Kids playing by the dock in downtown Sausalito (credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)
Families and kids come in all sizes and so do road trips. Here are a few of Northern California’s finest and most famous destinations with closer-to-home Bay Area alternatives for the younger set. With giant redwoods practically in our backyard, all things are possible. What Northern California kid doesn’t love giant redwoods, boardwalks, beaches, farmyard animals or horses? Spring break begins on March 28 and Easter falls on Sunday, April 5, 2015.
Three Rivers, CA 93271
If the kids loved Muir Woods when they were smaller, you could consider stepping up the level to the General Sherman Tree in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in Tulare County. Superlatives resonate, and this one is considered the largest tree on the planet. If 260 miles is too far, the giant coastal redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument make a wonderful substitute, just 11 miles over the Golden Gate Bridge. Some of these majestic beauties are 1,200 years old, the National Park Rangers offer free guided tours and there’s no admission charge for those under age 16. Add on the Main Trail for an easy two-mile hike along a stream, Muir Beach and a stop at the cozy English-style Pelican Inn for some front lawn frolicking.
Yosemite, CA 95389
Cut your drive time down with a trip to Yosemite. At about 175 miles from San Francisco, it’s closer than Tahoe and Sequoia. Try the Great Yosemite Family Adventure for a hand-held GPS experience across three miles of discovery trails narrated and marked with puzzles, riddles and games for little explorers. Or choose a 2.25-mile, family-friendly trail (with toilets) near the bottom, such as Sentinel Meadow Loop for views of Half Dome and the Merced River. If Yosemite is just too far, head for one of the Bay Area’s easy hikes. Tennessee Valley, off the Marin Headlands, is a 1.7-mile walk to the beach that comes alive with spring wildflowers and birds. Berkeley’s Tilden Park is a gem that’s gentle enough for toddlers and leads to Little Farm and Environmental Education Center for barnyard animals, plus a pond called Jewel Lake. Lands End and the ruins at Sutro Baths are right in the city.
The northernmost county of the Central Coast is a less ambitious drive for young children, but offers great diversions, both natural and manmade. Just 65 miles south of San Francisco, California’s first state park, Big Basin Redwoods Park, has 18,000 acres of old growth coastal redwoods, 80 miles of trails and a forest full of wildlife. Take the unhurried scenic route along Highway One, pulling off for postcard Big Sur views of rugged bluffs and churning Pacific waves. Make time for baby otters at Cannery Row’s Monterey Bay Aquarium (there won’t be any visiting school groups), pop in for a visit to Santa Cruz Surfing Museum in the lighthouse on West Cliff Drive and head for the rides at the boardwalk. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has a family fun overnight on the last weekend in March and Roaring Camps Railroad has a Easter egg hunt, complete with an antique steam train ride, on the following weekend. Older kids can join spectators at the ultimate frisbee tournament and a beach soccer tournament on March 28-29.
Madonna Inn Trail Rides
100 Madonna Road
San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
What to do when some of the kids want to ride on horseback and some of the kids aren’t able? Head for the ranch behind Madonna Inn right off Highway 101 on the approach to San Luis Obispo. Friendly, gentle horses are led up Madonna Mountain for one-hour trail rides while non-riders can circle the ranch on a pretty horse-drawn carriage complete with blankets and jingle bells. Old San Luis BBQ Co. can provide a take-away picnic to enjoy at the table set up at the base of the mountain beside the haystacks. For a second ranch adventure nearby, Margarita Adventures can book five zip line tours at the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, including the 1,800-foot Pinot Express right over the vineyards and kayak tours for kids ages four and up. Central Coast has no shortage of accessible beaches suitable for kids, either.
Lake Tahoe Beaches
Sand Harbor, NV 89452
Lake Tahoe has beautiful beaches, but many aren’t open until Memorial Day. Sand Harbor near Incline Village, operated by Nevada State Parks, is open year-round with 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours until April 30. The water is crystal clear at Easter, but not yet warmed up for the season. However, on the plus side, the summer crowds are absent pre-Memorial Day. The beach offers views of snow-capped mountains, sweet little coves around turquoise water, huge boulders to climb out onto, kayak and paddle board rentals, a Visitor Center and a café. Ranger-led hikes of an easy two miles around Spooner Lake are frequently announced on the Sand Harbor State Park Facebook page. If Lake Tahoe is too far, head for the sand at Stinson Beach or to Sonoma’s Shell Beach, a virtual outdoor classroom for its tidal pool marine life.