Nothing ignites adventure like an enthusiastic “all aboard” call from the conductor. While 2021 may go down as the year of the road trip, and California has some of the best, today we’re highlighting a different type of travel—the rail trip! Hopping on a train gives the whole family an opportunity to kick back and enjoy the ride. From great parks to historic downtowns there are so many family-friendly destinations between LA and San Diego and they’re all accessible by the Metrolink Orange County Line (if you’re beginning your journey out of LA, scroll to the bottom of the article and scroll up). Check out our insider’s guide—including tips and tricks—to plan a family rail trip to remember.
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Tips, Tricks & Tools for Riding with Metrolink
Below are tips, tricks & tools to make your train travel an awesome experience for the whole family.
-Before planning your train travel, take time to explore Metrolink’s website. Look for the orange symbol, which denotes family-friendly destinations, in the corner signaling that travelers are welcomed and encouraged to bring their kiddos.
-Calling all weekend warriors! Kids ride free on weekends. So all children ages 17 and under are free with a paying adult.
-$10 weekend day passes for adults are available. Paired with the kids free weekend deal a family of 8 (three children to each adult, so six kids and two adults) can ride for just $20.
-Check out the “rail to rail” connections, connections if you’re interested in getting from a Metrolink station to another final destination for the same price.
-Don’t leave the bikes home! Every train has a designated bike car where riders can safely store their bikes, surfboards and fully loaded picnic baskets (or all the above!).
-Worried about close quarters inside the train? Don’t fret, riders can help maintain physical distance by using the How Full Is My Train? tool which lets travelers check recent ridership levels before taking the train.
-Be “game for it all” and start your trip by downloading these fun itineraries that offer tips on different destinations and even a field trip report page where kiddos can fill in all their favorite things about the day and have it as a memento of their rail trip.
Metrolink Stop: Oceanside
Oceanside at the northernmost tip of San Diego County (the last stop on the Orange County Line if you're heading here from LA) and is one of San Diego’s most creative corners. Once known for its military presence, the city’s gone recently gone through a resurgence due to game-changing growth and development that’s brought an influx of new eateries, markets, art walks and unique shops. There’s so much to do in the city for families that we recently added an insider’s guide on where to eat, shop, play and stay.
The best part about visiting the city by train is that the stop is just a short walk from many of Oceanside’s top attractions. In just 10 minutes (add a few minutes for shorter legs) you can be at The Oceanside Museum of Art, The California Surf Museum and the Oceanside Pier and Plaza.
Good to know: Every year the city hosts Oceanside Harbor days that are fun for all ages. If you are planning a trip you can check out the 2022 dates here.
Metrolink Stop: San Clemente Pier
Whether you add a stop in San Clemente on to your visit to San Juan Capistrano (it’s just one stop south) or go to the cozy beach town for the entire day, getting off at San Clemente Pier is worth it. The town feels like a bridge between OC and San Diego and has a laid-back vibe with all the conveniences you’ll need. Take a stroll down the 1,296-foot wood structure built-in 1926. If little ones still want to run or walk you can head to The San Clemente Beach Trail. It's a beautiful, easy, and flexible trail that runs parallel to the beach (and the train tracks) for its entire length. It is flat and accessible to wheeled travelers and is great for families. Use any extra energy on a three-minute walk up the hill to Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, where your little train travelers can learn more about the history of the area. Be sure to check their schedule in advance because the center hosts a variety of free arts education programs for children year-round, including arts and garden workshops, storytime. Finally, grab a bite to eat and watch the sunset from Fisherman’s Bar and Restaurant on the pier before walking just 15 steps back to the station for your ride home.
Good to know: There are two Metrolink stations along the trail – “San Clemente” (known locally as North Beach) at its northern edge and “San Clemente Pier” (open only on weekends) in the middle. The southern end is at San Clemente State Beach.
Metrolink Stop: San Juan Capistrano
As you step off the train in San Juan Capistrano you land in the heart of the Los Rios Historic District and instantly feel its old-town charm and rich history. Wow your kiddos by letting them know they’re in one of California’s oldest neighborhoods with homes and adobe structures dating back to the early 1700 and 1900s. If that doesn’t impress them, head over to Zoomar’s Petting Zoo. The family-owned farm features pony rides, a large animal viewing space, a train, and an area where kids can get hands-on experience feeding guinea pigs and rabbits. They can also mine for gold as they play out their wild-west dreams.
Save an hour or so to explore the Mission of San Juan Capistrano. Known as “the jewel” of missions, the grounds are so beautiful that I had a hard time deciding what’s not snap-worthy. View early adobe barracks, Friars’ quarters, beautiful gardens and the original Stone Church. Audio tours are free with admission for adults and children (ages 4 to 11). While the 45-minute kid’s audio tour was developed for 4th graders, younger tourists may lose interest quickly in the recording.
Stop for tea at the very quaint The Tea House on Los Rios or go for a bite to eat in an actual original train depot Trevors on the Tracks.
Good to know: There's a Butterfly Sanctuary in front of the Montanez Adobe that you don't want to miss and if your crew needs to get some wiggles out after all the history lessons, head to Los Rios Park which has a cool old-west vibe.
Metrolink Stop: Irvine
Irvine is more sprawled out than some of our other stops, but it has several fabulous, family-friendly locations so the extra uber ride from the train station is worth it. If you want to soak in all of Orange County from 400 feet above ground head to Irvine’s 200-acre Great Park known for the legendary Great Park Balloon, The huge orange helium balloon is tethered to the ground with a 25-person capacity viewing deck. Post viewing, pint-sized park-goers can get their hands dirty exploring the grounds at the self-directed Creation Stations, where kids can play, create and explore. Kids will also love the Great Park Carousel, and don’t forget to check out the unique Kids Rock play area, which includes a rock play area, slide, underground tunnels, and picnic tables under the Great Park Balloon.
You can also rideshare to The Irvine Spectrum to take a trip on the antique-themed Carousel and 108-foot Giant Wheel that kids love. The Spectrum has plenty of shopping and entertainment to keep you busy.
For a budget-friendly (and by that, we mean totally free) option head to Adventure Playground. It’s best for preschoolers and young school-aged kids. Spend the afternoon building with giant legos, painting walls and climbing the jungle gym. Admission is free!
Good to know: Also located in Irvine is Pretend City a top spot for curious and imaginative minds!
Metrolink Stop: Tustin
When someone mentions Tustin, they might not immediately think about all the recreational gems available at this train stop but for insiders and those in-the-know, Tustin is a fantastic jumping off point for all sorts of daycation activities—from surfing and boating to biking and hiking. A short ride share or bus ride away is Newport Beach and Balboa Island so if you are in need of a seaside retreat, head here for the famous beaches and Frozen Banana dessert.
For bike riders, take the mostly flat, Mountains to the Sea Trail—a 22-mile path that will lead you to the Pacific Ocean (and drop you in Newport Beach's Back Bay where you can grab everything you need to re-energize those legs or even better, cool off at Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort). For some quick and easy, kid-friendly dining (burgers, pizzas and hot dogs), order from Moe B.'s and picnic along the promenade.
Metrolink Stop: Buena Park
You can spend a whole weekend here (and if you do, we've got the A-Z guide on what to do in Buena Park with kids) but if you only have the day or are stopping through, you can hop off the train here and take a Lyft over to Knott's Berry Farm (avoid the parking hassle and the long walk to the entrance!) for some low-stress amusement park shenanigans.
Don't miss: Before getting back on the train, head across the street from Knott's Berry Farm where you'll find an exact replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall (the famous landmark where the Declaration of Independence was signed over 200 years ago). This free museum also houses a replica of the Liberty Bell and wax figures of famous Americans.
8039 Beach Blvd.
Metrolink Stop: Union Station
Whether you are starting your train trip at LA's Union Station or ending your journey here, you can easily spend a couple of hours touring in and around this architectural gem with the kids—especially those that love trains. LA's Union Station is a Spanish-style Art Deco masterpiece filled with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a large transportation center.
Once you've checked out all things train-related, walk five minutes north and head over to Olvera Street—LA's oldest plaza dating back to 1780. PS: Make sure to stop at Mr. Churro for the classic cinnamon and sugar treat.
Of course you can get anywhere in town from here—so if you brought those bikes and want to ride along the beach, take the Expo Line all the way to Santa Monica.
—Aimee Della Bitta & Andie Huber
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