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The Most Kid-Friendly Travel Destination Ever?

L shows off a winning handful.

L shows off a winning handful.

In my experience as a parent, the most kid-friendly travel destinations involve adventure, interactivity, constantly changing scenery (to keep things interesting), and a quest. They take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. They spark imagination. And they allow for souvenirs.

For all of these reasons, Glass Beach, part of MacKerricher State Park in the tiny Northern California town of Fort Bragg, might just be the most kid-friendly travel destination ever.

As its name suggests, the beach is known for glass—specifically, beach glass. And there’s a whole lot of it; so much so that in any given handful bits of beach glass outnumber rocks by a margin of 10 to 1. Most of the bits have been smoothed and rounded by the churning of the ocean. For kids who like hunting for treasure and sparkly stuff, it’s the perfect activity for an epic day.

Also important: It’s totally free.

I first visited the beach eight years ago with my wife (on a trip to celebrate my first section-front feature in the San Francisco Chronicle). This past weekend, as part of a 3-day road-trip along the Mendocino County coast, I went back—this time with my two daughters.

To put it simply, the girls could not believe their eyes. My older daughter, L, thought I had brought her to a secret land of jewels. My favorite of her exclamations: “Daddy, the beach is glimmering!”

It helped that we selected a cove where there were no other humans in sight. From a parking lot near the trailhead, we hiked about a quarter-mile on an access path flanked on one side by wildflowers. Then we descended a steep trail to the beach—a typical NorCal affair, complete with bull kelp, natty sea grass, sand fleas and millions and millions of tiny rocks.

We spent about an hour down there, sifting through handfuls of rocks and glass to put together a modest collection. I instructed the girls to look for the rarest types: red and blue. They came up empty on those fronts, but ended up with a Ziploc baggie full of white, green and brown.

(Technically, at least according to signs all over the place, we weren’t supposed to take the glass off the beach. To any state park officials reading this: I confess. I’m guilty. I did it for the kids. And I’d do it again.)

The beach itself has a colorful (pun intended) history. One of my travel-writing buddies, Susan Kim, did a piece for Coastal Living a few years back on the place; in it, she notes that most of the glass comes from the site’s former life as a dump.

Of course I didn’t explain the true story to my girls. Instead, I let them tell the tales. L, who is developing an imagination to rival J.K. Rowling’s, said the “glass jewels” had been sent to shore by ocean princesses who wanted little girls to enjoy them. R, my younger daughter, was content to chant, “Beach glass! Beach glass!” incessantly (until a sand flea or seagull distracted her).

Three days later (and counting), the girls are still talking about the experience.

Here at home, the glass lives in a tiny jar, and L has counted the contents at least a dozen times. If R can’t spot the jar on the counter, she yells, “Where’s [the] beach glass?” until someone points it out. There have been pictures of the beach glass. Songs about it. Even some poems.

If all of this doesn’t prove that Glass Beach is the most kid-friendly travel destination ever, I’m not sure what else could.

What are some of your favorite kid-friendly travel destinations and why?