Best Outdoor Education Schools In California 2023

California’s marvelous environment and topography make it a great place for children to learn about the outdoors. With extensive forest land, rivers, coastlines, and many other features, there are many places where kids can gain an outdoor education.

The amazing scenery and landscapes let children do fun activities like canoeing, birdwatching, kayaking, swimming, learning about different plants, and much more. There are outdoor schools all around the area, including cities like Los Angeles and San Bernardino.

If you’re a school looking to take students on a day or overnight field trip somewhere or a parent hoping to enroll your child in an outdoor class, these amazing outdoor education schools can teach your child everything they need to know. 

california outdoor schools

1. Pali Institute 

Address: 30778 CA-18, Running Springs, CA 92382

Grades: 4th-12th

Type: Day & Residential

Pali Institute started as a day camp built on a 70-acre site before expanding to its current 250-acre size. Since 2003, Pali Institute has offered thousands of students an opportunity for hands-on learning. The school’s principal ethos is to “bring textbooks to life” by encouraging practical education and the application of lessons learned in the outdoor classroom. 

Pali Institute offers classes in three broad categories: Outdoor Education, Science, and Leadership. More than 90 percent of these classes are hands-on, making students more engaged and excited to learn. For example, participants might dissect a squid to learn animal biology or work on a murder mystery to learn Forensics. 

Pali Institute is one of the few schools accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). The WASC employs 100+ standards as part of a rigorous pre-accreditation process, so you can trust any school that bears its approval. 

Pali Institute also boasts accreditation from the Association for Experiential Education (AEE). An AEE accreditation is proof that Pali Institute’s experiential learning system has been adjudged to benefit students’ cognitive development. 

The Pali Institute program operates out of its base near the breathtaking Lake Arrowhead and San Bernardino mountains in Southern California. It offers custom 1-5 day overnight camp trips for elementary, middle, and high school students in grades 3-12. 

2. AstroCamp

Address: 26800 Saunders Meadow Rd, Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA 92549

Grades: 2nd-12th

Type: Day & Residential

AstroCamp is located in Idyllwild, CA, two hours from Los Angeles and near the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. They offer schools 3- and 5-day programs that focus on STEM activities in a fun, hands-on, exploratory way with adventures.

Teachers choose the curriculum that best suits their needs, but options range from learning about astronomy through the use of telescopes and a planetarium to learning about electricity and magnetism through a series of experiments and learning about light through the use of lasers. There is also the ever-popular building and setting off rockets. 

But it’s not all STEM activities. AstroCamp also offers a ropes course, relay activities, a zip line, outdoor hiking opportunities, and more — because the classroom shouldn’t end at the door!

They also offer 1- and 2-week summer camp programs for kids ages 8-17 during the school break.

3. Foothill Horizons

Address: 21925 Lyons Bald Mountain Rd, Sonora, CA 95370

Grades: 1st-12th

Type: Day & Residential

Nested in the foothills of the Sierra near Sonora, Foothill Horizons has been offering outdoor education programs to youngsters for 60+ years. Within this timeframe, it has acquired a reputation as one of the top science schools in the California region. 

At Foothill, students learn by going out into nature to see, touch, and feel. Not only do kids build a greater connection on these trips, but they also get to apply the concepts learned during class. Foothill’s standard five-hour science lesson is almost equivalent to weeks of science study at the average school. 

Enrolling your child allows them to develop skills they may not otherwise develop in regular school. Teamwork, planning, and critical thinking are some core skills that Foothill’s outdoor-intensive learning program can help your child build. Their nature hikes can help improve your child’s physical development and boost healthy cardiovascular activity. 

Foothill Horizons is managed by the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE) and has accreditation from the California Outdoor Schools Association (COSA) and the California Department of Education (CDE). Instructors are well-trained in the art of teaching and counseling and support students in every way possible during their stay. 

Foothill Horizons’ programs include 1-day, 2-day, 4-day, and 5-day options. Common activities include creek exploration, cavern visits, science classes, and night hikes. 

4. High Trails Outdoor Science School

Address: 47400 Monte Vista Dr, Big Bear, CA 92314

Grades: 1st-12th

Type: Day & Residential

High Trails Outdoor Science School started operations in 2000, providing overnight outdoor education for elementary and middle schools in California. With over 115,000 students visiting High Trails since its inception, it’s one you need to consider. It’s not surprising that children have higher happiness levels when allowed to freely explore the wild

High Trails operates a camp and school, providing visiting students with the best of both worlds. Students learn science by studying subjects like water systems, plant science, and ecology. They also participate in camp-style recreational activities, such as archery, orienteering, climbing, and teambuilding. 

The school operates out of the San Bernardino National Forest, which provides the perfect opportunity for students to experience nature first-hand. The campsite boasts excellent comforts, including private bathrooms and heated cabins. 

The quality of instructors can make or break any program. You want teachers with a proven track record of teaching kids in nature and a proven ability to supervise and manage students. 

High Trails conducts a rigorous screening for prospective educators to ensure your child has a safe and rewarding outdoor learning experience. They’re also required to submit proof of CPR and First Aid training before getting incorporated into the establishment. 

5. Los Angeles County Outdoor Science School

Address: 11495 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265

Grades: 5th-6th

Type: Residential

The Los Angeles County Outdoor Science School is a brainchild of the Los Angeles County Office of Education and has been operating for 60+ years. Through hands-on science enrichment classes, the Outdoor Science School helps kids cultivate scientific understanding through real-world learning and experimentation. 

The Outdoor Science School is divided into different programs. The first is a 1-2 day session aboard the Marine Science Floating Laboratory, which exposes students to aquatic ecosystems, environmental engineering, and sea life. Students can observe sea lions and mammals, discuss the Los Angeles harbor, and understand the impact of human activities on natural ecosystems. 

Other programs include 4-5 day sessions at Wrightwood Outdoor School in the San Gabriel Mountains and Colby Ranch Outdoor School in North Los Angeles. These residential camps run a state-certified science education curriculum, with highly qualified naturalists and teachers on hand to help kids learn better. 

The Outdoor Science School caters only to students in grades 5-6. If your child is outside this range, consider other outdoor schools on the list with more flexible entry requirements. 

For more options in Los Angeles, check out our outdoor schools in Los Angeles guide.

6. Sierra Outdoor School

Address: 15700 Old Oak Ranch Rd, Sonora, CA 95370

Grades: 4th-12th

Type: Day & Residential

The Sierra Outdoor School campus is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, with the surrounding Stanislaus National Forest helping students immerse themselves in nature. It’s close to the historic Sonora and Columbia regions and two hours away from Yosemite National Park. 

SOS offers three programs for students: Adventure, Science Education, and Gold Rush. 

The Science Education program at Sierra Outdoor School ground students in scientific knowledge through direct observation and exploration in nature. Visitors observe natural ecosystems, learn forest management, conduct a scientific examination of water bodies, and understand geological history by studying rock formations. 

Adventure classes are designed to push them out of their comfort zones and inspire attributes of self-reliance and courage. Some activities offered through the Adventure Program include backpacking, high ropes course, kayaking, and backpacking.

The Gold Rush program takes participants back in time to experience California’s historic Gold Rush period. They tour Columbia, a popular town during the Gold Rush, and learn what methods were used to search for gold. They also experience what life might have looked like during the Gold Rush by searching for gold using pans, rockers, and long toms. 

7. Pomona College Outdoor Education Center

Address: 601 Amherst Ave, Claremont, CA 91711

Grades: 4th-12th

Type: College Program

Pomona College’s Outdoor Education Center in Claremont, CA, engages college students in scientific learning using the natural world as a living laboratory. The OEC inspires a deep connection with nature in enrollees and equips them with skills needed to preserve the environment. 

OEC offerings include Outdoor Leadership Training, workshops, film screenings and talks, and the popular Orientation Adventure. Orientation Adventure is an annual tradition for new entrants and introduces them to the world of nature-based learning. They interact with peers, participate in hands-on outdoor learning, and enjoy recreational activities like kayaking and rock climbing. 

An wilderness education at OEC is an excellent way to hone survival skills and self-reliance. The center organizes frequent training that covers core skills like mountaineering, orienteering, wilderness first aid, backpacking, and risk management. Future Outdoor Leaders also learn technical skills important for coordinating group trips and personal ones like problem-solving skills. 

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