Muir Beach (credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)
You simply cannot lose by choosing any one of these top spots for a day out with the kids. Soak up late summer rays, stroke a few goats and llamas, stare at the marvel of soaring redwoods, take a spin on a vintage merry-go-round, escape the city to the rock at Alcatraz. Nobody’s too old; there’s something to do and something to see for any age group — grownups included.
1 Muir Woods Road
Mill Valley, CA 94941
The magical giant redwood forest is always a good answer to any question involving kids and free time in this corner of the world. A National Park Service guide adds so much to the appreciation of this gorgeous place, only 11 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. Why do these trees grow in family circles, how do they recover from fires, what happens when one falls down? All that before even touching on the subjects of wildlife and conservation. Look closely to spot the deer and an owl. Kids under 16 are free, the park is open 365 days a year and there’s a café. Arrive anytime after 8 a.m. and keep the shuttle bus in mind, as parking is tricky. Top tip: Have a picnic at Muir Beach or score a table at Pelican Inn for California’s most authentic English pub experience.
San Francisco, CA 94133
In 2015, TripAdvisor reviewers gave a thumbs up to the former penitentiary as the number one landmark in the USA (the Golden Gate Bridge snagged second place), beating out top draws like the Empire State Building and Lincoln Memorial. If you haven’t been lately, it’s time to visit this place no one ever wanted to be sent to, where now everyone wants to get to. There’s only one way, and that’s aboard the National Park Service concessionaire ferry boat operator from Pier 33. The complimentary park ranger tours, such as “Six Hats of Alcatraz” are highly recommended, and the award-winning Cellhouse Audio Tour included with all tickets is simply a must. Top tip: Bring a warm jacket.
3050 Hecker Pass Highway
Gilroy, CA 95020
If the under-12s are wishing for a theme park day, there’s no need to fly to Anaheim. Clever moms have been known to combine back-to-school outlet shopping with lunch at In-N-Out Burger and amusement park rides in Gilroy, about 80 miles south of San Francisco. The nonprofit operation has 40-plus rides with yummy names like Banana Split, Apple & Worm and Strawberry Sundae. Action for little ones includes a balloon flight, railroad train ride, sky rail and more. Note that the park is open weekends only from Aug. 17, 2015. Top tip: Bring swimsuits for the new water oasis.
205 North St.
Pescadero, CA 94060
About an hour south of the city along scenic Highway 1, a nature day starts with goat appreciation. This historic 1910 working dairy farm is home to 200 alpine goats on nine acres. Reserve the popular two-hour tour that explains how the llamas and goats contribute to the dairy farm, producing lotions, soaps and award-winning ricotta, feta, chevre and fromage blanc cheeses. Make up a picnic basket and use their tables, visit their farm shop, or to experience a farm dinner, book in advance. For a full day, Pescadero State Beach has a mile-long shoreline on one side of the highway across from Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve on the other side, a refuge for blue heron, kites, deer, raccoons, foxes and skunks. Top tip: Park for $8 and visit both; remember binoculars.
600 Canon Drive
Berkeley, CA 94708
Super close to the city and so overlooked, this is the jewel of the East Bay. Twice the size of Golden Gate Park, where else could you find hiking trails, an antique carousel, a steam train, botanical gardens, farm animals, a swimming lake with a sandy beach, barbecue pits and picnic tables, a golf course plus amazing views from Inspiration Point? Tilden Nature Area has a working farm with cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, geese, ducks, chickens and turkeys. Rides attract a small fee, while the Regional Park Botanical Garden inside Tilden is free. Top tip: Celery and lettuce are the only foods you’re allowed to feed the farm animals.