Archive for the ‘Short Hikes’ Category

After picking berries at Swanton Farm, we decided to explore Pigeon Point Lighthouse State Historical Park as it was just too breezy to sit on a beach (our original plan).  This historic lighthouse is a fun destination for kids and adults alike and we spent a good ninety minutes poking around the site and exploring the park’s short coastal walkways.

Pigeon Point is a cove full of history. I never really think of the Gold Rush as a naval event, but of course it was as the sudden and dramatic population growth in California post-1850 brought increased shipping to the area.  Pigeon Point itself acquired its name from the calamity that led, in part, to the building of the lighthouse. In 1853 the Boston-based clipper the Carrier Pigeon ran aground and was wrecked. In the following decade, as the volume of shipping along the coast increased further, three more ships were lost on the point and it came to have a reputation for being particularly dangerous. In 1872 the lighthouse was built to help ships navigate these treacherous waters.  In the following decades a small Portuguese whaling factory also sprung up in the cove, the remnants of which can still be seen on the rocks if you look carefully below the wildflower walk lookout.

The main attraction

While you can no longer go into the lighthouse itself, it is spectacular from the outside, and there are fun displays about the history of the lighthouse and the surrounding area in the outbuildings. You can also see a giant example of a Fresnel Lens which our three-year old found fascinating. And operate fog horns ‘through the ages’ which both The Monkey and The Puppy Dog loved. There is also plenty to see outside the lighthouse buildings. There’s a short walk among the clifftop flowers, spots to watch the spectacular waves breaking on the crags below, and a viewing platform for harbour and elephant seal and grey, blue, and humpback whale spotting.  We spent a long time with the boys watching three seals play in the water and the waves breaking on the rocks, which of course led to hundreds of questions from The Monkey about what made waves, whether seals get cold, what seals eat and where they sleep, what lighthouses are for etc? Very educational.

Studying the waves

There is also beach access to the tiny Whaler’s Cove from just outside the park. This is a cute little spot, but only a tiny area of sand lies above the high tide line. Plus, it’s usually much too cold and breezy on this stretch of the coast for sunbathing…


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Sure, it’s a bit of a drive from Palo Alto, but if your kids love water play, science and airplanes it’s well worth the effort. Last week we spent a happy morning wandering between the two parks.  We started with a walk around the ‘windy hill’ at Seal Point (do bring sweaters even if the sun is out in Palo Alto when you leave).

Cloudy bay views

The boys loved examining the local wildlife–there were bugs a-plenty, jack-rabbits, butterflies, ducks, and herons–and were fascinated by the beautiful, musical wind sculptures along the path.

They spin. They chime.

But best of all was the air traffic control feed.  At one stop in the park, just below the main set of stairs down from the summit to the bike path, you’ll find a display that lets you listen in to the communications between San Francisco airport and the passing planes.  There is lots of information provided too on the code words the pilots and controllers are using. My boys thought this was awesome.

Playing at being pilots

Then we strolled down to Ryder Park.  This is a lovely little play area with lots of interesting climbing features and some fun fountains (but note that the water is only switched on from 11am-4pm during the summer months).  I had heard that the park gets very busy, but when we were there around noon on a weekday morning there were very few other families around.

Fountains. Always a crowd-pleaser.

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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


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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That was the one who stole my sandwich Mom!

This weekend we went up to the Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve for the Family Bird Festival which had been postponed from earlier in the year.  It’s always hard to know what such events will be like but this one, run jointly by the Regional Open Space Preserve and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, was quite lovely and perfectly suited for preschoolers.  I loved that it was a very low-key event with lots of ‘old-fashioned’ hands-on booths and friendly, enthusiastic volunteers who were eager to engage visitors.

The Monkey and I even learnt a little about birds.  We had great fun identifying some of the birds we’ve seen in the garden this year on the plentiful birding charts provided.  I was particularly happy to learn that it’s a Oregan Junco that my kids don’t like (apparently it has a mean looking head and likes to peck them whenever I go inside) and that the striking pair of brown, red and black woodpeckers who visit us on occasion are Northern Flickers.

Owl throw-up. Yum.

After we’d checked out the bird charts, we headed over to the dissection area where volunteers showed the boys how to take apart a barn owl pellet.  This booth had been set up with great thought.  First the kids could pull the pellets apart and discover little bones and skulls. Then they could glue the animal remains onto a chart which helped them identify the bones and hence what the owl had been eating.

Dad! The barn owl ate two moles and a rodent

There was also a crafts area where the kids made ‘water cycle’ bracelets and binoculars for bird-spotting, and a science area where the kids could look at, and touch, owl wings, feet and feathers and all different types of local bird nests.  The teen manning the area was impressive in his knowledge of bird biology and habitats and really good at talking to little ones in a way that made sense to them.  I also loved that the festival had set up a shady area with complementary drinks and healthy snacks where visitors could chat to local wildlife enthusiasts.

Checking out the wings

As well as the little exhibition area, the festival also included several docent-led bird walks in the preserve.  We didn’t sign up for any as I was concerned our children would be too disruptive, but from what I saw on the day I think it would have been fine to have taken them along and next year we’ll sign up for one.  Instead of a formal tour, however, we did our own little hike round Horseshoe Lake and the boys had great fun spotting lizards, butterflies, ducks and their perennial favourite, sturdy sticks.

The local wildlife cautiously eyeing our children

The Wing Ding Festival was a really wholesome, educational and fun event and the only thing that made me a little sad was how poorly attended it was. There were maybe ten other families there, and I counted only two other preschoolers besides our kids.  I’m really curious as to why that was.  Was the festival just poorly advertised? (I think events like this don’t receive sufficient publicity and that’s one of the reasons for this blog). Was it too far away? Did it sound unsuited for preschoolers? Or did it just sound too dull? Or is it just that weekends get busy?

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I know there are plenty of signs warning of the dangers of the wild but, when you see them every hike and never see a mountain lion or snake, it’s easy to get complacent.  This weekend we had a reminder to take those warnings seriously.  We were hiking our favourite route up to the top of Windy Hill to enjoy the sensational views on a clear, sunny, spring morning.  Part of the ascent requires some rock scrambling.  As we trod the narrow path between the rocks we were suddenly aware of a loud rattle in the bushes to our left.  We froze and peered into the undergrowth only to see two large rattle snakes, tails beating frantically, staring at us and tasting the air.  We backed slowly away down the hill and left the snakes well alone.  On one hand, as no-one was hurt, it was awesome to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.  On the other, it was a little disturbing just how close we had been to them without realising they were there.

Would you have noticed the two rattlers at the side of this trail?

Experienced local hikers tell me this is the season in which rattlesnakes are especially active as they come out of hibernation and onto the trails to bask in the spring sun.  So be careful out there!  Always watch where you’re walking and climbing.  Along with Windy Hill, I’m told one is also especially likely to encounter a rattlesnake in Arastradero Preserve and Rancho San Antonio at this time of year.  But be wary wherever you hike and don’t let little ones scramble too far ahead of you into long grass or over rocks.

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Not knowing anything about this park other than that it’s reported to be quite beautiful, we took the opportunity one sunny spring afternoon to check it out.  We were totally surprised by what we found: not by the scenery which was stunning, but by the park’s history.  Did you know that Alum Rock Park used to be one of the most famous health spas in America? We didn’t. Between 1890 and 1932 it was operated commercially as a spa retreat and thousands of visitors rode the Alum Rock Steam Railroad to reach its mineral baths, indoor swimming pool, tea rooms, restaurants, and dance pavilion. It actually became so popular after the Second World War that the commercial enterprise started to damage the preserve and the health spa had to be shut down.  What’s left now is a beautiful natural preserve with paths that wind in and out of abandoned mineral baths.  It has a strange sort of Romanesque beauty and is most interesting to poke around.

Appian Way, San Jose

Alum Rock Park is basically a canyon in the Diablo Range foothills.  It’s long and narrow with trails winding through the canyon connecting various picnic areas, abandoned spas and interpretive centers, and more isolated trails on the steep hill sides above. While appealing to grown ups, the wild, narrow, steep trails on the gorge sides are not suitable for toddlers and we gave them a pass for now, preferring to explore the shady canyon floor.

Signs within the park are scarce and park maps are hard to come by on a busy day and not terribly helpful if you do find one (very small scale with few land marks indicated).  One immediate word of warning–if you have small kids, ignore the suggestion you’ll find in many other park reviews to use the free parking outside the preserve. It’s a very long walk from that lot to the more interesting parts of Alum Rock.  I recommend paying the $6 day use fee for more convenient access.

Toddler Trekking

Once in the park, I suggest continuing to the Visitor Center along the Penitencia Creek Road.  This is off the road and a little hard to spot. Don’t stop at the first sign indicating the trail to the Visitor Center, it’s a long trail and you’re better off parking about a quarter of a mile up the road in the lot that’s actually by the center itself.  The area around the Visitor Center itself is fun to explore:  there are two nice playgrounds for preschoolers, one with giant animal shapes to climb.  We then suggest walking left (as you face the center) and checking out the Youth Science Institute (entrance fee $1 adults and 50 cents for kids).  This has a small but fun display about local flora and fauna. There are live snakes and spiders, a stuffed fox for stroking, and stuffed bobcats and mountain lions to show the kids.  The YSI also inherited a strange, but intriguing, Victorian Collection of stuffed birds and it’s nice to be able to show children all the hawks and owls that they might see while hiking locally.  I also liked their little curiosity table with bones and nests and preserved frogs that children are encouraged to explore and touch.  The YSI has an attached aviary which houses injured “local” birds which the rangers sometimes bring out to show visitors. When we were there we were lucky enough to see a Western Screech Owl outside the building with its ranger minder.  The kids, especially The Puppy Dog, thought this was pretty neat.

Owl, owl, owl!

To see the slightly surreal ruins of the health spa, continue along the path in the same direction.  It’s a fairly short trail, only a few hundred yards, and is perfect for little children to walk–just watch them near the creek edge.  Both out boys really enjoyed seeing the springs emerging from the rocks, touching the mineral deposits and climbing into the (now empty) old stone spas.  There are two or three bridges, depending how far you walk, and you can cross backwards and forwards across the creek to see the ruins on each side.  Midway round the ‘Mineral Springs Loop’ (as the extremely unhelpful park map calls it) you’ll come to the Sycamore Grove which is perfect for snack time.

Taking the waters

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Last week we had a great hike at Sharon Park. This tranquil spot is a great toddler destination: there’s a grassy area for kids to run around, a great (but short) hike through the woods, a pond to explore, a little play structure for climbing and sliding, picnic tables and plentiful parking.

Looking for the fish

To do the hike, head left from the car park past the climbing frame and pick up the trail going into the wood. The trail veers round to the right and runs parallel to the pond through the woods.  This is a great area for kids to explore off trail and enjoy some unstructured play and fort building.  After a few hundred yards the trail re-emerges onto the grass at the far side of the pond and from there you can explore the path around the water.  There’s lots to see in the pond including insects, large koi and ducks.  Most toddlers really get a kick out of the big, colourful fish–mine could have watched them for hours.

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I’d never heard of this little gem up in the Santa Cruz mountains near Felton until this weekend, but it sounded so intriguing that we had to check it out.  Quail Hollow Ranch is a 300 acre historic horse ranch and nature preserve boasting a plethora of rare Californian plants and animals and no less than 15 natural habitats.  According to the on site museum, it’s also where the owners of Sunset magazine enjoyed the robust, outdoorsy life that kept them young at heart.

No preserve is complete without a dirt pile

After visiting today, I’d say it’s also a great destination for little boys. It has everything they need: large animals (horses), ducks, woodpeckers, eagles, logs to climb on, mud to squelch near the pond, and a flat but varied trail system to run along and explore.  There was also a man in the car park wearing a snake (I think he’s there the first sunday afternoon of every month).

Quail Hollow's airy trails

Quail Hollow Ranch has a couple of trails but they’re all fairly short and easy for little ones to hike.  We, or rather The Monkey, selected the Discovery Trail for our hike. It was actually a useful introduction to the preserve as it took us around the ranch, a little way up the hill, through the valley and round to the duck pond and picnic area.   There are a couple of other trails we plan to check out on future visits.  The preserve also has a cute little museum with some interesting natural history exhibits.  As usual, we didn’t meet any other families when we were there, which was a shame as this is a great spot to take toddlers to let them roam free (no traffic, no glaring natural dangers etc). And it’s free.

neat trees.

Not sure it’s worth a day trip from Silicon Valley, but if you’re heading out that way it’s a great spot to check out.

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We really need rain at the moment and, if it must rain, today was the best sort of rainy day for toddlers.  It was wet overnight and in the morning, but temperatures remained mild and the skies brightened in the afternoon.  This meant it was perfect weather for puddles which, for toddlers, is what rainy days are all about.

I really don’t like taking the boys to indoors play areas at any time–they just have too much energy for those places–but I really hate taking them to indoors play spaces on wet winter days when they are crowded with frustrated and often sickly kids.  It always ends in tantrums or fevers.  Plus, the boys love the wet. So now when it rains I just take the kids outside.  What is it the Scandinavians say? There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes?

tracking the run-off

Sometimes we do a Serious Wet Weather Hike on the weekends. Stevens Creek is one of our favorite and super muddy destinations as the rain really brings the wildlife out.  Hidden Villa also has awesome puddles after a storm.  Other times we just do a rain walk down the street which is what we did today.  It’s a little disappointing that the City of Palo Alto put storm drains in our road last year as this has had a deleterious effect on our street’s puddles, but the little ones had fun following the run-off down the street and working out where it fed into the creek.  And the local park still had puddles galore. In the end, we spent just about the whole day outside as usual.

When do boys grow out of this?

Where do you like to take your kids to enjoy some outdoors rain time? I’m always looking for inspiration on this one. And the more puddles the better.

[as a side note, I often find the weather forecasts exaggerate the chance of rain round here and I’ve come to relay on this radar program to let me know what storms are actually in the area. It’s pretty good at forecasting the following 6 hours – perfect for planning toddler outings].

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This weekend we headed up to Memorial Park to check out the old growth redwood forest.  As usual, we were the only family on the trails (although one hardy family with older children was actually camping out there for the weekend-kuodos to them!).  We fairly flew along the path as it had two key attractions for our children:  The Monkey was fascinated to discover the alphabet amongst the trees and the Puppy Dog was delighted by the banana slugs all over the trail.  Slugs really are magical to eighteen-month old boys.

If you feel like venturing into the forest, it’s a great park.  Just note the $6 day use fee and be warned that there is a distinct lack of parking near the trailheads!

Getting some learning on the trails



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