We hear the distinctive yelp-like barking as we turn a corner in the road along the harbor near Oceanside, Calif., our home base for a vacation north of San Diego.

“Grab a parking spot!” I blurt. That mission accomplished, my husband, Bob, our 14-year-old daughters, Katie and Kylie, and I pile out to watch the drama as half a dozen sea lions squabble for lounging space on a floating dock.

A constant “Arp! Arp! Arp!” echoes across the water as two sea lions in particular thrash their necks back and forth as if they’re going to have a thumb war with their heads.

“I think they’re playing king of the mountain,” I joke, then lean toward our twins. “They remind me of you two.”

This is our second trip minus our older son, Jon, and we’ve gotten smarter about travel with teens. We ditch road-tripping with stays in several destinations and bypass all-day theme parks, such as Legoland California Resort and Sea World San Diego. We skip tempting hotels with prime locations near downtown Carlsbad or overlooking acres of flower fields in bloom. Sharing a double-queen room for more than a night or two can quickly torpedo a trip.

Teens want less entertainment, their own space and copious amounts of food. A two-room Ocean­side condo almost on the northern end of San Diego County lets us close the door on clothing tornadoes. Bob and I can get up early while the girls sleep, walk to the beach and later catch a nap. We stock the kitchen with the season’s first strawberries, crusty bread from the local bakery, and West Coast treats such as It’s-Its, chocolate-dipped oatmeal cookie ice cream sandwiches.

We start our first morning at the Vista farmers market, where vendors tempt us with juicy, beautiful wedges of blood oranges, Indian samosas and spicy chicken, plus treats that appealed to both our daughters. Kylie stocks up on gourmet lollipops while Katie beams as she shows off her freshly hulled coconut with a straw. The afternoon brings rains, so we agree to an energy-burning trampoline park.

“Remember that tomorrow’s the desert!” I say.

Trekking to the desert

The vacation day we most worry about — a four-hour-roundtrip drive to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — takes us through citrus groves, twisty mountain roads and scrubby terrain. I yearn to show them the desert with its fascinating cactuses and ocotillo, but “hike” has become a four-letter word with our kids.

Fortunately, it becomes less “hike” and more “hunt” as Kylie’s eagle eyes spot the first of many lizards scampering for scant shade and shelter. Reptile-loving Katie joins the mission to spot as many as possible. They pause for selfies with rugged mountains in the background.

I wander to every brilliant yellow or hot pink cactus flower and try to spot a bird serenading us from a tiny oasis of palms. Bob follows happily, looking forward to the scenic drive back and fantasizing about having his Harley motorcycle for hugging the curves and catching the full fragrance of earth, fresh air, pines and orange groves.

“Seven! We’ve seen seven!” the girls yell with a lizard update, and it becomes the favorite day of the trip.

Exploring the beaches

We hit famously sunny So-Cal during an unusually wet week with temperatures that never coax anyone into a pool and certainly not into the deep chill of the Pacific. We grab sweatshirts to enjoy a few sunsets and start our mornings with coffee and watching wet-suited surfers bobbing up and down, patiently in pursuit of the perfect wave.

Most days we pick a new beach to explore. At Ocean­side, we join anglers and tourists strolling down one of California’s longest piers at 1,942 feet. At its end, we sit down for a mint-chocolate malt and burgers at Ruby’s Diner, where all the windows face the water.

Driving south on historic Hwy. 101, we head through Carlsbad (home to another don’t-miss farmers market), Escondido and Encinitas until we reach Cardiff State Beach. We gape at grand houses on towering, weather-grooved cliffs that inspire a teen photo shoot. At low tide, we hop across shallow rock formations and search pools for tiny crabs, anemones, barnacles and minnows.

Hooked on tide-pooling, we drive farther south and troll for parking at La Jolla, a chic village on the north end of San Diego. We climb down to the rock formations, peek into tide pools and leap across crevasses while scanning the deep-blue horizon for whales. We head about a half mile north to Seal Rock and the protected Children’s Pool, a sea-walled swimming area that has been taken over by Pacific harbor seals, who have their pups in mid-December through mid-May. We join travelers lining the sea wall, happily photographing the sweet interactions below us.

One pup gets stuck in the water and can’t haul itself onto the rock without a nudge and boost from its mother. Another shadows its mom expertly, swimming, spinning and diving with her cues. Dozens of other moms and seal pups lounge across vast rock ledges, where they nurse, stretch in the sand or languidly glide through safe blue pools.

A downwind whiff of seal poop makes our girls antsy to move on, but I hesitate, wanting to soak this up like a Mother’s Day Hallmark commercial.

“Just a few more minutes,” I plead, snapping more photos of mothers doting on cherished babies.

We have maybe three more big vacations before our children graduate and head into the world. That daunting thought makes me want to stretch out this week even more. I take a last lingering look at the seals, then join our girls, who cast shadows taller than mine and seem eager for the big ocean ahead.


St. Cloud-based travel writer and photographer Lisa Meyers McClintick (@lisamcclintick) also writes for USA Today, Midwest Living and TravelChannel.com.