Archive for the ‘local outdoors outings’ Category

A Bird In the Hand – Coyote Creek Field Station, Milpitas

Saturday, Aug. 17th, 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Kids ages 7 and up and their families can visit SFBBO’s bird banding station, the Coyote Creek Field Station. Learn about SFBBO’s bird banding research and see several different species up close. We will tour mist nets, watch a bird banding demonstration, and explore a restored riparian habitat. Please join us and learn why bird banding is so important for protecting birds and their habitats. This program is in partnership with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society’s Young Audubon Program. RSVP required, to RSVP fill out the form here.


Insect Afternoon at the Patagonia Store, Palo Alto

Come to the store between noon and 3pm, Saturday, Aug. 17th to meet a bunch of insects up close. Heading the line up will be the Darking Beetle, the Easter Lubber Grasshopper, the Giant Thorny Phasmid, and the Whiptail Scorpion. Fun.


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This summer we spent a glorious week in west Lake Tahoe and managed a hike every day. These were our favourites:-

Eagle Rock Hike

This is a perfect short but fun hike for small children.  Park at the well-marked trail head on route 89 about half a mile north of Tahoe Pines and head west along the path. At first you’ll travel through shady forests along a flat path before the trail climbs gradually up the hill to the peak of the crag. There is some easy scrambling over stones at the top which our kids really enjoyed. The view from the summit is amazing and it only takes about twenty minutes to reach the top. Take the same trail down and back to the car. Highly recommended for reluctant hikers!

Eagle Peak

Eagle Peak

Eagle Lake Hike

This is a more challenging hike. Our four year old loved it and walked/climbed the whole thing with ease. Our intrepid two year old completed most of the hike under his own steam, although he wanted to be carried on the easier (more boring for him?) parts of the trail at the start and end. The hike isn’t too long—one mile each way from parking lot to lake—but it is rather steep and craggy in parts with large steps and boulders to be negotiated. The destination is well worth the effort as the trail leads you up to beautiful Eagle Lake. This is a perfect spot for a picnic and paddle. I strongly recommend taking water shoes, a towel and a change of clothes if your children like water as much as ours do.

Eagle Lake

Eagle Lake

To find the trail head park  in the Eagle Falls Picnic Area parking lot on route 89 about 9 miles north of South Lake Tahoe. Note that there is a parking fee so make sure to bring cash. You also need to fill in a wilderness permit before heading up the trail—find these by the map near the toilet block. Also note that parking here is limited and this is a very popular trail. We went early (arriving in the parking lot before 9.30am) which meant we could grab one of the much-coveted parking spots and enjoy the trail and the lake before the foot traffic became too heavy.

On the trail

On the trail

Cascade Falls Hike

This is another great hike for preschoolers. It’s an easy one mile each way from parking lot to the falls with only minimal (about 100 feet) elevation gain.  Although the trail starts off wide and easy, it does get more challenging with rocky outcrops and boulders to negotiate.  The drop off at the side of the cliff is quite steep and the bare rocky parts can be slippery, so you’ll want to keep little ones close by.  We hiked to the falls and then continued on a couple of hundred feet to a wonderful spot above the falls where the creek ran over granite rocks making lots of little pools where the kids could paddle. (If you do this make sure to go a safe distance upstream of the waterfall and keep a close eye on the kids). The view up there is incredible with mountains on one side and Cascade Lake on the other.

Paddling pool in the mountains

Paddling pool in the mountains

To find this trail turn into the Bay View Campsite opposite the Inspiration Point parking lot on route 89 north of South Lake Tahoe. Drive to the end of the camp ground to find the free trail head parking. There’s no need to fill out a wilderness permit if you’re only hiking to the falls. Note however that like all popular Tahoe hikes the parking is limited and you’ll struggle to find a spot if you arrive after mid-morning.

Dolder Nature Trail, Sugar Point State Park

This is another gentle walk perfect for reluctant preschool hikers. Just head into the park and leave your car in the lot near the lodge. There is a day use fee at the park. The trail is a flat 2.1 miles that winds through the forest and then along the lakeshore and past America’s highest lighthouse. Allow plenty of time in the woods for free play and take a picnic to enjoy on Sugar Point’s relatively empty beaches.

The beach below the lighthouse

The beach below the lighthouse

Lighthouse/Rubicon Trail, D L Bliss State Park

Calawee Beach

Calawee Cove Beach


This is a lovely, scenic short hike of a little over a mile that ends on the glorious sandy beach at Calawee Cove.  To access the trail, enter the state park and drive down to the beach parking lot. The path leaves from the furthest parking area. Take the shady light house trail up to the viewpoint and then return via the old lighthouse trail along the coast. The first part of the hike is fairly easy, but there is some scrambling along the cliff edge on the return leg – keep little ones close.  Afterwards relax with a picnic on the beach.  Note there are day use fees at D L Bliss and again there is very limited parking in the beach lot. If you arrive past 9.30am in high season you’re unlikely to find a spot.

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I’ve written before about how much fun our kids have on Negative Tide Day at Half Moon Bay’s Fitzgerald Marine Reserve — see here — but this year we decided to do a Negative Tide Day from the ‘other end’, from Seal Cove, and it was even better.  You can still reach the whole FMR by walking along the beach at low tide but there are several advantages of starting at Seal Cove. First, parking is much easier–you’ll find plentiful space on the streets around the cove off Cypress Avenue even on the busiest morning. Second, the tide pools at Seal Cove are a little less crowded with fewer teenagers running about manhandling the sea animals. And third, the beach at Seal Cove is far nicer. The main Fitzgerald Marine Reserve beach is small and, at this time of year, partially closed for the resident seal colony (which, incidentally, is the biggest its been in years and worth checking out).  At Seal Cove you’ll find empty golden sands, a relatively small wave swell and lots of interesting rocks and sea shells. It’s perfect for toddlers, although you should note that it’s most definitely a beach to visit at low tide, there are steep steps down to the sand, and there are no restrooms or other amenities.

The view from the top

The view from the top

Watching the many seals of Seal Cove

Watching the many seals of Seal Cove

Our kids enjoyed the tide pools more than ever this year partly, I think, because they knew what to expect but partly because we’d found some perfect  laminated toddler guides to Half Moon Bay’s sea life (see here if you’re interested). The boys really got a kick out identifying the various creatures they found. It was a great way for them to engage with the tide pool creatures without touching them.

Identify and catagorize

Identify and catagorize

Leaf Barnacles

Leaf Barnacles


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This spring we decided to check out Montalvo Arts Center. I confess to not having high expectations of a successful visit as I wasn’t too sure how much there was for small kids there, but I was pleasantly surprised. We happily spent a long morning wandering around the grounds, and could probably have remained the whole day had Mommy packed a lunch.


rather grand

Montalvo Arts Center was originally Villa Montalvo built by US Senator James Duval Phelan in 1912. It’s a beautiful house surrounded by magnificent gardens and wilderness.  We spent the entire morning exploring the art sculptures on the villa lawn, the Italianate Garden and the Phelan Cactus Garden.  These botanical gardens were large and interesting enough to keep our preschoolers happy for a good long while: they loved running around exploring all the different paths and checking out the statues. The cacti were especially appealing to the boys as they had seen them in books before our visit.  The cactus garden was also full of lizards, juvenile southern alligator lizards and western fence lizards, and they were mesmerized watching these creatures scurry about. In fact, we had so much fun in the more formal gardens that we never even made it to the trails (our original goal).  Watch this space…..


cactus outside the Italianate Garden

Montalvo has free parking and the gardens are open to the public all year round unless there is a big event taking place.  Next time we plan to bring a picnic and stay for the day so we have time to hike some of the back woods trails too.

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October is always so beautiful at the shore here that we decided to make the most of the glorious weather and to head out on a coastal walk.  We picked the Old Cove Landing Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park as we’d heard it was spectacular when the skies are clear. Well, it was spectacular and we enjoyed amazing views of the rugged cliffs, sea caves and sealife. It was also spectacularly easy: just under 3 miles and entirely flat. But best of all, we were able to clamber down to the sand at Old Landing Cove itself and to enjoy an entirely secluded and empty (well, apart from the seals) beach.  A perfect hike for preschoolers.

walking the coast

can you spot the seal colony?

a beach of our own

cave exploration




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Usually we go to Lemos Farm for our annual Halloween visit on a weekday in September.  We completely failed to organise our September trip this year and decided to risk a weekend visit in October figuring it wouldn’t be too busy this early in the month.  We were wrong.  It was awful: huge crowds, long lines, and nothing ‘free’ on offer to keep the kids amused while we waited for train/pony/hay rides.  By the time we left around lunch the wait for the three-minute train ride was an hour. Seriously.  My advice is to give Lemos Farm a miss in October unless you can get there first thing on a weekday morning…….

The kids did look cute checking out the pumpkins though.

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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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Earlier this summer we discovered the delightful Kingscote Garden on Stanford Campus–a perfect spot for a picnic or to pass half an hour. Our little ones enjoyed watching fish:

Hoping to catch some fish

and jumping off the garden’s various walls:

We always bring our own chaos to the quietest of gardens

It’s also a tranquil spot for parents to enjoy.

Peaceful. Even with kids.

The garden is small so there’s not enough there to keep kids amused all morning, but it’s so close to the dry lake bed of Lagunita Lake and the beautiful New Guinea Scuplture Gardens that you can combine the three destinations for a fun, outdoorsy couple of hours.



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After resisting taking The Monkey to ‘A Day Out With Thomas’ at Roaring Camp Railroads for the last two years (I’m a big fan of the basic Thomas toys and books but I don’t like the commercial hoopla that now surrounds the brand), this year I broke down under his pleas and bought tickets.  And in the end it was both better and worse than I’d expected.

Off to find Thomas

First the positives

Some parts of the day were really well organised. The system for getting hundreds of families on and off the train worked remarkably smoothly.  I also loved the way they’d set up the bouncy houses with different bouncy houses for different age groups. This meant my 2 and 3 year olds could bounce safely away from the more energetic 6 and 7 year olds.

Roaring Camp itself is a beautiful location and we had lots of fun exploring the old trains and track.

Now the Negatives

It gets pretty crowded. We booked an early train ride and were in and out of the place by lunch. I’m not sure how my kids would have dealt with the long afternoon queues.

There were a couple of fun booths for kids set up away from the tracks with some interesting toys and art materials.  But these were totally inadequate to deal with the number of visitors.  My boys really enjoyed the painting area and, luckily, were the only kids there first thing in the morning. I say luckily because there was only one small table with room for, maybe, six kids and only four little pots of paint and paint brushes.  I can’t quite imagine the scene there when it got busier.  We found a similar problem in the toy area where there were five train tables set up but almost no trains. Seriously, there were twenty engines toys with about 50 boys trying to grab them even early in the morning.  It was a total melee and, after I was eventually able to procure our boys trains to push, I had to stand over them constantly to stop other kids snatching them away.  Given the organisers knew how many tickets they’d sold, I think they ought to have made better provision in the toy and art areas to deal with the expected number of visitors.

Synchronized painting. A new Olympic sport.

If your kids like face-painting (and thankfully ours don’t) be prepared for very, very long queues.

The train itself is very long.  If you are in the first two train carriages, you can see Thomas. If you’re not, forget it.  That said, the train ride itself is pretty enjoyable. But if your kid is really excited about riding with ‘Thomas’ in particular, he’s going to be pretty disappointed if you’re in one of the middle or end carriages.

Would we go again?

No. It’s pretty pricey and a bit too crowded.  Plus our kids enjoyed the old Roaring Camp trains and railroad far more than the Thomas events. I think next time we’ll visit on a non-Thomas day.

If you do decide to go these would be my tips:

-book an early train ride and visit all the booths in the morning. It does get packed out in the afternoons

-make sure to book early for the train and get a ticket in carriage 1 or 2. It’s not really worth the ‘special’ Thomas price otherwise.

-keep your kids away from the store unless you want to be whined at all afternoon. It was a buying frenzy in there and the prices were much higher than you’ll find on everyone’s favorite online retailer.

The best bit.

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and last week we found a gem when we walked out to the tafoni sandstone formations in El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve.  The trails here are wide and secluded–perfect for toddlers–and this one ended in a spectacular destination that was interesting for the whole family.

The Monkey on a sunlit path


I learnt all about local geology and ‘tafoni’ (the little crevices and pocks in the sandstone) while the boys had fun wild-life spotting and running along the windy path.  It’s a bit of a trek at 2.2 miles, but highly recommended for the keen preschool hiker.

sandstone formations in the wood

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