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California: San Diego North, Free or Almost Free Family Vacation Fun. San Diego Sand castleSouthern California has awesome beaches, delightful climate and plenty of great family vacation activities including SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, Wild Animal Park, and Scripps. Fun right? But we found a slew of fun and free family friendly things to do that may not be on your family vacation radar screen. Our list includes guided nature walks, puppet making, culture quests, stargazing, owl prowls and art encounters.
  
San Diego North region extends from La Jolla north to Oceanside along 36 miles of coastline to the valley, mountain and desert communities of Escondido, Julian and the Anza-Borrego Desert. The suggestions which follow are free and fun.

Hike by the sea. 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: Day use parking fee is $8.00 unless you arrive early, snag a beach parking space and walk up from the beach.
 
Hike, bike, or trot. Located in Escondido, Daley Ranch's 3,058-acre conservation area has more than 25 miles of multipurpose trails open to hiking, biking and riders on horseback. The original ranch structures remain and are in various stages of renovation. Three very different trailheads provide totally different types of terrain for your enjoyment. Make sure to take water,  wear head protection, sunscreen, and proper hiking boots or treaded footwear. All trails include steep and/or slippery sections. Throughout the year naturalists lead free themed hikes along selected trails. Need to know: Leashed dogs are allowed within the conservation area.  San Diego Cactus Kid

Roam the desert.
The possibilities for discoveries are endless. California's largest state park, the 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 including educational hikes, workshops, lectures and tours. Topics include astronomy, natural history, archaeology, paleontology, and the arts. Borrego is one of the best places in America to view the stars, so bring a telescope. Bonus points: Every Saturday morning from November through April children 7-12 years old may participate in the free Junior Ranger programs originating at the Visitor Center. Topics include geology, ecology, history, plants, and wildlife. Need to know: Access to the park is free but fees are charged for camping. There is no charge for use of primitive campsites. There is a $6 parking charge to hike Palm Canyon.
 
Enjoy music and art for free.
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 at 4PM and &PM.

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.
 
Hike the Volcan. Defining the crest of San Diego County's backcountry Volcan Mountain rises more than 5,000 feet and stretches from Lake Henshaw to the Anza Borrego Desert. The Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve is open to the public for hiking 7 days-a-week, dawn to dusk. Along the trails traces of Native American Life may be seen and the obvious benefit spectacular views from the desert to the coast.  Bonus points: Monthly free guided hikes to the Volcan Summit are 5-mile roundtrip junkets ideal for sturdy legs. Monthly guided hikes leave from the Hubbell Gateway Farmer Road. Bring water, a snack, and good footwear and sun protection Docent-guided hikes are conducted once a month, free of charge. San Diego Blue Sky Reserve

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. Docents explain interesting facts about artifacts which include skins, skulls, and tracks. Need to know: Dogs are allowed in the reserve but must remain leashed and on the main trail. Bonus points: Every Saturday and Sunday free wildlife/plant walks take place at variable times. Walks are slow-paced and geared for the whole family.
 
Learn about 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.

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 at the nature center, and every second Saturday of the month at Rios Avenue trailhead.

Make it happen. San Diego North is the perfect family vacation spot with 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. San Diego North Convention and Visitors Bureau or www.sandiegonorth.com

Planning Details
Daley Ranch 3024 La Honda Drive Escondido, CA 92027. (760) 839-4680 or www.fodr.org
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park 200 Palm Canyon Dr Borrego Springs, CA 92004. (760) 767-5311, 767-4205 or www.parks.ca.gov 
Torrey Pines State Park 12600 North Torrey Pines Road, San Diego CA 92037.  Visitor Center/Ranger Station (858) 755-2063 or www.torreypine.org
The California Center for the Arts 340 N Escondido Blvd Escondido, CA 92025. Toll-free 1-800- 988-4253 or www.artcenter.org
The Mingei International Museum located at 155 W. Grand Ave.  (760) 735-3355 or www.mingei.org
The Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, Farmer Road Julian.  (760) 765-4098 or www.volcanmt.org
Blue Sky Ecological Reserve 14644 Lake Poway Road, Poway. (858) 668-4781 or www.blueskyreserve.org
Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center 13104 Silver Lake Drive in Poway. (858) 668-1292 or www.friendsofthekumeyaay.org.
Barona Cultural Center & Museum 1095 Barona Road, Lakeside, CA 92040. (619) 443-7003 ext. 2 or  www.baronamuseum.org 
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 www.sanelijo.org/naturecenter.html
 

Contents researched by FTF and image provided by San Diego North CVB and respective locations within the area. Copyright 2013.
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