From exploring tide pools to taking bird walks along the river, park ranger programs abound in SoCal

San Diego has many different kinds of park terrains, and you don’t have to be in the mountains to catch a park ranger activity. Head down to the coast at Cabrillo for park ranger walks at the lighthouse, drive up the coast to Carlsbad’s wildlife viewing with the junior rangers, move inland for a wildlife tracking hike or nature story time at Mission Trails, or go south for a guided bird walk at the Tijuana River Estuary. Each of these experiences is so different that if you did them all you’d learn something unique from each one. Oh and bonus—all except one of these are completely free.

1. Mission Trails Regional Park

One of San Diego’s park gems offers in-person ranger activities, talks, and walks. Guided nature walks will lead you by majestic coast live oaks and the Riverside Grinding Rocks. If you have children ages 2-5, then Trail Tykes is for you—it's the second and fourth Sun. and Mon. of the month and includes a story, craft, and a short walk with staff and volunteers. There are also Birding Basics classes on select Saturdays, or you can visit at nighttime for their star parties with the San Diego Astronomy Association.

Dates: Guided Nature Walks Sat., Sun. & Wed.; 9:30 a.m. 
Cost: Free

Mission Trails Regional Park
1 Father Junipero Serra Trail
San Carlos

2. Cabrillo National Monument

These scenic seaside park tours have the best views in all of San Diego. Gaze out across the ocean and look for migrating whales, and then turn around to watch sailboats and military ships enter the bay. Take the one-hour guided walking tour and learn what life was like living at the lighthouse. Then head over to the Visitor’s Center and ask for the Junior Ranger Badge program; this is a great way for kids to learn about the importance of this monument. Try to go during their snake encounter days or when you can climb down into the old military bunkers. On a low tide, walk down to the tide pools by the ocean and you’ll usually see a park ranger walking around giving educational insights about the sea creatures. Try a night hike experience on a full moon (by reservation only) with the ranger-led hike by moonlight. 

Dates: Guided Walking Tours Sat. at 11 a.m. & 1 p.m.; Snake Meet 'N Greet Thu. at 1 p.m.
Cost: Free

Cabrillo National Monument
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr.
Point Loma

3. San Dieguito River Park

Rangers lead hikes throughout the year around the lagoon, but if you want to go on your own there are many self-guided interpretive trails to learn from. The San Dieguito Lagoon Interpretive Walk is a flat four-mile out-and-back trail, so only go out so far as little feet will walk back (this is part of the eventual 55-mile long Coast-to-Crest Trail that leads out to Julian). You’ll find 20 discovery points along the way to learn about the importance of the San Dieguito River plants, animals, and Kumeyaay people who lived there. Scan the QR codes on the posts, pick up an illustrated booklet or download them ahead of time. Check their calendar online for upcoming ranger hikes and bird walks around the lagoon. Park in a legal space at the Del Mar Public Works Yard, cross over the bridge to the north side of the river, cross the street and you’ll find the park entry monument.

Dates: Bird Walks on Dec. 17, Jan. 21, Feb. 18, March 18 & April 15; 8:30 a.m.
Cost: Free

San Dieguito River Park
18372 Sycamore Creek Rd.

Two boys look through handmade binoculars with help from two adults at San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center during a ranger program for kids
Ed Slater

4. South Carlsbad State Beach & San Elijo State Beach

Soak up the views and fresh ocean air while the kids join the junior ranger classes. Bring some binoculars for wildlife viewing because who knows what your kids will see that day, maybe a pelican or even a migrating whale off the coast. Junior ranger classes are through the state, so kids will get a logbook to earn a stamp with rewards as they progress through different activities each week. Children will learn 12 different activity topics like geology, ecology, and safety as they play games, hike trails, observe wildlife, and make new friends. Classes are 45 minutes long and appropriate for kids ages 6 and up.

Dates: TBD, check calendars for updates
Cost: Free

South Carlsbad State Beach
7201 Carlsbad Blvd.

San Elijo State Beach
2050 S Coast Hwy 101


5. Tijuana River Estuary

Take a leisurely stroll down the McCoy Trail on a guided bird walk at the Tijuana River Estuary. You’ll discover why this habitat is so unique for these 370 species of migratory and endangered birds that stop here on their journey. Guided Nature Walks are every second and fourth Saturday of the month; meet at 5th Street and Iris Avenue. Guided Bird Walks are every first, second, third, and fifth Sunday; meet at the Visitor Center. No reservations are needed for either one. Bring binoculars and just show up to these free guided ranger walks.

Dates: Guided Nature Walks 2nd & 4th Sat. from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Guided Bird Walks 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 5th Sun. from 10-11 a.m.
Cost: Free

Tijuana River Estuary Visitor Center
301 Caspian Way
Imperial Beach

6. San Diego Scripps Coastal Underwater Park

See the sea from a new perspective—explore the coastal tide pools with a Birch Aquarium naturalist and learn all about the sea creatures that make this their home. The San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park spans 6,000 acres of ocean bottom and tidelands, and was established back in 1929 as an academic research area. Kids will learn how important our tide pool habitats are to our local coastlines and what can be done to protect them. Birch tide pooling adventures are for guests ages 3 and older, and children ages 17 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

Dates: Select Sat. & Sun. Jan. 7-March 19, 2023; times vary
Cost: $20-$25/person

Birch Aquarium
2300 Expedition Way
La Jolla 

7. Rancho Peñasquitos Adobe Preserve

Help rangers take care of the goats at Rancho Peñasquitos Adobe. Depending on what the goats need when you’re there, rangers will let kids help with feeding or grooming. Go check out the chicken coop next door, walk around the historic homestead, or use this as a starting point for your hike into the popular canyon. There is a waterfall at the end of this hike, but it’s a ways out and back so it's best for older kids and teens to make that trek. The playground is right at the entrance to this preserve with bathrooms and a sports park too. The adobe homestead was built in 1823 and is recorded as the second oldest homestead in San Diego. Tours inside are based on availability.

Dates: Volunteers usually care for goats daily between 1-2 p.m., but times can vary
Cost: Free

Rancho Peñasquitos Adobe Preserve
12122 Canyonside Park Dr.
San Diego


Additional reporting by Bonnie Taylor

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