California Spring Break: 10 Places, 100 Ideas for Family Adventure

Sand boarding in Death Valley.

By Kristy Esparza, February 23, 2021

California is already feeling like spring, and spring break will be here before we know it! Thinking of an escape this year? 

In this amazing state you can visit natural wonders like desert blooms, waterfalls, beaches, sunny snowy mountains, and, of course, some really big trees. Get ready to make wonderful new memories with an adventurous spring break the whole family will love.

View from Heavenly Gondola

Play in the sun and snow in Lake Tahoe.

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San Diego

The San Diego area is a paradise for families, with endless possibilities for fun and adventure. The rainy season is usually over by the end of April, so you’re likely to enjoy sunny skies and warm weather on a spring break getaway here. 

Boys playing on the dunes on Coronado Island
Giraffe sticking his tongue out, at the San Diego Zoo
Paragliders floating near the bluffs of the Torrey Pines Natural Prserve
  • For families who enjoy a bit of adventure with their animal experiences, the San Diego Safari Park should be high on your list. Where else can you view animals via zipline, safari cart, or private cabana? You can even spend the night here with their Roar & Snore package. Get ready to splurge, because bucket list items abound here!
  • La Jolla offers special and memorable experiences like kayaking the La Jolla Sea Caves. This area is an Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve, so you have the chance to witness some spectacular scenery under the water. Of course, the sunset views from the cove are not too shabby either!
  • Nothing says spring like kite flying! Spend an afternoon flying your kite along the grassy field in the Tecolote Shores of Mission Bay Park. Leave some time for the playground or a family bike ride around the bay.
  • If your family is both artsy and outdoorsy, consider exploring some of San Diego’s outdoor art landmarks. In Escondido you can visit Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Queen Califa’s Magical Circle” in the Iris Sankey Arboretum. Among the pillars of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge is Chicano Park, an area with both historic and artistic significance to Chicano and Mexican culture. Another option is Balboa Park’s Spanish Village, where you can browse the studios and galleries of local artists in an open air art center.
  • Whether or not you’re staying on Coronado Island, be sure to make some time to play, or simply relax, here. The beach in front of storied Hotel Del Coronado is beautiful and wide, and offers plenty of places for families to play. We enjoyed the beach-side taco stand and seriously contemplated spending $195 to roast s’mores on the beach.
  • There are hikes for every level at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The Guy Fleming Trail is under a mile and winds toward gorgeous ocean views. Bring the binoculars because you may be able to spot migrating whales through April. If you have a daredevil in your group, consider leaping off the cliffs on a paragliding flight over the ocean and down to the beach below. Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of the largest tandem operators in the world, and all ages are welcome to fly.   

Palm Springs

Palm Springs makes a perfect base for spring desert adventures. Get a vacation rental with a pool like this fun “groovy oasis” for a change of scenery. There are endless opportunites for adventure nearby when you’re ready to explore.

Sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park
The popular serpent sculpture at Borrego Springs
Cabazon Dinosaurs with a Christmas Paint Job
  • Make a day trip to explore Joshua Tree National Park. Both entrances are less than an hour away from Palm Springs. If you can get yourselves out early enough, you can still catch the sunrise in Cholla Cactus Garden. Spring is one of the best times to visit with mild temperatures perfect for hiking and climbing. Plus the stunning desert wildflower blooms.
  • Another desert park worthy of your time is Anza-Borrego, one of California’s most fascinating state parks. Here you can explore seasonal waterfalls, desert wildflowers, and have a rare glimpse at native palm trees. Also not to be missed are the Borrego Springs Sculptures. There are over 100 of them, which makes for an exciting scavenger hunt like feel when you spot one! Check out this video from California Through My Lens to learn more.
  • Continue with your desert art explorations at Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Purifoy’s first work was “66 Signs of Neon”, constructed with charred debris from the 1965 Watts rebellion. He later became the founding director of the Watts Towers Art Center and continued to dedicate his career to constructing art with found objects and using the arts as a tool for social change. The work in his outdoor art museum was created entirely from “junked materials” and today stands as one of California’s fascinating outdoor art landmarks.
  • On the kitschier side is a visit to see the Cabazon Dinosaurs. Fellow 80’s kids might recognize them from Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure and The Wizard. The folks at this iconic roadside destination are cheering up passersby with a series of paint-suits on Mr. Rex and Dinny throughout 2021. They are suited up in “Love One Another” suits through mid-March. I can’t wait to see what this spring will bring! 
  • For a different view of Palm Springs, check out the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. This rotating tram car carries you 2.5 miles up the cliffs of Chino Canyon to the wilderness of Mt. San Jacinto State Park. When you reach the mountain station at the top, you can enjoy the views from observation decks or head out off to explore some of the park’s family friendly hiking trails. You can even play in snow here while it lasts!
  • For a different way to venture through the desert landscape, consider taking a horseback ride along streams and palm groves in Andreas Canyon, or have an ATV adventure in the desert.
  • Introduce your family to the area’s native cultures with a visit to Tahquitz Canyon.  After a 1.8 mile hike with steep rocky stairs, visitors will experience the area’s seasonal 60-foot waterfall, rock art, ancient irrigation systems, and native plants and wildlife. This is area is culturally sensitive and one of the most sacred places to the Agua Caliente people.

Death Valley National Park

Last winter we took an RV trip to Death Valley, and loved, loved, loved it!  Spring break is an even better time to visit with desert blooms and swimming pupfish. Check out our full Death Valley family guide for more information and recommendations.

Afternoon light in Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park
The obligatory photo near the Badwater Basin Sign, lowest point in North America
Driving a Jeep through Death Valley National Park
  • Standing at the lowest point in North America! Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level and is an iconic Death Valley photo opp. The area is pretty awesome to explore with salt crystals that look like snow as far as the eye can see.
  • Sandboarding the Mesquite Sand Dunes was the highlight of the trip for all three of my boys. While the sand dunes are fun to visit on foot, coming prepared with sand boards will up the adventure (and laughter) ante. Death Valley has multiple dunes for viewing, but the Mesquite Sand Dunes are the only ones that you can walk through. Star Wars fans will recognize the area as Tatooine!
  • Desert first timers will probably not expect much in terms of wildlife sightings, but spring is a prime time for pup fish viewing on the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This is a big Death Valley highlight for little visitors.
  • Rent a Jeep from Farabee’s Jeep Rental and leave a teapot from home at Teakettle Junction on your way to see the wondrous Racetrack Playa. The region’s moving boulders have long been one of the park’s best mysteries.
  • Witness Death Valley’s desert blooms! Though super blooms are rare, wildflowers are never completely absent. Check out the park’s wildflower season page to see if your visit coincides with a good year for wildflowers.
  • Leave your car behind and explore the park’s wonders by foot. The Golden Canyon hike is a favorite. The boys loved rock scrambling into the Red Cathedral at the hike’s midpoint. Mosaic Canyon also offers adventurous fun over a short distance as you make your way through cool smooth slot canyons. The spring weather is perfect for hiking in the park, without having to worry about the peak heat times summer visitors have to avoid.
  • Don’t forget that the park is a completely different place at night! Designated as a dark sky park by the International Dark Sky Association, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a moonlit night hike or join one of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society’s star parties to learn more about the wonders of our galaxy.
  • A visit to Death Valley isn’t complete without watching some gorgeous sunsets or sunrises from the park’s scenic overlooks. Zabriskie Point is a park favorite. 
  • Depending on which way you’re coming from, you can combine your visit with other nearby natural wonders. We enjoyed a picnic with awesome views during our stop at California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park. In the other direction, Nevada has its own Red Rock Canyon with seasonal waterfalls and fascinating petroglyphs. This park is located near Las Vegas, just two hours outside of Death Valley.

Catalina Island

If you’re dreaming of an island adventure, there’s no need to leave California. Visitors can access family-friendly Catalina Island from the ferries that leave from LA and Orange County. Spring is one of the best times of the year to visit, avoiding overcast summer mornings and choppy winter water. Spend spring break relaxing on the beach or get moving with plenty of outdoor activities.

Catalina Harbor in Avalon as seen from Casino Point
Catalina Buffalo with an Ocean Backdrop
Two Harbors Beach with Kayaks on the Shore
  • Avalon, Catalina’s only incorporated city, is pedestrian friendly, so set out and explore by foot. Bike and golf cart rentals are also popular ways to get around. Several rental agencies rent bikes and carts, and some vacation rentals include a golf cart for convenience. 
  • Get your adrenaline pumping with a zip-line tour from a 600 foot ridge top down to the Descanso Beach Club. If you can focus, you’ll enjoy amazing views of the ocean, canyons, and eucalyptus groves on your way down.
  • If you’re enjoying experiencing Catalina from high up, you might want to continue the family bonding by swinging through the trees together at the Catalina Aerial Adventure ropes course.
  • Rent a boat to sightsee, fish, snorkel, or scuba. Outfitters like Joe’s-Rent-A-Boat in Avalon have motorboats, kayaks, and pedal boats to help you explore Catalina from the sea.
  • Take a scenic 30-minute boat ride to “the other side” of the island. Two Harbors has become known as an adventure paradise for outdoor lovers with everything you need to enjoy hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, boating, fishing, snorkeling, or SCUBA diving!
  • Search for American bison on an exciting expedition into the island’s interior aboard an open-air biofuel Hummer. The bison are descendants of animals that a movie crew left behind in the 1920s. You can expect this scenic adventure to be full of interesting tidbits about Catalina’s history.
  • Ok, this one might not be for every family (I can hear John sigh as I type), but one of my dream family adventures for when the boys are a bit older is to get them started with backpacking on the Trans-Catalina Trail. Typically taking 4 days to cover 38.5 miles, this can be a great trip for beginners with the option to have your gear hauled, or even arrange for upscale concierge services, from outfitters like Catalina Backcountry.
  • And on the other end of the outdoor spectrum, families will enjoy spending some time at the unique 18-hole Golf Gardens mini golf course, a Catalina fixture for 50 years.

Santa Barbara

This gorgeous small-city’s coastal vibes have earned Santa Barbara the title, “the American Riviera.” It has some of the best that California has to offer. Though it’s known for art, wine, and luxury travel, it can also be a wonderful spot for families to escape to the outdoors for spring break.

View of Stearns Wharf looking back to East Beach, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara Adventure Company's family friendly tours, kayaking the Channel Islands
Kids exploring tide pools on Santa Barbara's Arroyo Burro Beach
  • Those looking to escape the State Street hotel scene may want to check into El Capitan Canyon for a unique glamping experience in the camp’s cedar cabins, yurts, or safari tents. You don’t even need to leave the camp for adventure. Simply wake up to sweeping ocean views and private hiking trails to llama and goat farms. There’s even an onsite spa to help you relax and refresh after your activities.
  • You can’t visit Santa Barbara without a visit to Stearn’s Wharf. Located at the end of State Street, it’s an iconic place to buy an ice cream cone, pick up a souvenir, and even hop on Lil’ Toot, a water taxi with a short narrated trip between Stern’s Wharf and Santa Barbara Harbor.
  • Santa Barbara Channel is one of the west coast’s best areas for whale watching. Mother whales with newborn calves hug the coastline on their way back to Alaska through April. Take the family out for a whale watching cruise, or bring the binoculars to Shoreline Park and lookout from the bluffs while the kids run around and play.  
  • If you’re looking for a memorable family friendly adventure, check out Santa Barbara Adventure Company’s Discovery Sea Cave Kayak Tour on the Channel Islands. The tour is perfect for island visitors who want to sample as much of this national park as possible. Also check out the Santa Barbara Adventure Company’s other experiences, like surfing and stand up paddling lessons.
  • Spring is prime hiking season in Santa Barbara, with wildflowers blooming and waterfalls flowing. A perfect spring family hike is the 1 mile flat loop hike in Douglas Preserve. Half the loop traces the coastline and half looks back at a park where you can see paragliders taking off. With wildflowers in bloom, the Preserve is paradise in the spring. Arroyo Burro Beach below is family friendly and has tide pools to extend your adventure.
  • Tweens and teens might enjoy seeing the beach from a different perspective … on horseback! Los Padres Outfitters offer family rides along the beach and through gorgeous trails any time of day, including sunset and sunrise. They can also add a unique picnic adventure to your ride.

The Central Coast

As a proud Cal Poly Mustang, the Central Coast will always hold a special place in my heart. And now as a parent, everytime I return to the area with my family I love discovering something new and seeing this special place through the eyes of my boys. This low key area offers something for everyone, and is a perfect spot for a family friendly spring break with plenty of sunshine and adventure. Consider Pismo or San Luis Obispo as a base for your vacation, allowing you to easily venture throughout the area.

Kids learning to swim at Sandbar Surf School in Pismo Beach, CA
Feeding the Ostriches at Ostrichland USA
Morro Bay Sea Otter and Baby Otter
  • Take a family surf lesson with Sandbar Surf School. This surf school is not just about learning how to stand up on the board.  I love their focus on helping beginners have fun, feel safe, and appreciate the overall experience.  
  • I’m not sure if this qualifies as outdoorsy, but Pismo Beach’s Oceano Dunes is one of few California beaches that allows you to drive your car on the beach. If your car isn’t  a 4WD and you don’t want to risk it, you can always rent an ATV and play on the dunes instead. 
  • About an hour south of Pismo is the charming little city of Solvang, with its historic Danish village. Walking through the village and picking up treats at the delicious bakeries is a lot of fun. Embrace your silly side by renting a surrey bike to explore the area from Wheel Fun Rentals!
  • As you make your way back north, make time to stop at Ostrich Land and  come face to face with these amazing animals. The enclosure allows plenty of room for them to run. Seeing this was just as thrilling as feeding them.
  • There’s plenty to see and do in the beautiful little area of Avila Beach. Take a dip at Avila Hot Springs. Children under 8 are not allowed in the hot springs, but there is a large fresh water pool and slides the whole family will enjoy. Extend your time in Avila with a beach bonfire. Bonfires are allowed beginning the first Sunday in March, so spring break will get you there just in time!
  • Children over 30 pounds and more than 36 inches tall are welcome to fly at Margarita Adventures ziplines, just 10 minutes north of San Luis Obispo. Soar over valleys, oaks, mountainsides, and vineyards on a 6 zipline tour that covers more than 7,500 feet.
  • Make some time to head north to Morro Bay, 15 minutes past San Luis Obispo on Highway 1. This tranquil area has endless opportunities for outdoor fun. Paddling the Morro Bay National Estuary is not to be missed. You’ll see harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, and hundreds of species of birds. This was the first place I kayaked, and I can’t wait to get back to this special place with my family.

Monterey & Carmel

Monterey Bay is a special sanctuary for marine animals, encompassing the heart of the largest protected ocean area in the continental United States. Because it’s located about halfway between Alaska and Mexico, the cooler water from the north mixes with the warmer water from the south, bringing animals that thrive in each type of water with them. It’s unique features make it one of the most productive ocean ecosystems on Earth, and people come from all over the world for a glimpse. A spring break visit to this California gem means warmer weather, fewer crowds, and beating the foggy June gloom. 

We spent quite a bit of time with this baby gray whale on our Discovery Whale  Watch Excursion
Looking through the rare Monterey cypress trees on the Allan Memorial Grove, Point Lobos
JJ's first kayak trip along the Elkhorn Slough
  • There’s a whale super highway just off the coast of Monterey. March is when whale migration seasons overlap, with gray whales migrating through mid-March and humpback whales, blue whales, and fin whales beginning their travels through the area around this time. Spring is also a popular time to see orcas and dolphins. We took a recent trip with Discovery Whale Watch and really enjoyed it!
  • Though it’s technically an indoor activity, while in Monterey you can’t pass up a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. With over 200 exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals, the Aquarium is an awe-inspiring window to ocean life.
  • If the kids need to burn off some energy near downtown Monterey, El Estero Park (aka the Dennis the Menace Playground) is a local favorite. It has several play structures, three large slides, a climbing wall, suspension bridge, a hedge maze, giant adventure ship, and more! 
  • The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of my favorite places to walk in the area. I love taking my boys on the Cypress Grove Trail which is only about a mile loop but feels like another world. The Reserve also features fun tide pools and a hidden beach that you can only enjoy at low tide.
  • A bit further down into Big Sur, is Calla Lily Valley. This beautiful trail with wild lilies and ocean views is a short half mile round trip, perfect for families with young kids. Just beware of the poison ivy!
  • Further north, Elkhorn Slough offers a magical experience for little nature lovers. Full of wildlife and beauty, it winds inland from the coast for seven miles. A biologically rich estuary, it’s a wonderful place to spot migratory birds and marine mammals. We took a Monterey Bay Kayak tour through here with our family this fall, and though it was an intensely foggy morning, my boys could have spent hours there. We look forward to jumping on the Elkhorn Slough Safari  boat sometime soon.
  • A family visit to the area isn’t complete without driving a bit further north to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This amusement park has it all when it comes to family fun.  Operating since 1907, it was a favorite of my grandparents when they were teens. Though there is plenty to do for today’s young visitors, don’t miss a ride on the Giant Dipper. A National Historic Landmark, this roller coaster has been thrilling riders since 1924!

The Sonoma-Mendocino Coast

The Sonoma Coast is a great place to go if you’re hoping to recharge during spring break. There’s something about the place that’s good for the soul. Consider renting a vacation home at Sea Ranch. Being in sight of the ocean offers the perfect opportunity to chill and reconnect with nature. If you need to leave the grounds, consider the following outings along this section of rugged California coast.

Looking down the 313 steps to the Point Reyes Lighthouse
Enjoy a unique redwood tour with the Skunk Train's Rail Bikes
A redwood outrigger canoe docked at Catch-a-Canoe in Mendocino
  • Further north in Fort Bragg, families love the Skunk Train. Kids enjoy the train ride, and parents appreciate the experience of winding through old-growth redwood groves. Today’s riders enjoy views that have remained largely unchanged since 1885. Those looking for a unique experience can opt for a rail bike excursion instead. With this option, visitors enjoy the fresh air as they breeze along the railroad tracks in an electric powered railbike.
  • Glass Beach is named for the smooth glass sprinkled throughout the beach. Surprisingly, the glass was once trash that was dumped on the beach almost 100 years ago. Over the years the ocean tides shaped the trash into the glass you find today. Unfortunately, people keep taking pieces home with them, so it’s hard to say how much will be at the beach when you go. It’s still worth a visit for the curious!
  • For a slice of Polynesia in Mendocino, check out the Stanford Inn’s Catch-a-Canoe & Bicycles Too. This unique outfitter rents redwood outriggers for 2 – 8 people. Twin hulls make these watercraft even more stable than kayaks and canoes, so families can sit back, relax, and enjoy the views along the gentle Big River Estuary.
  • For a change of place, head inland to Sonoma’s Safari West. Guests journey out in search of nearly 900 animals from over 90 species on this 400-acre preserve. You can splurge for private tours, animal encounters, and sleep-overs too.
  • Back toward the coast, one of my more memorable visits to the area involved enjoying some amazingly delicious scones in the garden of Freestone’s Wild Flour Bread and then walking along Goat Rock Beach near the mouth of the Russian River. There are so many small magic moments like this to be found along the Sonoma Coast. Discover a new favorite bakery or coffee shop, and take a wander. You can’t go wrong.  

Yosemite

Yosemite is pretty much always on our list of ideas for any family getaway. Over spring break you won’t be guaranteed warm weather, but you will experience waterfalls at their most powerful, fields of wildflowers, and fewer crowds than summer.  We have a guide to family friendly Yosemite which provides details to year round park experiences. The following are some of our favorites.

Springtime Yosemite - a full Yosemite falls flowing behind a bright green Cook's Meadow
Quiet Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
Storefront of Jimtown 1849 mining camp in Jamestown, CA
  • Waterfalls, waterfalls, waterfalls!  Yosemite is known for these natural wonders, and they are stunning in spring. Paying a visit to Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, and the Mist Trail in spring is unlike than any other time of year. Prepare to get wet!
  • Contact Yosemite Family Adventures for customized tours that take you off the shuttle route and into the park. We scheduled a YFA tour for a fall trip, and were so grateful to be able to let someone else lead us through the park, so we could simply relax and follow along with our kids!
  • Kids will appreciate that Ansel Adams was just a kid himself when he fell in love with photography at Yosemite. Take a free camera walk with staff from the Ansel Adams gallery or even a family friendly photo class. It’s a memory making experience that allows you to capture new memories more vividly. 
  • In March and April visitors can witness wildflower blooms in the lower elevations. Cook’s Meadow will be a good place to start. Know that with fewer visitors you’ll be more likely to encounter wildlife here. We had a surprise bear encounter with a young bear in Cook’s Meadow in the quiet quarantine summer of 2020.
  • If you’d like to truly escape the crowds, head over to Hetch Hetchy for the Wapama Falls hike at its most impressive. At about 5 miles round trip, this was a bit tough for our group, but I think it would be a much nicer hike in the spring. Not only are the falls powerful enough to mist hikers as they pass by, but the trail itself will be full of butterflies, puddles, and other fun wonders to keep kids interested.
  • If it’s too cold for camping, and you’re looking for lodging options other than the village hotels, consider renting a house in Foresta. You’re in park boundaries and can be in the valley in about 20 minutes. Plenty of convenience plus  you have space and quiet at the end of the day. 
  • Outside of Yosemite National Park, head to the gateway towns for more family fun. Gold Rush history looms large in these areas, as any visitor to Jamestown will tell you. Visitors can pan for gold on Woods Creek, where it was first discovered here in 1848, and hold ups are staged on the town’s Main Street. A family favorite in this area is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park with it’s popular vintage steam train rides.

Lake Tahoe

Everyone’s favorite northern California lake makes a wonderful family destination anytime of year, and spring break is no exception. Springtime in Tahoe means snow play in sunshine with fewer crowds than summer and the height of ski season. Rent a cabin in family friendly Tahoe City or Incline Village, and enjoy Tahoe’s magic.

The boys enjoying the tubing carousel at Soda Springs's Planet Kids
Bikers enjoying the new safe and beautiful East Shore Trail from Incline Village to Sand Harbor
Snow levels were still incredibly high in March 2019
  • Enroll the kids in ski school or hit the slopes as a family. Tahoe has 15 ski resorts, each with their own draws. If you’re looking for a more low-key option, consider Diamond Peak in Incline Village. This resort is a hidden gem with budget-friendly lessons. Kids under 7 ski free and you can purchase interchangeable parent tickets if you need to switch off caring for babies and toddlers.
  • Heavenly’s Scenic Gondola Ride is always an exciting option, with gorgeous views of the lake as you ascend. Pause on the observation deck for photos and a cup of cocoa. You can turn around here or continue to the top. Depending on how much snow is on the ground, you might even be able to do a little hiking when you get there.
  • Mountain Adventure at Soda Springs is the perfect option for kids who are too little for skiing or would rather just play in the snow. First, you’re driven out to the kids area on the park’s “sleigh,” a Jeep with cool snow tires. My boys were already thrilled after the sleigh ride alone! We spent the whole time at Planet Kids, which is limited to kids 7 and under. The boys LOVED the tubing carousel and learning slope. With free rental equipment for kids, they can gradually get used to the feeling of sliding on the slow when they’re ready. Access to Tube Town is included in the pass as well.  
  • If there’s not too much snow on the ground, be sure to make time to walk or bike the three mile East Shore Trail from the Tunnel Creek Café in Incline Village to Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. This trail is said to be stunningly beautiful and also makes for a safe and fun way for people to access this popular beach.
  • March is a bit too cold for playing in the lake itself. If you’d like to get out on the water, consider your cruise and charter options. One of the most popular is a large paddle wheel boat that leaves from Zephyr Cove. Embark on a 2.5 hour tour to lovely Emerald Bay, with blue-green waters said to be the most photographed place on earth. 
  • Spend the day playing in the trees! Treetop Adventure Park is an outdoor obstacle course consisting of a series of tree platforms linked together by a variety of bridges and zip lines.  The first of its kind in California, courses at Treetop Adventure Park can be anywhere from 15 to 50 feet in the air.

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