankets used in trading.

To my boys’ delight, our costumed ranger loaded up an antique musket. With a blast of fire and a boom that rumbled through the forest, the ranger fired off the rifle. My boys wanted to enlist as explorers on the spot, instead we explored more Lewis and Clark sites.

Explore Fort Clatsop with kids.
The costumed Park Ranger demonstrated the firing of an antique musket during our visit. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During the summer, ranger programming is offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. most days at the fort. Several different programs are offered and the schedule is available at the visitor center.

Fort Clatsop with Kids

Discover Fort Clatsop with kids.
My kids knew more about Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery than I did. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Park Rangers present them after completing their booklets.

To earn the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks Junior Ranger patch, grab an age-based booklet at the visitor center and complete required activities. The Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks Junior Ranger patches comes with rank patches based on the number of Lewis and Clark sites kids visit.

Explore Fort Clatsop with kids and earn a Junior Ranger badge.
Explore Lewis and Clark sites in Oregon and Washington to earn a Junior Ranger patch with a special rank patch. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Complete seven activities in the Junior Ranger booklet and visit one site to earn the rank of Private. Visit two sites to earn the rank of Sergeant, three sites to earn the rank of Captain and visit four sites to earn the rank of President. Some of the sites are in Washington, across the Astoria Bridge.

Hiking at the Lewis and Clark Parks

Fort-to-Sea Trail offers a 6.5-mile path from Fort Clatsop to the Pacific Ocean. It retraces the route that the Corps of Discovery took from Fort Clatsop to the ocean and to Netul Landing along the river.

Fort Stevens State Park offers hiking paths north of the Lewis and Clark National and State Parks. Sunset Beach State Recreation area offers hiking as well, both in Oregon.

Cape Disappointment in State Park in Washington offers hiking. I found hiking at Fort Columbia State Park in Washington as well.

Other sites to explore about Lewis and Clark

Explore the Pacific Northwest to retrace the steps of the legendary explorers, Lewis and Clark, with your kids with eight sites across Oregon and Washington.

The Lewis and Clark National and State Parks is a collection of national and state park sites dedicated to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Located on both sides of the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon, start at the main visitor center at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in Astoria, Oregon, or Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington.

Though several Lewis and Clark Expedition sites preserve the history across the western U.S. Along with the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail that retraces the route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean across present-day Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Explore the Lewis and Clark sites with kids in Washington.
Members of the Corps of Discovery made salt from ocean water with this oven to preserve meat. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker


  • Fort Clatsop at the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park—one of the main visitor centers
  • Netul Landing—along the Lewis and Clark River
  • Fort Stevens State Park—visit the 1906 wreck of the Peter Iredale along the beach.
  • Salt Works—where the Corps of Discovery made salt from ocean water to preserve meat.
  • Ecola State Park—Captain Clark and Sacagawea trekked to this area.
Explore Fort Clatsop with kids along with the beaches of the Pacific.
A safe and navigable route to the Pacific Ocean lead Lewis and Clark across the continent in the early 1800s. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker


  • Cape Disappointment State Park— one of the main visitor centers and offers a full-service state park.
  • Fort Columbia State Park—home to the Chinook Indians and the coastal defense fort.
  • Dismal Notch—a landing spot for the Corps of Discovery along the Columbia River.

Where’s Lewis and Clark National Historical Park

Located at 92343 Fort Clatsop Road in Astoria, Lewis and Clark National Historical Park is open seven days a week (closed December 25). Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and until 5 p.m. during the rest of the year. Use an annual pass or pay $5 per person for adults, 16+ (kids under 15 are free).

Know Before You Go:

  • Be prepared for rain at any time.
  • Limited food service at the park sites so pack a picnic.

Hike like an Ewok in California’s Redwoods

Take a hike as one of the things to do with kids in the Redwoods.
Explore Redwood National and State Parks with your family to meet the tallest trees on the planet. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Kids love records and it doesn’t matter if it’s tallest or shortest most days. On a recent road trip up the California coast from San Francisco, my kids discovered the tallest trees. Then we learned the ancient, or old growth redwoods, are tallest trees in the world and the tallest living things on our planet.

Redwood National and State Parks

Hike a trail as one of the things to do in the Redwoods with kids.
The redwood groves offer family-friendly hikes where Ewoks once played. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Until 1800, approximately 2 million acres of redwood forests covered California’s northern coast. Then the gold rush started to tarnish and logging became the next gold mine.

California preserved the remaining redwoods in 1923 when it created the first of three state parks. In 1968, Redwood National Park extended the area of protection to link all the state parks and in 1978, the park expanded further. In 1980, the United Nations designated Redwood National and State Parks as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hike the Lady Bird Johnson Grove as one of the things to do in the Redwoods with kids.
Explore the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, a former first lady, during your trip. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Three types of redwoods exist yet only one type grows in the Redwood National and State Parks. With bark that measures 12-inches thick, redwoods have no known diseases or suffer from insect damage.

  • The Coast Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world and located along the northern California coast. They are the tallest variety with heights over 370 feet from a seed the size of a tomato’s.
  • The Giant Sequoias are located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in Central California. They are bulkier with thicker trunks yet not as tall.
  • The Dawn Redwoods were thought to be extinct, yet discovered in 1944 in Central China.

6 Things to do in the Redwoods with Kids

Redwood National and State Parks offers lots of recreation options for families.

Take your family to a mysterious land where Ewoks once played. After that kids can spot a Roosevelt Elk or hop on their bikes in a favorite national park in northern California.

Scenic Drives

If limited on time, the scenic routes offer glimpses of the magnificent redwood forests. Drive down Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, a 10-mile paved road that parallels U.S. Route 101, for some of the best tree viewing. The Enderts Beach Road is a 2-mile road that offers amazing views of the coastline near Crescent Beach.

Family Hikes

Hiking always tops my list. During our visit, we hiked the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, a 1-mile loop off Bald Hills Road. The path meanders through a fern-covered grove where the dedication of Redwood National Park took place.

For families with younger kids, try the Ah-Pah Interpretive Trail, a .3-mile walk off Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. This trail takes visitors through the rehabilitation process after logging.


Redwood National Park offers back-country cycling on rehabilitated logging roads, one of just a few parks that allow this. Check in at the visitor center for a brochure and current conditions.

Widlife Viewing

The Roosevelt Elk herd graze in the Orick area. Catch a glimpse in the spring and fall, especially during the elk rut in the fall. The annual mating ritual when males battle each other for the right to mate.

Tide Pooling

Bring the water shoes and check out the tide charts so kids can explore a tiny marine world. The best place to find a tide pool is Enderts Beach, .5-mile hike from the Crescent Beach Overlook. Whale watching from the shore is best in November and March during the gray whale migration.

Organized Tours

Elk Meadows Cabins can arrange guided tours like family horseback riding and kayak tours. Rent mountain bikes and arrange a guided trip. Or reserve a fresh and salt water fishing excursion or a birding tour.

Redwoods with Kids

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Redwood National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the park rangers present them after completing their booklets.

The Redwood Junior Ranger booklet is the same for ages 4 and up. Kids complete the number of activities in the booklet based on their age. A ranger program is not required to earn this junior ranger badge though visiting a tide pool or taking a hike in the redwoods is encouraged.

The California State Parks offers a Junior Ranger program for kids visiting the Jedediah Smith Visitor Center or the Prairie Creek Visitor Center.

Lodging in the Redwood National and State Parks

Stay in a Cabin as one of the things to do in the Redwoods with kids.
Redwood National and State Parks offers limited lodging in the area so we stayed at the Elk Meadows Cabins. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During my visit to Redwood National and State Parks, I reserved a cabin at the Elk Meadow Cabins ($$-$$$). Located three miles north of Orick, California, Elk Meadow Cabins offers six three-bedroom, two-bath cabins that I would describe as a small house instead of a cabin. They line a short street right off U.S. Route 101 in an area that has a resident herd of Roosevelt Elk.

Outfitted with all the necessities a family needs, I found this house a charming place to stay for a couple of days. This area of California is remote and the Elk Meadow Cabins offers an excellent location to base your Redwood National and State Parks excursions.

Stay in a cabin as one of the things to do in Redwoods with kids
Stay in a cozy cabin in the Redwood State and National Park on the northern California Coast. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

With homespun charm, my cabin featured two bedrooms with a queen bed each and one bedroom perfect for kids with a pair of twin beds. One bathroom included a tub for the kids who bath and the other bathroom had a shower and stackable washer and dryer.

Stay in a cabin as one of the things to do in Redwoods with kids.
My cabin offered three cozy bedrooms decorated with charming quilts. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The kitchen included all the necessary cooking equipment for a family, including a dishwasher. During our stay, I opted to grill outside since it’s a kid-pleaser and easy-to-clean up for Mom. I found a grill on the back deck along with a table for dining al fresco. Grab groceries before heading out to Redwood National Park.

Our cabin featured cable television and Wi-Fi but my kids played outside until dark. Bring the bikes or kayaks, the cabins feature a small garage for storing your toys. Elk Meadow Cabins offers a community fire pit and Jacuzzi.

Grill up some dinner as one of the things to do in the Redwoods with kids.
Stop by the grocery store and grill up dinner on the outside grill or use the fully-stocked kitchen. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Where’s Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks are located along U.S. Route 101 in Northern California. From the south, Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, 2 miles west from Orick, California, is 312 miles north of San Francisco. On the north side of the park, the Jedediah Smith Visitor Center in Crescent City, California, is 322 miles south of Portland, Oregon.

Redwood National and State Parks is 63 miles to Oregon Caves National Park, 170 miles to Crater Lake National Park and 185 miles to Lassen National Volcanic National Park.

Details for Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks are open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. The Redwood National Park is a fee-free area. Though Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwood State Park and Prairie Creek Redwood State Park collect day-use fees at their respective campgrounds.

U.S. Route 101 runs north and south though the Redwood National and State Parks. Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway offers a scenic drive and several unpaved roads offer beach access. Though trailers are prohibited.

More Information:

I recommend the Moon Guides if you need more information.


Consideration for brands mentioned. This post contains affiliate ads.

Know Before You Go: 

  • When exploring the beach, never turn your back to the ocean. Sneaker waves can occur at any time.
  • Rip currents are strong currents that can occur at anytime. Put the kids in life jackets.
  • If exploring the tide pools, remember rising tides can cut off access.
  • If you feel a strong earthquake, move to higher ground in case of Tsunami.
  • Ticks carrying Lyme disease have been found in the Redwood National and State Parks.
  • Know how to identify Poison Oak; it can be found along the trails.
  • Best places to restock: stop at Crescent City, California if driving down from the north and McKinleyville, California, if arriving from the south.
  • Give Roosevelt Elk space, they are unpredictable animals that weigh 1,000 pounds.