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Archive for the ‘Campgrounds’ Category

This September we took advantage of Portola Redwoods State Park’s reprieve from closure and booked a campsite for a weekend of hiking and exploring.  I’d only ever visited the park before in winter when I found it a little limited and gloomy (perhaps because they’d removed the bridges and hence cut us off from most of the hiking trails for the season).  This time, however, we really enjoyed ourselves.  Perhaps it was the weather or the company or the great hiking trails, but we found Portola Redwoods to be a really fun and easy spot to visit with kids in the summer/fall.

anyone know where we are?

The Camping

The camping is a bit of a mixed bag. As is always the case with state parks, the sites vary in privacy and exposure.  Although most of the sites in the main camping areas around the bathrooms are fairly large, they are also very open: there is almost no vegetation and few trees and it’s pretty much like camping in a field.  I would imagine it gets very busy and noisy in high season–not ideal for camping with small children.  I would recommend avoiding these loops and picking some of the sites on the edges of the campground (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 14, 28, 29, 38, 39, 40) if you want peace and privacy. And, don’t worry, the walk to the bathrooms from these sites is not the endurance hike some internet reviews make it out to be!  The campsite facilities at Portola Redwoods are limited. There are a couple of washrooms but the only hot, running water is to be found in the pay shower s(bring quarters).  There are plentiful potable water taps and trash cans dotted around the campground. Firewood is available for purchase round the clock at the park office and visitors’ center, which is nice.  I had read that this park is often plagued with mosquitoes, but we didn’t really see any this trip and I only received a couple of bites (which is exceptional as I am, apparently, so tasty that a lone mosquito twenty miles away will usually seek me out).

An Easy Hike: The Sequoia Nature Trail

This short, easy trail leaves from behind the park office, goes down a gentle hill to the Pescadero Creek, crosses the water and loops through the woods on the other side, before returning over the same bridge and back up the trail to the visitors center. At 3/4 mile it’s a perfect little trail for very small children and reluctant hikers.  It wouldn’t be ideal for strollers, but you could make it round with a rugged jog stroller as long as you didn’t mind carrying it up and down some steps by the river.  I have to say that I think this trail is a little dull as guided nature trails go, but it does have the big positive of a rocky riverine beach where kids can spend time paddling and throwing stones. The visitors center is also worth a visit either before or after the walk.

Tiptoe Falls

A slightly longer hike

You can extend the Sequoia Nature Trail by skipping the ‘loop’ across the river and instead heading down the Iverson Trail once you’ve crossed the creek.  The Iverson Trail loops through a spectacular part of the woods and loops back across the Creek to the picnic area by the park office.  It’s a fairly easy trail (a little over a mile) with just a little clambering and no long ascents/descents. Our boys really enjoyed this as a quick hike that was a bit more satisfying than the nature trail.

A Longer hike for 2-5 year olds

We took the Old Tree Trail from near the visitors center and then headed left up the hill on the Slate Creek Trail. At the junction with the Summit Trail we turned right and searched for ‘The Summit’ before heading down the hill, along the Service Road and onto the Iverson Trail. The boys were excited to see the Iverson Cabin Site and were a little disappointed that a) it’s only a pile of rubble and b)they weren’t allowed to play with said rubble. But they loved Tiptoe Falls a little further along the trail where we stopped for lunch and a paddle.  From there it’s a short walk back up to the park office.  This loop was a little over 4 miles and lots of fun, with some interesting ‘stops’ along the way. The ascent up to the summit is fairly arduous, however, and not for a toddler who doesn’t like to walk and the trail is definitely not stroller suitable.

An unamed beach off the Iverson Trail

And if you don’t feel like hiking, you could easily pass an afternoon exploring the creek and throwing rocks into the water.

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A couple of weeks ago we were looking for a morning hike that we could combine easily with an afternoon on the beach at Santa Cruz, and ended up at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.  This was our first trip to Henry Cowell.  While it looked beautiful from the brochure, most park reviews and trail guides seemed to suggest there weren’t many fun, short walks for little ones.  I’m glad, however, that we finally made it out there.  I can report that it is indeed a gorgeous park and that there are a number of fun activities and hikes that are perfect for the 2-5 year old age range.

Morning at Henry Cowell

The Visitors Center

We started our morning in the main part of the park at the visitors center (the Fall Creek Unit of the park looks awesomely rugged, but less suitable for toddler hiking as all of the hikes are very long).  There is a large car park here but parking spaces were in short supply when we returned to our car mid-afternoon, so I would suggest arriving in the morning on the weekend.  The visitors center is wonderful: plenty of interesting, child-friendly exhibits about the park and super friendly staff.  Our boys particularly loved the little booklets they were given about animal-print spotting and the ‘stamp’ table they could use to fill them in. Once completed, the Monkey proudly carried his around the nearby loop looking for prints.

The Monkey in the Woods

The Guided Nature Loop

Right outside the visitor’s center is a short (under a mile) loop amongst the old growth redwood trees called The Redwood Grove Loop Trail. This path is wide, easy and flat–so easy in fact that we even saw a couple of wheel-chair users exploring there in the afternoon.  Unlike many of these parks, there were plentiful ‘nature trail guides’ available at the head of the loop.  You can either purchase one for 25 cents (honour system but you might want to bring change) or borrow a ‘loaner’.  The redwoods in this area are pretty spectacular and the woods are beautiful.  We were there early in the morning, which I highly recommend, and had the loop pretty much to ourselves and could enjoy the wonderful quiet and morning sunlight filtering through the canopy.  Our kids loved the loop and working out what each of the numbers indicated. They also loved the enormous Fremont Tree with a giant, hollow cave beneath it (you might want to pack a small torch for exploring this very cool redwood). This loop is wonderful for very small kids.  On its own, however, it wasn’t too satisfying for our boys –too short and too easy–so we headed on into the park.

Cable Car Beach

At the far end of the loop you can cut through to the River Trail. The boys enjoyed this wide, easy, flat road as it runs alongside the roaring camp railway track and under the railway bridge.  We then took the narrow trail off to the right of the road along the creek.  After a quarter of a mile, this trail leads to the lovely Cable Car Beach.  This is a great spot for paddling and creek play. Our boys loved it and could have stayed for hours.  If you’re planning to camp at the park, this would be the perfect spot–in summer, anyway, when the water is low–for playing with a small, inflatable boat or ring.

Paddling at Cable Car Beach

A Longer Walk up to the Observation Spot on Pine Trail

A hike out to Cable Car Beach via the Redwoods Loop may be enough for many small children: it’s about 1.5 miles there and back and has a fun destination. If you want to walk further you could take a hike up to the top of the ridge.  We took the Eagle Creek trail from Cable Car Beach and then the Pine Trail up to the observation point. We returned via the Ridge Fire Road and Pipeline Road and stopped at Cable Car Beach to play on the way down.  This was a fun, but fairly tough, walk.  If you’re going to attempt it with small kids, be aware that it’s about 4 miles round, has a long ascent, and that the trail at the top is sandy and hard-going on little legs.  Our three year old managed it in good spirits, but the two year old retreated to the backpack for the return leg.  Warning aside, it is a beautiful trail and the sandy landscape at the top of the ridge is interesting and the views magnificent.

The view from the top

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Last week we spent some time camping in beautiful Butano State Park and absolutely loved it.  It’s a quiet, secluded, rugged valley perfect for families with preschoolers and has lots of places for little ones to explore.

The Campsites

Butano effectively has two campgrounds: a car camping area and a series of sites that are ‘walk-in’.

The car camping area is pretty typical for a California state park: the sites are reasonably spaced, there are clean bathrooms with hot and cold running water, and several water stations with potable water. The usual state park rule applies when booking–if you want privacy, always pick a site on the outside of the loop.

Walking-in

We stayed in the ‘walk-in’ area which I thought was really lovely. The sites there were a little mixed in size and privacy, but some of them were gorgeous and pretty isolated for a state park.  Booking is a bit of a lottery as sites are assigned by the staff, but there weren’t any really terrible ones.  The ‘walk-in’ element to this camping is not very arduous. Our site was one of the more private ones furthest from the parking area and we were able to cart all our gear quickly and easily with the help of a hand-cart.  The facilities in this area of the park are more basic.  There are a couple of drinking water stations and one pit toilet.  It’s certainly not for those who like ‘glamping,’ but it is a really nice way to get a small taste of more ‘wilderness’ camping with little kids in tow.  Just bring some hand sanitizer and be prepared to be dirty. It also seems to attract a more outdoorsy type of camper, so if you’re looking for a quiet, relaxing weekend, it’s the place for you.  One of the nicest aspects of the walk-in section was the absence of cars and bikes which made it possible for little ones to wander round and explore in greater safety.

The camp staff were very friendly and helpful, but the critters were quite aggressive. I’ve camped in many places and never come across raccoons as bold as Butano’s.  My tip is to secure food and anything scented in the bear box at all times, even when you’re sitting around camp.  These raccoons are not afraid of people.  In addition, the park currently has some issues with wasps nesting in the rotting tree stumps around the campground.  I have to say that we weren’t bothered at all by wasps, but it’s a good idea to keep a closer than usual eye on your kids when they’re scrambling about the woods there and to warn them of the potential wasp danger.

Finally it’s worth noting that there’s not much for sale here apart from firewood. Make sure to pack-in everything else you’re going to need.

What’s there to do in Butano?

1. Animal spotting

There were lots and lots of banana slugs. If your preschoolers are anything like mine, this is a huge plus. We found 70 in 24 hours.  There are also birds a-plenty, deer, raccoons and a few California newts. And plenty of weird and wonderful woodland bugs.

Slug Number 63.

2. Hike

I have to add a warning that, in Butano, unlike some other local parks, there are no super-easy, 1/2 mile, paved walks.  It’s probably not the place to come for your preschooler’s first hiking experience. That said, there are a few fun loops and trails for the more seasoned little one who is able to handle a couple of miles.  We must have covered about 8 miles on three separate hikes, all of which my 3 year old walked and most of which my 2 year old walked.  These trails are not jog-stroller friendly and you’ll need a backpack or child carry for non-walking infants.

One of the Six Bridges

Our favourite walks?

We, and especially The Monkey, loved The Six Bridges Trail. We took the path from the Ben Ries campground to the visitor center and back, a little over two miles.  It’s mostly flat, but there are a couple of short, steep climbs. This is an especially fun walk for preschoolers as they love counting the bridges and watching out for newts.  We also tried the Goat Hill Trail Loop and the Jackson Flats Trail, both of which were narrow and windy, with a few scrambly areas, but which could be completed by our two year old without much difficulty.  Now we can’t wait until the kids are old enough to go all the way out to the Trail Camp for a back woods overnight stay.

A pretty typical stretch of the Goat Hill Trail

3. Check out the Nature Center

It’s small and fairly limited for adults, but the kids wanted to visit twice.  They really liked looking at the topographical map/model, especially at the end, and plotting all the walks they’d done.

Impersonating a tree on the Jackson Flats Trail

4. Creek Play

There are plenty of spots where you can easily access the shallow Butano Creek and our boys had fun playing there.

We had a really lovely weekend at Butano.  The campground was more beautiful and quieter than the average state park and the empty trails were appealing to the kids–challenging without being too hard. This might well become one of our regular camping destinations.

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This weekend we drove up to D L Bliss State Park on the South Lake Tahoe shoreline just north of Emerald Bay for a spot of camping. This beautiful and popular state park offers it all: camping, beach access, incredible views of the lake, and some great day hikes.  It’s also rather sprawling with 4 camping ‘loops’ which vary greatly in character. The sites near the beach have amazing views but are small, close together, and lacking privacy.  The sites higher up the hillside in the woods are larger and more private, some backing onto the wilderness to the extent they almost qualify as ‘walk-in’ sites. If you value quiet and privacy (as we do) I’d recommend the Ridge Campground (sites 91-114) and Pines Campground (sites 1-90).  The park has good, if old, facilities with plentiful toilet and shower blocks in each loop (bring quarters).  I had heard that guests at the park frequently encounter bears, but we didn’t see any (sadly) and each site comes with a huge bear box which minimises the chance of attracting wildlife.  There were lots of chipmunks and giant pinecones which the kids loved however.

Get a load of these pinecones Mom!

Our kids were happy playing with the rocks, pinecones, and sticks in the forest around our campsite for much of the time, but there are plenty of other things to do:-

Balancing Rock Nature Trail

Happy Trails

This is the shortest, most toddler-friendly trek in the park. It’s only half a mile long and on a wide, dirt track that winds round a huge granite outcrop, down the mountain and along the creek, and back up to the parking lot.  The trail would probably be suitable for jog strollers were it not for the fallen tree one currently has to scramble under at the creek.  It is officially a self-guided nature trail and has numerous markers indicating sites of interest. Unfortunately, no informational leaflets were available at the start of the trail as promised.  My boys enjoyed it anyway.  The Monkey had a great time scrambling down the trail finding all the numbers and was thrilled to discover that the giant granite balancing rock of the title looks a bit like a tyrannosaurus rex head.

T-Rex Head

Beaches

Calawee Cove Beach

There are two lovely beaches in the park, Calawee Cove Beach and Lester Beach. The steps down to Calawee Cove are fairly steep. My three year old could manage them, but if you have a lot of stuff, or a boat, you might want to just head to Lester Beach where you can park feet from the sand.  Both beaches are small and can get a bit crowded in high season, but the views are spectacular and the colour of the lake an unbelievable blue. The boys had a great time paddling, watching the boats, and building driftwood forts. If you take food down to the beach, be prepared to fight off some of the most persistent and aggressive geese you’ve ever met.

Excited boys on Lester Beach

A fun nearby hike: Vikingsholm State Park

A couple of miles south of the park you’ll find the parking lot for Vikingsholm State Park–be warned, go early in the day as the parking lots gets insanely busy by mid-morning. The trail leads straight down the cliff but is gentle enough for toddlers to manage it with ease.  You could take a jog stroller as long if you don’t mind pushing it back up the hill at the end.  At the base of the cliff is a beautiful little beach and lagoon and the Vikingsholm itself.

Vikingsholm is the attractive summer residence built to the order of Mrs Lora J Knight of Santa Barbara in the style of a Norwegian farmstead. It has beautiful towers, wood carvings, and sod roof and is well worth a poke around. Even more fun, however, is the fact that Mrs Knight built a Tea Castle–yes, a castle in which to take afternoon tea–on the island (the only one in Lake Tahoe) that lies a couple of hundred feet off the shore.  The kids enjoyed looking at the house, walking out on the jetty, and exploring the shoreline. Again, beware the crazy aggressive geese if you bring food.

The perfect setting for afternoon tea.

All in all Emerald Bay is an easy place to go with toddlers. It’s perhaps a little busy and ‘touristy’ feeling for my tastes, but if you get out onto the trails or into the woods you can get away from the crowds. And it really is spectacular scenery.

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I’m pleased to announce that camping season is now underway!  Last weekend we decided that the evenings are sufficiently warm to take the boys out overnight and headed to Big Basin Redwoods State Park with a couple of other families for two nights in the woods.  This was an unusually luxurious trip for us as we stayed in the park’s tent cabins rather than in our little tent.  And it was a lot of fun.

The Park

The park itself is stunning. After the winding approach (and, be warned, 236 is windy enough to make kids car sick!) you feel as if you are in the middle of no-where when you finally reach the park headquarters.  All around are towering redwoods and sunny forest glades.  The campsites themselves are great – some of the nicest we’ve seen in a state park.  Each site is well set apart, spacious, private and characterful, with its own arrangement of redwoods, stumps and logs to be explored. The amenities are pretty good: hot and cold running water, coin operated showers, a ranger station selling camp basics, and even a coin operated laundry. The only real down-side is the super-aggressive squirrels: don’t keep any food in your cabin or tent unless you want visitors.

Big Basin is enormous and has miles of interesting hiking that is just too long and too remote for little legs.  But it also has some great trails for small people.  The weekend docent-led ramble along the Redwood Loop Nature Trail that leaves from the park HQ is perfect for toddlers.  The path is wide, flat and fairly even, and winds past some interesting sights that appeal to little ones.

lots of tall trees on this trail

Our ranger, Norm, was really informative and pitched his talk to the adults or the kids in turn, or to whichever combination happened to stay still at each spot on the way. He was knowledgeable and unflappable amidst the toddler chaos. Even the Puppy Dog learnt something: at the end of the hike he pointed to a redwood and said, in a rather serious voice, “tall tree Mama!”.

hanging on Ranger Norm's every word

It was amazing to see near 2000 year old trees, to learn about the forest ecology and about the cultural history of the park (did you know there used to be a dance floor and swimming pool there under the stars?). We also enjoyed the route along the creek from the Huckleberry Camp ground.  It was narrow in places, and the drop precipitous on one side, but the kids loved watching the white water and looking for bugs.  We simply headed down the trail awhile, and turned back when they’d had enough.

What’s really great about this campsite, though, is the possibility for unstructured outdoors play.  Our kids were happy wandering around our campsites and exploring the forest that backed onto our cabins. There were slugs to find, trees to climb, forts to make, log trains to be fixed and driven, games of hide and seek to be had.  The list goes on.  It was nice to let them wander free in a pretty safe environment and to have their own adventures while we watched from our camp chairs.

This stump was variously a train station, a fort, a hiding place and a baby bird's nest

The park comes highly recommended as a toddler destination, and we’ll be back.

The Tent Cabins

Depending on what you’re used to, these are either the height of luxury or beyond basic.  To us, used to rocking up after sunset, pitching a tent in the dark and trying to fire up the camp stove for supper while placating over-tired kids, it was wonderful to arrive and find linens on the bed, a lantern and propane set up for our use, fruit juice, towels and toiletries awaiting us .The cabin had everything we needed for the weekend and, depending on which package you choose, can also come with cooking equipment, a freezer box and ice.  The cabins themsleves were pretty clean and well maintained. See here for details and rates in case you want to book.

Bottom line for me – the cabins do make things easier if you have kids, but I did miss our little tent.

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Where the Big Sur meets the Pacific

Since arriving in North Cali I’ve been amazed by the lack of information on local beaches, especially when they are so varied and so beautiful.  On the other hand, it’s been (mostly) fun discovering them for ourselves and working out which are the most suited to toddlers.

The beach at Andrew Molera State Park, where the Big Sur meets the Pacific, is one of our favourites.  It’s a long and super clean sandy beach, covered in driftwood (which the boys love) and nearly always empty, even in the height of summer.  I think the mile-long hike out to the shore limits the number of visitors, though for our boys that’s part of the fun as the path winds through varied terrain and abounds with snakes and lizards (keep an eye out for rattlers!).  And the walk is well worth it.

Park at the trail-head for a $10 fee  (although it’s free if you are camping at a local state park) or park on highway 1 for free and hike in. Bring an ergo or backpack for very small children.

 

Tips

A handy wind-break

The beach itself is fairly windy, so dress accordingly.  There are some awesome driftwood ‘wind-break’ structures to shelter behind however.

Go at low tide and there are rock pools to explore and rocks for scrambling along at the mouth of the Big Sur.

An inner-tube would be fun to ride the Big Sur out to the Pacific.

If you like riding, there are stables nearby offering pony treks along the shore.

There is a campground near the beach that we haven’t yet tried, but which seems to be popular. It’s first come, first served and you’re advised to arrive early friday morning to secure a site for the weekend. All sites are ‘walk-in’ but the campsite does have some very basic amenities, though not much shade or shelter.

The view south

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The Big Sur running past our campsite

Rocks are such fun

We made our annual pilgrimage to Pfeiffer this weekend. It’s a gorgeous campground that quickly became a family favourite and regular summer ritual after we first visited in 2009.  Generally, we like to spend the summer exploring new parts of North California, but sometimes it’s nice to return to a beautiful and familiar spot, especially when it’s so particularly suited to camping with small children.

 

What makes this park so special?

It’s a beautifully, but unobstrusively, maintained state park  with some of the nicest campsites we’ve encountered.  Most of the plots are relatively large, and some are so secluded that you can forget you’re in a campground while still having the convenience of car camping and state park amenities (toilets, showers, running water, trash cans etc).

Location, Location, Location

Set in a sheltered valley on the Big Sur it has a wonderful, shallow river for kids to play in and lots of open forest space to explore. Plus there are beautiful beaches, pony-riding and hiking nearby. Lots to keep the kids occupied.

Things to be aware of when camping with kids

1. The dust. Pfeiffer in the summer is exceptionally dusty and small children will end up covered in dirt.  Luckily, there are coin operated showers on site and the Big Sur river to clean off in, but be sure to dress your kids in old clothes.

2. The individual campsites vary considerably in size, exposure and privacy.  Generally, the sites in the center of each loop are fairly open and sometimes quite noisy on the weekends.  If you like peace and seclusion, opt for one of the many sites on the edge of the campground or along the road.  While most of the sites are shaded, those in the direct vicinity of the campstore are very exposed and can get brutally hot during the day.  On the whole, however, the sites at Pfeiffer are significantly larger than those encountered at many state parks and can comfortably fit two families (although note there is an 8 person per site maximum).

3. Some sites sit on the banks of the Big Sur with direct access to the river. We loved this, but if you’re nervous about having your kids so close to the water, choose a site deeper in the woods. Incidentally, we’ve never had any trouble with mosquitos near the river, but it’s probably worth bringing some repellent if you react badly to bites.

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