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Seven Free or Almost Free Things to Do in San Diego. Southern California's beaches make any vacation awesome but there is also an abundanc eof fun and free family-friendly things to do that may not be on your radar screen including guided nature walks, puppet making, culture quests, stargazing, owl prowls and art encounters.Marshmallows on the Beach in San Diego

Here's the scoop.
San Diego offers cool stuff to discover in four distinct regions: coastal, valley, mountain and desert. Within an hour and a half, visitors can go from the Pacific beaches to hiking in the local mountains or exploring the vast Anza Borrego Desert – all for free. Fun right?  The suggestions which follow are worth the trip and free.Anza Borrego Desrt Discoveries in Southern California 

Roam the desert near Ghost Mountain. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has miles of foot trails and more than 500 miles of dirt roads within the 600,000-acre reserve. The best place to start is the Visitor Center tucked comfortably into the hillside making it mostly underground. Make sure to watch the free 16-minute slide show about Ghost Mountain and see where the endangered pup fish live. At the center you will see a wide variety of free year-round programs focused on astronomy, natural history, archaeology, paleontology, and the arts. Borrego is one of the best places in America to view the stars. Bonus Points: Every Saturday morning from November through April children seven-12 years old may participate in the free Junior Ranger programs originating at the Visitor Center. (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park 200 Palm Canyon Dr Borrego Springs, CA 92004. (760) 767-5311, 767-4205 or
Wednesday means free music and art.
Nurture your creative spirit with a wide variety of choices at California Center for the Arts in Escondido. The Art Museum offers special interpretive and educational programs youth, and family audiences in conjunction with its exhibitions. Most rewarding, entertaining and educational is the chance to watch the pre-show preparation and warm-up of professional dance troupes performing at the Center (General admission is $5). Bonus points: Admission is free on the first Wednesday of every month and free admission is also available for teachers the first Saturday of every month. Add music to the day by staying for one of the “Free First Wednesday” performances. (The California Center for the Arts 340 N Escondido Blvd Escondido, CA 92025. Toll-free 1-800- 988-4253 or Vilage Ewaas in Southern Califonrnia

Learn about Kumeyaah - the first residents.
  Two spots provide visitors with a means to learn about the area’s earliest residents. The first, the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center makes it easy to imagine Southern California before freeways and urban sprawl. Within the six-acre Kumeyaay heritage area docents lead free interpretive tours explaining aspects of the  Kumeyaay’s diet, housing construction methods, medicinal and religious practices.  Stops along the quarter-mile trail include native gardens, ramadas, an irrigation system, milling stations and a representative village. The second, the Barona Cultural Center & Museum houses more than 3,000 artifacts, photographic displays and highlights the  traditions of the Barona/Kumeyaay. (Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center 13104 Silver Lake Drive in Poway. (858) 668-1292 or  

Make a culture quest.
The Mingei International Museum - North County is a remarkable facility with exceptional exhibitions of folk art, craft and design. Begin with the exhibition-related video, (complimentary with admission) or join an impromptu tour by a trained volunteer. Enjoy artist/craftsmen demonstrations, workshops and programs of theater, music and dance related to current exhibitions and weekend family experiences such as puppet-building, mask-making, paper folding and kite construction. Check the website calendar for the “Discover Mingei!” Museum Treasure Hunt conducted on Community Sunday - the last Sunday of each month (Special Community Sunday admission $5 per family (619) 239-0003).  Bonus Points: There is no admission charge for children younger than six.  Admission is free on the first Wednesday of every month, and on the Second Saturday of every month from 4 to 8 pm. (The Mingei International Museum located at 155 W. Grand Ave.  (760) 735-3355 or

Prowl for owls.
Blue Sky Ecological Reserve, one of the natural beauties of the area, is open to the public (hikers only, no bicyclists) and has a full-time naturalist on duty. Docents offer a variety of programs to the public, guided hikes, campfire programs, and special evening “Owl Prowls”. On the first and third Saturday morning of each month "Discovery Tables" are set up a hundred yards from the trail's entrance. Bonus Points: Every Saturday and Sunday free wildlife/plant walks take place. Walks are slow-paced and geared for the whole family. (Blue Sky Ecological Reserve 14644 Lake Poway Road, Poway. (858) 668-4781 or Elijo Nater Center Family Programs in San Diego
Checkout the “really green” scene. The San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, a county and state regional park of nearly 1,000 acres is the home base for the new environmentally-friendly San Elijo Nature Center. Made from recycled materials, the eco-friendly two-story building boasts an array of "green" amenities including solar panels, irrigated roof plants and recycled water. Visitors can engage in interactive activities and exhibits at the facility, which focus on the ecosystem, environment and history of lagoons and the building's "green" components. Within the reserve visitors may access more than seven miles of trails via eight trailheads. Checkout Lorenzo Lizard, the hero of an e-book "Two Inch Hero"- a clever story about San Elijo Lagoon posted at the website. Join one of the fun and free guided seasonal walks conducted for families. Bonus Points: Admission to the nature center is free and free guided walks are conducted every Saturday morning from the Nature Center. (The San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve Nature Center is located at 2710 Manchester Avenue, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA Encinitas, CA 92023. (760) 436-3944

Just say "howka" or hello! 
Torrey Pines State Park and Beach edges the sea and offer eight miles of marked trails with the 1750-acre reserve.  The Visitor Center has plenty of interactive displays focusing on geology, ecology, animal life and plant species in the area. Rustic hiking trails are each approximately one mile long making it an easy option for families with younger children. From the Visitor Center take advantage of the free guided nature walks on weekends and holidays.  Learn about the Kumeyaay Indians and say “howka" which means hello. Bonus Points: Kids Corner at the website offers tips for finding and identifying animal residents that may include mountain lion, mule deer, bobcat, raccoon, opossum, squirrel, or skunk.  Torrey Pines State Reserve is located between La Jolla and Del Mar, California, north of San Diego. Need to know: The day use parking fee is $8.00 unless you arrive early to snag a beach parking space and walk up from the beach. (Torrey Pines State Park 12600 North Torrey Pines Road, San Diego CA 92037.  Visitor Center/Ranger Station (858) 755-2063

Make it happen. For more family vacation ideas go to San Diego North Convention and Visitors Bureau or 

Contents researched and posted by Nancy Nelson-Duac, Curator of the Good Stuff for the Family Travel Files. Image provided by San Diego North CVB and respective locations. Copyright updated 2017.
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